Centre Interview: Fairfax-Cholmeley on the French Revolution, Print Culture, and the Terror

Inside the revolutionary committee
Anon., ‘Inside the revolutionary committee. Final scene’ (c.1794). An idealized version of local events during the Thermidorian Reaction against the Terror. The inner circle around the table are members of a local ‘revolutionary committee’, disheveled, drunk and (in one case) foreign.

In this centre interview, Professor Richard Toye and Dr. Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley (University of Exeter) discuss the French Revolution, print culture, and the Terror.

Q1. [Toye] You’re currently working on print culture during the French revolutionary era. It’s well known that this was a period that saw an extraordinary explosion in the publication of pamphlets and newspapers. But who was producing them, and why?

[Fairfax-Cholmeley] It is true that the Revolution saw a remarkable rise in the quantity and variety (but not necessarily the quality!) of printed material available to the French population. In the late 1780s, a creaking system of censorship broke up completely in the face of the huge excitement generated by the call for the first Estates-General (the French equivalent of Parliament) since 1614. From 1789 onwards, many Revolutionaries would draw a close association between freedom of the press and the wider political and social liberties the Revolution was supposed to be securing. The printing press therefore always had a certain revolutionary cachet that encouraged its use – especially in Paris.

Who exactly was producing pamphlets, newspapers and other printed material (broadsides, petitions, plays…the list is endless) clearly varies a great deal. The Revolutionary press attracted ambitious members of the political elite, for obvious reasons, but overall production involved a much broader constituency. For example, part of my PhD research focused on the use of print by victims of repression during the Terror of 1793-1794 as a tactic to extricate themselves from any number of sticky situations, and also to restore their revolutionary standing afterwards. Just as the Terror targeted men and women from right across the social spectrum, so the petitions, legal briefs, letters and other material printed in response were not just authored by a narrow elite. My current British Academy postdoctoral fellowship was partly inspired by this research. I am investigating the activities of surviving victims of the Terror in the next phase of the French Revolution (1794-1799), including their use of print to mount public campaigns against those they alleged to have been their former oppressors. You also see those accused of being former Terrorists printing their own defences in return.

Q2. So this was the eighteenth century equivalent of blogging… But what resources did one need to take part? Were people paying to print their own pamphlets, or did publishers take risks on what they thought would sell?

More like an expensive version of writing to the local newspaper? In the days when people actually read them! In my area of study, print was often being used to serve local interests and engage with one’s immediate community – although interaction with national authorities, especially the National Convention (France’s parliament between September 1792 and October 1795), could lead to wider dissemination. You also don’t see the kind of repeated interventions that define today’s blogosphere. Individuals would usually make only one or two contributions on their chosen theme, perhaps because these were combined with complementary tactics (such as writing letters or registering a complaint in person) or simply because of cost. I have not come across any evidence of publishers printing such material with their own money, unless they themselves were involved in a particular case. Of course, the issue of resources went far beyond money. You also needed to construct a strong case, and for that you ideally wanted documentary evidence, a good story and support from other people.

Q3. Well, that raises another interesting question – what, if anything, do we know about how this material was received by readers?

Tracking readers and their responses is a challenge during this period, and direct evidence in individual cases is hard to find. However, it is possible to build up a general picture of the responses such material likely provoked. For example, pamphlets comment on the appearance of rival printed works and refer in detail to them in any rebuttal, so there is clearly a contemporary expectation that people will read material carefully and follow competing arguments in a case over an extended period. Authors also frequently decry the negative impact of printed attacks on their reputation, so it is clear that print was a feared and effective weapon. Furthermore, when a broad range of texts are compared, patterns and tropes emerge which indicate that people read, processed, and then reproduced in adapted form, ideas and images from elsewhere in the print culture their own work formed a part of. In my area of interest, for example, the historian Corinne Gomez-Le Chevanton has analyzed the rhetoric and imagery in reports on the trial of the infamous Terrorist Jean-Baptiste Carrier. These then echoed around Thermidorian France in myriad printed forms, helping to fuel a violent reaction against other alleged Terrorists.

Pierre-Gabriel Berthault, ‘Fouquier-Thinville judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal’ (1795?). Antoine Fouquier-Tinville was the public prosecutor at the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal throughout the Terror. Soon after the fall of Robespierre (9 Thermidor Year II/27 July 1794) ushered in the Thermidorian Reaction against the Terror, Fouquier-Tinville was arrested. His trial in 1795 played an important role in shaping collective memories of Terrorist violence, not least because it was widely reported in print – as well as being depicted in etchings such as this one.
Pierre-Gabriel Berthault, ‘Fouquier-Thinville judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal’ (1795?). Antoine Fouquier-Tinville was the public prosecutor at the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal throughout the Terror. Soon after the fall of Robespierre (9 Thermidor Year II/27 July 1794) ushered in the Thermidorian Reaction against the Terror, Fouquier-Tinville was arrested. His trial in 1795 played an important role in shaping collective memories of Terrorist violence, not least because it was widely reported in print – as well as being depicted in etchings such as this one.

Q4. I think a lot of people would be surprised that there was so much apparent freedom of expression in what is often thought of as an era of tyranny.

I think that the extensive censorship of the newspaper industry during the Terror (self-censorship as well as intervention by the authorities) has perhaps coloured people’s perception of the print world as a whole during that period. The use of the printing press by individuals does not appear to have been nearly so heavily affected. If you look at the Revolutionary decade as a whole, print is consistently an area of strong, varied interaction among France’s citizens, and between the citizen and the state. On the other hand, it is also clear that the great majority of printed material sits within a broadly Republican lexicon, so our twenty-first century understanding of the idea of ‘freedom of expression’ is probably not directly applicable.

Q5. So, finally – where does your research go from here?

During the current academic year my British Academy funding is allowing me to conduct my very own Tour de France – thankfully one that is less heavy on the legs than the cycling version! I am using departmental and municipal archives from right across the country so that my project can address the reshaping of post-Terror France without too much of a Parisian bias. The idea is to interlink analysis of the print output of surviving victims of the Terror with a range of complementary local sources in order to better understand how French society reacted to its recent, violent history. These include legal records from Terror-related court cases, and administrative archives detailing how local authorities dealt with pressure from communities to protect or punish former Terrorists. Having previously been largely restricted to Parisian archives in my PhD and post-PhD research, it is refreshing to be working with material from a variety of geographical locations and to be sifting evidence which better reflects the intricate mosaic of Revolutionary France as a whole.

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