French Revolution: sans culottes

Exam task

Section A Question 3 – French Revolution

Source image

french revolution
“A little dinner, Paris-style, or a family of sans culottes refreshing after the fatigues of the day”, London, September 20th 1792


“Using both the source and your own ideas, explain the composition of the sans culottes and their political grievances between August 1789 and 1795.” (6 marks)

Student response

“The nauseating and monstrous portrayal of the sans culottes shown in the representation reflects the manner of killings the sans culottes and the revolutionary crowd undertook during the September Massacres of September 2nd-6th 1792, just before the source was created. As a result of the Longwy fortress falling to the Austrian army, the Parisian people went into hysteria and targeted the prisons where nobles and clerics were held. In fear that a counter revolutionary uprising would strike within the overcrowded prisons while Paris was unprotected, as the French Army were in battle with Austria, the revolutionary mob undertook the September Massacres killing 1200-1400 people within. Much like the disturbing image of the gruesome behaviour shown where a group of sans culottes feast upon a human head, the murders of September 1792 are likened to this perspective. At the Abbaye Prison, the murder squads had carried hatchets, razors and saws, under the authority of a local butcher who literally hacked 19 priests to death, similar to the scattered and dismembered bodies presented in the image. Restif de la Bretonne recalled that a woman who refused to cry ‘Long live the nation’ was stripped, ‘cut open [at the] belly’ and ‘finished off by the others’. It was clear that by now the revolutionary mob had become much more radicalised by the situation, and popular movement had become more violent, militant and independent than ever before. “


“Explain the usefulness of this source for understanding the extent to which violence shaped the new society between August 1789 and 1795. In your response, refer to other views and historical perspectives.” (10 marks)

Student response

“The document provides a gruesome insight to the horrific nature of violence undertaken in the new regime. Produced internationally, the image provides a valuable standpoint of foreign regard to the violence present in the consolidation of the new regime. Regarding the macabre expressions and activities the sans culottes of the image are undertaking, the British cartoon depicts the sans culottes in a highly negative perspective, showing that violence in the new regime was indeed the “order of the day”. Revisionist schools of thought such as historian Schama would agree to some extent with the image’s perspective, that violence was indeed prominent in the new society, and furthermore, that it was the vehicle of which the revolutionary mob could “accomplish political ends”. According Schama, and quite implicitly through the image, “their power to compel allegiance depended … on the spectacle of death”. The author’s perspective would be contradicted by left wing historians, who argue that violence was inevitable for the development of the new regime. Historian Stewart contrarily believes that the September Massacres of 1792 were “occasioned by fear and hysteria” and were an “unavoidable necessity”. In reality, this fear and hysteria was mainly prompted by prominent Jacobins such as Marat and Danton, who believed that the September Massacres were necessary to ‘appease the people of Paris’. Despite the apparently hysterical revolutionary mob in fear of the Austrians capturing Paris and a counter revolutionary uprising, the document asserts that the sans culottes mainly undertook violence as a ‘refreshing’ activity rather than a reaction to threats against the revolution, at the expense of expressing the reality of fear the revolutionary mob faced. The source, therefore is limited in understanding the significance of violence’s role.”

Teacher feedback

Both answers suggest a good level of understanding and contain some useful information. The first response, however, fails to address the question at all. This question asks for an examination of the sans culottes, specifically their “composition” (who they were) and “grievances” (what they wanted). Instead, the student lurches into a discussion about the September Massacres, which does not address this question. A good answer would explain that the sans culottes contained a range of people and interests – from the petty middle class down to the urban poor. Their demands were both economic (e.g. price maximums, punishments for hoarders and speculators) and political (e.g., the deposition of the king, universal suffrage, the expulsion of the Girondins).

The student’s second response has better focus. The source is anti-revolution propaganda, created in Britain after the September Massacres, which demonises the sans culottes. It does not provide much insight into their objectives, other than through its use of revolutionary symbols and the slogans above the fireplace. Indeed, the source suggests they were motivated by bloodlust rather than political aims. The question asks for an assessment of how violence shaped the new society. Good answers should refer to specific incidents involving the sans culottes (the September Massacres, the attack on the Tuileries, the siege of the National Convention) and explain how they affected the government and shaped the political order. Include some historiographical views about the nature of revolutionary violence, as the student has done reasonably well here. Together these responses would score in the region 10-11 out of 16, most marks being ‘lost’ in the poor first answer.

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