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French Revolution
French Revolution

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4.5 The sans-culotte as revolutionary hero

Revolutionary symbolism (which we noted earlier with reference to the Declaration of the Rights of Man) extended to clothing: the wearing of the tricolour cockade was made compulsory for men by a decree of July 1792. The red ‘cap of liberty’ became the normal headgear of the sans-culottes, now officially idealized as heroes of the people.

Plate 1 shows an actor dressed as a sans-culotte, carrying the tricolour banner (on which is emblazoned the slogan liberty or death’) at the ‘festival of liberty’ in Savoy in October 1792. (Savoy had just been annexed to France.) The pole supporting the banner may be intended to suggest a pike, a weapon associated with the sans-culottes. Robespierre called it a ‘sacred weapon’ (Vovelle, 1984, p.218).

Click to view Boilly's portrait of the sans-culottes [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Exercise 8

What other signs can you detect in Boilly's portrait of the sans-culotte (Plate 1) that differentiate him from an aristocratic hero?


  • Trousers instead of knee-breeches (culottes - the term sans-culottes was originally used contemptuously by the nobility).

  • Sabots, or wooden clogs, rather than buckled leather shoes.

  • Natural hair instead of powdered wig.

  • Tricolour cockade on the red ‘cap of liberty’.

  • Pipe stuck in mouth rather than, say, aristocratic snuff box.

  • Short jacket (la carmagnole, also the title of a revolutionary song), rolled up sleeves, bare hands and forearms, open shirt and loose scarf: this is the hardy mountaineer (see the Savoy background) as opposed to the aristocratic fop with gloves and cravat.

The article ‘What is a sans-culotte?’ , published in 1793, was a kind of Jacobin counterpart to Sieyes's What is the Third Estate?

Embodiment of the common man, the sans-culotte was held out in Jacobin ideology as the hero of the Revolution, the personification of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, the ‘general will’ and republican virtue. As an egalitarian, the sans-culotte made a point of addressing everyone, including deputies and officials, as citoyen (citizen – anyone saying monsieur or madame was liable to fall foul of the Law of Suspects, 1793), and of using the familiar second-person singular – tu– not the polite form – vous.

The sans-culotte was an avowed political activist and militant. His duty, as defender of the Revolution, was to maintain an atmosphere of constant vigilance and suspicion, and if necessary to resort to violence and terror. The sans-culottes were championed by Marat in L'Ami du peuple and by Hébert, who urged in Le Pére Duchesne: ‘To your pikes, good sans-culottes! Sharpen them up to exterminate the aristocrats’ (Vovelle, 1984, p. 219). It was the sans-culottes who attended the revolutionary watch committees (they made up some three-quarters of the personnel, Rudé, 1966, p.150). Though often barely literate (Williams, 1989, p.30), they issued (or refused) certificates of good citizenship (certificats de civisme) to distinguish good citizens (revolutionaries) from ‘enemies of the people’.

The sans-culottes were associated by their enemies with the street-mob excesses of the Revolution: the heads on pikes, the stringings-up on lamp-posts, the September massacres, the castration by frenzied women rioters of the corpses of the Swiss guards, the tricoteuses (women knitting around the guillotine as the heads rolled). It was poetic justice that, of those who had egged on the sans-culottes, Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday in 1793 (his death became the subject of a hagiographic picture by Jacques-Louis David – see Plate 2), while Hebert fell foul of Robespierre and was guillotined in 1794.

Click to view Plate 2: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat 1793, oil on canvas, 160.7 x 124.8cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Photo: Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library.