French Revolution glossary L-Z

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. Words and terms from L to Z. If you would like to suggest a word or term for inclusion in this glossary, please contact Alpha History.

L | M | N | P | R | S | T | V | W

La Patrie en danger
(French for ‘The Fatherland in danger’) La Patrie en danger was a slogan used by the Legislative Assembly in July 1792, to rally public support for the war effort.

Law of Frimaire (or Law of 14 Frimaire)
The Law of Frimaire was passed by the National Convention on December 4th 1793. It increased the authority of the Committee of Public Safety (CPS), bringing the Reign of Terror under more centralised control.

Law of the Maximum (or ‘Grain Maximum‘, ‘The Maximum‘)
The Law of the Maximum was a National Convention decree of May 4th 1793 that was intended to improve the supply of bread at lower prices. The decree placed a maximum price on wheat and flour, and authorised provincial officials to seize stores to ensure supply.

Legislative Assembly
The Legislative Assembly was the governing assembly of France between October 1791 and September 1792. It replaced the National Assembly and was superseded by the National Convention.

Le Marseillaise
Le Marseillaise was a military anthem penned by de Lisle in 1792. It became a popular revolutionary song and, later, the national anthem of the French republic.

lettre de cachet
(French for ‘stamped letter’) A lettre de cachet was an arbitrary royal order, signed by the king. It was legally unchallengeable and could not be blocked or appealed. Lettres de cachet took several forms, the most notorious ordering the detention of individuals without trial or legal review.

levée en masse
The levée en masse was an order for mass conscription, issued by the National Convention in August 1792.

(French for ‘small offence’) A libelle was a pamphlet, script or other publication that ridiculed or slandered one or more political figures. The production of French libelles increased during the 1780s, as did their cruelty. Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and royal ministers were the most popular targets of libelles.

Liberty is a state of individual freedom, usually from government oppression or intervention.

liberty cap (also Phryigan cap)
The liberty cap was a soft conical bonnet, usually made from felt and red in colour. It was worn in ancient times to distinguish freed men from slaves. It became a symbol of liberty in the French Revolution.

lit de justice
(French for ‘bed of justice’) A lit de justice was an appearance by the king before a parlement, usually to force the registration of a royal order. The name originates from similar meetings in the king’s bedchamber.

The livre was a unit of currency in the Ancien Régime. It was broadly equivalent to an English pound. One livre contained 20 sous.

loyalist (also royalist)
In revolutions, a loyalist is one who continues to support the old regime.

Madame Déficit
(French for ‘Mrs Debt’) Madame Déficit was a term of abuse used toward Marie Antoinette, implying that her extravagant spending was responsible for France’s national debt. Monsieur Déficit (‘Mr Debt’) was used to refer to Louis XVI, albeit less frequently.

Marseillaise (see Le Marseillaise)

metric system
A decimal system of weights and measures, that is, a system which employs the number 10 as a base unit. The National Constituent Assembly accepted the metric system in principle in March 1791. The first metric units of measurement were passed by the National Convention in April 1795.

A moderate is an individual, group or idea that supports limited or gradual change, rather than radical change.

moderate phase (see bourgeois phase)

The Monarchiens were an early faction in the National Constituent Assembly. They favoured a constitutional monarchy along English lines and were led by Jean-Joseph Mounier.

Monarchy is a system of government where some or all executive power is vested in a hereditary king or queen, who acts as the head of state.

Montagne (or Montagnards)
(French for ‘mountain’ or ‘mountain people’) The Montagnards or ‘Mountain’ were a faction of radical republicans in the National Convention. Montagnard deputies occupied the raised benches on the left hand side of the Convention.

Muscadins (see jeunesse dorée)

National Assembly
(In French, Assemblée Nationale) The National Assembly was a revolutionary body, comprised mainly of representatives of the Third Estate. It was formed at Versailles on June 13th during the Estates-General, and was responsible for the Tennis Court Oath and forcing the king to accept political reform. On July 9th, four weeks after its formation, the National Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly.

National Constituent Assembly
(In French, Assemblée Nationale Constituante) The National Constituent Assembly was the governing assembly of France in the first two years of the revolution. It was formed from the National Assembly on July 9th 1789 and dissolved on September 30th 1791, to be replaced by the Legislative Assembly.

National Convention
(In French, Convention Nationale) The National Convention was the governing national legislature of France from September 1792, when it replaced the Legislative Assembly, until August 1795. The National Convention oversaw the most radical phase of the revolution, including the Reign of Terror.

National Guard
(In French, La Garde Nationale) The National Guard was a revolutionary militia, formed in Paris and other French cities in July 1789. Its main function was to keep order, prevent looting and property damage and protect the gains of the revolution.

national razor
The ‘national razor’ was a slang term for the guillotine.

Night of Patriotic Delirium
(In French, Nuit ou le Delire Patriotique) The ‘Night of Patriotic Delirium’ is a colloquial term for the National Assembly’s August 4th 1789 night session, where delegates surrendered feudal dues and privileges, pledging to abolish feudalism in France.

The nobility is a social class that possesses titles or peerages, either by birthright, military service, administrative service or venality.

nobles of the robe
(In French, noblesse du robe) ‘Nobles of the robe’ were those who earned their titles through public office or service to the crown. Those who purchased venal titles were also nobles of the robe.

nobles of the sword
(In French, noblesse d’epee) ‘Nobles of the sword’ were those who earned hereditary titles through military service to the crown.

non-juring clergy (see refractory clergy)

The Panthéon was a Paris church that was claimed during the revolution and used as a tomb and memorial for prominent French citizens. Among the revolutionary figures interred in the Panthéon were Mirabeau, Marat (both later removed) and Voltaire.

Paris Commune
The Paris Commune was the city’s local government, formed in July 1789.

A parish is the village or community serviced by a particular church. It is overseen by a parish priest or curé.

The parlements were the highest courts of the Ancien Régime. They acted as courts of appeal and registered royal decrees, thus passing them into law.

passive citizens
(In French, citoyens passifs) Passive citizens were defined in the Constitution of 1791. They were not entitled to vote because they did not pay a sufficient amount of tax (see active citizens).

pays (or pays d’états)
The pays were administrative and fiscal divisions in pre-revolutionary France. They existed alongside the généralités.

A peasant is a farmer or farming labourer, particularly one subject to feudal dues.

petit bourgeoisie
(French for ‘petty middle class’) The petit bourgeoisie were educated workers, professionals and small business owners who constituted the middle and lower-middle classes.

(French for ‘philosopher’) A philosphe is a writer or intellectual in pre-revolutionary France, particularly one who advocates Enlightenment ideas.

political pornography
Political pornography is a crude form of propaganda. It contains insulting political, personal or sexual criticisms about notable individuals, particularly royals and members of the government.

poll tax (see capitation)

Phrygian cap (see liberty cap)

radical phase (or Jacobin phase)
The ‘radical phase’ is a term used by some historians to describe the new society after August 1792. During this period the French government and Paris Commune were dominated by the Jacobins and Montagnards and strongly influenced by the sans culottes.

refractory clergy (or non-juring clergy, non-juror)
The refractory clergy were clergymen who refused to swear the oath of loyalty to the state, as required of them by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. More than two thirds of France’s 130,000 clergy were refractory.

Reign of Terror (or The Terror)
(In French, Règne de la Terreur) The Reign of Terror was a period of political hysteria, persecution, state sanctioned violence and mass executions between September 1793 and the fall of Robespierre in July 1794. More than 40,000 people were guillotined as enemies of the revolution during the Reign of Terror.

(French for ‘protest’) A remonstrance is an explanatory statement issued by a parlement after it refused to register a royal law. Remonstrances were often interpreted as criticisms of policy and/or royal authority.

Revolutionary Tribunal
(In French, Tribunal Révolutionnaire) The revolutionary tribunals were emergency criminal courts, established by the National Convention in March 1793. They were specifically tasked with bringing counter-revolutionaries to justice. The revolutionary tribunals were intended to deal with suspects swiftly and brutally, without procedural delays or appeals. Other smaller, locally based revolutionary tribunals operated during the Reign of Terror.

A French colony in the West Indies, now modern day Haiti. Saint-Domingue was subject to planter and slave rebellions between 1792 and 1795.

(French for ‘living rooms’) In 18th century France a salon was a gathering of selected people for the purpose of discussion and debate. Salons were hosted by notable citizens in a room of their private home. These gatherings could focus on topics such as philosophy, politics or literary criticism. Salons became a means of sharing and circulating political and revolutionary ideas.

sans culottes
(French for ‘without breeches’) Sans culottes were less affluent members of the Third Estate, particularly those in cities and towns. Their colloquial name referred to their long trousers (pantaloons), which were distinct from  the knee-length breeches (culottes) favoured by the nobility and bourgeoisie. From 1792 the term sans culottes usually refers to the radical working classes of Paris.

seance royale
(French for ‘royal session’) A meeting in the presence of the king. Usually refers to the June 23rd 1789 gathering of the Estates-General, where Louis XVI attempted to suggest a constitution affirming the continuation of the Three Estates.

Second Estate
(In French, Deuxieme Etat) The Second Estate was the social order containing all persons with noble titles.

The Sections were administrative divisions of Paris. During the French Revolution the Sections referred to 48 suburban assemblies that met regularly from 1792. The Sections were dominated by the sans culottes and became an important source of radicalism in 1793-94.

self denying ordinance
The self denying ordinance was a resolution of the National Constituent Assembly, proposed by Robespierre in September 1791.  Under its provisions, no sitting member of the National Constituent Assembly could stand for election to its replacement body, the Legislative Assembly.

A seigneur was a feudal landowner in 18th century France. Seigneurs

seigneurialism (also seigneurial feudalism)
Seigneurialism was a diluted form of feudalism practised in 18th century France. In this system land was leased by a seigneur (lord) in return for rents and feudal dues, such as taxes (champart or cens), payments for use of certain items (banalités) and unpaid labour (corvée).

September Massacres
The September Massacres were a wave of public riots and violence in September 1792. This violence targeted suspected counter-revolutionaries, especially those detained in Paris’ prisons. The September Massacres were triggered by fears of a foreign invasion, along with provocative material published by Jean-Paul Marat. The resulting violence caused around 1,200 deaths.

(Latin for ‘without care’) A sinecure is an office or position that requires little or no work, yet brings financial reward and/or political influence. In pre-revolutionary France sinecures were often sold to wealthy nobles or bourgeoisie, as a means of raising revenue for the state.

social contract
The social contract was a political concept emanating from the Enlightenment. It was devised by the English writer John Locke and further expanded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau the social contract was an unspoken agreement between individual citizens and the state. Citizens surrender some of their rights and freedoms to the government, which in return protects their other rights and enforces the public will.

Society of Thirty
The Society of Thirty was a pro-reform group that met for the first time in Paris in November 1788. Its members were liberal-minded nobles who supported political reforms based on Enlightenment principles. Most historians consider the Society to be a forerunner to the Breton Club.

Sous were units of currency in Ancien Régime France. There were 20 sous in a livre. Sous were the broad equivalent of English shillings.

suspensive veto
The suspensive veto was an executive power contained in the Constitution of 1791. It gave the king the ability to veto or block a law passed by the Legislative Assembly, though only for the life of the assembly. Louis XVI used his veto power several times in 1791-92, most notably on legislation concerning émigrés and non-juring priests.

Swiss Guard
The Swiss Guard was a regiment of foreign mercenaries, employed by the French king. They served as a royal bodyguard and were famously massacred during the attack on the Tuileries Palace on August 10th 1792.

The taille was a land tax, levied in proportion to the amount of land owned. It was only levied on the Third Estate, the church and nobility being exempt.

tax farmers
(In French, fermiers généraux) Tax farmers were individuals contracted to collect taxes on behalf of the royal government. The system of ‘tax farming’ was notorious for its inefficiency and corruption, and deprived the government of considerable revenue.

Thermidorian Reaction
The Thermidorian Reaction was a period of the revolution that began with the removal and execution of Robespierre (July 1794) and ended with the dissolution of the National Convention and the formation of the Directory (November 1795). During the Thermidorian Reaction the Terror was wound down, there was a campaign of repression against the Jacobins, bourgeois economic policies were revived and freedom of religious worship was restored.

Third Estate
(In French, Tiers Etat) The Third Estate was a social class comprising all common citizens of France. Anyone who was not ordained in a religious order or did not hold a noble title was considered a member of the Third Estate. More than 97 per cent of the population belonged to the Third Estate, which contained much socio-economic diversity: from extremely wealthy bourgeoisie down to landless peasants.

The tithe was a compulsory contribution to the church, usually levied at one tenth of a person’s income or production. The tithe was intended to fund local parishes, however it was often diverted and used elsewhere in the church.

The three coloured flag of France. It was formed in 1789 as a union of red and blue (the colours of Paris) and white (the colour of the Bourbon monarchy).

A royal palace in Paris, located on the banks of the Seine. Louis XVI and the royal family resided here after their relocation to Paris on October 1789.

Varennes is a town in the far north-east of France. It was here that Louis XVI and his family were recognised and arrested during their June 1791 attempt to flee the revolution.

Venality is the practice of selling titles or offices. In the context of the French Revolution it refers to the sale of noble titles by the crown, in order to generate revenue for the state, or the sale of high offices in the church. Venal sales allowed wealthy members of the bourgeoisie to enter the Second Estate.

The Vendee is a province in western France, located south of Nantes and with coastline bordering on the Atlantic Ocean. Its residents were mostly conservative and devoutly Catholic. The Vendee was the location of an anti-government uprising, beginning in the spring of 1793.

Ventôse laws (or Ventôse decrees)
Decrees proposed in the National Convention by Louis Saint-Just in February 1794. The Ventôse laws aimed to seize the property of suspects and redistribute it to the needy poor. The laws were too radical and did not enjoy majority support in the Convention, so were never implemented.

Versailles was the royal palace of the Bourbon monarchs, located 12 miles south-west of Paris. One of the largest mansions in Europe, Versailles contained more than 2,000 rooms and employed more than 4,000 servants. It was home to the royal family and many court nobles and their retinues.

veto (see also suspensive veto)
A veto is an executive power, usually held by a monarch or a president. A veto allows the monarch to block, suspend or reject laws passed by the legislature. The question of whether the king should have a veto was a contentious issue in 1790-91.

(French for ‘one-twentieth’) The vingtième was an income tax introduced in France in the mid-1700s and payable by all citizens. As its name suggests the vingtième was levied at one-twentieth, or five per cent, of personal income.

What is the Third Estate?
(In French, Qu’est ce que le Tiers état?What is the Third Estate? was a political pamphlet, written and published by Abbe Sieyes in January 1789. It argued that the Third Estate was responsible for most of the nation’s production and prosperity, therefore it was entitled to a proportionate level of political representation.

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