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A brilliant account of the coming of the French Revolution, and the culminating work of this most distinguished historian
‘Events do not come naked into the world. They come clothed – in attitudes, assumptions, values, memories of the past, anticipations of the future, hopes and fears and many other emotions. To understand events, it is necessary to describe the perceptions that accompany them, for the two are inseparable.’
When a Parisian crowd stormed the Bastille in July 1789, it triggered an event of global consequence: the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of a new society. Most historians account for the French Revolution by viewing it as the outcome of underlying conditions such as a faltering economy, class conflict or Enlightenment ideology. Without denying any of these, Robert Darnton offers a different explanation: what Parisians themselves, those at the centre of the Revolution, thought was happening at the time and how it guided their actions.
To understand the rise of what he calls ‘the revolutionary temper’, Darnton draws on a lifetime’s study of pamphlets, books, underground newsletters, songs and public performances, exploring Paris as an information society not unlike our own. Its news circuits were centred in cafes and market-places, on park benches, and under the Palais-Royal’s Tree of Cracow, a favourite gathering-place for gossips. He shows how the events of forty years – from disastrous treaties, official corruption and royal scandal to thrilling hot-air balloon ascents and a new conception of the nation – all entered the collective consciousness of ordinary Parisians. As news and opinion travelled across this profoundly unequal society, public trust in royal authority eroded, its legitimacy was undermined, and the social order unravelled.
Much of Robert Darnton’s work has explained the hidden dynamics of history, never more so than in this exceptional book. It is a riveting narrative, but it adds a new dimension, the perceptions of contemporary Parisians, which allows us to see these momentous decades afresh.
Author: Robert Darnton
Hardback Published 1 December 2023 576 pages
What did Parisians think and gossip, sing and obsess about over the decades before the storming of the Bastille? In The Revolutionary Temper Robert Darnton paints a sumptuous mural of the eighteenth-century mind. With the Encyclopédie, with manned balloons in the air, reason seemed on a roll. With posters, pamphlets, and public readings, the written world appeared supreme. A few vicious libels, some stock market manipulation, a lurid adultery trial, one notorious diamond necklace, any number of court intrigues, skyrocketing bread prices and plunging temperatures combined, among other elements, to shake a nation to its core. A rich, beautifully crafted book that plants the reader in a Paris that feels at all times electric. - STACY SCHIFF, AUTHOR OF THE REVOLUTIONARY: SAMUEL ADAMS
Standing at the summit of Robert Darnton's towering intellectual career, The Revolutionary Temper plunges the reader into the coffeeshops, workrooms, and alleys of pre-revolutionary Paris. Following the traces of songs and rumors, insults and discontent, Darnton allows us to eavesdrop, almost miraculously, on whispers nearly two and a half centuries old. Here is the hivemind of ordinary people in extraordinary times, as they shake loose the thought and feeling of ages and past, and decide - slowly, and then all at once - to begin the world anew. -JANE KAMENSKY, AUTHOR OF A REVOLUTION IN COLOR