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  • The Violence of the French Crowd from Charivari to Revolution*
  • William Beik

When common people protested in early modern France, they employed language and behaviour that strike us as violent and destructive. Peasants, craftsmen, labourers, women, even children resorted to collective violence. Houses were torn apart, authorities threatened, scapegoats beaten and dragged through the streets. How are we to evaluate these actions? Any attempt requires imaginative reconstruction of rioters' intentions based on titbits of information gleaned from many sources. In the best of cases we have reports from several observers with differing points of view, permitting a sort of triangulation of the evidence. Occasionally we have transcripts of the testimony of rioters in judicial interrogations, as recorded by unsympathetic scribes. The only way to arrive at the intentions of the demonstrators is to piece together clues from their slogans, assertions and gestures, and combine them with the logic suggested by a carefully reconstructed sequence of events. When common expressions or parallel tactics and targets appear repeatedly in different times and in multiple revolts, confidence grows that there is a decipherable language involved.

Historians have followed divergent paths in dealing with this kind of evidence. Some have made a sympathetic attempt to interpret the violence of the crowd as a crude but understandable way of influencing decisions vital to the protesters' survival. Excluded from active participation in political decisions that fundamentally affected their lives, and unable to devise any broader societal strategy for lack of perspective and information, so the argument goes, crowds drew on traditional cultural resources. They expressed their discontent through language and gestures borrowed from carnival rituals when the world was temporarily 'turned upside down' and from charivaris against neighbours. They perceived [End Page 75] their interests in traditional, stereotypical terms that evoked myths of a prior golden age or a 'land of Cockaigne'.1 Other historians have taken a much more sceptical view of this folkloric interpretation and have focused instead on the primitive brutality of popular protests, or the multiplicity of the motivations of members of the crowd, or their vulnerability to elite manipulation. Confrontations could be bloody and nasty. Authorities were beaten to death, bodies disembowelled, property ruthlessly smashed and ruined. Some critics distinguish between different kinds of crowds, such as those of bread riots, tax riots and riots against marauding soldiers.2 In the past a major debate raged over the degree of spontaneity in popular protests, with some critics claiming that they were autonomous and others that they were instigated behind the scenes by upper-class leaders.3 Certain recent studies criticize the assumption that crowds had common purposes or argue that riots had multiple meanings not related to the class interests of the demonstrators.4

When I was studying seventeenth-century urban protests, I was struck by one feature that was often left in the background by commentators focusing on the objective of the protest.5 Groups of relatively disenfranchised individuals from the middle to lower ranks of a local community, but lacking any formal institutional identity, would mobilize either spontaneously or after informal meetings and discussions, to attack an abuse of power by those in authority. I called such a movement an expression of the 'culture of retribution'. The common feature of these riots was the [End Page 76] crowd's desire to punish the authorities for abuse of power. This aspect was shared by riots with a variety of other objectives and trajectories. The element of vengeance distinguishes the 'culture of retribution' from E.P. Thompson's concept of the 'moral economy of the crowd' in that it highlights the desire to punish the audacity or negligence of people who should have known better, whereas the moral economy emphasizes the crowd's reimposition of traditional norms and procedures.6 This popular impulse to punish was certainly primitive, but nevertheless it seemed to be political in the sense that it was a commentary by protesters on the behaviour of people of higher status who should have taken more care in looking out for the needs of the lesser members of the community. Like the 'moral economy', it was an expression of moral outrage. But what was distinctive in these French instances...


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pp. 75-110
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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