- Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution
On 17 July 1791, a Parisian crowd clashed with the city’s National Guard at the Champ de Mars (now the site of the Eiffel Tower). The result was a “massacre” of the crowd and one of the best known incidents of the French Revolution. The reputation of Lafayette, the commander of the Guard, never recovered from this episode, at least among Parisians. Aside from its impact on Lafayette, historians have contended that the confrontation was important for revealing a “critical” (3) juncture in both national and Parisian politics that would shape the future course of the Revolution. This book is a snapshot of Parisian society in 1791 and an account from ground level of the build-up to this, one of the great journées of the French Revolution.
Following an introduction and opening chapter in which an older historiography of “the crowd” and a more recent, revisionist literature on popular culture are reviewed, the author organizes his material chronologically from January through July 1791. In between, the story builds steadily to the confrontation at the Champ de Mars. Persons, groups and locations familiar to historians of Paris and the Revolution make an appearance: Lafayette, Bailly (Paris’s mayor), the journalists Marat and Gorat, mouchards (the police-spies much hated by the populace), National Guard, the Place Vendôme, Place de Grève, Palais-Royal, Hôtel de Ville and La Force prison. But reflecting the bottom-up orientation, familiar personalities of the era like Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are essentially absent, while the National Assembly is but a shadowy presence.
The research rests mainly upon three sources: Sigismond Lacroix’s compilation of the Actes de la Commune de Paris (1902—1911) for the point of view of municipal authorities; newspapers for the voices of observers from various political vantages; and, especially, the archives of the prefecture of police. In these latter, the author has delved thoroughly to document the interests and voices [End Page 200] of le peuple, or at least those among them arrested for seemingly political acts during this stretch of roughly seven months. The bibliography includes a helpful annotated list of Parisian newspapers.
An aim of the book is to address scholars’ “declining interest in popular activity.” (37) As the title denotes, the book is also about “popular dissent” and “political culture,” which the author assesses by reviewing a “parade of minor incidents” (178) drawn from the police reports and newspapers. Dissent brews throughout the period of coverage, revolving especially around bad relations between those in the street and the National Guard, the latter comprised of male bourgeois citizens, whose leader, Lafayette, is a lightening rod for popular antagonism. Reciting the ugly words leveled against Lafayette and the Guard by persons being arrested, the clash at the Champ de Mars appears inevitable, even as the author fashions an argument that hinges upon the contingent.
The author’s interests and method are similar to those of Arlette Farge’s Fragile Lives, since he “aims to disclose a general pattern of cultural and social beliefs.” (14) However, his approach is more chronological and focused upon the build-up to a great event. Terms such as “perception,” “prejudice,” “competing versions,” and “preconception” are used throughout to convey the apparently confused interpretations made by nearly all parties. The author records telling instances when journalists contradict themselves in the same article. One of the most compelling qualities of the book is its retention from the archives of the earthy language of the people. Social historians will appreciate the ordinary types from the crowd who make an appearance, and the author’s efforts to make sense of their sometimes confounding words. Because the author wants to “problematise (the) relationship between political leadership and defining ‘the people’” (37), he is more interested in individuals than institutions or groups. He doubts the efficacy of interpreting events through the lens of social...