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Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. (Reviews).

Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. By David Andress (Suffolk, England: The Royal Historical Society, 2000. x plus 239pp. $60.00).

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 journees 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 Vendome, Place de Greve, Palais-Royal, Hotel 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 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 class.

Two notable contributions of the book are, first, the presentation of generally persuasive evidence that the opinions of individuals in the crowd can be known; second, the finding of "a model of sedition" (212) underlying police repression, in which to be "recognized" and "domiciled" could exonerate a person (even if guilty), but to be "sans etat" or non-domiciled was likely to get one tossed into jail. The author also found small similarities between the "forces of order" (210) of 1791 and the sans-culottes movement of 1793, more evidence that crowds of the era were not all cut from the same cloth. He considers generalized fears of "brigandage" and "aristocratie" to be intrinsic to the tensions of this period, reflecting the popular misconceptions that form one theme of the text and that lead inexorably to the journee of 17 July 1791.

The author apparently found few harsh words about Louis XVI and his family in the police archives. This is surprising considering the strong language directed at the king and queen before the Revolution, Lafayette's position as their protector and the family's attempted escape a month before the Massacre. The book's conclusion returns to the spring of 1791, at which time the words of striking carpenters have become infused with the new revolutionary rhetoric. While the language of the carpenters captures the author's attention, the signs of economic dislocation and burgeoning laissez-faire in those words are muted in this analysis.

Prints would have brightened the presentation and a map of the city would have been an aid to newcomers to revolutionary Paris. But throughout, the writing is never dry. In this evocative account which actively engages the historiography and is based upon thorough archival research, the individuals who made up the Parisian crowds of 1791 are enlivened.
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Author:Harison, Casey
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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