Living the French Revolution, A symposium in honour of Peter McPhee, 9-10 July 2019

Why is the French Revolution still relevant today, 230 years after the fall of the Bastille? The Living Revolution symposium will explore this question. The symposium program can be found here:

(WORK IN PROGRESS. I am still getting all my resources together…..)

Celebrating the career of the great revolutionary historian, Emeritus Professor Peter McPhee AM, the symposium takes its name from a key dimension of his work – the experience of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, from rural peasants to Maximilien Robespierre. More than a dozen leading experts from around the world – one of the largest gatherings of revolutionary historians ever in Australia – will trace McPhee’s legacy across a range of current topics in historical scholarship, from emotions, war and the “Terror”, to global networks and environmental degradation. This symposium will offer an unparalleled opportunity to gain an up-to-the-minute picture of one of history’s most dramatic events, and to learn more about one of Australia’s great historians.

Keynote 1: John Merriman, (Charles Seymour Professor of History, Yale University) Misery, Hope, and Terrorism in Paris during the Belle Epoque that Wasn’t

Anarchist during the belle epoque (1871 – 1914) > Merriman regales us with stories about the anarchist movement in Paris and Brussels.

Below is general research inspired by Merriman’s talk. I had more detailed notes by I lost them bc I didn’t save them. Sigh.

Some key anarchist of the time were in Brussels:  Jean de BoeRaymond CalleminOctave GarnierRené Valet and Edouard Carouy.  Victor Serge is one of Merriman’s “heroes”.

Five members of the People's Will being executed on 3rd April, 1881

Anarchists Victor Serge and Rirette Maitrejean

Satire and violence; art and terrorism; the defence of liberty and the desire to resist oppressive states intent on excessive surveillance… the concerns of Parisian anarchists in the Belle Epoque sound strangely contemporary. In the years 1880–1914, this group of extraordinarily varied individuals converged on Paris as a symbol of power and government, but also as a city of creativity, political activism, and bohemian communities. Anarchists made national headlines through acts of terrorism. But they also inspired trade unionists with visions of general strikes and working-class autonomy, and attracted artists and writers with their dreams of utopia. a

Good story told by Merriman, but because I lost my original notes, I copied it from here for expediency:  “On 21st December, 1911 the gang robbed a messenger of the Société Générale Bank in broad daylight and then fled in a car. As Peter Sedgwick pointed out: “This was an astounding innovation when policemen were on foot or bicycle. Able to hide, thanks to the sympathies and traditional hospitality of other anarchists, they held off regiments of police, terrorized Paris, and grabbed headlines for half a year.”

Session 1: Chaired by David Garrioch, Professor of History, Monash University, with Caroline Ford (UCLA)

Fixing the Dunes: Nicolas Brémontier, Reforestation and Environmental Regeneration during the French Revolution (But title of this paper has now changed)Environmental Issues during the French Revolution Peasants and the natural environment
This paper will focus on the spectre of drifting sands in the region surrounding Bordeaux and a key effort to stabilize the shifting dunes in the landes of Gascony by the engineer Nicolas Brémontier during the French Revolution. It explores the place of sand drift in the French environmental imagination during the Revolution and how the planting of maritime pines responded to specific climatic and hydrological anxieties, leading to the formation of a totally new landscape. Finally, it examines how these French land reclamation projects became a model for engineers and forest officials in Europe, Australia and India later in the nineteenth century.

Some interesting articles about the natural environment (thank you

Rod Phillips (Carleton University), Living Revolution, Drinking Revolution: Wine and Politics in the 1790s
Wine represented a challenge to those who promoted an egalitarian society in an inclusive and unified France. First, by the time of the Revolution a clear differentiation was made between the small volumes of quality wines (often known as vins bourgeois or grands vins) that were crafted for elite palates, and the ocean of mediocre and poor wines (vins de boisson) that were destined for the mouths of the masses. Second, some wine regions (notably Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne) had emerged as more
prestigious than others and there was already a ranking of the finest Bordeaux wines, a precursor of the famous 1855 Classification. Third, the way that terroir was conceived in the eighteenth-century privileged regions over the nation. This paper explores some of the ways Revolutionaries confronted the distinctions among wines based on their perceived quality, their reputation and prestige, and their regional provenance, while promoting wine as a good commodity in itself.

Some research I did while listening + some notes from Phillips’ paper:

  • Good article here:  “Alcohol often oiled people’s resolve, released constraints and pushed them to do or say things they had not dared to otherwise.  Wine barrels were opened and their contents consumed, often accompanied by music from drums and violins, while the tollhouses were set afire.  By freeing people’s inhibitions and bolstering their confidence to transgress authority, wine did play a role in these events; but this should not be conflated with deranged inebriation, as this only fuels Taine’s negative characterization of popular revolutionary actors.
  • “white wine and champagne was associated with the Bourbon monarchy, aristocracy and luxury” b
  • Phillips: Serving bad wine to soldiers became an act of treason. Wines of the 18th century are very different from our wines today. In the 18th c, wines were classified either by region or by quality. Some called Cru Bourgeois,  Cru Classé, Cru Artisan and Cru Paysan.

Hamish Graham (Western Sydney University – The College), ‘Forced against our will to make a report’: The nature of woodland property and the problems of policing forests in eighteenth-century France
In the 1990s Simon Schama joined a long line of commentators and scholars who deplored the effects of the French Revolution on the well-being of France’s forests. Yet in the years that followed the storming of the Bastille, encroachments in royal, seigneurial or ecclesiastical woodlands, and the upsurge of popular antagonism towards forestry officials and charcoal-fired industries, were by no means uniform across France. Nor were these outbursts confined to the revolutionary period. Recurrent tensions and conflicts over woodland resources were documented across the eighteenth century, as revealed by a sample of the first-hand reports compiled between the 1720s and 1790s by forest guards from the South-West. Of course, these sources gave prominence to the aims and assumptions of the men who enforced the king’s laws on trees and timber. In this paper I consider how these officials’ effectiveness was shaped by the nature of woodland property, where various rights of ownership or access were associated with rather different forms and rates of contention.

Session 2 – Chaired by Philip Dwyer, Professor of History, University of Newcastle, NSW

Sophie Matthiesson (National Gallery of Victoria), Celebrating the Revolution in the prisons of the Terror
This talk considers the political prison of the Terror as a setting for collective patriotic culture. Arrested suspects found themselves obliged to adapt to the impacts of external political events in the prisons of 1793 and 1794, but this was not an entirely reactive process. Despite their necessary focus on daily survival and their physical exclusion from the wider population, suspect communities were not disconnected from political culture at large and continued to have a stake in the broader project of the Revolution. Many found ways of materially transforming their communal prison spaces in solidarity with the republic’s aims.
Overwhelmingly, the factor that most structured symbolic life within political prisons was the same as that which structured symbolic life outside them – the revolutionary calendar of patriotic festivals. Attuned to their singular historic nature, imprisoned artists and writers sought to document and contribute to the celebration of many of these festivals but paid most attention to the celebration of the Festival of the Supreme Being (8 June 1794), an event rumoured to herald an imminent amnesty. This talk presents a group of prison-made paintings and drawings of the 8 June celebrations (some of them never until now identified as depictions of this festival) and explores what they meant for the captive revolutionary subjects for whom they had been made.

No notes taken, I found it hard to understand what the main argument was of the paper. I’ll have to source Chris’ notes!

Ian Germani (University of Regina), Dying for Liberty: Attitudes Toward Death in the French Revolutionary Wars
In the late eighteenth century, attitudes toward death became less Christian and more sentimental; the dead themselves were increasingly set apart from the living. The French Revolution disrupted this cultural change as mass death on the battlefield restored the intimacy between the living and the dead in troubling ways. Politics required personal feelings to be set aside. Images of soldiers’ deaths represented them as a willing sacrifice for freedom. Soldiers’ writings reinforced this message, although some reflected the new attitude toward death, expressing sorrow at the loss of comrades. Finally, Balzac’s The Death of Colonel Chabert provides a revealing commentary on the pragmatic response of French society to wartime mortality on a new scale.

Some notes:

  • Death also become dechristianised. The FrRev resulted in mass mortality, which changed the relationship with death. Warfare was intensified. Mass killing on a huge scale. 23% of young men died in the revolutionary wars, the impact was as significant as WW1.
  • New burial culture: New suburban cemeteries were opened, no longer just in the church yard.
  • Germani then lays out a series of images (could not find them online yet) and explains different responses to death, ranging from increased patriotic fervor, sacrifice, indifference, anger.
  • Here is Germani’s paper:

Kieko Matteson (University of Hawai`i – Mānoa), Making the Murdered Live Again: Writing the Rural Revolution through Stories of Conflict
On a cold winter evening in 1813, two imperial forest guards in eastern France set out to find the perpetrators of a timber theft. The next morning, both men were found dead, their bodies barely recognizable from the blows they’d received. What could explain their deaths and the ferocity with which they were slain? Probing the tensions between competing forest users – from widows, shepherds, woodcutters, and wood-powered manufactures where the murders occurred, to the naval and military interests of the French state – my talk explores the ways that inequitable environmental policies and increasing resource scarcity placed forest guards in peril.

From a chapter written by Kieko Matteson: As I argue in my forthcoming book, Forests in Revolutionary France, the fight for woodland control among the French state, rural communities, and industri-al interests at the end of the eighteenth century underpinned the development of a repressive, exclusionary, and ulti-mately untenable form of conservation that was widely implemented in France and beyond. In its failure to be resolved equi-tably, moreover, the conflict shares disquieting parallels with present-day troubles. Just as France’s economic and political turmoil were shaped by population growth, social disparity, food insecurity, and an energy crisis caused by declining wood resources, so too are the global upheavals of the present linked to comparable pressures and to the repercussions of reliance upon a far more finite form of fuel. c

Session 3 – Chaired by Julie Kalman, Associate Professor of History, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Monash University

Sanjay Subrahmanyam (University of California – Los Angeles), Stumbling Across Two (and a Half) Revolutions: A Franco-Irish Experience
This paper will be largely centred on the figure of Thomas Conway (1735-1800), a Franco-Irish military officer and political figure. Born in County Kerry, Ireland, Conway was recruited into the French army where he served in the Clare Regiment and fought in the Seven Years’ War. In the 1770s, he then served under Washington in America, but was disgraced and dismissed. However, he managed to rebuild his career in the Cape Colony and Pondicherry (as governor), before returning to France to command Counter- Revolutionary forces in 1792. His career thus spans several continents, and even includes a brief foray into the politics of Vietnam.

Some notes:

Subrahmanyam was such an engaging speaker. He :

General Thomas Conway: Cabal Conspirator or Career Climber?

Unfortunately I had to leave early to be home for a plumber, so I missed the last session:

Ian Coller (University of California – Irvine), What can a Muslim citizen tell us about the French Revolution?
In 1799 the commissioner of the Seine et Marne wrote to his superiors that “Michel Fertali, subject of the Ottoman Porte,” was living in the rural canton of Chaumes-sur-Brie, near Melun. This Muslim, the commissioner added, “has made the declaration necessary to enjoy the rights of a French citizen, after the law prescribed by the constitution.” This is the first historical evidence of a Muslim
citizen of France. The otherwise unremarkable process by which he came to be a citizen speaks to the great transformation that had taken place across a decade. At the same time, his life and itinerary can point toward new ways of thinking about the Revolution itself, and the geographical and political frames in which we have understood it.

Allan Potofsky (Université Paris – Diderot), Owning the Capital: the State and Parisian Society in the 17th and 18th Centuries
“This century struggles with great difficulty to finish the smallest construction project…but to each his own moment in time. Ours is that of innumerable planning, whereas yours (in the year 2440) will be one of execution.” Louis Sébastien Mercier, L’An 2440 (1771).
Mercier’s was one of many exasperated Enlightenment-era voices commenting on the monarchy’s incapacity to construct ambitious architectural projects worthy of the City of Light. For by the end of the old regime, the divorce between the ambition to make Paris a “new Rome” confronted a grim reality: the capital city suffered a sharp decline in the quality of life of its inhabitants. Quotidian problems including crowding, housing shortages, crumbling infrastructure, and environmental pollution, provoked a generalized sense of sustained crisis. The calamitous effects of disorganized urban development in the second half of the
eighteenth century exposed the retreat of the state in urban matters. My paper will examine several controversies that provoked an increasingly politicized and critical discourse about the monarchy’s failure to protect the health and well-being of urban inhabitants. In Paris, the new regime, embodied by the French Revolution, was physically and ideologically built on the ruins of the old regime.

Session 4 – Chaired by Charles Sowerwine, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Melbourne

Donald Sutherland (University of Maryland), Louis-Napoléon and the Left: Democratic Traditions in the Rural Mâconnais, 1848- 1914
The aim of this paper is to test the thesis that the elections of the Second Republic, especially those of 13 May 1849, established (or revealed) a continuity of voting preferences that continue down to the late twentieth century. Yet, as the experience of the Mâconnais region in Eastern France shows, there were distinct peaks, or rather families of elections from 1848 until at least 1914. One is a Bonapartist family (1848 to 1869-70), and a republican (1871 to 1914). Interestingly, there is no correlation with the socialist vote in 1850 and the family of republican elections after the fall of the Second Empire (1870).

Sutherland draws attention to the election of Louis Napoleon and parallels with Trump:

I found this article in the “socialist worker”:

“Marx’s descriptions of Bonaparte sound like echoes of Donald Trump’s clownish media persona. Bonaparte is said to be “clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized–this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.” d

Greg Burgess (Deakin University), Remembering Rights: Completing the work of 1789 in the post-Second World War Declarations
Often given little attention in readings of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of August 1789, its preamble proclaims that “the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments.” The Declaration and the Revolution that it inspired were a return to the natural order of things. In 1945, the First Constituent Assembly ‘remembered’ these natural rights when the French people had reclaimed their liberty from Nazi oppression. Following the program for a more free and equal society prepared by the National Resistance Council in 1943, the Constituent quite consciously set out to complete the work of 1789 by defining new principles of rights, liberty and equality for sure, but equality based on social and economic rights. This project ended in failure, which proved the extreme difficulty of defining social and economic rights. Yet the principles of a new Declaration of Rights endured because they were later expressed in the preamble of the 1946 Constitution as general aspirational rights that reflected the modern age. They were also the basis of René Cassin’s program for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This paper reflects upon the ‘remembering of rights’ in the wake of the Second World War and the new rhetoric of rights at this period, the values they expressed and their role in shaping a new republican order in France and universal rights in the United Nations.

Vesna Drapac (University of Adelaide), The most godless village in France? Filmic Representation of Religion during the Occupation
There is general agreement that filmic evocations of France’s ‘dark years’ have had an impact on the scholarly literature. For example, nuanced and controversial portrayals of collaboration on film contributed to the demise of the so-called resistance myth both in popular culture and in the historiography. However, the filmic representation of religion during the occupation is rarely nuanced and generally predictable. I argue that this is also true of the historiography of French Catholics in the war. My paper considers why this is the case and suggests ways of addressing the problem. It takes as its starting point the portrayal of religion in the television series, Un village français, and in other iconic films depicting life during the Occupation.

Session 5 – Chaired by Simon Burrows, Professor of History and Digital Humanities, Western Sydney University

Marisa Linton (Kingston University), The Sea-Green Incorruptible and the Archangel of Death: How narratives of the French Revolution contrast the roles of Robespierre and Saint-Just
This talk will look at two leading figures of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre and Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, and how their reputations have been presented in fictionalised narratives: popular histories, literature, theatre and cinema. Such narrative accounts typically present these two revolutionaries as having held strongly contrasting attitudes towards tactics and the ethics of using violence in the cause of sustaining the Revolution. Saint-Just is frequently portrayed as a pitiless and ruthless proponent of terror, a foil against which to contrast Robespierre’s more conscience-stricken responses. Invariably Saint-Just’s logic wins the argument, whilst Robespierre’s humanity suffers. Their choices are often depicted in personal as well as political terms, focussing on the pivotal question of whether friendship or commitment to the Revolution was more important, as in the so-called ‘Danton Affair’. Yet in life these men worked closely together and shared many, though not all, attitudes towards policy and tactics. This talk will ask to what extent the narrative of contrasts was part of a ‘mythologisation’ of the nature of Revolution, intended to show Robespierre’s lingering humanity gradually crushed out of existence when confronted with the inexorable logic of revolutionary politics. This talk draws on material for which I am currently working for a book on Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins and Saint-Just, entitled Saturn’s Children: Leaders of the French Revolution, to be published by Oxford University Press.

  • What Robespierre really need was a good hug. What Saint Just really need was a good kick.
  • SJ was like the James Dean of the FrRev: Good looking, moody and he died young. Because he died young, he is fixed in time.
  • Most people say he’s a cold hearted monster, ruthless fanatic. Some historians say SJ pushed Robespierre to more terrible acts.  He is also used sometimes to make Robespierre look better.
  • SJ has been called a professional revolutionary. “No one was more changed by the revolution than SJ”.
  • The-French-Revolution-s-Angel-of-Death-History-Today

Charles Walton, (University of Warwick), The French Revolution: A Matter of Circumstances?
This paper discusses the thesis of circumstances and the role it has played in debates over the French Revolution. It examines how the thesis has been invoked to explain – and explain away – revolutionary violence ever since the Revolution itself. One of the
problems with the thesis is that, ultimately, it can only describe, not explain. In focusing on particular people and events, historians must necessarily eschew systematic theories of causation. But despite the limitations of ‘circumstances’, historians cannot dispense with them without lapsing into reductive ‘systems’ of explanation. Circumstances are the lifeblood of history, which is more artisanal than scientific.

Charles Walton presented his paper via video link.

Some notes:

What are ‘circumstances’? Contingencies? Unintended consequences? Free history from deterministic theory

Laura Mason (Johns Hopkins University), The Trial of Gracchus Babeuf and the End of the French Revolution: In 1797, the republican government of the Directory charged the radical Gracchus Babeuf and 64 retired militants with conspiring to overthrow the present regime and reignite the Terror. During the widely-publicized trial that followed, prosecutors and defendants linked guilt or innocence to the very nature of the republic. Was democracy possible in a nation of 28 million? Could popular activism be reconciled with civil peace? Might political opposition be something more than treason? This case illuminates the polarization that haunted the French Revolution’s final years, hollowing the republic until it collapsed to the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Babeuf was more radical than Robespierre, he wanted to abolish property. Marx and Engels named him the first modern communist.

Round Table: What does the French Revolution Mean Today?



  1. Source: FR343 Anarchist Culture in Belle Epoque Paris. (2019). Retrieved 9 July 2019, from  (back)
  2. Intoxication and the French Revolution. (2016). Age of Revolutions. Retrieved 9 July 2019, from  (back)
  3. Source: “Making Tracks: Human And Environmental Histories”. Environmentandsociety.Org, 2019,  (back)
  4. Source: The 18th Brumaire of Donald J. Trump?
    The 18th Brumaire of Donald J. Trump?. (2019). Retrieved 10 July 2019, from  (back)