Poverty, Crime & Revolution

Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

by Louis Chevalier, translated by Frank Jellinek
Howard Fertig, 505 pp., $16.50

The Names of Kings: The Parisian Laboring Poor in the Eighteenth Century

by Jeffry Kaplow
Basic Books, 222 pp., $8.95

The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon

by Albert Soboul, translated by Alan Forrest and Colin Jones
Random House, 638 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France 1750-1789

by Olwen H. Hufton
Oxford University Press, 414 pp., $29.00

Having begun in the 1950s to rewrite history “from below” and having dug deeper and deeper into the lives of anonymous masses throughout the 1960s, historians have finally hit the bottom of early modern society. They have uncovered the irreducible, irredeemable poor. Although there are signs of a revival of interest in the rich and powerful, the fascination with the history of poverty is now at a peak.

The books by Chevalier, Kaplow, Soboul, and Hufton represent this trend at its strongest, as it applies to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Chevalier and Hufton investigate the relations between destitution and crime, while Kaplow and Soboul try to disentangle the connections between conditions of the poor and the revolutionaries. Taken together, their books illustrate the complexity of relating poverty, crime, and revolution; and they also suggest some variations in two historical styles, the Anglo-American and the French.


For the French historian Louis Chevalier, the history of poverty reveals the poverty of history as a record of human experience. Previous historians had made body counts of the poor, but they had never shown how indigence tightened its grip on the population between 1815 and 1848, corrupting both mind and body, and shaping the cultural as well as the biological bases of existence. Chevalier analyzed this dual process in Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes, which has remained one of the most important contributions to social history since it first appeared in French in 1958.

He had uncovered the biological element in an earlier book, La formation de la population parisienne au XIXe siècle (1950), which analyzed the way the city’s population doubled during the first half of the nineteenth century, while its physical and institutional structure remained essentially the same. In his subsequent book, Chevalier moved from demography to urban pathology. He showed how the nineteenth-century population sickened within the shell of the eighteenth-century city, how sewers overflowed, the water supply gave out, housing deteriorated, and disease raged, especially in districts where humanity was densest and poorest. Poverty, he concluded, produced a fundamental inequality before life and death. That is why infant mortality was twice as great in the slums along the rue Mouffetarde as in the mansions of the rue Saint-Honoré, why the cholera epidemic of 1832 decimated poor neighborhoods and spared the rich, why native Parisians tended to be too weak for heavy labor, too sickly for military service, and too undernourished to replace themselves by reproduction.

Their replacements came from the provinces, strange men and women in bizarre costumes, muttering unintelligible dialects as they did the city’s heavy work and dirty work. The Parisian bourgeois saw these outsiders as an alien “race,” the “barbarians within”; for biological inequality was construed in racial terms, by the barbarians as well as the bourgeois. Chevalier suggested that the barricades of 1848 did not merely divide rich against poor but separated two hostile populations in a city whose structure had finally collapsed.

Paris rose again, of course, but only after Haussmann had razed the…

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