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To what extent was the rural-urban divide the most important cause of the counterrevolution in the Vendée in 1793?

Table of content

Section A

This investigation will answer the question: “to what extent the rural-urban divide was the most important cause of counterrevolution in the Vendée in 1793?” This will be explored by examining an extract from 1790 newspaper article from Gazette de Paris , chosen because it provides good insight into the early fears of the revolutionaries, and The Vendee, which is a book written in chosen for its alternative view regarding the outbreak of Vendée revolution.

Gazette de Paris, March 30th 1790

This article from the newspaper Gazette de Paris discusses the potential danger of the 1790 Constitution for the Clergy. A value of its origin is that it was written during the process of the legislation of the Constitution, which was pivotal to the implementation of the revolutionary regime in rural areas. The newspaper therefore provides insight into what the concerns of the Constitution were when it was written. Another values lies in how the purpose was to warn the Revolutionaries of the consequences of the Constitution, making the article as neutral as possible in the midst of radicalism in the early 1790s.

 

However, the content of the source is a limitation of the source’s value– it is quite vague in its concerns, talking of “Country folk” rather than any specific area of France, and talks about how [the Revolutionaries] “need a religion” but doesn’t mention policy itself. Though the source expresses valuable insights into the concerns in Paris, it doesn’t specifically mention the concerns local to the Vendée and thus perhaps limits the source’s use for investigating the events of the Vendée.

The Vendée, Charles Tilly

A value of this book is its content. Tilly uses a wide variety of primary sources such as maps of the Vendée as well as the number of revolutionaries present in certain areas. More importantly, Tilly was also one of the first to suggest a comparative attitude to determining the most significant causes of the Vendée rebellion – a method which compares the situation in the Vendée to neighbouring provinces in order to find what explains the unique nature of the Vendée counterrevolution. This approach provides a more holistic analysis, which is valuable for historians.

 

A limitation of the source’s value lies in is its origin and purpose, however. Tilly is both a historian and a sociologist, and is aiming to persuade us of a sociological interpretation of the Vendée rebellion. As picked up on by historiography since, this aim to persuade us of a sociological interpretation gets into the way of Tilly’s objectivity and leads to the misconstruing of older but equally powerful arguments.

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  • Section B

    When evaluating the causes of the March 1793 Vendée rebellion, it is crucial to remember that counterrevolutionary rebellions weren’t unique to the Vendée. The most important cause of the Vendée rebellion must therefore explain the unique “vigour, unanimity, and effectiveness” of the Vendée rebellion in contrast to the other “sporadic and erratic” rebellions in 1790’s France. Though the short term cause of the Levee de 300,000 conscription passed on the 24th February 1793 was undoubtedly important, conscription concerned all the departments and cannot explain alone why the peasants in the Vendée preferred rebellion over conscription like their neighbouring departments. Though 20th century historiography has sought to understand the Vendée through Marxist or sociological perspectives, ultimately it is difficult to escape the conservative perspective voiced by Clemenceau, which argues that the Jacobin persecution of the Catholic Church was the main cause of the Vendée rebellion.

     

    For Marxist historians like Paul Bois, by ousting the nobility, the 1789 Revolution created a power vacuum in rural France, which led to the emergence of a new bourgeois class, almost all of whom were revolutionaries. As the bourgeoisie arrived in the Vendée, they posed a threat to the peasants’ socio-economic status. According to Bois’s study of the Barthe, by 1793 the revolutionaries had acquired 51.5% of the land, contrasting the 11.2% of ecclesiastical and 21% noble property. As the nobility and clergy had previously derived their political power on controlling land, according to the quasi-feudal system put in place since 1600, this was heavily linked to political power. Furthermore, the bourgeois electorate in Cholet rose from 57% in 1789 to 77% in 1792, demonstrating this increase in bourgeois political power. Peasants thus saw this new bourgeois class as a threat to their political status quo, and thus did not accept the legitimacy of the new bourgeois rule, leading to them to prefer rebellion over conscription for those rulers in March 1793. However, this argument is weakened on two counts. Firstly, as Goubert argues, the fundamental “social pyramid, with a very large base, corroded by misery” didn’t change with the arrival of the bourgeois elite. Not only were the peasants very unhappy with their socio-economic status before the revolution, as demonstrated in the Cahiers, where some complained that the nobility was increasing in number that wasn’t in accordance to the laws of Louis XIII dating from 1661 - 64. Secondly, this doesn’t distinguish the Vendée from other neighbouring provinces, and therefore doesn’t convincingly explain the unique violence, hatred, and unanimity of the Vendée rebellion. However, we might argue that whilst the actual treatment of the peasantry was the same with the nobility and the new bourgeois class, what mattered was the different perception of these rules. The peasants, while living in mostly terrible conditions and at their noble landlords’ mercy, nevertheless accepted the nobility and clergy as the dominant elites. For the former, this was because they had been the ruling class since the creation of the Kingdom of France, and because the nobility actually had a limited impact on the lives of the peasants: only 1 in 14 depended on the nobility. By contrast, the bourgeois class impacted the peasants far more through changes in land ownership and the electorate, as well as through the subsequent increase in taxation. For the latter, the peasants accepted the clergy’s rule because of divine legitimacy. Thus, when the peasants’ economic situation worsened with the bourgeois’ arrival (with a depression in the Vendean textile industry by 25% from 1789 - 93), and the emerged bourgeois class had insufficient legitimacy to keep these material suffering from transforming into revolution. Whilst this is a persuasive perspective, Bois’s Marxist interpretation isn’t sufficiently unique to the Vendée.

     

    Revisionist historian Cobban argues that the Vendée was “a manifestation of the fundamental and age-old conflict of country against town.” This was because of the “recent origins of urbanisation and its incomplete and uneven impact.”  Cobban thus rejects the Marxist argument from class struggle by pointing out France had already gone through capitalism. Though we might question Cobban’s argument by pointing out that the extent of capitalism in the Vendée was very small as “the Mauges had a very limited productive capacity”, Cobban’s point that Marxist historiography on the Vendée imposes Marxist theory onto an event which is not suited to Marxist theory is still very convincing. The market was, for Cobban, more important in terms of a medium by which urban and rural conflicted. As Tilly explores, this was uniquely linked to the Vendée’s geographical structure. The bocages were bourgs containing roughly less than half the population, surrounding by small village settlements. This distances the peasants socially and physically from the urban centre, leading to the alienation of the rural from the urban. The impact of urbanisation was therefore uneven. It was also incomplete, as the people didn’t accept the new unfounded authority of the distanced urban elite. What remained stable was the old position and authority of the curé. The bourg’s urban elite, because of this, could not control the rural peasantry who rejected their authority, encouraging spiral into rebellion. Cobban takes the strengths of Bois’s position in how he notices that “the districts [which rebelled the most] were also the districts in which clerical property had been most extensive”, but does not impose Marxist theory on the history as much as Bois does. However, thus far, this argument is only unique to the Vendée insofar as the rural-urban divide was exacerbated by the unique geographical structure of the Vendée. Furthermore, the integration of peasant produce into an urban market of elites was an old phenomenon. Apart from the fact that it was the revolutionaries, there is little to distinguish urbanisation post-1789 than the slow urbanisation under Louis XVI. Evaluating Cobban’s perspective, whilst it has strength in that it points to something unique to the Vendée, it is clear that it is underpinning by this contrast between the legitimacy of the Catholic priests and the new revolutionaries.

     

    This leads us to the more conservative argument voiced by Joseph Clemenceau, which is that that the most important cause of the Vendée rebellion was the Jacobin repression of the Catholic Church, mainly through the 1791 Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Making this argument is, as Tilly notices, and old spell-book, and he warns of the “illusion of the unanimity of the counterrevolution” and the oversimplification of “the peasants were religions, ergo the Vendée rose.”  Yet, rooted within Tilly and Cobban’s sociological approaches is that the peasant’s couldn’t tolerate the Jacobin repression of the Catholic Church, particularly powerful in the Vendée. This is evidenced in how a non-juring priest (a réfractaire) wrote to his parishioners that “my religion does not tolerate me to take such as the National Assembly requires...I recognise no superior and other legislators”18 because the Civil Constitution for the Clergy stated that “there shall be but one mode of choosing bishops and parish priests, namely that of election”. This translated in the very way in which they fought; governmental officials noted that the peasants “almost all crossed themselves each time they were about to fire”. As Clemenceau argues, Jacobin legislation attacked Catholic dogmas and caused the revolutionaries to be perceived first and foremost as “enemies of religion” , not as bourgeois intruders. Some historians might link this to how peasants accepted the regnal legitimacy of Louis XVI over the legitimacy of the National Assembly through voting – because it was established and justified by religious belief – but we must only consider this link insofar that it is accidental, because there is very little evidence of the Vendéens feeling a surge of sympathy for Louis XVI. Repression against the Catholic Church also provided a unifying factor: the unhappy peasants united under the political authority of the cure to challenge the urbanisation of the patriotes. The most powerful criticism, as Tilly argues, is that this isn’t unique to the Vendée, especially given that the Civil Constitution for the Clergy was applied unevenly (due to the ineffectiveness of the National Guard). Tilly is right in arguing that it is not so simple to claim that because the Vendéens were deeply religious, they rose against the anti-clerical revolutionaries. However, the religious belief was stronger in the Vendée than in other regions – that is not to say that the Vendéens were “more religious” as that is unquantifiable, but to say that religious belief permeated in public affairs in a greater degree in the Vendée. As Clemenceau notes, this was seen in how division on a daily basis was made on religious terms: bons prêtres and prêtres assermentés. This evidences how religion was, uniquely in the Vendée, a strong public factor that exacerbated division between rural and urban, and unified the peasants’ grievances in a rebellion justified by religious belief.

     

    In conclusion, the rural-urban divide, as historians such as Cobban and Tilly claimed, was the essence of the tensions that brewed between the peasants of Vendée. But, these tensions needed the approval of religious belief to be justified, unified, and catalyse the social, economic, and political tensions that arose from the infiltration of revolutionaries in the rural, deprived Vendée region. I would thus posit a synthesis of the Jacobin persecution of the Catholic Church argument and rural-urban divide argument to be the perspective which explains the outburst of counterrevolution the most persuasively.

    Section C

    Historians may have issues of translation with investigating epochs and places of history where a different language was used. For instance, the extract from the Gazette de Paris had to be translated. Translation is never perfect: there are untranslatable phrases and idioms dependent on culture, and nuances in meaning that are slightly different from one language to another. Because historians can never totally immerse themselves in foreign cultures especially when those are further in the past, historical meaning is lost in translation. This renders the task of evaluating and analysing those sources more difficult.

     

    A key aspect of historical investigation is sources. Although there was a very strong representation of the Vendée counterrevolution in secondary and tertiary sources – books like Tilly’s, or articles by Mitchell – finding primary sources was more difficult. Not all documents survive, and often “what is then left of the past are traces or fragments of information.”  Especially when studying events earlier than the 19th century, finding primary sources is more difficult, and they sometimes don’t provide historians with the same detailed information and recounting of events as more modern events.

     

    In conclusion, some areas of historical method which this investigation touched upon were the issues of translation and the methodology of finding primary sources.

    Bibliography

    Adeyeri, E., Adeoti, O. & Olusegun, J., 2012. History, the Historian and his Work: Issues, Challenges, and Prospects. International Journal of Educational Research and Technology, Decemebr, 3(4), pp. 36-41.

     

    Baude, J.A. https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/non-juring-priests-declaration-1791/, January 1791, accessed 18/05/2022

     

    Bois, P., 1960. Paysans de l'Ouest: Des structures économiques et sociales aux options politiques depuis l'époque révolutionnaire dans la Sarthe. Le Mans: Mouton & Co..é

     

    Cahiers de Doléances de la ville de Clisson, https://archives-numerisees.loire- atlantique.fr/v2/ad44/visualiseur/doleances.html?id=440371735, April 1789, accessed 23/05/2022

     

    Clemenceau, J., 1827. l'Histoire de la guerre en Vendée. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie Nationale.

     

    Cobban, A., 1999. The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cambridge.:Cambridge University Press.

     

    Durosoy, B., 1790. Suite et fin du memoire sur la vente des biens du clergé. La Gazette de Paris.pp. 1 - 4.

     

    Goubert, P., 1960. Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730. Paris: Les Classiques de la Sorbonne.

     

    Jones, P., 1990. Georges Lefebvre and the Peasant Revolution: Fifty Years on. French Historical Studies, 16(3), pp. 645-663.

     

    Mazauric, C., 1965. Vendée et Chouannerie. La Pensée, Issue 124, pp. 54 - 85.

     

    Mitchell, H., 1968. The Vendée and Counterrevolution: A Review Essay. French Historical Studies, Autumn, p. 412.

     

    “Reports of rebels in the Vendée, 1793”, https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/rebels-vendee- uprising-1793, accessed 23/05/2022

     

    The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, 1790, https://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/civil- constitution-of-the-clergy-1790, accessed 23/05/2022

     

    Tilly, C., 1961. Local Conflicts in the Vendée before the Rebellion of 1793. French Historical Studies, 2(2), pp. 209-231.

     

    Tilly, C., 1968. Some Problems in the History of the Vendée. The American Historical Review, 67(1), pp. 24-27.

     

    Tilly, C., 1990 (first published 1964). The Vendée. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Uzureau, F., 1911. Les causes de la guerre de Vendée. Revue historique de la Révolution Française, pp. 254 - 260.

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  • Appendix

    Appendix

    Extract from Gazette de Paris, 30th March 1790

    “We tell you again: you need a religion, and if man has sometimes defaced [the church], must it be rejected by you for the same reason? Take heed of three great truths. If there was no God it would be necessary to invent one for the peace of the whole earth. If there was no religion it would be necessary to create one for the safety of the realm. If you had no king it would be necessary from tomorrow, from today, to elect one for the happiness of the citizens...

     

    The clergy offered to pay every year, for 20 years, a figure of 40 million livres, a sum that you could estimate as a quarter of the gross proceeds of its wealth... the nation’s justice must necessarily grant to the clergy the means of effecting this operation, which would immediately provide for the deficit in the finances...

     

    People, it is you that we wish to convince, since no part of the nation has suffered as much as you. See how they [the National Assembly] have contributed to your misfortune, instead of accepting the offer that would have cured so many ills. They have suppressed the tithes, yet you do not profit from it, and when a substitute has to be found, it is upon you that will fall the tax created to replace it.

     

    The sale of 400 million livres of the clergy’s property has been decreed. But it will be necessary to sell 800 million before realising in real terms the 400 million requested. It is again you, good people, that will one day suffer for that scandalous transaction.

     

    But not everybody will lose by it as you will do. There will be profit in it for those vile brokers, those insatiable speculators, whose criminal cupidity glories in the fact that the clergy, deprived of the right to execute by itself the sale of its varied properties, cannot deprive [these speculators] of the pleasure of immersing themselves in these golden streams... it matters little to them that the source be dried up for posterity...

     

    Country folk, see what future has been left to you. These nobles, in whose homes you used to shelter from inclement weather, you pursued from refuge to refuge. Will you dare to ask them for bread, when you have not left them asylum?

     

    Those pastors who lived with you, and through whom you lived, are now on wages. And one day perhaps, deprived even of this income, they will not have, like you, the spade and plough to fall back upon. Yet we now hear you slandering them; for you are daily being taught to become more unjust. They will have been deprived of the means of helping you, yet you will accuse them of being indifferent to your sufferings, when they are beggars like you.

     

    Your injustice will be the most severe of their punishments... and the most sacred, the most noble of callings will become the saddest and most wretched of these estates.”

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    Expert IB History teacher; 6+ yrs experience, Yale alum, Gold Medalist.

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    Expert IB History teacher; 6+ yrs experience, Yale alum, Gold Medalist.

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