Laws and the French Revolution

The French Revolution remains a most interesting and influential period of French history, with an impact far beyond the borders of France. Its great events, the shifts in power and the colourful personalities make it into a subject which continues to hold worldwide attention. At the center of change were the activities of the French national assembly. Revolutionary decrees and laws were one of the prime factors changing many aspects of French society and daily life. Two new digital portals help researchers to access online a veritable treasure trove of relevant materials. In this post I will make a tour of them. This post aims also at laying the foundations for further postings about French legal history. In fact it is solely for reasons of economy and for the comfort of readers that you will find a nucleus of materials lifted out from a larger context. Rather than causing confusion by publishing a very long post with lots of threads I invite you to wait how this post connects with upcoming posts about France during the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.

Finding the laws

How closer one comes to contemporary history, the more overwhelming the sheer masses of information become. The sheer scope and scale of dealing in any depth with France during the Ancien Régime has become more impressive since you can command a wealth of resources from your computer screen, but in fact you are faced with mountains of information.

It used to take great efforts at research institutions in Paris to get access to materials. My supervisor at Rotterdam, the late Chris ten Raa, became during the sixties nourri dans le sérail doing research in Paris on French judicial institutions created during the French Revolution. I am sure he would have delighted in having so much more at your disposal at touch screen distance. This does not displace the immediate contact with sources and knowing your way in French archives and libraries, but it does most definitely enlarge the scale of research.

Chris ten Raa had been intrigued by Voltaire’s remarks about the juge de paix, a lay judge dealing with cases in a prejudicial phase, and thus bringing justice much quicker and closer to people. Voltaire wrote approvingly about such judges active in Leiden. How much did he influence the eventual plans for installing juges de paix as part and parcel of French judicial reform? Before he became a legal historian Ten Raa himself had worked as a judge. He looked at the cahiers de doléances of 1789 and traced the discussions in the French revolutionary assemblies leading to the law proclaimed on August 16, 1790. He described the early history of an institution which the French also brought to Belgium, the Netherlands and the French territories in Germany. He published the results of his research as De oorsprong van de kantonrechter [The origin of the juge de paix] (thesis Rotterdam; Deventer 1970). At Rotterdam he led in the nineties an international project with the Centre d’Histoire Judiciaire (Université de Lille-2) to investigate in more depth the workings of these judges and other French legal institutions, for example the conseil de famille, which had come to other countries as legal transplants. A very recent study on this subject was published by Guillaume Métairie, Justice et juges de paix de Paris (1789-1838), Étude institutionnelle et biographique (Limoges 2014).

Laws and decrees

Banner Collection Baudouin

The two portals in this post, too, are the fruits of international cooperation. The ARTFL project (American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language, University of Chicago) was involved in the project for the digital version of the Collection Baudouin, now accessible at a website of the Université de Paris-I (Panthéon-Sorbonne). Other institutions were involved, too, for the realization of this portal, for example the Archives nationales. This digital collection offers you nothing less than a searchable version of the décrets et lois of the Assemblée Nationale between 1789 and 1795. A complete set of the 67 volumes of Baudouin’s collection, the Collection générale des lois, is very rare to find. The famous dictum Nul n’est censé ignorer la loi, nobody is supposed to be ignorant of the law, can now become true when you can deal at your finger tips with more than 20,000 laws and decrees. François-Jean Baudouin was the publisher who faced the challenge to publish the vast stream of legislation, and the portal offers information about his life and work.

The database with the decrees and laws can only be viewed in French. You can access the laws by volume which brings you images of the printed editions (mode image) or by looking for particular texts (mode texte). At the web page for the first search mode you will find also a link to a tool for converting revolutionary dates into normal dates according to the Gregorian calendar. The recherche dans le texte is an advanced search mode. I looked for the law concerning the juges de paix of August 16, 1790, and I could quickly find it. These judges do not appear in the title of this law, one thing that made searching for them in the printed volumes rather cumbersome. Other elements of the portal deserve attention, too, such as the two glossaries for common French words and for proper names which both often appear in variant spellings. There is a section with information about recent publications about French revolutionary legislation, some of them available online, and a section on scholarly events accompanying the work on this portal. Of all sources and resources about the French Revolution you find here at one point access to its very fountain head. It is here you can trace in the préambules the echos of proposals made by the French philosophes and by Frenchmen themselves in the cahiers de doléances.

Before going to the second portal I would like to mention some of the digital resources offered by the Archives nationales. In its ARCHIM database are French constitutions since 1789 and a selection of 42 documents about the French Revolution, and since 2014 also twelve digitized manuscripts of Robespierre. The links selection of the Archives nationales is also very helpful. Initially I missed here the Base Choiseul for searching French treaties, but this database has recently been integrated with the Pacte database for traités en vigueur (treaties in force) into the Base des Traités et Accords de la France, where you can find also a useful survey of treaty collections.

The Archives parlementaires

Image FRDA Stanford/BnFStanford University Libraries have partnered with the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) for the magnificent bilingual portal French Revolution Digital Archive/ Archives numériques de la Révolution française (FRDA/ANRF). There are two main sections, the digital edition of the Archives parlementaires for the years 1787-1794, and Images of the French Revolution. For some reason I thought these images came from the Institut d’Histoire de la Révolution Française (IHRF). A reshuffling of its materials has made the website of this research institute at present rather confusing. For some years after 1794 the IHRF offers at least links to digitized versions of the Bulletin des lois (1795-1799, 1804 and 1806).

For reasons of copyright the FRDA portal contains only those volumes of the Archives parlementaires published before 1914. The series started as a governmental initiative but soon scholars took over the project. The editions give us in chronological order not only parliamentary deliberations, but also the full text of letters, reports and accounts of events by journalists. The 82 volumes now available online deal with the period from May 5, 1789 until January 4, 1794, and are supplemented by a list of the remaining volumes for 1794. You can use a free text search, but also narrow your searches to particular periods and persons. Further limits can be set to a particular volume, assembly, reports of séances (sessions) or other resources, and even to people surrounding a particular person.

At the FRDA portal you can follow not only the deliberations of the representatives, but it is also possible to read online a number of cahiers de doléances in the edition of the first six volumes of the Archives parlementaires. The website of the Archives de France have created a very useful overview of online resources, with for example at four archives départementales digitized cahiers de doléances [for the AD Charente at Angoulême, AD Haute-Loire (Le Puy-en-Vélay), AD Maine-et-Loire (Angers) and AD Hautes-Pyrénées (Tarbes). At WikiGenWeb is an overview of digitized records in French departmental archives, with also digitized cahiers de doléances at the AD Tarn (Albi), AD Loire-Atlantique (Nantes), AD Nièvre (Nevers; série 1 L 161-162) and AD Saône-et-Loire (Mâcon). I hesitated to give you here the full links, but at some websites the actual links are not easily spotted. Of course you can go to Gallica to find much more, but it is good to see these primary sources in their original settings. Viewing the original documents helps you to appreciate the value of later scholarly editions. For some subjects there are separate critical editions in print of cahiers de doléances.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France offers within its Gallica digital library a fine selection Essentiels du droit, with in its first section sources législatives et réglementaires. For the French Revolution you can find such series as the official Bulletin des lois de la République Française, available from 1789 to 1931, the Collection Duvergier with laws, decrees and ordinances from 1788 to 1938, and the Recueil général des anciennes lois françaises (“Collection Isambert”; 29 volumes, Paris 1822-1833). Jurisprudence starting from the late eighteenth century can be found in several series of sources jurisprudentielles, among them the still existing Recueil Dalloz. The sheer impact and continuity of the French Revolution and the subsequent incarnations of the French republic is nowhere more clear than in these series, although it might seem a drawback that you cannot not find so easily sources for a more narrow period. However, among the eternal questions surrounding the French Revolution is the very question when it ended. The French Revolution is the classic case for looking at both continuity and discontinuity, for beginnings and endings which can be seen from an infinite number of angles. The material sources of French laws between 1789 and 1795 are the subject of a recent special of the French online journal Clio@Themis.

For French legal history the support of the Bibliographie d’histoire de droit en langue française (CLHD, Nancy) is most welcome. Its database can be consulted both in French and English. The liberal use of keywords in the thesaurus (“topics”) search helps you to search systematically for a particular subject. For the French Revolution and for legislation you can distinguish between scores of subjects and themes. It brings to your attention several reference works, for example the Dictionnaire de l’Ancien Régime, Royaume de France, XVI-XVIIIe siècles, Lucien Bély (ed.) (Paris 2005), the Dictionnaire de la culture juridique, Denis Alland and Stéphane Rials (eds.) (Paris 2005) and the massive Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française, François Furet and Mona Ozouf (eds.) (5 vol., Paris 2007). The emphasis in this bibliography is on publications in French. Of course there are books missing, for example Edna Hindie Lemay (red.), Dictionnaire des Législateurs, 1791-1792 (2 vol., Ferney-Voltaire 2007). However, her Dictionnaire des Constituants, 1789-1791 (Oxford 1991) has been included. You can read online Lemay’s posthumously published article ‘Les législateurs de la France révolutionnaire (1791-1792)’, Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 347 (2007) 3-28, an article that she had wanted to be read alongside her second dictionary. It serves indeed as a quick guide to the differences and continuities between the people building the Assemblée constituante and the Assemblée législative.

Recently Patrick Arabeyre, Jacques Krynen and Jean-Louis Halpérin published the second edition of their Dictionnaire historique des juristes français, XIIe-XXe siècle (Paris 2015). Let’s finish this paragraph with yet another dictionary, this time available online in French and English, the Dictionnaire Montesquieu, a guide to the history of political thought in eighteenth-century France. A number of its articles deal with law and justice, and it can serve as a reference work. The dictionary is a part of the Montesquieu project at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

A never-ending story

With Montesquieu we crossed the border between the French Revolution and the Ancien Régime, and between the people giving laws to a new nation and the authors inspiring them. I find it difficult to stop here when it is so clear that these two magnificent portals for the legal history of the French Revolution should be and are at the center of a veritable galaxy of other resources. Studying and researching the French Revolution has become a specialized industry. In a sequel to this post I will take my lead from a part of the FRDA portal which I have left out here, its image database, and I am sure I will discuss other resources as well.

For everyone wanting already to find out more about the French Revolution I can at least mention here some online resources, and what follows is definitely only a selection. Normally the website of the IRHF should be a starting point, especially in combination with the online journal Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française. In the absence of an online version of the Bibliographie annuelle de l’historie de France, the French general historical bibliography, you can gain information about relevant publications in the Bibliographie nationale française, with publications since 2001, a service of the BnF, and in Benoît Melancon’s XVIIIe siècle: bibliographie (Université de Montréal) with publications from 1992 onwards. A resource in German, the WebGuide Geschichte at Historicum, is most useful, certainly when combined with the section concerning the French Revolution at this history portal, with in particular its Bibliographie bicentenaire. The archived version of a special subdomain of Historicum about the French Revolution is worth checking, too. The online journal Révolution Française. L’esprit des Lumière et de la Révolution brings articles and notices in a well-organized fashion, and in some cases quick access to online materials. In its section Éditions you can go to online versions of two recent books about such figures as Barnave and Marat.

I cannot think of a better end here than bringing you back to Chris ten Raa who remained a faithful visitor of the Bibliothèque Cujas in Paris. Its printed and online resources – including Cujasnum, its own digital library, and its online Iurisguide – will continue to support any research into French legal history.

A second article in this series appeared in June 2015, ‘Some notes on the history of tolerance’. A thir post came in March 2016, ‘Images and the road to the French Revolution’. Among my earlier posts you might want to look at ‘Rousseau at 300 years: nature and law’ (2012).

A postscript

The Centre d’Études et Recherche sur l’Action Locale announced recently the funding from 2015 to 2018 of a project for the sequel to the Collection Baudouin, sometimes cryptically abbreviated as ANR RevLoi. The code name LexDir 1795-1799 stands for the laws issued under the Directoire; the project team – with all partners from the first project – will deal with some 21,000 acts. The project description contains a useful bibliography on resources and relevant scholarly literature.

For the history of the French parlements there is an online bibliography BibliParl, an offspring of the project of Isabelle Brancourt for the Parlement de Paris.

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