This French Revolution glossary contains definitions of important words, terms and concepts relevant to the revolution in France between 1781 and 1795. It has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest words or definitions for this glossary, please contact Alpha History
Absolutism is a system of government where all political power rests with one ‘absolute’ ruler, usually a tsar, emperor or monarch.
(In French, citoyens actifs) ‘Active citizens’ were French citizens with the right to vote and participate in elections, as defined by the National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791. To qualify as active citizens individuals had to pay annual taxes of the value of three days’ labour.
Describes agricultural production, methods of farming or workers employed on the land.
Ah! Ca Ira
(French for ‘Ah, it’ll be fine’) Ah! Ca Ira was a revolutionary song that appeared in 1790 during the moderate phase of the revolution. Its lyrics were more optimistic and less militant than the better known La Marseillaise.
Ami du Peuple, Le
(French for ‘The Friend of the People) A radical Paris newspaper, published by Jean-Paul Marat between September 1789 and his death in July 1793. L’Ami du Peuple was known for its vitriolic attacks on perceived enemies of the revolution.
(French for ‘old regime’) The Ancien Régime refers to French government and society before the revolution.
An anobli was a recently ennobled commoner.
An aristocracy is a small but elite class, distinguished from other classes by noble titles, privileges and/or ownership of land. Members of the aristocracy are called aristocrats or nobles. They are often wealthy and/or exert considerable political influence.
A term coined by the historian Georges Lefebvre, the ‘aristocratic revolution’ refers to the political developments of 1787-89, when pressure from noble institutions such as the parlements and Assembly of Notables forced the king to summon the Estates General.
The armées révolutionnaires were radical civilian militias, particularly those formed in 1793-94 to seize grain from rural areas and enforce the violence of the Terror.
armoire de fer
(French for ‘iron chest’) The armoire de fer was a hidden safe at the Tuileries where Louis XVI kept his personal correspondence, including some politically sensitive material. This safe was discovered in 1792 and the material inside was subsequently leaked to the public. It discredited the king and several politicians he had been in contact with, including the deceased Mirabeau.
Artisans are those engaged in production of secondary goods, such as craftsmen, mechanics and labourers. Artisans usually live in cities or large towns and are skilled or semi-skilled.
An assignat was a currency certificate, issued by the National Assembly in 1790. Originally started as bonds backed by the value of seized church lands, assignats soon became an alternative form of paper currency. Price inflation and excessive printing of assignats soon rendered them almost worthless.
(French for ‘Austrian woman’) A term often directed at Marie Antoinette. Because chienne is French for a female dog, it could be insultingly used as ‘Austrian bitch’.
(French for ‘bailiwick’ or ‘district’) Bailliages were districts responsible for electing deputies to attend the Estates General. A bailliage was also an Ancien Régime law court, responsible for hearing criminal and civil matters in a particular district.
In the French seigneurial system, banalités were monopoly rights of the seigneur or lord. Examples of banalités included ownership of the local flour mill, wine press and baker’s oven. Peasants were required to pay the seigneur for their use.
The Bastille was a fortress in eastern Paris, constructed in the 14th century to defend the city. By the time of the revolution it was being used as an armoury, a storage facility and a royal prison for selected detainees.
Biens nationaux describes property owned by the Catholic church or émigrés that was seized and sold by the state.
(French for ‘red cap’) A red woollen or felt bonnet, worn by revolutionaries as a symbol of liberty.
The Bourbons were the ruling house of France to 1792. Bourbon was therefore the surname of Louis XVI.
The bourgeoisie were France’s wealthy middle classes, particularly those who owned businesses or profited from production or trade. In revolutionary France the bourgeoisie were the wealthiest members of the Third Estate.
A phrase coined by historian Georges Lefebvre, the ‘bourgeois revolution’ refers to the first years of the Revolution (1789 to 1792), when the revolutionary government and its policies were dominated by the bourgeoisie. Political institutions and policies in this period reflected the moderate liberal values and capitalist interests of the bourgeoisie.
The Breton Club was an influential political group that co-existed with the Estates General and was the forerunner to the Jacobin Club. Its name was derived from its first members, who were from Brittany. Members of the Breton Club played a leading role in the formation and first actions of the National Assembly.
Ca Ira (see Ah! Ca Ira)
(French for ‘coffee’) Before and during the revolution, cafés served as meeting places for political and philosophical discussion, particularly for men of the Third Estate.
cahiers de doléance
(French for ‘books of grievance’) The cahiers were documents drafted in the lead up to the Estates General in 1789. They contained summaries of public opinion, dissatisfaction and complaint, as well as recommendations to the king.
A surname ascribed to Louis XVI during the French Revolution, derived from the Capetian royal house of the Middle Ages.
The capitation was a poll tax or ‘tax by head’, introduced by the royal government in the late 1600s. It was levied on every French citizen of adult age.
The cens was a feudal quit-rent, a cash payment paid to the seigneur or lord to release the tenant from other feudal dues.
(French for ‘circle’) A group that meets to discuss issues, usually political in nature.
(French for ‘social circle’) A radical political club, formed in October 1790 by Nicolas de Bonneville and Claude Fauchet with the full name Society of the Friends of the Truth. The Cercle Social was known for its radical politics, its discussion of revolutionary ideas and, by 1792, its size. Prominent members included Brissot, Condorcet and Desmoulins.
Certificat de Civisme
(French for ‘certificates of civic virtue) The Certificats de Civisme were a form of visa issued to foreign visitors in 1793, attesting to their good political character. These certificates were later required of public office holders.
champart (or feudal tithe)
The champart was a feudal tax in kind, levied on peasant farmers. It was paid to the seigneur (lord), usually as one-eighth of all grain produced.
Champ de Mars
(French for ‘Field of Mars’) The Champ de Mars was a large open space in central Paris, situated on the east bank of the Seine. It was the location of several notable revolutionary events, including celebrations for the Fete de La Federation (July 1790), the National Guard’s massacre of petitioners (July 1791) and the execution of former Paris mayor Bailly (November 1793).
The Chouans were counter-revolutionaries in north-western France between 1793 and 1795. The name is derived from one of their leaders, the royalist Jean Chouan.
Civil Constitution of the Clergy
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a law passed by the National Assembly in July 1790. It rendered the Catholic church subordinate to the French nation and government. It also removed many of the privileges enjoyed by the church and required clergymen to swear an oath of loyalty to the state.
A cockade was a knotted ribbon or bow, used as a decoration for one’s hat or lapel. Prior to the revolution cockades were symbol of rank, status or membership of a particular class. During the revolution they were used to show patriotism or affiliation with certain groups.
Committee of General Security (or CGS)
In French, Comité de Sûreté Générale. The Committee of General Security was a committee of the National Convention, formed in late 1792. It was responsible for police actions and overseeing the war effort. It later contributed to the Reign of Terror.
Committee of Public Safety (or CPS)
In French, Comité de Salut Public. The Committee of Public Safety was a 12 man committee of the National Convention, formed in April 1793. The CPS was given wide-ranging powers to protect security, It eventually became a de facto executive council of the government. Many now consider the CPS the body most responsible for the Reign of Terror.
A constitution is a legal document that outlines the system of government, its division of powers and individual rights in a nation or state.
Constitution of 1791
The Constitution of 1791 was drafted by a committee of the National Constituent Assembly and passed in September 1791. It created a constitutional monarchy with a unicameral (single chamber) legislative assembly and the king as head of state. It was rendered inoperable by the suspension of the monarchy in August 1792.
Constitution of 1793 (or ‘Jacobin Constitution‘, ‘Montagnard Constitution‘)
The Constitution of 1793 replaced the Constitution of 1791. It was drafted by the Committee of Public Safety and passed by the National Convention in June 1793. Its implementation was suspended in October 1793 due to threats of foreign invasion and counter-revolution.
Constitution of 1795 (or Constitution of the Year III)
The Constitution of 1795 was passed by the Thermidorian reactionaries in August 1795. It attempted to halt the revolution by forming a bicameral legislature and an executive council (the Directory) and restricting voting rights to persons of property.
constitutional monarchy (or limited monarchy)
A constitutional monarchy is a political system where the powers of the monarch are outlined in and limited by a constitution. Most constitutional monarchies have a strong legislature and government ministers.
The Cordeliers were a republican political club, formed by Danton, Desmoulins and Marat in May 1790. Based in the suburbs of Paris and open to anyone regardless of class, the Cordeliers were the most radical political club during the first years of the revolution (1789-91).
(French for ‘due labour’) The corvee was a feudal obligation that required commoners to perform an amount of unpaid labour. This work was often performed on public facilities, such as roads or bridges, or on the private buildings of seigneurial lords.
Council of Elders (or Council of Ancients)
The Council of Elders was the upper house of the legislative assembly. It was created by the Constitution of 1795.
Council of Five Hundred
The lower house of the legislative assembly created by the Constitution of 1795.
Cult of Reason
(In French, Culte de la Raison) The Cult of Reason was an atheist movement formed in late 1792, started by Jacques Hebert and others. It rejected the existence of God and focused instead on truth, logic and rationalism.
Cult of the Supreme Being
(In French, Culte de l’Etre Supreme) The Cult of the Supreme Being was a quasi-religious movement, formed in 1793, chiefly by Robespierre. It maintained a belief in God and the immortality of the soul, while promoting civic virtue and loyalty to the state.
(French for ‘dolphin’) The Dauphin was the eldest living son of the French king and the heir to the French throne. The term is derived from his coat of arms, which contains a dolphin.
Day of Daggers
(In French, Journée du Poignards) The Day of Daggers was an incident in February 1791 when several hundred royalist nobles entered the Tuileries to protect the king. They were eventually disarmed by Lafayette and the National Guard.
Declaration of Pillnitz
A statement issued jointly by Austria and Prussia in August 1791, warning the French government not to harm Louis XVI or his family. It followed the king’s arrest at Varennes in June. The Declaration of Pillnitz was a major factor in France’s declaration of war in 1792.
An administrative division, created by the National Constituent Assembly in March 1790 to replace the généralités. There were 83 départements in total. They served as electoral divisions for the national government and were responsible for tax collection, public works, education and other services.
A diocese is a religious district, overseen by a bishop or archbishop and containing a number of parishes. There were approximately 130 dioceses in France in early 1789. In March 1790 each diocese was aligned with a département, reducing their number to 83.
(In French, Directoire) The Directory was the five-man executive council created by the Constitution of 1795.
Divine right is a pre-Enlightenment political concept where a ruler, usually a monarch or an autocrat, claims his authority to be derived from God.
(French for ‘free gift’) The don gratuit was a voluntary contribution to the state, paid by the Catholic church. It was paid in lieu of other forms of taxation. The amount of the don gratuit was decided annually by the church itself.
The ruling family in a hereditary system of monarchy.
A term sometimes used to describe the economic policies of the Jacobin-Montagnard regime in 1793-94. These policies were either anti-capitalist (for example, the Law of the Maximum) or involved the redistribution of wealth (such as the seizure and sale of church and émigré property).
(French for ’emigrant’) An émigré is an individual who flees their homeland, usually to escape political conditions or persecution. In the French Revolution most émigrés were exiled nobles and royalists, some of whom took up arms against the new government.
The Enlightenment was a period of scientific, intellectual and philosophical curiosity that began in the mid-1600s. It contributed to new thinking and revolutionary ideas, particularly the development of liberal, democratic and republican political theories.
(French for ‘enraged ones’) The enragés were a radical political faction active in 1791-93. The enragés pushed for strict price controls, progressive taxation and the elimination of all counter-revolutionaries. Many later became Hebertists (followers of Jacques Hebert).
(In French, Etats Generaux) The Estates General was a gathering of delegates from the Three Estates nationwide, summoned by the monarch. The role of the Estates General was to provide information and counsel to the crown, usually on matters of pressing importance. It had no executive or legislative authority. Louis XVI summoned the Estates General for May 1789, the first time it had been gathered since 1614.
(French for ‘federals’) The fédérés were members of the National Guard who supported a French republic. The majority of National Guard members who enlisted during or after August 1792 were republican minded and therefore fédérés.
(French for ‘general farm’) The Ferme Générale was the Ancien Régime’s system of tax and revenue collection, which was carried out by private contractors or ‘tax farmers’.
Fete de la Federation
The Fete de la Federation was a day of ceremonies and feasting across France. It was first held on July 14th 1790, the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. It was intended to celebrate and mark the successful culmination of the revolution.
Feudalism is a medieval political, social and economic system with strongly defined classes and class relationships. The core principle of feudalism is that nobles own land and share it with tenant farmers, in return for rent, fealty, obedience and some unpaid labour.
The Feuillants were a political club formed in July 1791 after splitting and breaking away from Jacobins. Led by Antoine Barnave, the Feuillants were constitutional monarchists and political moderates who rejected radicalism and republicanism.
The First Coalition was a European alliance that waged war against revolutionary France between 1792 and 1797. Members of the First Coalition included Austria, Prussia, Britain and the French emigres.
(In French, Premier Etat) The First Estate was the Catholic clergy in pre-revolutionary France. It included ordained persons of all ranks, including both higher clergy (cardinals, archbishops and bishops) and lower clergy (priests, monks, nuns, etc).
The gabelle was a long standing state tax on salt. Revenue from the gabelle went directly to the royal treasury. The importance of salt as a food preservative and flavouring made the gabelle a very unpopular tax.
An administrative division in pre-revolutionary France, the broad equivalent of a province or state. Généralités were replaced by départements in March 1790.
Girondins (or Girondinists)
The Girondins were a political faction active in the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention in 1791-93. Led by Jacques Brissot, the Girondins pushed for the abolition of the monarchy and the declaration of war against foreign powers – however they baulked at the radicalism of the Jacobins and the Montagnards. The Girondins were eventually arrested and expelled from the Convention in 1793.
(In French, Grande Peur) The Great Fear was a spontaneous campaign of property damage and violence in rural France in July and August 1789. It was fuelled by panic and rumours of a royalist counter-revolution, as well as personal interests. During the Great Fear thousands of peasants ransacked and burned noble chateaux and destroyed feudal records.
A guild was a powerful association or corporation that regulated and controlled a particular skill – such as metalcraft, masonry or weaving – in a city or town. Individuals were usually required to be guild members before they could trade or conduct business there.
The guillotine was a mechanical device for carrying out executions by removing the head quickly and cleanly. Similar devices had been used in Europe since the 14th century. The name guillotine was derived from a 1789 recommendation to the National Assembly from Doctor Joseph Guillotin.
(French for ‘high bourgeoisie’) The haute bourgeoisie were wealthy members of the Third Estate, such as colonialists, estate owners, merchants, bankers and financiers.
The Hébertists were followers of Jacques Hébert during 1793-94. The most radical left wing faction of the revolution, the Hébertists demanded price controls, revolutionary war and the de-Christianisation of France.
(French for ‘falconry’ or ‘country squire’) The hobereaux were persons were members of the Second Estate who had noble titles but lacked wealth or significant land holdings. Most hoboreaux lived in rural areas on small plots of land and in modest homes. They were sometimes supported financially by more affluent relatives or friends.
(French for ‘moderates’ or ‘lenient ones’) The Indulgents were members of the National Convention who questioned the need for the Reign of Terror. The term generally refers to Danton, Desmoulins and their supporters. The Indulgents are sometimes referred to as the ‘Dantonists’, as the Girondins were called the Brissotins.
The Jacobins were a political club, formed at Versailles during the Estates General of 1789. Initially known as the Breton Club, the Jacobins began as a group of political moderates, their number including Mirabeau, Sieyes and Barnave. The club radicalised after their shift to Paris in late 1789, as more moderate members left to form new groups like the Feuillants. By 1791 the Jacobins had become both democratic and republican, calling for the removal of Louis XVI. Their radicalisation continued during the Reign of Terror.
(French for ‘important day’) In the context of the revolution a journée is a day of significant action, such as the ‘Journée of August 10th 1792′.
jeunesse dorée (or Muscadins)
(French for ‘gilded youth’) The jeunesse dorée were young members of the bourgeoisie who attacked Jacobin radicalism and the sans culottes during the Thermidorian period of 1794-95.
Juring priests were those who swore the oath of allegiance to the state, as required by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “French Revolution glossary A-K”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/french-revolution-glossary-a-k/.