The French Revolution was a period around 1789-1799 that saw France undergo dramatic political and social change. Old ideas about monarchy, aristocracy, religious privilege, and tradition were replaced with new ones like enlightenment, equality, inalienable rights, and popular sovereignty. While historians still debate the exact cause of the Revolution, looking at the state of France in the years preceding the Revolution and at the time of its beginning is the easiest way to gain insight into the minds of its participants. In the years before the Revolution, France witnessed poor crop yields, rising food prices, and hunger and malnutrition in the poor. France was in a state of financial crisis having been effectively bankrupted due to the cost of previous wars, there was a regressive tax system in place, and extremely unpopular nobility pushed ordinary citizens to a breaking point. Ultimately, the French Revolution would not only have an impact on the future of France, but Europe and the rest of the world. Here are five interesting facts about the French Revolution:
Storming of the Bastille - July 14, 1789
1. The French Monarchy Collapsed in Three Years
The French monarchy that had withstood centuries crumbled in only a few short years. The Bourbon monarchy had been in place from 1589 and was officially abolished on September 21, 1792. However, the Bourbon monarchy would be restored for a short time in 1814, and then from 1815 until 1830, when it would be overthrown again.
2. The Guillotine Becomes a Symbol for the Revolution
A period of time after the government was overthrown called the “Reign of Terror” saw the beginning of mass scale executions via the guillotine. Any display of resistance to the new government or so called “crimes against liberty” would be met with a quick death sentence. Nobility and commoners alike were labeled enemies of the Revolution with little to no evidence. In roughly ten months, thousands were guillotined; estimates put the number around 15,000 in total. Interestingly, Maximilien de Robespierre, an influential member of the French government at the time who pushed for the purging of internal enemies, would ultimately be executed by guillotine himself. Robespierre’s death would end the “Terror”.
3. “Let Them Eat Cake”
Popularly believed to have been said by Queen Marie Antoinette in response to hearing that the peasants had no bread to eat during a famine, there is no evidence that she actually said it. In fact, there is not only no evidence of her saying it, but quite a bit of evidence suggesting that it never happened. However, the phrase has become symbolic of the cluelessness displayed by the French elite at the time and has entered its way into popular culture.
4. Marquis de Condorcet Exposed
Marquis de Condorcet was a mathematician, philosopher, and social scientist. Among other things, before the Revolution started he was an influential author and served as the Inspector General of the Mint in France. He would then go on to be an important leader in the Legislative Assembly. Although Condorcet was an enthusiastic supporter and champion of liberal ideas, which contrasted with many of his peers at the time, as the Revolution turned more and more radical he was eventually named an enemy of the state. Condorcet successfully went into hiding for several months, but then became convinced he was in danger and tried to flee Paris. Unfortunately, while ordering an omelet at an inn for breakfast he was asked how many eggs he wanted, to which he answered a dozen. Condorcet who would never had needed to prepare his own meals as a member of society’s elite did not know that a dozen eggs would have been enough for several people. The innkeeper who at this point became suspicious asked Condorcet what his profession was. Condorcet lied saying he was a carpenter, but his hands which did not resemble a tradesperson’s gave him away. Condorcet would die in prison, although the exact cause is unknown. He likely committed suicide with poison but it is also possible he was murdered.
5. The Dechristianisation of France
Several policies were implemented against Christianity during the Revolution. These included confiscating church lands, the removal or destruction of public signs of worship like crosses, bells, and statues, closing churches, and removing Christian references in society. Some clergy were deported from France and many others were put to death. The Concordat of 1801 between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII would officially end this period and setup a new relationship between the church and state.