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Urban Rivalries in the French Revolution.

If the French Revolution is often remembered in images of wine and blood-soaked gutters a la Mme de Farge or the guillotine, tumbril, and green room of the Committee of Public Safety, such is not the picture portrayed in Margadant's Urban Rivalries in the French Revolution. His is a revolution, nonetheless; but its main characters are a "baffling variety" of tax collectors, customs officials, inspectors, clerks, petitioners, and armed and sometimes unarmed guards.

Filling an important lacuna in studies of the French Revolution and of the history of urban development, Urban Rivalries provides a meticulous look at the spatial reorganization that overtook France in 1790 as part of its massive revolutionary reordering. To provide what will become a reference for social and urban historians, Margadant left no stone unturned as he methodically traveled the roads of old regime and revolutionary France using, as his thoroughfares and country byways, the vast collection of documents in the Archives nationales (Paris). Ultimately his work mirrors the changes in 1,500 towns and burgs, the efforts of 2,000 deputies and sub-deputies who were involved in the process, and tens of thousands of petitioners. Using statistical analysis including analysis of variance and multiple regression as well as computer mapping, Margadant traces the changing hierarchies of French towns, all the while reminding his reader in the narrative that those hierarchies were framed in a debate which was set at the local level by townspeople and their representatives. That rhetoric was based on their own perceptions of the value of certain institutions, e.g. law courts, and the very meaning of progress.

Divided into three major sections, Urban Rivalries first studies the institutional crisis of old regime France. The second and third sections deal with the language and politics of the debate on re-forming France and the fate of the towns themselves. While Margadant accepts certain continuities from the period of the old regime to the revolutionary era, he cautions the reader against simple explanations. There was no dichotomy, he asserts, which neatly divided towns into those which were capitalist and maritime and those which were bureaucratic and continental. Rather, Margadant confirms Fernand Braudel's thesis that institutions overlapped commerce. To eighteenth-century merchants and municipal officials, there was no mystery that "taxation sustained commerce, just as commerce generated revenues for the state". Old regime France was simply not a homogeneous structure; preindustrial towns "welcomed movement, recreated it, scattered people and goods in order to gather new goods and new people".

What particularly interests Margadant is the judicial system of France. This is no idle preoccupation or hook on which to hang his quantifiable data. Law courts were an eighteenth-century obsession; where they would be located and who would staff them were chief concerns among locals who measured prosperity by their presence. Just as the monarchy played on rivalries concerning the law courts, so did the bourgeois leaderships which were rising prior to and during the revolutionary years. These were the most strident Urban Rivalries which France faced. It was believed that the lucrative nature of civil procedure undergirded the entire economy of a community, set the standard of living, defined the level of education, and frankly brought the despoliation of a town if it were not present. Such was certainly the belief, and the rhetoric of petitioning which is cited by Margadant reinforces that image. Although Margadant does not quote Louis-Sebastien Mercier, the well-known chronicler of eighteenth-century society, one can almost hear his words. When Mercier described urban society, there was no dearth of references to lawyers, their clients, and the cost of litigation; courts were ubiquitous and people's lives revolved around them. Mercier noted: "The saying goes, you should always take three bags into court; one for your money, one for your brief, and one to stowe your patience in."

For social historians interested in political culture, Urban Rivalries also works toward providing a social history of the parochial. The French Revolution, after all, was both Parisian and provincial in spite of how it is often portrayed. However, somewhat distancing himself from the debate on discourse, Margadant misses an excellent opportunity to use his sources to argue the construction of social reality. Turning away from Francois Furet's analysis of representation and symbols because of its insistence on a terrorist ideology, Margadant oversimplifies the possibilities of Furet's interpretation to conclude that "|a~ more plausible interpretation of the relationship between rhetoric and action during the Revolution would take into account the particular circumstances of actors as well as the general demands of ideology". Rather than creating separate spheres of rhetoric and action, it is appropriate to consider an interpretation which would see the relationship like a Mobius strip, overlapping and turning on itself. Discourse defines reality just as a person's circumstances provide the environment in which he or she responds to any network of symbols. For locals, the odds were high (five to ten percent of the families in an area were related to the existing law court in some way) and the rewards appeared great if they manipulated the hierarchies being created as they perceived them. In order to lay their cases, they used highly contentious language, outright dissimulation, and arguments that ran from rapprochement to vivification, (i.e., spreading the advantages of the revolution), to interpretations of patriotism. They perceived Paris as a distant world where the legislative body sat debating territorial equality, concocting algebraic computations to do their work, and drawing boundaries on maps that contained sterile demographics. Deputies, sub-deputies, municipal officials and merchants were not convinced that their national government in Paris had the slightest knowledge of their physiognomies, much less the faces of their towns. Their fears, which Margadant splendidly illustrates, found words that solidified populations and pitted towns against each other. "To destroy the establishments of a town is to paralyze it," petitioners chastised. Neighboring areas, other petitioners challenged, were unsuited to law courts because they were "collections of hovels" and "lairs of brigands."

To judge these shifting hierarchies of towns which were prompted by the revolutionary impetus toward equality of territory/jurisdiction, Margadant carefully created institutional and economic scales which took into account population, commerce, and various institutions which ranged from a faculty of medicine to a government office to the prized law court itself. The data on major towns, which are arrayed in the appendix, provide one of the best views of France outside of Paris which can be found. Data on small rival towns are collected in the book itself--in the maps, tables and text. Although Urban Rivalries is tediously written at times while lively at others, the mass of information is nonetheless impressive. Given this vast pool of data which Margadant has collected and the statistical analysis which he has used, this is no work for the faint-hearted on quantification. Furthermore, it is a work clearly intended for an audience familiar not only with French history but with France itself. To read the computer maps which do not include place names (because it would have been graphically impossible to do so) requires an atlas perched next to the text. A glossary of French terms and events related to the institutional structure of France and to the Revolution would likewise be invaluable to the non-specialist.

Regardless of the expectations Margadant holds for his readership, Urban Rivalries can provide food for thought for those who are interested in the development of modern France or in the creation of modem urban hierarchies. His vividly written, provocative conclusions are research directions which have broader application: How did republican communitarian ideologies merge with older cultural traditions? In what areas were they more likely to merge? How did social marginality affect the adoption of revolutionary ideology? Why do revolutions invariably end in dictatorship? Ultimately he reminds his reader that, while recognizing the policies and ideologies of national governments, social history must mediate between those who were defining the order from above and those who hoped to manipulate it from below in their favor.

Susan P. Conner Central Michigan University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Conner, Susan P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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