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Revolution francaise et "vandalism revolutionnaire:" Actes du colloque international de Clermont-Ferrand 15-17 decembre 1988.

The term "vandalisme revolutionnaire" was first employed by the deputy Abbe Gregoire in his Rapport sur les inscriptions des monuments publics to the French National Convention on 21 nivose an II (10 January 1794). In this report, he ordered the destruction of all monuments displaying royal or feudal emblems. After 9th Thermidor (27 July 1794), marking the end of the Terror, Gregoire changed his politics and spoke against the vandalism. With his second report, Premier Rapport sur les destructions operees par le vandalisme, read before the Convention in August 1794, he became known as the champion of the struggle against revolutionary vandalism. Gregoire "invented" the term with a polemical intention: "Je creai le mot pour tuer la chose" (p. 15).

Revolutionary vandalism, meaning the wilful destruction of France's cultural heritage which occurred during the French Revolution, is the subject of this comprehensive collection of papers resulting from a conference held at the Centre de Recherches Revolutionnaires et Romantiques, Univversite Blaise-Pascal. The topic is microscopically scrutinized and incisively debated in the papers.

The international colloquium, part of the bicentenary celebrations, included thirty-six scholars from several European countries ranging from Poland and Czechoslovakia in the east to Germany and Italy in the west. The scope of the papers is broad and the approach is multi-disciplinary. The phenomenon of revolutionary vandalism is analyzed in all its dimensions: literary, linguistic, historical, sociological, and political. Chronologically,the conference papers go beyond the scope of the Revolution, covering vandalism during the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The papers comprising the introductory section provide a theoretical framework for the more empirical studies which follow. The theme of the dual nature of revolutionary vandalism discussed by P. Balut runs throughout the conference papers. He argues that "vandalisme revolutionnaire" was constructive in terms of the conservation of the nation's heritage, but it was also destructive and much of that destruction was merely gratuitous violence.

The lexicological aspects of the term are considered by Volpihac, Hadjad, and Jam. They conclude that Gregoire employed revolutionary vandalism in a perjorative sense and the key meaning can be summed up in destruction, degradation, and dissipation.

The papers of Libiszowska and Seifert consider the phenomenon outside France. Libiszowska addresses the reaction to revoluntary vandalism in Poland. Although the expression revolutionary vandalism was never utilized, the destruction of royal emblems and monuments, and the desecration of churches and abbeys, were condemned by public opinion. Germans, for their part, maintained the destruction of religious and feudal monuments to be acts of cultural terrorism.

Of special interest to historians are the papers dealing exclusively with vandalism and the counter-revolution in the provinces during the revolutionary years. Articles on the French countryside contribute to the history of the peasantry during the Revolution. Papers range from Brittany and the Ile-de-France in the north and Clermont-Ferrand in the centre, to Provence in the south-east. Y. Tripier interprets the question of revolutionary vandalism as the imposition of a new culture on the Bretons, a people who rejected the Revolution and especially the Montagnard government. C. Bonnet turns the reader's attention to the acts of vandalism committed against the abbeys of northern France. The author identifies two distinct periods: the Great Fear of 1789, and that of 1790 to 1793. The initial period was characterized by bands of peasants including many women motivated by economic reasons and the ambience of the Great Fear. From the autumn of 1790, acts of vandalism were inspired by more than simple demolition. Theft was as important as pillaging. Church properties suffered the most.

S. Bianchi examines the motivation -- military, anti-religious, social -- behind destruction. His thesis is that one is mistaken to consider revolutionary vandalism as a purely negative phenomenon. It was really the substitution of one culture for another, of a popular culture replaced by one of elites.

There are three papers examining the conflicting themes of destruction and conservation. P. Gerbod contends that the revolutionaries were not merely concerned with destruction, but also with the preservation of a national patrimony. In his discussion of the revolutionary decrees directed towards this goal, he provides the factual side to P. Balut's theories. E. Pomnier deals little with revolutionary vandalism, but with the discourse of destruction. It was a discourse directed against the images, symbols, and emblems of the Ancien Regime, which revolutionaries found threatening. J.L. Jam contends that music was also an area of preservation rather than destruction.

The debate on revolutionary vandalism on the one hand, and the preservation of France's national heritage on the other, has received little attention. Because of its inter-disciplinary nature, this collection should be of interest not only to historians, but also to students of art history, literature, philosophy, linguistics, and musicology.
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Author:Whaley, Leigh
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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