Everett Collection

Dirk Bogarde (right) as Sydney Carton at the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities, 1958

In 2015, the French literary world was eagerly devouring Temps glaciaires, the latest thriller from the eminent crime novelist Fred Vargas.1 Its plot revolves around the doings of a fictive Association d’Étude des écrits de Maximilien Robespierre (an evident spoof of the Paris-based Société des études robespierristes, the scholarly society dedicated to the history of the French Revolution). The president of the association wears a necklace decorated with teeth from the mouth of his alleged ancestor, Maximilien Robespierre. In an incident (probably attempted suicide) during his arrest in July 1794, Robespierre shot a hole in his jaw and lost and loosened many of his teeth. He was put out of his agony later that day by the guillotine erected on the present-day Place de la Concorde.

Vargas’s literary success is a reminder of the fascination that the French Revolution of 1789 continues to exert, not simply among historians, but among a wider public. It is also symptomatic of the Revolution’s broader cultural reception that the novel focuses particularly on the Terror of 1793–1794.2 In France under the Terror the government deployed institutionalized violence and decreed the mass execution of political opponents. Robespierre was, as a member of the Committee of Public Safety that governed France in these years, one of the Terror’s foremost leaders, its principal ideologist, and one of its most striking victims.

In the Anglophone world, the vein opened up by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1903) is still eminently exploitable. Those novels developed a particularly lurid, hyperemotive version of the Terror: the brusque Kafkaesque tribunal proceedings, the world-turned-upside-down of Revolutionary prisons, the nerve-racking preparation for the scaffold, the tumbril ride through jeering Parisian streets, the swish of the guillotine blade, and the severed head clunking into the basket, then being held aloft for the crowd’s approval.

Before Wolf Hall established Hilary Mantel as one of the great historical novelists of our times, her A Place of Greater Safety (1992) brilliantly evoked Revolutionary Paris under the guillotine’s shadow in ways that built on this inheritance. In a rather different register, the recent books and films about Queen Marie Antoinette, who lost her head in 1793, show the vitality and increasingly transnational dimensions of public interest in the period. The furor in France caused in 2014 by the Assassin’s Creed Unity video game, which provoked an angry response from the French parliamentary left over what were perceived to be flagrant historical inaccuracies in its portrayal of Revolutionary Paris, suggests that the Terror myth has reached the international gaming community.3

Because it is so often the sanguinary aspects of the Terror that catch wider media attention, it is worth noting that, measured purely by the number of victims, the impact of the Terror was less than often imagined. During 1793 and 1794, the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris accounted for no more than 2,700 deaths. Overall during the Terror, the government was responsible for 30,000–40,000 deaths across France through judicial and summary executions, lynchings, fatalities in prisons, and the like. Deaths in civil war conditions in 1793–1794 within and around the Vendée department in western France should be added to the tally. Counting victims on both sides of the conflict, more than 250,000 died.4

To find a credible comparison for body counts, we might first look at the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which caused nearly a million and a half French fatalities between 1792 and 1815, and perhaps five million throughout Europe as a whole. The impact of the Atlantic slave trade was just as brutal toward African populations, with between four and six million people transported to the Americas over the eighteenth century. To the death rate of around 30 to 40 percent on the journey should be added high mortality on arrival.

The republican government that oversaw the Terror in France abolished slavery in 1794 (though Napoleon later reinstated it). That fact may serve as a reminder that notions of the French Revolution and the Terror in Western culture are rooted less in crude demographics or in a popular obsession with blood and gore than in a deep and continuing sense that the Revolution matters politically. Even if the number of revolutions since 1789 has inevitably diminished its aura, for two centuries France’s Revolution somehow seemed to prefigure modern times—a status that even the Russian Revolution of 1917 generally seemed to endorse.

This may be changing as a result of the rather different revolutions of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But it is striking how much of the debate about these revolutions is still haunted by the two fundamental questions that have always preoccupied historians of the French Revolution: Why Revolution in 1789, and why Terror in 1793–1794? In other words, why and how did France’s ancien régime collapse so spectacularly in 1789? And then, why was the Revolution transformed from what in 1789 had seemed an uplifting and indeed epochal moment in the history of humanity into the dark, foreboding Terror of 1793–1794?


Answers to these questions have always divided opinion. While those on the left have rejoiced in 1789 as the founding moment of rights-based democratic politics, the right has viewed the events of the following years as a kind of morality play that showed how revolution inexorably leads to violence and oppression. Generally, the left has tended to see the shift toward terror as a product of the extreme situation in which the revolutionaries found themselves. The gravediggers of the ancien régime discovered that their principal victims (royal court, nobility, clergy) refused to be interred and that many were provoking counterrevolutionary activity throughout the country.

The situation was severely aggravated by the wars with the rest of Europe that started in 1792. At the very moment in mid-1793 when the institutions of terror were being activated, France faced foreign troops advancing on its territory from every direction, a blockade of ports by the Royal Navy, pro-monarchist civil war conditions in western France, and vehement opposition to government policy in many other regions. Swerving away from the values espoused in 1789 and institutionalizing terror seemed the only way, the argument goes, to save France from crushing defeat, vast territorial losses, and the return of the monarchy.

Conversely, other analysts have dismissed this so-called “thesis of circumstances” out of hand—in some cases for attempting to excuse and justify the unforgivable. As the historian François Furet noted, there is no lack of extreme national crises in French history—but there was only one Terror. The shift to terror was somehow inscribed in the DNA of modern revolution from 1789 onward. From this unified perspective, 1794 was merely, as Simon Schama once famously put it, “1789 with a higher body count” (although as we have seen, body counts can take us only part of the way toward political understanding).5

For some time now historians have been striving to find ways of steering a middle course between the thesis that unique circumstances caused the Revolution and the view that the Terror was its quintessential event. In The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, the distinguished historian Timothy Tackett commendably joins their number. His book develops an innovative approach to the emergence of the Terror that focuses on the collective psychology of the revolutionaries, and that draws heavily on the burgeoning study of the history of the emotions.

It is hardly news, of course, that the French Revolution evoked strong emotions. Indeed, this has been one of the reasons for its continuing cultural interest. Fear, anxiety, panic, suspicion, anger, fury, rage—to highlight only the negative emotions—accompanied every twist and turn on the road to terror. Even during the most rhapsodic phases of 1789, when heady hopes were expressed for radical reforms, a kind of tsunami of panic—the so-called “Great Fear” (July–August 1789)—swept by word of mouth across the country. The peasantry were convinced that both political change and their precious harvest were threatened by (in fact nonexistent) bands of brigands hired by the nobility. The upshot of this collective fantasy was the overthrow of the feudal system in the countryside, a fait accompli that the National Assembly accepted.

Historians in the past who have considered the influence of the emotions over the 1790s have focused either on certain Revolutionary leaders (most notably Robespierre) for having a pathologically obsessive fear of conspiracy, or else on the peasantry and the urban laboring classes. Plebeian crowds were held to have been driven by irrational feelings of fear, envy, and suspicion, resulting in the atavistic blood lust that so attracted (and repelled) Dickens and Orczy.

If we put aside these two crude, ideologically driven stereotypes, how can we seek to understand thoughts and feelings in the past? Historians often use memoirs as their guide. Yet nostalgia, disenchantment, regret, and the tricks of memory often cloud the view. Tackett adeptly circumvents the problem by relying less on memoirs than on private correspondence and diaries. These allow us to glimpse ordinary men and women reacting to the dramatic events of their days, and to capture at close quarters the flow of emotions usually edited out of subsequent recollections.

With the instincts and passion of an experienced truffle-hunter, Tackett has snuffled his way through dozens of municipal, departmental, and private archives throughout la France profonde in a quest for letters and diaries from the Revolutionary period. He has discovered a hugely valuable hoard of new testimonies by men and women, Parisians and provincials. His focus is on the bourgeois class that drove the Revolution onward, ranging from individuals elected to serve in successive national assemblies, to local officeholders and functionaries, through to the broader pool of literate and vocal private citizens.


The Revolutionary years were an emotional roller-coaster for this group. High emotion ran like a red thread through the course of politics from the Revolution’s earliest days. Anxiety, suspicion, and panic were not simply the preserve of the popular classes, whipped up by groundless rumors. Political credulousness and expectations of the worst were found in literate as well as oral culture and throughout the Revolutionary political elite—and indeed beyond it both socially (the lower orders) and politically (counterrevolutionaries). The Coming of the Terror allows us into this maelstrom of emotion, highlighting individual reactions well beyond the range of historians’ usual suspects.

By refreshing the sources of French Revolutionary history in a way that is likely to prove enduring, and placing his findings within a lively, robust, and up-to-date narrative, Tackett has put all historians of the Revolution in his debt. Yet his ambitions go beyond changing the way we think about how the Revolution was experienced. It was not just that political life brimmed with emotion from 1789 to 1794, he argues. In addition, high states of emotion contributed powerfully toward the move to terror. The course of events—popular turbulence, the breakdown of monarchical authority, counterrevolution, the advent of war, etc.—stimulated high levels of fear and mistrust. By incremental progression from 1789 onward, Tackett argues, those fears crystallized into a “mentalité” (or, sometimes, “mindset”) that created a political culture in which coercion won out over legality, violence over constitutionality, and emotions of terror over finer feelings.

Tackett summarizes the collective psychology of the political elite by 1793–1794 as “an obsessional fear of a ubiquitous monolithic ‘grand conspiracy.’” This was a fear, he notes, that had a strong basis in reality—the rulers of ancien régime Europe really did want to topple the Revolution and were plotting to do so, as were miscellaneous counterrevolutionaries within France. But the tipping point was supplied by a fantasy: the “grand conspiracy” as it was imagined simply did not exist. Still, fear and anxiety drove the French political elite into feeling “terrorized.” In a political culture of violence, they came to see the meting out of state-driven coercion as the only adequate response to their predicament. Terror was the consequence. Emotions were thus more than just an incidental accessory to more “rational” political processes; they were determinant. Their emotions heightened, many members of the political elite collectively and emotionally transformed themselves into “terrorists.”

This is certainly a new and striking interpretation of the Terror that will stimulate discussion and, one hopes, further research. Is it, however, plausible? It certainly raises many questions.

What, first, are we to make of the term mentalité, which plays such an important part in Tackett’s scheme? Mentalité was one of the buzzwords of the celebrated “Annales school” that dominated French history from the 1940s to the 1980s. For the Annalistes, mentalités were characteristic of a deeper history than the cut-and-thrust of conventional politics, which the master Annaliste Fernand Braudel somewhat scornfully dubbed l’histoire événementielle (“event history”). A mentalité denoted an underlying collective frame of thought rather than a set of ideas, and it was held to operate in the very long term (the longue durée). Braudel himself quipped that mentalités were “long-term prisons”; it was impossible to will one’s way out of them.

Given the term’s genealogy, then, what is a revolutionary mentalité and how does it function? Generally Tackett seems to mean by the word a cast of mind that preconditioned acceptance of the need for state violence and the extermination—more than, say, exile or imprisonment—of political opponents. He sees this as a short-term creation—he disregards any longue durée influence of Enlightenment ideas or feelings prior to 1789. But he also uses the language of inevitability in a way that suggests he means that a revolutionary mentalité is more than a background factor and indeed has agency in its own right.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau; drawing by David Levine

This emotional determinism leaves little space for the use of reason—political ideas are given short shrift throughout the book. But one wonders whether making the revolutionaries pawns of their passions somehow absolves them of responsibility for their deeds. In the event, many of the “terrorists” of 1793–1794 were subsequently strongly attacked for acts of violence. Some tried the “emotional defense” (“too frightened not to obey,” etc.) in various forms, but it rarely got them off the hook. Tackett seems to be more indulgent.

Tackett depicts the revolutionary mentalité spreading through the political elite from 1789 onward in a way that resembles a psychological pathogen that could be contracted wherever people were most vulnerable. Yet to be convincing, the epidemiology needs to be able to move from the general to the particular, from the collective to the individual. Did an individual’s absorption of the revolutionary mentalité always involve not just a commitment to a vague idea but also involvement or active complicity in acts of terror? Was a revolutionary mentalité always acted out? Robespierre’s revolutionary mentalité led him to send people to the scaffold; but he also tried openly to protect over seventy of his opponents sentenced to imprisonment for the duration of the Terror. Tackett’s panoramic broad-brush approach does not allow us the degree of discrimination required to account for this variability in behavior.

The notion of a revolutionary mentalité leading inevitably to terror also gives the impression that the Terror was a homogeneous movement or political culture. “The Terror” as a term denoting the political practices of the Revolutionary government in 1793–1794 only came into general usage after the fall of Robespierre in 1794. This use of the word also coincided with the dismantling of many of the institutions of the Terror and attacks on the “terrorists” of 1793–1794. The tendency to see terror as an institutionally unified form of government owes much to this condemnatory retrospective vision. Recent historians have in fact been stressing how diverse, uncoordinated, and even contradictory the policies pursued in 1793–1794 under the auspices of terror were, and how hard the central government had to struggle to control even its own agents.

Furthermore, many “terrorists” spent a great deal of time and energy in 1793–1794 devising ways of controlling acts of violence among the lower orders.6 It is not clear how this kind of restraint fits within a political culture of violence dominated by a revolutionary mentalité. As Tackett notes, the government of 1793–1794 also sought to develop a range of nonviolent and sometimes visionary initiatives covering, besides the abolition of slavery, participatory democracy, educational and welfare reform, and religious freedom. This suggests that there were limits to how terrified and terrorized the “terrorists” felt. The revolutionary mentalité is too blunt an instrument to describe these aspects of the Terror or to understand the motivations behind them.

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution shows us in spectacular style the extent to which the politics of the 1790s were infused with emotion. But it is also worth asking, finally, whether those emotions might have their own history. This is a question that frequently challenges practitioners of the emergent discipline of the history of the emotions. Whereas many in the field (let us call them the “essentialists”) maintain that the emotions are basically the same in the past as in our own day, others (“the relativists”) hold that they are culturally constructed. Tackett takes the essentialist position: an emotion is an emotion, and for him it is a transhistorical emotion. Yet in fact, there is a very strong case for arguing that the emotional life of this particular period differed quite markedly from our own.7

We only have to read some of the best sellers of late-eighteenth-century France—such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise—to see that they were situated within an emotional world very far from our own. Indeed, many of us may well find that the hyperemotionality of such works makes them unreadable. Tears well up from every eye (including the reader’s), sobs are manfully stifled, while tremulous lips delicately form into heartbreaking smiles.

No French bourgeois home in the 1780s and 1790s was without at least one of these novels of sensibility. They were the kind of works that profoundly altered people’s sense of themselves. Reading them could be perceived as literally life-changing experiences—as was indeed the case, for example, with Robespierre, whose utter devotion to the cult of Rousseau is well known.

We experience a similar feeling of affective estrangement from the past when we look at Jacques-Louis David’s sketches for The Tennis Court Oath, recording the moment on June 20, 1789, when the new National Assembly vowed to resist all royal efforts to disperse it and to remain active until a written constitution had been created. Here in David’s neoclassical idiom we see jutting jaws, stiff upper lips, fixed gazes, operatic bodily gestures—again quite unlike, I would imagine, our own public and domestic lives in the 2010s.

The emotional past sometimes really is another country. And in the case of the late eighteenth century the otherness exuded by novels of sensibility or David’s epic neoclassical paintings is particularly worth exploring, not least because these idioms did not remain on the page or on the canvas but got inside people’s heads and influenced the way they thought and felt and expressed themselves. We see this in the self-consciously stoical gestures of the deputies in the national assemblies and the volatile emotionality of debates.

But they also provided models to live by—and write by—at a more mundane level. Diaries and letters, both of them genres with very specific conventions, were particularly strongly influenced by literary example. Indeed, novels of sensibility were often epistolary or first-person fictions that sometimes purported to be “real” documents. The emotionality that Tackett records oozing so abundantly from his colorful letters and diaries are not at all just straightforward expressions of an underlying emotional state or mentalité. They are documents written with great intensity that deserve analysis in their own terms. Examining the role of the emotions in the French Revolutionary decade requires us to take the emotions of the period as seriously as we take its politics.