Which region of France experienced the worst excesses at the height of the Terror (1793-1794)?


Statistically, which region of France experienced the worst excesses at the height of the Terror (1793-1794)? Was it Paris? Vendée?

I look forward to your feedback.

Probably the Vendée.

Indeed : War in the Vendée - Wikipedia

Too late to edit :
The number of executions in Paris is given at 2 600 in the Wikipedia article about the Terror. To this, you should add a number of people who were massacred by mobs outside of official control. During the “September massacre”, about 1500 people were killed. So maybe you could reach a total 4 000 - 5 000 victims in Paris. Way less than in the Vendée.

Some others cities with a large number of victims :

Nantes : Drownings at Nantes - Wikipedia : 2 000 - 5 000

Lyon : Revolt of Lyon against the National Convention - Wikipedia about 2 000

Toulon, following a siege : Siege of Toulon (1793) - Wikipedia about 1 000.

Right ? And way less than you expected, too ? Right ?
We’re sort of taught (although not really) about daily queues at the guillotine on the place de grève and so on ; but the historical reality is that the Terreur was kind of an invention of the Thermidor crew (also later anti-Republic parties), at least in terms of practical effects. Which is neither here nor there wrt:emotions.
OK, so, spoiler : I (among with a great many others) was part of an exhibition called “Gouverner avec la peur” (Governing with fear) that’s on display right now at the Bibliotheque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne. You technically can’t drop by nor see it right now if you don’t have a student card, but if you wanna visit the expo (or the Sorbonne itself) do drop me a line, I’ll try and get any of y’all in :).
But the bottomline of the expo is : the Terreur probably wasn’t so terrorful. And if it was, it wasn’t because of some grand plan or political ideal or SOCIALISM, but because its architects were, themselves, shitting their pants and navigating without a map or compass.
The Vendée was probably worse in terms of sheer body count or even in term of punctual atrocities, because it was a long civil war there - and those are typically the worst, because (to simplify things) you don’t really have any grounds to bullshit yourself about the other guy behing some subhuman foreigner and you don’t want anybody else to suspect that and you know everybody else is on the lookout for people who are “too soft” on the enemy in order to justify their own brutality and/or distract them from your own doubts and so own and so forth. Bottomline is : civil warriors are extra uncivil.
But even so, and while admittedly I only possess cursory knowledge of either, I’m not 100% sure the Vendée was worse, or even on par with, the worst excesses of the wars of religion of the previous century. I do know the British and German press & scholars had a vested interest in exaggerating the worst aspects of the French Revolution, which they very ostensibly did, and that left as much of a mark on popular knowledge as the “Napoleon was tiny !” canard.

Forgot : the expo’s website. Only in French, because the guy who made the website wouldn’t let me translate. Don’t ask.

In fact not. It so happens that my (foreign) gf recently became hugely interested in the French Revolution, and I’ve been reading a lot about it as a result (and in fact, learned a lot).

I really don’t know what figures I would have given before, if I had to guess. Probably significantly more than that, indeed. I suppose it would have depended on whether it would have been a spontaneous answer or a well thought one (“assuming a tribunal, a guillotine and three ox carts…”)

I must say that it never crossed my mind that it had anything to do with socialist ideals. I went to school at a time when the revolution was a “bourgeois” affair. It wasn’t interpretation, it was fact : the bastille was taken on July 14, and it was the revolution of the bourgeoisie, period. Only much later I realized that it was a Marxist interpretation that had taken hold in the body of historians and as a result of history teachers and history manuals. And in fact, one of the things that surprised me most in my recent readings was that there were much more “socialist” ideas that were floated by some factions than I would have thought.

What kind of vested interest? If anything, I would rather expect exaggerations to come from some corners of the French political spectrum.

Looks very interesting, indeed.

Ah, well, maybe that was just me when we started the project :). But yeah, I expected something like in the movies : some officious, extremist revolutionary judge handing down 1000 death sentences a day based on random guys denouncing their neighbours and convicts being driven to the “little window” by the cartload. But in actual fact, the revolutionary tribunals, as exceptional, expeditive and fucked up as they were (no precedents, eventually no defence lawyers so as to speed things up, only two possible verdicts “free” or “death” etc…) would only convict some 10 to 20% of the time. Which is a far cry from the kind of “banana republic”, kangaroo courts we sort of expect from that period, yes ?

Oh yes. And not just that, but a great many of the “revolutionaries” also held very conservative ideals, and yet some other had ideas that even today would seem utopic/extreme. It was really a chaotic, hodge podge period to say the least, and the Revolutionaries “in charge” had both to make up their minds about what they themselves wished or believed, but also to deal with a ton of bullshit and immaterial fears coming from “below” and threats to their legitimacy. Hence, the so-called Terror - but there was no great plan there, nor any grand architect. Just a kind of general “FUUUUUCK WHAT DO WE DO NOOOOW ?”. I know Robespierre is the huge scapegoat here, but there were sooo many factions and ideas being floated about, it’s not even funny.

And it is true that the bourgeoisie eventually gained the upper hand - but that’s the whole story of Thermidor, which can be summed up as “all right good people, look, the Revolution was great and good but it’s over now, be reasonable and go home. What ? Nothing has changed for you ? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, that’s extremist talk, be reasonable now. See Robespierre ? Wanna end up like him ? I didn’t think so”.

Well the French revolutionaries had dared kill a King - sacred blood -, also a passel of high blood aristocrats and then nationalized the monasteries. That’s kind of scary when you’re a king supported by the Church, and your people kind of don’t remember why exactly they can’t have their say now that you mention it, right ?

So when you look at German or English political cartoons of that era, all you see are guillotines and blood and severed heads and Robespierre lording it above famished peasants. They emphasized everything about the chaos and grisliness, not to mention how women (WOMEN !) participated in it all.

But you won’t find cartoons about, I dunno, how silly the metric system is, or the unreachable utopy of unified monetary policies, or the scientific college, or cartoons making fun of Condorcet’s proposed ministry of education… nor any actual progress (or pie-in-the-sky utopia) of the Revolution. It’s severed heads as far as the thumb can flip the pages.
Italian cartoons are a bit different because they had their own vocal social agitators, so you find more complotist, knife-in-the-back, fellow travelers imagery. I don’t think we studied Spanish papers - maybe the musée Carnavalet simply didn’t have any :o.
And at the same time, the French were absolutely paranoid (with good reason ! But, also, completely over the top and insane…) about foreign powers attacking or infiltrating the fledgling Republic, which in turn prompted them to say, do and draw very gung-ho stuff; which* in turn* was instrumentalized abroad in a “look, look, how violent they are ! They threaten us, they’re crazy, they’re going to attack us, we must attack them first !” sort of way.
But either way, nobody outside of France had any real interest in showing the Revolution under a positive light.

Yeah, I just read Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, a pretty archetypal example of English views of the Revolution. It certainly gave the impression that thousands of people per month were being guillotined in Paris alone, and that the chance of being acquitted once accused was pretty much nil.

And Dickens was relatively liberal for his time, insofar as he made the ancien regime look at least as bad as the Terror.

I had no idea that they were convicting only 10-20% of the time, on the other hand. I would have expected 80-90% of the time.

But still kangaroo courts, worst than most kangaroo courts, even, since they generally keep at least the appearances of a fair trial. And with no lack of bad faith and manipulation, at least for high profile figures (wouldn’t know for “run-of-the-mill” accused). Like Danton and his ilk being send to trial along with a carefully selected bunch of crooks (I had no idea that “il pleut bergère” was authored by a playwright and opera writer, turned revolutionary, turned war profiteer and “while collar” criminal, and decapitated under the terror, even though I was familiar with his name. In fact I was amazed by the incredible background and lives of many actors of the revolution. Who knew that there were two relatively famous painters in the revolutionary tribunal? Or that Bailly was at the time world famous for his observations of the transit of Venus and Jupiter’s satellites?)

I still think that Robespierre deserves his bad rap, I might even think worst of him. I just lost the delusion that the others were any better.

I misunderstood. I thought you were talking about nowadays. At the time, yes, of course.

Well, when “they” are actually out to get you, it’s not paranoïa anymore…

I don’t think the impact of the Terror can be measured simply by the number of guillotinings. Even those who were acquitted by the revolutionary tribunals must have been terrified by the encounter, as must those who were arrested and imprisoned but never brought before the tribunals, those who were threated with arrest, those who were killed extra-judicially or where threatened with it, etc, etc. The terrifying nature of the terror was not simply its scale; it was also its suddenness, its arbitrariness, its savagery and, perhaps more than all else, the fact that these characteristics were not an incidental by-product, but the very core of the policy of the Terror.

Bear in mind that, even on the numbers we are talking here, and even looking only at executions, the Terror still claimed many more victims than, say, the 9/11 attacks. And we know what impact they had on the US national psyche.

Not a new idea in England.

Exactly. Me too ! And while we can’t know what was in their heads at the time of course, IMO the progressively more kangaroo nature of the courts/laws was due to a growing frustration with those results. I mean everything was done to make the trials as fast and expeditive as possible short of just telling the judges “kill off whoever we march into your courtroom, period”, and yet everybody still seemed to err on the side of caution and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

That is correct. And indeed the people in charge did their utmost to try and make it all as striking as possible - the executions and arrests were spectacular, the laws made harsher and harsher specifically to “terrify their enemies within and without” (hence the name).

But they were also reacting to emotions running high in general - the whole period was very much about peoples’ emotions (good and bad) almost as much as it was about reason and principles.
That’s kind of what we’ve been trying to emphasize in our expo, and why it’s called “Ruling with fear” - a deliberate double entendre. It’s not just about how fear was instrumentalized by the government, but also how they were governing a country where peoples’ fears (of famine, of brigands, of the nobility, of foreigners, of war…) were getting the best of them and driving them to spontaneous, extreme actions. As incredible as it sounds, the Terror was an attempt (or a series of attempts) at calming things down.

Yes and no. The sacrilegious aspect of *that *beheading drove conservatism in England for a long time and in large part made the Restoration possible, from what I understand. I’m no great expert there, however.

Wandering off topic, but the Parliamentary regime didn’t find a broad and secure enough base to protect itself against entropy and to enable it to renew itself. How far those who were disaffected from it were so because of horror at the sacrilege of the execution, or because of the loss of lands and status for royalists, or more petty social repressions on religious grounds, or simply because the regime simply lost any sense of authority or legitimacy after Cromwell’s death - hard to say. Probably a bit of each, but the sacrilege of lèse-majesté was obviously much less powerful a sentiment in 1688.

At the time we still had a lot more pamphleteers than people publishing regular newspapers, and a lot of the material in the newspapers was translations from French. Both in the mainland and in the colonies, a lot of them happened to be in love with at least some aspect of the revolutionary ideals*: which aspect would change from writer to writer. I have a strong suspicion that very often the thing they loved wasn’t necessarily something the French were doing, but a distorted version of a small fraction whose slogan they had misunderstood; sort of the same kind of crap I see now re. lots of Spanish politicians who fall in love with this or that piece of American politics whose background and reality they can’t begin to comprehend. Or not even necessarily politicians: a coworker once brought a “very interesting article” in which a Spaniard who was teaching Economics in the US explained that “in the US, towns don’t have majors but managers! We should copy that!” Took me about 5 minutes to show the writer was talking through a mouth full of foot, but only because our internet connection was real slow.

  • I mean, I know it’s later, but the freaking Constitution of Cadiz, written in a town sieged by Napoleon’s troops, drips so much Revolutionary influence it’s a wonder it didn’t come out tricolor.

I wonder how it compares to the worst living conditions for farmers in prerevolutionary France.

I’m not sure the comparison is meaningful - can you weigh terrro on the one hand against economic hardship on the other?

I’m also not sure that the comparison is relevant in another sense - to invite the comparison implies a trade-off; that being subjected to terror was the price people - farmers, at any rate - had to pay in order to improve their living conditions. But did their living conditions improve during the Terror?

If the local nobility starved my family to death, you could hardly blame me for tying a stone to their necks and throwing them off a rowboat. Especially if I had no other recourse to address bad government policy. The terror in the French Revolution didn’t happen without context.