Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The French Revolution, 1774-1799 (HI31J)

French Revolution 
Tutor: Dr Charles Walton
Office: FAB3.48
Office Hours: TBC
Seminar: TBC

This 30 CATS final-year undergraduate advanced option deals with one of the most significant episodes in world history: the French Revolution. Promethean and tragic, it has inspired and haunted imaginations throughout the modern era. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times', wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, and, indeed, historians still argue over its paradoxical legacies. For while it inaugurated human rights, universal manhood suffrage and civil equality, it also unleashed terror, authoritarianism and empire. The French Revolution is especially challenging to study since it bequeathed the very terms we use to analyse it. Debates about liberal and social forms of democracy, the viability or dangers of Enlightenment ideals, and the necessity or gratuitousness of violence in efforts to bring about democratic justice all grew out of the French Revolution itself. Studying the French Revolution invites us to scrutinise our own values and explore the possibilities and pitfalls associated with them.

This module treats the origins, course and legacies of the French Revolution, including the revolution of its slave colony Saint Domingue (the Haitian Revolution). It draws on a wide range of sources: primary, scholarly, literary and cinematic. Themes include Enlightenment ideas, emotions, inequality, freedom, capitalism, slavery, gender, race, colonialism, religion, terror and war. It is inspired by the belief that studying the French Revolution can help us better understand the challenges of modern democratic and capitalist societies. By making modernity more legible, it can make our future more navigable.