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A Natural History of Revolution

Violence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination, 1789–1794

Mary Ashburn Miller

Publication Year: 2011

How did the French Revolutionaries explain, justify, and understand the extraordinary violence of their revolution? In debating this question, historians have looked to a variety of eighteenth-century sources, from Rousseau's writings to Old Regime protest tactics. A Natural History of Revolution suggests that it is perhaps on a different shelf of the Enlightenment library that we might find the best clues for understanding the French Revolution: namely, in studies of the natural world. In their attempts to portray and explain the events of the Revolution, political figures, playwrights, and journalists often turned to the book of nature: phenomena such as hailstorms and thunderbolts found their way into festivals, plays, and political speeches as descriptors of revolutionary activity. The particular way that revolutionaries deployed these metaphors drew on notions derived from the natural science of the day about regeneration, purgation, and balance.

In examining a series of tropes (earthquakes, lightning, mountains, swamps, and volcanoes) that played an important role in the public language of the Revolution, A Natural History of Revolution reveals that understanding the use of this natural imagery is fundamental to our understanding of the Terror. Eighteenth-century natural histories had demonstrated that in the natural world, apparent disorder could lead to a restored equilibrium, or even regeneration. This logic drawn from the natural world offered the revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying revolutionary transformation. If thunder could restore balance in the atmosphere, and if volcanic eruptions could create more fertile soil, then so too could episodes of violence and disruption in the political realm be portrayed as necessary for forging a new order in revolutionary France.

Published by: Cornell University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

...This book was motivated by big questions: questions about how people respond to crisis, how language shapes action (or inaction), how the inexplicable gets explained. It was made possible by a number of institutions and individuals who supported my search for answers and who provided good company and good counsel along the way. Foremost among these is David Bell, my adviser at Johns Hopkins, who first encouraged me to ask difficult questions and to be meticulous in answering them. He has been an unflagging...

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pp. 1-18

...At the Place de la Bastille, the crowd stood before a statue of Nature whose bosom gushed forth flowing waters; an inscription at its base reminded the assembled Parisians that they were all Nature’s children.2 The president of the National Convention, the legislative body of the French Republic, filled a cup with her waters and drank; several citizens of Paris then followed his example, each one raising the cup to his lips with a panegyric...

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1. Ordering a Disordered World

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pp. 19-42

...The incessant activity of the natural world could hardly be ignored by an observant eighteenth-century French man or woman. As Donald Geoffrey Charlton has noted, the second half of the century saw a marked rise in interest in images of nature that were not pastoral but, rather, destructive; patrons of the artist Claude-Joseph Vernet, for example, specifically requested scenes of tumultuous seas and shipwrecks...

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2. Terrible Like an Earthquake

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pp. 43-71

...Beaurepaire, the defeated general at the Battle of Verdun, became a symbol of revolutionary bravery when he chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the enemy. The play attempted to commemorate the transportation of his ashes to the Pantheon, and the reviewer, likely Prudhomme himself, had anticipated a beautiful retelling of his heroic actions.1 “Everyone already knows [the story],” he wrote, “but it would have been a pleasure to hear it adorned with all the charms of...

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3. Lightning Strikes

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pp. 72-103

...In his famous speech of 5 February 1794 (17 Pluviôse, Year II) on the principles of political morality under a revolutionary government, Maximilien Robespierre asserted the necessity of both terror and virtue during the Revolution. Under the “stormy” circumstances France was now enduring, he maintained that extraordinary measures needed to be taken, and he attempted to silence criticism of recent policies pursued by the Committee of Public Safety: “It has been...

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4. Pure Mountain, Corruptive Swamp

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pp. 104-138

...Having lost his wife years earlier, Gervais had fallen into inescapable poverty. To assist him, his two children set out to fi nd their mother. Drawing on a trope common in sentimental novels, the radical playwright Aristide Valcour arranged a chance meeting between the mother and her children: during a terrible storm, they encountered a poor and lonely woman who had been turned away from an inn because she could not pay for it. They offered her their last...

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5. “Mountain, Become a Volcano”

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pp. 139-163

...The play gave an account of the exile of all Europe’s monarchs, as well as the Pope, to a remote volcanic island. The radical Théâtre de la République, subsidized by the revolutionary government, was also given a special bequest from the Committee of Public Safety for this especially patriotic production: a donation of twenty pounds of saltpeter, an extremely valuable commodity, to create the spectacular explosion that marked the play’s conclusion...

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Conclusion: Revolutionary Like Nature, Natural Like a Revolution

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pp. 164-172

...The period from 1793 to 1794 marked the height of the relationship between pro-revolutionary violence and nature in revolutionary rhetoric. Soon after the Jacobins fell from power, the terms “mountain” and “volcano” both shed many of their positive connotations; volcano again became a term that signified rampant and uncontrollable destruction, and Edme Petit called for the word “Mountain” to be banned from the Convention floor...


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pp. 173-204


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pp. 205-222


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pp. 223-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460845
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801449420

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 742515525
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Natural History of Revolution

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • France -- History -- Revolution, 1789-1799.
  • Violence -- Political aspects -- France -- History -- 18th century.
  • Natural disasters -- Political aspects -- France -- History -- 18th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- France -- History -- 18th century.
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