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The French Revolution, 1774-1799 (HI31J): Assessment and Contact Hours

Methods of Assessment

Deadlines: See Tabula.


Oral participation/presentations and engagement (10%)

1500 word dialogue-debate on the French Revolution (10%) TERM 1

3000 word mid-year assessment essays (40%) TERM 2

3000 word essay (40%), comparing the French and Haitian revolutions TERM 3


Participation, Presentations and Engagement (10%)


Each week, certain students will lead the discussion with short ten-minute presentations on one or more of the readings. The aim is to identify the key issues and problems in the texts. We will assign weeks at the start of each term.

This mark will be assessed according to the following criteria:

        • Attendance (note: marks will be deducted for unauthorized absences! Please make sure that you contact your tutor if you cannot attend a seminar).
        • Preparation - Evidence shows preparation for the seminar (has prepared notes and/or recalls the readings without the use of the open text).
        • Engagement and Initiative - Quality of engagement is active, respectful and inclusive; participation in discussions; engagement with others; taking own initiative ask questions
        • Oral Presentations and Discussion - Quality reflects knowledge, comprehension and application of the readings; Quality involves the ability to listen and respond to peers and to offer analysis, synthesis and evaluation.


Types of Essays and Guidance

For the primary-source and historiography essays below, please read Mary Lynn Rampolla’s brief summaries hereLink opens in a new window.


First Essay: A dialogue between a liberal and a Marxist. (1500 words)

Imagine that Alexis de Tocqueville and Albert Soboul are sitting at a café or pub and having a heated debate about the French Revolution. Assume that they are familiar with each other’s interpretations and perhaps those of the historians we’ve encountered in the seminar. How might their discussion go? Perhaps a Warwick student enrolled in a French Revolution module overhears their discussion from a nearby table and joins in at the end with some opinions.

You should adopt the form of a dialogue:

Tocqueville: bla bla 

Soboul: yada yada

Student (or some other character): hey, you're both wrong!

Since de Tocqueville and Soboul are unlikely to have texts with them, they will probably paraphrase points of view rather than provide precise quotes. But you should footnote any specific points so that I can identify where you derived them. (You don’t have to footnote overarching views, which run throughout their respective texts -- just specific points and facts.) While your dialogue should focus primarily on the debate, feel free to embroider the episode with references to their immediate surroundings or current events, but don't get too carried away and lose sight of the debate.


The aim of the dialogue is to show that you can grasp and compare core historiographical arguments about the French Revolution. To what degree do your characters offer different answers to the same question? To what degree are they asking different questions or speaking past each other? Since the dialogue must be short (1500 words), your characters will probably focus on one area of debate. Be sure to avoid ‘academese’, i.e., turgid and wordy prose. Remember: they are chatting in a café or a pub. Sophisticated ideas can be expressed simply.

Assessment is based on the depth and nuance of your understanding of these two major interpretive currents and your ability to identify points of tension. How would the ‘liberal’ de Tocqueville criticise the 'Marxist' Soboul, and vice-versa? Where might they agree? Where do you (the student, or third character) stand on all of this? You might reference other historians we've read during the term to frame this third point of view.

This dialogue does not require further reading. Depth with the texts at hand is more important than the breadth of a long bibliography. In fact, no bibliography is necessary. Footnotes are sufficient since there shouldn't be too many titles anyway. The assignment is aimed at practicing your 'close reading' skills.

Have fun with it!


Essay 2: Mid-year Assessment. (3000 words - no self-certifications. Any extension must be approved with documentation in advance.)


A week before your second assessment is due in Term 2, you will have access to the Mid-year Assessment via Moodle. It will consist of short and longer essays that, together, add up to 3000 words (not including footnotes, which are expected for Part II. You do not need footnotes for Part I unless you provide a quote other than the given primary source.). No bibliography is necessary. Word counts for each essay are suggested below. Aim to stay close to those limits. Be sure not to exceed 3000 words overall. Also, be sure to identify the quote or essay question you are responding to. Those words will NOT count towards the 3000 total.

Self-certifications are NOT authorized. Late submissions receive the standard five-point deduction per day (each 24 hours from deadline).


Part I: Two short essays on primary sources (15% for each passage, 30% total)

You will be provided with eight short passages from the core primary sources. They will be identified (author, title, year, etc.). You will choose two passages and contextualise them, teasing out their historical significance in no more than three paragraphs (500 words maximum for each passage). (Footnotes are not necessary since the general context is described in many secondary sources and is therefore not considered singular or proprietary.)


Part II: Two longer essays (35% for each essay, 70% total)

Six of the twenty pre-circulated essay topics below will appear on the Mid-year Assessment. You will choose two and write a six to eight paragraph response for each (i.e., 1000 words each, not including footnotes). No bibliography is necessary. Be sure to format your footnotes properly.

It is expected that you incorporate knowledge derived from the core readings and at least some of the further readings. If you are mentioning widely-known facts (e.g., the storming of the Bastille occurred on July 14), you do not need to footnote. If you are mentioning facts specific to a particular study, you can simply footnote the work. Only mention other scholars in the body of your essay (e.g., 'Lynn Hunt argues that...') if you intend to engage with their interpretations – that is, if you will build on, refute or nuance those interpretations. Don’t clutter your essay with 'undigested' facts and excessive name dropping. Foreground your argument, distinguishing it for those of others. Don't hide behind a wall of facts and historical works. Be selective with your evidence and persuade through cogent argumentation. Argue as if you were trying to win over a sceptical jury.

  1. Which set of factors do you see as more decisive in bringing about the French Revolution: ideas (philosophy and/or public opinion) OR socioeconomic factors?
  2. Whom do you think the recent historiography on the French Revolution vindicates more: de Tocqueville, Soboul, both or neither?
  3. Did capitalism or the bourgeoisie have anything to do with the French Revolution?
  4. What decision of the National Assembly in 1789 do you find most decisive in shaping the course of the French Revolution’s early years (1790-1794)?
  5. Do you think domestic or global factors were more important in bringing about the demise of the Ancien Régime?
  6. Edmund Burke criticised French revolutionaries for their cold rationalism. Yet, historians have recently argued for the importance of emotions and sentiment in shaping revolutionary culture. How do you make sense of this contradiction?
  7. Was the French Revolution democratic?
  8. In what ways did women and gender matter in the French Revolution? (Keep in mind that ‘women’ and ‘gender’ are not the same!)
  9. Does Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise strike you as a fair depiction of the French Revolution in light of recent historiography or do you find it too slanted, dated and anachronistic – as more concerned with the politics of 1930s France than with the French Revolution as historians understand it today.
  10. Were 'moral regeneration' efforts during the French Revolution gratuitous and calamitous or was moral regulation the necessary price of individual freedom?
  11. The period between 1789 and 1792 is often referred to as the French Revolution’s ‘liberal phase’ – a happy and potentially viable phase of freedom before ‘radical’ Jacobins seized power in 1792, plunging the revolution into violence and terror. Do you see this phase in this way? Or do you discern the seeds of future destabilisation in the early ‘liberal’ reforms?
  12. How much did political radicalisation during the French Revolution owe to the Counterrevolution?
  13. Should the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 be seen as a milestone achievement? Or was it a formula for contention and strife?
  14. If you were a deputy in the National Convention in late 1792/early 1793, how would you have positioned yourself in the debates over the fate of the king? Keep in mind that there were several issues and votes on the matter. Be sure to engage with the various positions of the debate in justifying your stance.
  15. Was revolutionary ideology too utopian and therefore destabilising? If so, which aspects were too utopian? If not, to what would you attribute the revolution’s lapse into violence and terror?
  16. What do you see as the Revolution’s most important achievement and its most important failure. Were the two intertwined or was it possible to have the first without the second?
  17. Assess the relationship between religion and the French Revolution. You need not be exhaustive. Frame your discussion around particular aspects of religion or religious policies. You may want to bring de Tocqueville into the discussion but are not required.
  18. How responsible was Robespierre for the Terror?
  19. What relationship was there, if any, between civil strife and foreign war during the French Revolution?
  20. Imagine that you could go back in time and offer advice to French revolutionaries. Thanks to your studies, you know what happened but are now given the ability to nudge revolutionaries to do something differently in order to prevent calamities and achieve better outcomes. What decision-making moment would you choose, which contemporaries would you address yourself to, and what would you advice be? You can write in the 'first-person' style of a speech or presentation. Be sure to indicate what will go wrong if they do not heed your advice (i.e., what actually happened, which you can footnote), what might happen if they act on your advice, and what you anticipate their responses might be. (A persuasive speech addresses counter-arguments.) Back up your reasoning with recourse to the historiography on the French Revolution. In anticipating counterarguments, you might refer to views you've come across in the primary sources. This essay, or speech, should demonstrate your ability to grasp the complexity of historical situations, to think through 'cause-and-effect' relationships, and to understand the competing views and interests that existed at the time.


Essay 3: Compare the French and Haitian revolutions (3000 words)

UPDATED (I have removed the special option that pertained to 2022-23, which was added due to the strikes). See the two options below. All all cases, please

  • submit in pdf...
  • include your student number
  • double or 1.5 line-spacing
  • include footnotes and bibliography, as you would for a regular essay

Option 1: Drawing on primary and secondary sources, compare the French and Haitian Revolutions. In what ways were the aims and dynamics of each similar or different?

You should narrow your discussion to particular problems or themes. While the secondary literature will help you contextualise and position your argument, I recommend focussing on the primary sources for the two revolutions (France/Saint Domingue). For access to primary sources and document collections, see the syllabus, the sources on Moodle and Talis but also the BibliographyLink opens in a new window page (accessible from the module homepage). Be sure to consult 'core' and 'further' readings. I think that treating primary sources will help orient your essay towards comparative analysis. Avoid simply describing what happened. Problematise your material!

You may choose instead to write a historiographical essay. In that case, identify a theme or problem running through the secondary literature and analyse the different ways it has been treated. For example, does anything of CLR James' seminal (and spirited) Black Jacobins of 1938 hold up in the current historiography? Was the Haitian Revolution simply derivative of the French Revolution or fundamentally different?

Some themes spanning both revolutions that you may want to consider as a focus for your essay include: rights, justice, violence (and vengeance), representation, patriarchy, leadership, social differences (class, gender, religion, race), property, the economy, commerce and its connection to 'civic equality' [think about the Sewell argument], geopolitics, royalism, counterrevoluiton, news, print culture, rumour, notions of honour, collective identities, forms of solidarity and division, political tactics, religion, families, education, ideology, freedom (and its limits), equality (and its limits), democracy (and its limits), and the emotions (individual/collective). Feel free to discuss your ideas with me in advance. We'll do some brainstorming in the seminars of Term 3, so come prepared to discuss your essay ideas!

Option 2: If you have already written about Saint Domingue in the second-year module on Caribbean history and/or wish to focus more on the revolution within mainland France, you may want to compare some of the issues treated throughout the year with current events. For example, you might want to compare the trial of the king and issues concerning his immunity with the current immunity case before the Supreme Court of the United States concerning Donald Trump. Can the French Revolution help us understand anything about the current political situation in the United States? That is just one example of a comparison between the past and the present. You may pursue other lines of comparison, but if you do, please clear your ideas with me first. I want to make sure that your essay deals with the readings and themes of the module and that you are prepared to discuss current situation events with the necessary depth and rigor.


Writing Aids

History is part proof, part persuasion. If you write poorly, you won't convince your readers. Worse, you might frustrate or lose them, even if you have lots of research. There are many good style manuals for non-fiction writing. They can be quite fun to read. Once you become aware of what makes a sentence vague and clunky, you will be on your way to writing with greater clarity and grace. You'll be more likely to win over readers, even if they disagree with you.

See Moodle for further writing aids.


William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. A classic since the 1920s. Very short but covers the fundamentals.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, in many edition. Quite entertaining to read. Will help make your prose sparkle.

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, many editions. Great for learning how to write cohesively.

Proper referencing is expected. In addition to providing the reader with critical bibliographical information, footnotes, when presented well, make a good impression upon the reader. It shows that you cared enough to polish your essay. There are several conventions for referencing in History. The Department recommends the Modern Humanities Research Association's guidelines.Link opens in a new window

Be sure to avoid plagiarism -- using another's words or ideas with properly attributing them. Ideas or facts derived from others must be footnoted, and their words must be placed in quotation marks. See the Department's definition of and policy regarding plagiarismLink opens in a new window.

Contact Hours

Student contact hours for this final-year undergraduate Special Subject module will be comprised as follows:

Seminars: Eighteen two-hour seminars
Tutorials: Four hours of feedback and long essay preparation
Other: Two two-hour revision sessions
Total: Forty-four hours