“Off With their Heads”. …a phrase that comes to mind when talking about the French revolution. We knew a little about this time period, but our knowledge was rather limited and impressionistic. What better way, short of reading a book, to learn about the French revolution than to take a walking tour of the Paris Latin Quarter, the neighborhood in which much of the intellectual and some of the landmark events of the revolution actually took place.
We ended up taking two different walking tours that discussed this time period. No, not because we were enthralled with the French revolution, but because our first tour, with Paris Walks, left us with almost as many questions as it provided answers. After discovering some inconsistencies between what we learned on the tour, and what we discovered on the Web, we decided to take yet another walking tour—this one with Context tours. This second tour did confirm and clarify some of what we learned from the previous tour, and refuted other issues. Unfortunately, neither the Context alone, nor in conjunction with our first tour, provided us with the comprehensive view required to understand the revolution in the way we want.
Still both peaked our interest enough to want to go to continue to learn more.
Paris Walk’s Revolution Tour
Our first tour from Paris Walks is a company with whom we have taken a few very good tours on previous trips. This tour on The French Revolution was to focus specifically on this period of French history.
The tour attracted an all too large group of about 70 people. (Since Paris Walks tours are open to anyone who shows up, they have no control of the size of the group—and had no way of anticipating this size group.) The group size did not help as it made logistics difficult, slowed the pace of the tour and reduced opportunities for individual discussions with the guide. Still, our guide Chris did a pretty good job managing the size and was entertaining. Yet we were somewhat disappointed by the amount and depth of the content (as we were of that of the another Paris Walks tour of this trip, ”The Two Islands”). Overall, we thought our tours with Paris Walks on previous trip were much stronger. Be this as it may, we did learn some interesting facts.
Although the planning for, instigation of and events of the revolution took place all through the city (not to speak of the country), this tour focused on the role of the Left Bank, which was a hotbed of intellectual ferment and the home and primary site of activities of two of the revolutions’ three primary leaders: Danton and Marat. (The third, Robespierre, was on the right bank.)
The tour began at Danton’s statue, which was also the site of his home. We learned how the combination of Danton’s huge, imposing 6’3’’ presence, his training as a lawyer, his strong oratorical skills, booming voice and even his rather ugly face, all contributed to his role as a revolutionary leader. We then visited Marat’s publishing office where we learned of the role his paper played in creating legitimacy and mobilizing support from many different classes of citizens—especially the middle class and the progressive nobility—and how the working class mobs proved to be a wild card that the leaders could not effectively control.
The result, a revolution and bloodshed that ended up lasting more than a decade, ending only when an incredibly likely figure, Napolean Bonaparte, almost accidentally ended up crushing the revolution and assuming control of the entire country (and eventually, almost control of most of Europe).
We then visited the Procope Café across the street from Marat’s office. The café was the home of important “political clubs” where radical political ideas were presented and discussed, and then became one of the primary sites for some of the most important of the revolution’s early planning meetings. The café was also also frequented by many other notables. These included Benjamin Franklin, whose celebrity status helped encourage the desire for liberty, and even ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte, who, as will be discussed later, was so destitute at the time, that he was forced to leave his hat at the café (now proudly displayed in the café’s window) since he was unable to pay for his meal.
But meetings and powerful revolutionary oratory are one thing. A full-fledged national revolution is quite another. Our guide attributed the revolution to a combination of four factors:
- An absolute monarch who was inflexible in his demand for full authority, but simultaneously ambivalent in the use of power to suppress it at an early stage;
- The bankruptcy of the nation which was largely attributable to the country’s funding of the American Revolution (as a means of pressuring archrival England);
- A disastrous grain harvest (caused largely by a huge and prolonged Icelandic volcanic eruption) that resulted in starvation and prolonged “bread riots”; and
- The role of French Enlightenment thinkers (especially Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau) in questioning traditional sources of authority (especially monarchy and the church) and providing an intellectual underpinning for quest for liberty.
Things got even worse, when the bankrupt country, who was desperately seeking money to pay its debts, began confiscating church property and selling bonds, secured by this property. It found this such as a good source of revenue than it ended up selling far more bonds than it had property, thus creating a period of hyperinflation.
Although there was huge popular will behind the revolution, not all the revolutionaries had common objectives or tactics.
Robespierre, for example, strongly advocated for, and worked behind the scenes to eliminate all the monarchy and nobility, leading to what would become known as “The Terror”. He effectively maneuvered other of the revolution’s leaders to arrest, and ultimately send Danton to the guillotine—a fate that would befall Robespierre himself, a few months later. Nor was Marat without enemies. As the revolution progressed, some of its wealthier, more moderate supporters began to fear that they too would fall victims to the mobs that they felt Marat was inspiring. They sent one of their member, Charlotte Couday, to kill Marat—which she did by famously stabbing him to death in his own bathtub.
While she too lost her head to the guillotine, the killing only served to turn Marat into a martyr, arguably giving his ideas at least as much power in death, as they had when he was alive.
After ten years of revolution and bloodshed, the country was in a virtual state of anarchy. Even the so-called rulers were plotting against each other. When some, in 1795, retained Napoleon to protect them, he quickly fulfilled his mission and effectively saved the government (while gaining a great deal of credibility and support for himself) by firing on and subduing a Paris mob with cannons. He then built steadily upon this support through 1799, by which time he had gained effective control of the military. He then engineered the creation of a new constitution and proclaimed himself as First Consul with full executive powers. Five years later, he became Emperor.
While our guide did seem to portray a number of the facts (and freely admitted to a few areas where he did not have sufficient knowledge to address questions), the tour did not have the type of flow required for either of us to really understand the context of the events being discussed, or how different events affected each other. Some explanations (even after clarification) were sufficiently confusing that Tom had to search the Internet for satisfactory answers. This, combined with the guide’s offer to sell guests “genuine souvenirs of the revolution” in the form of 200 year-old bonds that were discovered hidden in a chimney, prompted us to question more than the facts.
Even so, in addition to the basic history, we also learned some interesting trivia, including:
- The creation of the Republican calendar and watch, in which they began counting years since the date of the revolution, relabeled time, days and months around the number “10”, an even renamed the months of the year;
- How the French came to accept the metric system and the government’s posting of “sample meters” around town to educate the public;
- The type of cult that had developed around Benjamin Franklin and the image he created around his homespun attire—and what Louis XVI allegedly thought about Franklin (does creating a bedpan with Franklin’s picture on the bottom give you a clue?)
- How, the monarchy, in the form of Louis XVI’s younger brothers, went into exile in the early years of the revolution, and returned after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo to regain the thrones and create a new monarchy, at least till they too were overthrown in a much shorter, less violent revolution of 1830;
- How the French motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was originated by Robespierre, in 1790; and how
- It actually took until the end of the 19th-century for French to establish a truly functional republican government.
Although the tour ended up leaving us with many questions about the revolution and French history, it did succeed in spurring our interest and prompting us to look up answers to outstanding questions and even to begin exploring Amazon for a book that will fully explain not only the revolution, but how it affected other European monarchies and how even after the Napoleonic era, it ended up taking another century for the country to create a stable republican government.
Context’s Revolution Tour
Then we found another walking tour; this one from Context, named Revolutionary Paris, which we hoped would address the problems we had with the Paris Walks tour and help us pull together the disjointed pieces. Context takes a different approach to its tours (it has tours in many cities other than Paris). While Paris Walks tour is open to all who show up the meeting place at the appointed time, Context tours (which cost $90 per person, compared with $12 for the Paris Walks tour) are limited to a maximum of six people are reservations are necessary. The small group size provides a much more personal experience. While we were comped on the Context tour, our opinions are our own.
The Context walk began, appropriately enough, at Place de la Bastille, the site when on the afternoon of July 14, 1789, a bunch of unorganized, revolutionaries laid siege to the fortress. Although guarded by the famed Swiss guards, Louis XVI had previously ordered them not to shoot at civilians. One, in the heat of the moment, fired. The crowd responded, crossing the moat, scaling the wall and, according to our guide, not just killing, but actually dismembering the guards. They freed the handful of political prisoners who were actually being held at the prisoners. They then dismantled the structure that had come to symbolize the injustice of the old regime, throwing many of the building’s stones in the nearby river (the stones were found much later and were used in a park).
From there, we retired to a quiet square to gain a little context. Our guide, Cedric, began to enumerate the conditions that gave rise to the revolution in four areas. They were generally similar to those given by the guide of our previous tour:
- The role of French Enlightenment thinkers in questioning traditional sources of authority (especially monarchy and the church) and providing an intellectual underpinning for quest for liberty;
- The shortage not only of food, as was cited in the previous tour, but also clean water which the polluted Seine (at least in vicinity of the city) was unable to provide;
- The hyperinflation that destroyed the value of the little money that people did hold;
- The virtual monopoly the nobility and the church (which collectively accounted for only about seven percent of the populace) held on power; and
- That while the citizens generally liked and trusted the king, they hated the queen (Marie Antoinette), who became a powerful mobilizing symbol for the revolution.
We then walked south, to a government building that, at the time of the revolution, was a Catholic monastery. As Cedric explained, although freeing the prisoners was an important psychic objective, the primary tactical objective of the attack on the Bastille was to get access to the gunpowder that was stored in the fortress. The next step: to get money to support the revolution—not to speak of just to feed the starving populace. At a time when even much of the nobility had no money—and the king and queen were not about to provide it—there was only one source: the Catholic Church. And, since the revolution believed more in the rationality of the Enlightenment era, than they did in the church, they then stormed a number of religious sites, including the monastery, to find money and gold.
Along the way, passing and discussing a few of the aristocracy’s Marais mansions, our guide shared characterizations and anecdotes of some of the revolution’s leaders. For example:
- Robespierre, who led the Committee of Public Safety, understood and effectively managed the political objectives of the revolution through the 200-person Assembly;
- Mirabou, a member of the nobility who emerged as one of the intellectual leaders of the Revolution
- Marat, through his writing and his newspaper (The Friend of the People), informed and helped mobilize the public;
- Desmoulins, who was instrumental in moving people to action; and
- Danton, who, as focused on in the previous tour, was the most powerful orator.
Robespierre, in particular, was a master in playing factions off against each other and in changing loyalty as it served him, to retain his own power and to enrich himself. He was also probably the most ruthless, as evidenced by the way he dealt with his enemies. Afraid of allowing them to speak (for fear of turning people against him) and of executing them (for fear of turning them in to martyrs), he instituted “The Terror”, where he simply threw his enemies into prison—especially into damp, dirty, rat-infested basement cells that would flood in the winter and often lead to long, tortuous deaths that would not be noticed. Nor was he much more sympathetic to allies who came to question his means or his objectives—as when he engineered Danton’s meeting with the guillotine.
Even he, however, ended up going too far. After losing control of an Assembly that believed he was mobilizing support of the army to seize control, he tried, unsuccessfully, to kill himself. He was then brought to trial and, a few months after Danton’s execution, suffered the same fate or going to the guillotine.
Since the Context tour was a three-hour tour, it included a short “coffee/wine or whatever” break. It was a beautiful weekend day, which made it difficult to find a place to stop as most places were filled. As we searched out a place, we ended up walking around areas for a long time, with little discussion on the revolution. Once we found a place, we had a chance to get a drink, but again, there was little discussion about the revolution while we sat. Frankly, it felt like a waste of almost an hour. Drinks done, we boarded the metro to Place de la Concorde, where we reached a bronze plaque marking the location of the guillotine that took the lives of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (which was also the place where they got married). We learned that Louis was executed only after the 200-person Assembly passed a resolution by only 20 votes (a resolution for which the first vote was cast by a noble and previous staunch supporter of the King who, the same night, was killed by a member of the King’s personal guard). On the morning of the execution, Robespierre uncharacteristically ordered that that everybody accord the King with full respect. The deed was, according to the guide, carried out in respective silence.
When her death day came, Marie Antoinette was apparently not so lucky. According to our guide, it took three tries for the blade to do its job and take off her head. UGH.
Although the king and queen were executed in 1793, it wasn’t until 1799 that Napoleon Bonaparte, an Army officer who supported to the Revolution (and was in fact, exiled to Corsica for his activities in its support), eventually used his control of the Army to engineer a coup that resulted in his becoming First Consul of the Republic.
So how did this tour fare in sating our quest for gaining a logical construct for understanding the revolution? Or for fulfilling the even more ambitious goals set out in the tour’s descriptive information: goals such as understanding ”the timeline of the French revolution and its key events and locations”; “its different stages, how it served as a precursor to the various revolutions that followed in the coming century and the influences that helped to eventually create a new Paris”; and “the impact of these historical events on politics, society and culture in France today”?
True, these are extraordinarily ambitious goals for any tour, much less a three-hour tour (two hours of actual discussion of the revolution) covering such as complex and multi-faceted topic. We would not expect even the most successful tour to accomplish all of this. This tour, however, like the previous Paris Walks tour, provided little more than an impressionistic view of a number of facts. Neither even began to provide the basic understanding that we had hoped for.
While each of the other participants on the Context tour have taken other Context tours in other cities and loved them (which is why they sought out this tour), they too were disappointed, telling us that this tour was not at the same level they have had on other tours. The drink break was welcome for a 3 hour tour, and the travel to Place de la Concorde was an interesting stop, yet the general feeling was that it was a means to make a 2 hour tour last 3 hours. Still, based on the high grades the other participants gave previous Context tours, we’d like to try them again in another city.