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History Essays – French Revolution Violence

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Published: Wed, 09 Mar 2016

French Revolution Violence

When historians and others engage in discussion of the French Revolution, they often begin with discussions about why the French people became unhappy and turned towards popular violence as an effective means of dismantling the Ancient Regime. Popular violence became an enduring form of achieving the population’s goals, just as it helped to bringing about a violent abolition to France’s monarchy on August 10, 1792.

The French Revolution’s aims however, were not solely focused on replacing the King of France, Louis XVI with an alternative government, but also to completely recreate French Society. The events that occurred following August 4, 1789, were matters focused on religion and politics, and set in motion the Revolution detaching itself from the liberal ideas originally intended for a constitutional monarch, and instead heading down the path of violence and bloodshed.

At the heart of the problem, is that the revolution collapsed from within, because of a document presented to a stunned population. This document, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, created the French Catholic Church as a branch of the new revolutionary government. Previously, the Church and State government had acted in synchronicity. People throughout France were unhappy with this fundamental change to their Church, and millions began to desert the ideas of the revolution for the sake of their religion.

Ultimately, this would lead to an escalation of violence that would cause the French Revolution to become progressively bloodier. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy introduced a division between Church and State and the Revolution in such a way that it increased the level of violence and executions to harrowing levels.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was proclaimed by the National Assembly on July 12, 1790 (Desan 5). The document was the product of the ecclesiastical body of the assembly (Desan 5). The impetus behind its creation was to create a document that would add a “rationalized structure” to the Church that would cause the Church to operate separate from the government, and to eliminate its financial discretion over the people of France (Desan 5). The document reflects the thinking of the assembly’s ecclesiastical body by reason of what it attempted to accomplish, but it reflects the inexperience of the group in matters of politics.

The document essentially turned the bishops and priests of France into state employees because it created their responsibility to the state where none had previously existed (Desan 5). This might have met the satisfaction of the low echelon church priests, but it would not have been to the satisfaction of the bishops. Most of the bishops in France were from families who had previously been members of the Second Estate.

The document would have essentially not just the authority that they exerted over the populations residing within their parishes, but it would greatly impair their relationship with the Papacy and, in some cases, mitigate the ambitions of the bishops. As state employees, the bishops would have been reported to the government on their communications with Rome. It would have been necessary to discuss applicable Church doctrine with the state official or department that was put in charge of the state employees.

More importantly, however, is that the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a blow to the Church’s finances. It eliminated certain sources of revenues, such as the fees charged by the Church to perform certain services in the community (Desan 5). Suzanne Desan (1990) states that while the bishops and clerics were probably willing to work with the revolutionaries to make the Constitution work for them, the vast majority of the clergy were fundamentally against it (Dessan 5).

To some extent, Desan says, the bishops and clerics agreed with the reform represented by the Constitution (Desan 5). However, they still could not take affirmative action in that direction without guidance from Rome (Desan 5). While everyone waited for Rome to respond, the assembly grew impatient and acted without Rome’s authority or guidance and imposed the Constitution on the Catholic bishops and clergy (Desan 5).

Whether or not the assembly predicted that Rome would withhold its approval is unclear. However, the events as they unfolded might suggest that Rome recognized that the potential for division amongst the revolutionary forces if the Pope withheld comment and let the events unfold as they would. The assembly also attempted to force the bishops and clergy to take an oath to the document, the King (who sanctioned the document), and to France. It is here that it might appear, as Desan suggests as well, that the French Revolution began to go wrong (Desan 6).

“The incidence of oath taking was highest in the center, the Ile-de-France, and the southeast. In those regions later known for a high level of religious practice–the northwest, northeast/east, and the Massif Central–well over half the clergy refused the oath. 8 Historians have frequently seen the requirement of the oath as one of the critical errors of the Revolution, for it provoked unending controversies among the clergy and laity alike and persuaded many villagers to oppose the Revolution (Desan 6).”

There were conflicts within the assembly on the document as well. F. A. Aulard says that Robespierre and the ecclesiastics differed because Robespierre held that religion was an individual choice. He envisioned the government of France as one that was non-religious and focused on matters of state. The idea that the people of France would pursue their religious choices and obligations independent of their state responsibilities was truly revolutionary (Aulard 45).

This was very much a Girondist sentiment, and quite different than that held by Couthon. It was Couthon who wanted to see a religious state where the “Supreme Being,” was at that center of State and Church policy. With that, The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was intended to deal with what the revolutionaries perceived to be a dangerous situation with which they were faced (Thompson 1952 22). The Catholic Church was not just the wealthiest institution in France, it was also the most powerful (22) The revolutionaries were faced with a need to take that power away from the church, but in a way in which the National Assembly would be able to absorb and make use of the power themselves (22).

The holdings owned by the Church were rich and extensive in land, buildings and endowments (22). The wealth held by the Church was badly needed by the revolutionaries in order to continue moving towards their democracy. That too remained precarious, because in the first year of the revolution there was what anyone should have anticipated as chaos as people sought to bring to a violent end France’s monarch and wealthy (22).

In the second year, the year in which the Constitution of the Clergy was created, there was a need to create infrastructure within the revolutionary government; as well as the desire by the vying parties to gain leadership roles in the new government (22). To allow the Catholic Church to continue to hold greater wealth and power than the revolutionaries was contrary to their movement, and it could not be allowed to happen (22).

This is the way in which the National Assembly was divided in religious ideology. The Jacobins were philosophical in nature, and, as reflected in Robespierre’s ideas, saw the state independent of religious influence. Robespierre especially wanted France independent of Catholic Church influence because it stood in stark opposition to the ideological state he envisioned. Regardless of Robespierre’s aspirations for France, “The republic, once it was Montagnard, became a religion; it had its martyrs and its saints (Aulard 125).”

It is at this point where the assembly began to divide, with the Jacobin and the other ideologies separate sides. This division arose out of the Constitution of the Clergy because it revised the Church in policy, and it revised the relationship the Church had with the state and with the French people. Considering that these factions existed within the assembly prior to the Constitution being imposed upon the State, it might be concluded that some of the assembly members saw potential conflict as predictable because of the relationship that the provinces had with the Church.

The conflict would present for the assembly members the opportunity they needed to wrest control of France away from the Jacobins. Since Robespierre was in large part behind the Constitution of the Clergy, it was predictable, too, that the response of the people to the altered relationship between themselves and the Church would be a mitigating factor in Robespierre’s popularity.

Robespierre had been raised a Catholic, but his goal was, Thompson says, to unite the country in faith if not religion “freed from Catholic dogma and clerical fanaticism (Thompson 24).” Robespierre was at heart a classical Republican, dedicated to equality, a constitutionally guaranteed order of freedoms and a document that served as a direction for the government. In dire need of cash, and on behalf of the state, Robespierre began to auction off confiscated church properties “bit by bit (Thompson 25).” The state also devised a scheme that was innovative for its time, allowing people to buy in co-owners of national properties (Thompson 25).

The government program created a new class of landowner, and, more importantly, that their newfound status and land came out of the revolution meant that those people felt a loyalty to the government, and to Robespierre. It meant, too, that they would fight to prevent the nobility and royalty from returning to their previous status in France, because it would mean they would lose their newfound positions and property (Thompson 25).

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy served as the basis for allegations that it was atheist in nature, and that was a document intended to further the cause and position of France’s Jewish population (Van Kley 1994 121). These two elements served as the prongs with which to separate the revolutionists, and to fuel the Church’s own quest to regain some of the power it lost to the government by the Constitution of the Clergy.

By late 1791 the Constitution of the Clergy began showing the cracks of its weakness. Many people believed that the traditional Church had a place in the new government of France (Van Kley 416). As unrest spread, more attention was being focused on the Civil Constitution as undermining the people of France. That rhetoric, encouraged by Robespierre’s enemies, permeated the minds of the people who associated with the document with an anti-faith notion and with officially empowering Jews in a way that had never been done before in France. Because of this, the people of France grew restless, became agitated, and began to turn again to popular violence as a means of achieving their goals (Van Kley 417).

France’s population in the provinces was feeling especially agitated and defiant. “Religious rioters mixed the sacred and the violent in powerful ways (Desan 1990 165).” After this point, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy began to fall apart with what it meant to accomplish. Disgruntled Catholics who were convinced that the revolutionary government was moving towards atheism grew angry, and mob mentality permeated the countryside.

Robespierre’s government based on philosophy, which left room for the monarchy had role as did the Church began crumbling under the weight of the very document intended to help ensure a government representing greater freedoms for everyone in France. Rather than swear an oath under the Civil Constitution, a majority of bishops in France had taken flight or gone into hiding. This break in relationship with the people with whom they had built constituencies left a void in the lives of those French people who had close ties to their Church and religious leaders. Albert Soboul (1988) says that enlightened reformism does not maintain the same shape in the sovereign setting (Soboul 2). That remains true even today (Soboul 2). Suggesting that Robespierre’s ambitions for France never took the form necessary to withstand the trials and tribulations of church and state.

The research of John Markoff (1996) involved creating tables for violence that Markoff directly relates to the Constituion of the Clergy (231). Violence against clerics in religious events was 58%. Violence against “old regime roles” of priest, bishop, canon, and monks was at 7% in connection with religious events, and 18% against baillages in connection with religious events (Markoff 231).

Violent acts committed against nonjurors in connection with religious events was 14% (Markoff 231). Violent acts against nonjurors bailliages in connection with religious events was 34% (Markoff 231). Violence resulting in the damage to constitutionals during religious events was 26%, and those events against the constitutionals associated with bailliages was 20% (Markoff 231).

The percentage to monasteries from violence or even total destruction of the monastery was 18%, and the events of violence damaging or destroying monasteries in connection with billiages was 36% (Markoff 231). Across Markoff’s chart, the events of violence and the destruction associated with the violence was greater than those incidences of violence associated with non-religious events.

Markoff found that the attacks by the people related to anti-tax events were 25%, while the attacks on anti-tax ballialages was 40% (Markoff 234). Attacks on person or property of tax collectors was 30% s compared to 41% on tax bailliages (Markoff 234). Violent attacks on “all indirect taxes,” were highest of the overall anti-tax related violence (although Markoff does not define those any clearer) at 61% for anti-tax evens and 66% for anti-tax billiages events of violence (Markoff 234).

The figures are consistent, and the incidence of violence that Markoff has identified as arising out of those events directly related to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy are more numerous than the events he identified as related to anti-tax incidences of violence.

Markoff says that the sources he relied upon for his information in compiling the figures are reliable and thorough in recounting the events he has charted (Markoff 235). His conclusion is that the violence of the revolution was a greater reflection of the change in the relationship between the church-state-population than it was about taxes.

It would suggest, too, that the pre-Civil Constitution of the Clergy relationship of between the church-state and people was such that it might even have served as a circumvention of public reaction to other matters, such as taxes.

Markoff also cites documentation from Philippe Goujard which demonstrates that the rural petitioners expressed sentiments indicating that they respected the taxes but did not support the revolutionary government’s enforcement of seigneurial rights (Markoff 235). This would explain the higher percentage of attacks on local jails, police, military camps, or other type office during the post Civil Constitution of the Clergy period. Markoff cites Eugen Weber, who held that it was late in the nineteenth century that French peasantry began to look beyond their own parish and be interested in the politics and events going on elsewhere (Markoff 241).

Markoff says that his work has demonstrated that it was much earlier than Weber had originally believed, and that it was really the degree to which the peasantry expressed an interest that Weber was detecting (Markoff 241). Whereas, Markoff says, his events tables show that the peasantry was responding earlier (Markoff 241). As Desan points out, there was a difference in perspective held by those people in the cities and the rural peasants (Desan 123-124). For Catholics during the Directory, liberty meant the freedom of religious expression (Desan 123-124).

It is clear that the goals of the rural countryside were not as philosophical as those of the Parisians. That it was widely miscalculated as to what the rural populations were most passionate about, and that the religious relationship the rural people had with their local parishes went a long to satisfying their total philosophical curiosity. The response of the rural peasantry was one that became increasingly violent, and directed towards individuals that Markoff describes as “frequent mismatch of clerical and communal political leanings, violence against clerics rose sharply (Markoff 506).” The likelihood, Markoff says, of personal in religious clashes is, as demonstrated by the statistics cited above, much higher than any other issue arising out of the revolution (Markoff 506).

There were surely to be people who anticipated some of the reactions that led to more and more violent responses on the part of the rural peasantry, and who hoped to exploit that violence to their own benefit. However, it would be a fair conclusion to say that based on the evidence presented by Markoff in his statistical tables of violence and events, that post Civil Constitution of the Clergy, as a result of that document, by way of the changes that it ushered in, the counterrevolution was indeed much more violent than it might have otherwise been had not those changes in the relationship between the people of France and their parishes taken place.

Works Cited

Aulard, A. The French Revolution: A Political History 1789-1804. Trans. Bernard Miall.

Vol. 2. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1910.

Aston, Nigel, ed. Religious Change in Europe, 1650-1914: Essays for John McManners. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Desan, Suzanne. Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Markoff, John. The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords, and Legislators in the French Revolution. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Soboul, Albert. Understanding the French Revolution. New York: International Publishers, 1988.

Thompson, J. M. Robespierre and the French Revolution. London: English Universities Press, 1952.

Van Kley, Dale, ed. The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.


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