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5 Misconceptions About the French Revolution

Ellen Gutoskey
The painting The Thirteenth Vendemiaire, October 5, 1795 depicts a key battle during the French Revolution.
The painting The Thirteenth Vendemiaire, October 5, 1795 depicts a key battle during the French Revolution. / The Print Collector/Getty Images
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The French Revolution is a landmark period in European history, but people still get a lot of it wrong. We're here to shed light on some of the most prevalent myths about Marie Antoinette, the infamous guillotine, and how Les Misérables ties into absolutely none of it, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Les Misérables takes place during the French Revolution.

After seeing the 2012 film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables in theaters, historian Julia Gossard caught a snippet of some other viewers’ conversation. “So, that was the French Revolution?” one woman asked. “And it was unsuccessful?”

Whether or not the French Revolution was “unsuccessful” is debatable. But the first half of the question has a good old-fashioned yes-or-no answer: No, Les Misérables is not “the French Revolution.” And we don’t just mean that it doesn’t cover the whole revolution—it’s literally set during a different French uprising.

Though the French Revolution’s start and end dates aren’t exactly set in stone, it’s generally agreed that it kicked off in the late 1780s. That’s when bad harvests and a major debt crisis caused people to question the country’s traditional socioeconomic structure and the Bourbon monarchy. The upheaval lasted until Napoleon Bonaparte took charge toward the end of 1799.

When Jean Valjean gets out of prison at the beginning of Les Misérables, it’s already 1815. And the story’s major conflict centers on 1832’s June Rebellion, also known as the Paris Uprising of 1832. Victor Hugo was even there to witness part of it.

Basically, the monarchy had been restored when Napoleon was ousted some years earlier, and in 1832, Louis-Philippe was on the throne. He was a reasonably liberal ruler and most members of the bourgeoisie were fans, but he had plenty of opponents. Republicans were upset that there was a monarch on the throne at all, while Bonapartists were upset that the monarch wasn’t a Bonaparte. Some argued that Louis-Philippe wasn’t the legitimate monarch.

There was also a host of issues creating upheaval in the country, many disproportionately affecting the lower classes. This included a cholera epidemic, which eventually claimed the life of popular republican hero General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. It was at Lamarque’s funeral procession that thousands of Parisians built barricades and staged a rebellion. If you’ve watched or read Les Misérables, you probably know that the people did not end up getting the better of the troops. The military quelled the riots within about 24 hours, and roughly 800 rebels either died or were wounded. The French monarchy survived unscathed.

But while the June Rebellion wasn’t technically part of the French Revolution, it definitely embodied some of that same revolutionary spirit. So, no, Les Misérables is not the quintessential “French Revolution” story. But you could say it’s a quintessential French revolution story—lowercase r.

2. Misconception: Rebels stormed the Bastille to free political prisoners.

The Storming of the Bastille was less about freeing prisoners and more about supplies.
The Storming of the Bastille was less about freeing prisoners and more about supplies. / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

When the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, there were only seven inmates. One was a wayward relative sent by his family, four were serving time for forgery, and two had been committed due to insanity—not the political prisoners you might have imagined. But if the goal wasn’t to free prisoners, why attack a prison? The real reason, according to most historians, was for ammunition.

At the time, it was clear to everyone that France was in serious debt, in part because they had just helped the U.S. win the American Revolution. Back in France, it was the already-worse-off citizens who were suffering from the fallout of that financial crisis, including inflation, food shortages, and so on.

Two months before the attack on the Bastille, King Louis XVI had convened the Estates-General to figure out a game plan. There were three estates: The First was clergy; the Second was nobility; and the Third comprised everyone else—which mostly consisted of the bourgeoisie and peasants. The Third Estate was raring for serious reform, and its members were worried that the more conservative elements of France would try to tamp them down.

Those worries escalated in July, when Louis XVI fired Jacques Necker, a finance minister who had enjoyed the Third Estate’s support. That, combined with the fact that troops had moved into positions surrounding Paris, made Third Estate members think the king was plotting against them.

So on July 14, about 2000 people raided Paris’s Hôtel des Invalides for weapons and then marched to the Bastille to seize its ammunition. Guards tried to resist, but the Bastille’s governor, Bernard-René de Launay, finally gave in. It didn’t turn out great for Launay—he was beaten badly, and when he kicked someone in the crotch, the mob cut his head off and paraded it around town.

It didn’t take long for the storming of the Bastille to take on an almost mythic significance. Revolutionaries considered the fortress a symbol of monarchical overreach and oppression, and they slowly tore it down over the coming months.

3. Misconception: French reformists all wanted to end the monarchy.

Scenes from the French Revolution.
Scenes from the French Revolution. / The Print Collector/Getty Images

The economic crisis illuminated some of France’s long-standing issues, perhaps most notably the insidious effects of feudalism. Not only did the nobility and high-ranking clergy members own most of the land, but their positions came with a lot of perks and exempted them from a lot of taxes.

By the summer of 1789, peasants were staging small riots all over the country, and most people agreed that France needed to get rid of its old political and social system, known as the Ancien Régime. In June, the Third Estate rebranded itself as the National Assembly, with plans to draft a constitution. And in August, a bunch of nobles and clergymen even allowed the Assembly to abolish feudalism.

As for where Louis XVI fits into all this change, some reformists thought he didn’t. The Jacobins, the leftist club led by Maximilien Robespierre, argued to toss the monarchy straight out the window.

But it wasn’t like “Death to the monarchy” and “Long live the monarchy” were your only two options. In fact, many political factions simply wanted a constitutional monarchy. And when the National Assembly created its constitution, that’s what it was for.

France’s Constitution of 1791 was not unlike the U.S. Constitution. It guaranteed equality under the law, protected freedom of speech, explained who qualified for citizenship, and so on. It also outlined how the constitutional monarchy would work. Basically, the monarch would still be the top executive, but there would also be a citizen-elected Legislative Assembly to do most of the governing.

Also like the U.S. Constitution, only certain men were allowed to vote. In France, they were called “active citizens,” and in order to qualify, men had to be at least 25 years old and not working as a servant. Plus, they had to pay a tax that was worth the sum of three days’ labor. So, in addition to excluding all women, these stipulations kept about one-third of Frenchmen over 25 from voting. But for France, any voting was at least a step in the right direction. Actually, the left direction.

So if France was down for a constitutional monarchy in 1791, how did Louis’s head end up on the chopping block in 1793?

For one, the king wasn’t happy to give away his power. For reasons that historians still debate, he decided to flee Paris. Louis XVI said that he wanted to get out of Paris to negotiate from a safe distance. It seems he was going to meet up with a sympathetic General named Bouille who had gathered loyalist troops outside of the city. They may well have hoped those 10,000-odd loyalists would be joined by reinforcements from Leopold II’s Austrian army (Leopold, remember, was Marie Antoinette’s brother).

On June 20, 1791, Louis XVI disguised himself as a valet, Marie dressed up as a Russian governess, and they stole out of the Tuileries Palace with their children in the dead of night. Unfortunately for the house of Bourbon, a postmaster recognized the royals and they were captured in the town of Varennes. Upon returning to Paris, Louis begrudgingly signed the Constitution.

But the new government was on shaky ground, and unrest still abounded throughout France. Certain that Austria was plotting to quash the revolution and reinstate an absolute monarchy, France declared war on the country in April 1792. During this time, constitutional monarchists and moderates began to lose sway. In their place rose radicals like the Jacobins and the sans-culottes, lower-class revolutionaries so named because they didn’t wear the fashionable shorter pants (or culottes) of the more privileged citizens.

By the summer of 1792, France was underperforming in a war they started, the economy was still in bad shape, peasants were suffering, and more and more people were becoming radicalized. Many politicians suspected that Louis XVI was sabotaging the revolution, and he was imprisoned in August.

With his arrest, the constitutional monarchy pretty much came tumbling down. A National Convention replaced the Legislative Assembly, and it was this body that put Louis on trial in December. The prosecution had unearthed some private documents revealing that the king was consorting with counterrevolutionaries—these helped seal his fate. On January 21, 1793, the guillotine swiftly sliced off his head.

4. Misconception: The guillotine was invented during the French Revolution.

Louis XVI's head didn't see the end of the French Revolution.
Louis XVI's head didn't see the end of the French Revolution. / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

It’s generally assumed that the guillotine was named after some guy named “Guillotine.” This is true: His full name was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, and he was a French physician.

But versions of the guillotine had been used around the world for centuries before it became known as “the guillotine.” Scotland had the Maiden from the mid-1500s to the early 1700s; Germany had the planke in the Middle Ages; and Italy had the mannaia during the Renaissance. England’s Halifax Gibbet was older than all three. Even France itself is believed to have used a guillotine-like machine before the 18th century.

Not only did Joseph-Ignace Guillotin not invent guillotines, he didn’t even design the ones used during the French Revolution. All he really did was suggest that France standardize executions. Like most other parts of life during the Ancien Régime, your execution method depended on your socioeconomic status. High-class folks usually got beheaded, while most other criminals were hanged.

Beheadings were viewed as the more "honorable" method of execution, and were quicker and less painful—that is, if your executioner did a good job. But a lot can go wrong when it comes to lopping off a head with an ax or sword.

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was against the death penalty altogether, but apparently, he realized that France was nowhere near being ready to give it up. So, in 1789, he proposed that France use an official decapitation contraption to make all executions as humane as humanly possible. “With my machine,” he explained, “I strike off your head in the twinkling of an eye and you won’t feel a thing.”

By the fall of 1791, decapitation was made official and the number of death sentences was rapidly climbing, and Guillotin’s call for an equitable, efficient means of execution suddenly seemed like a worthy idea. An engineer named Antoine Louis designed the machine, and another guy named Tobias Schmidt constructed it.

Much to the horror of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, nobody forgot about his early involvement, and everyone started calling the machine “the guillotine.” After he died in 1814, his family members petitioned the government to formally pick a different name for it. When they didn’t, the Guillotins picked a different last name for themselves.

5. Misconception: Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake.”

"Let them eat brioche," doesn't have the same ring to it. (But Marie Antoinette probably didn't say that, either.)
"Let them eat brioche," doesn't have the same ring to it. (But Marie Antoinette probably didn't say that, either.) / Imagno / Getty Images

As legend would have it, Marie Antoinette was informed that French peasants had no bread—their main food source—and she responded with “Let them eat cake.” In other words: “I am so out of touch up here in my big castle with my big wigs and big feasts that I don’t understand the problem. No bread, peasants? Eat something else!”

Just for pedantry’s sake, the sentence in French is “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which literally means “Let them eat brioche.” Brioche is a rich, buttery bread that’s way more extravagant than what poor peasants would’ve been eating—it’s not exactly cake, but it doesn’t really change the supposed sentiment.

But the correct French phrasing does shed a little light on how it got popularized. The earliest known record of “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” comes from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, penned in the 1760s. In Book Six, he wrote, translated from French: “At length, I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat brioche!’”

Marie Antoinette didn’t even move to France and marry the future king until 1770, so it’s safe to assume that she’s not the “great princess” Rousseau mentioned. It could’ve been Maria Theresa of Spain, who married Louis XIV a century earlier. She supposedly suggested that instead of bread, starving subjects should just eat croûte de pâté, which is essentially pie crust. Two of Louis XVI’s aunts, Madames Sophie and Victoire, have also been credited with “Let them eat brioche.”

But how unfeeling and/or oblivious was Marie Antoinette? Maybe less than you think, according to biographer Antonia Fraser. Around the time of the Flour War in 1775, when bread shortages caused a wave of riots, the queen wrote home to her mother: “It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness.”

Marie Antoinette was known to avoid riding through the fields because she knew it would damage the peasants’ crops, and she once asked her husband for 12,000 francs in order to free poor people who were in debtors’ jail for failing to pay for their children’s wet-nurses, and even more to help the poor of Versailles.

Would those small acts of sympathy save her from Madame Guillotine? Absolutely not. She was convicted of treason and beheaded on October 16, 1793.

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