So you think the French Revolution was about guillotining foppish, cake eating aristos...?
Actually it was much darker than that. The abolition of Catholicism by the Committee of Public Safety effectively gave Paris the right to declare war on the provinces and the revolutionary machine moved into a murderous counter-insurgency campaign.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, Carry On Don't Lose Your Head, Let Them Eat Cake, the film Danton, and countless other treatments of the French Revolution have given us an image of the revolutionary Great Terror of 1792-94. Crowds in the centre of Paris yell in hatred while the tumbrils carry their victims to the guillotine – first the aristocrats, then the King himself, then the moderate revolutionaries who fell foul of the Committee of Public Safety, and finally the Jacobins themselves. The Paris guillotine claimed over 1,500 lives during the revolution.
But meanwhile, in the west and south of France, a vicious insurrection and counter-insurgency were being waged, centred on the Vendee, Lyons and Provence, which at one point left eighty percent of France in revolt. The dead of this conflict numbered in the tens of thousands, and its outcome shaped the revolution in a crucial way. Even if we only count those formally sentenced to death by revolutionary tribunals during the Terror, nearly nine out ten died outside Paris in rebellious districts. The tribunals in Paris had a semblance of legality, but in the countryside, on the other hand, the war was a savage one with very little quarter asked or given, and a pattern of massacre and counter-massacre. Like the conflict in Paris, it was also an ideological struggle: the rural and conservative populace revolted against being conscripted to fight for the atheists and regicides who had seized power in the capital.
In the face of this disorder, the revolutionary government was forced to make momentous changes. They centralised power, tearing up the decentralisation of the first years of the revolution. They wrote and presented - but did not adopt - a democratic constitution, of 'Year 1' (1792) which for the first time proclaimed the virtues of universal manhood suffrage. They also evolved a new type of counter-insurgency force, centrally controlled yet dispersed around the country, charged with first suppressing rebellion, then permanently occupying the territory and bringing it the benefits of law and order as well as repressing further attempts at rebellion. This was the Gendarmerie, and by the early nineteenth century France's enemies, allies, and countries liberated from Napoleon's Empire had all established similar forces. The future shape of French Republicanism – centralised, democratic, secular, and efficiently policed – was forged not by the execution of a few hundred aristocrats and revolutionaries on the wrong end of faction fights in Paris. Rather it was the outcome of a brutal struggle largely waged in the provinces: the result of which hung in the balance, and promised certain death for the losers.
First broadcast: Monday 16 May 2005 on BBC Radio 4