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The French Revolution, 1774-1799 (HI31J): Short Essays

First Essay: A dialogue between a liberal and a Marxist

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: etc.


De Tocqueville and Soboul are unlikely to have texts with them, so they will paraphrase rather than quote. But you (the author) should footnote any specific points so that I can identify where you derived them. (You don’t have to cite overarching views, which run throughout their texts.) While your dialogue should focus primarily on a debate informed by your readings, feel free to embroider the episode with the occasional reference to their surroundings or current events!


The aim of the dialogue is to show your ability to critically 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 and perhaps 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’re chatting in a café or pub.

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 find fault with the Marxist Soboul, and vice-versa? Where might they agree?

Enjoy! Try to make the dialogue insightful but also entertaining!

Essay 2: Primary Source Analysis

Select a primary source, or set of sources, and analyse them closely. You will want to

  1. Formulate a good question – one that allows you to tease out the significance of your source(s) on several levels. Look for tensions, contradictions, paradoxes. What is puzzling in the source? What begs explanation?
  2. Formulate a thesis – an overarching argument under which all of your analytical points logically fit.
  3. Situate your analysis within the historiography. How does your analysis build on or differ from current interpretations?

What counts as a primary source?

Those in the document collections we’ve been consulting throughout the year.

  1. Be sure to look at ‘Bibliography’ from the module homepage. There is a section on primary sources and document collections.
  2. Find your own sources, online or in the library.
  3. You may use a novel or film from a different time period. But be sure to historicise it in its own context. For example, if you write on Renoir’s La Marseillaise film of 1937, then you’ll want to explore what the French Revolution meant to the director or audiences in the 1930s – how the legacy of the French Revolution was being used in a specific historical context.

Short essays may be chosen from the list below or, with the prior consent of the module tutor, designed by students themselves. All essays should address key historiographical questions and/or explore relevant primary sources.

  1. Compare the accounts of pre-Revolutionary Paris provided by Jacques-Louis Ménétra and Louis-Sébastien Mercier.
  2. ‘Travellers are always wrong.’ Discuss in relation to English visitors to France during the Revolution.
  3. Which was more significant in the Pre-Revolutionary crisis: impending state bankruptcy, aristocratic solidarity or royal incompetence?
  4. Why did peasants revolt in 1789?
  5. To what extent and why was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy a turning-point?
  6. To what extent did the Revolution shape a new administrative structure?
  7. What were the most significant forms of political participation during the Revolution by EITHER Parisian working people OR women?
  8. ‘The Haitian Revolution had a more truly global impact than anything that happened in France between 1789 and 1800.’ Do you agree?
  9. To what extent, and how, was the French Revolution a ‘cultural revolution’?
  10. Could you explain the role played by war in the French Revolution?
  11. To what extent did the French Revolution open a period of freedom of speech and new development of printed culture?
  12. In which ways was the French Revolution a national Revolution?
  13. Assess the role of theatres and Festivals during the French Revolution.
  14. To what extent was the French Revolution an intellectual Revolution?
  15. Assess the role of violence in the revolutionary process.
  16. Assess the role of public sphere during the Revolution.
  17. What is the legacy of the French Revolution in Europe?
  18. What is the legacy of the French Revolution in the world?
  19. To what extent did the French Revolution shape a new conception of family?
  20. Did the French Revolution invent ‘total war’?
  21. What role did emotions play in the French Revolution?