Instructor: Professor Rod Phillips

The scope of the course

The French Revolution (1789-1799) is a fascinating and important period, so much so that it is one of the most intensively studied periods in world history. It was a turning point in the history of France and of Europe generally, and it was a world historical event that inspired hopes and fears well beyond Europe. It created enduring legacies as varied as republican revolutionary and counter-revolutionary traditions, the metric system, the radical separation of church and state, and the division of political ideologies into “left” and “right.”

Although many of the popular images of the Revolution are violent – think of the guillotine and the Terror – it was far more than that. Revolutionary governments undertook a sometimes radical reorganization of France’s political and social systems, its economy, and its culture. During the most radical phase of the Revolution, the Terror, governments tried to construct a new model citizenry.

In this seminar we will range widely and examine many aspects of the Revolution. We will start with a survey of France before the Revolution, and consider the various ways historians have tried to explain why the Revolution broke out when it did. Our approach to the decade of Revolution will be both chronological and thematic: we will study the way the Revolution unfolded and why its various phases (such as the liberal period, the Terror, the reaction against the Terror, and the advent of Napoleon) emerged, flourished, and were replaced.

The themes we will discuss include such diverse topics as women’s rights, war, religion, food security, counter-revolution, language policy, constitutions, regionality, festivals, violence, the growth of the state, poverty, agriculture, the family, education, civil war, population policy, fiscal policy, and the Church.

As we study the French Revolution, we will engage with the ways that historians explain events and debate different interpretations. We will employ a variety of approaches, including analyzing documents and images, and reading statistics. Students who complete the course will be well equipped with some analytical skills that can be employed not only in other courses in History and other fields, but more generally on a daily basis.


Peter McPhee, Living the French Revolution, 1789-99 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)


This is a seminar course that meets once a week for three hours. It is important to attend regularly and to participate regularly. That means doing any reading or other preparation specified for each seminar, and participating in discussions. The regularity and quality of your participation will make up part of your final grade in the course. The remainder will be based on written assignments and oral presentations (some individual, some group-work), and on a mid-year and a final examination.


Please free contact me if you have any questions: