How did the French Revolutionaries explain, justify, and understand the extraordinary violence of their revolution? In debating this question, historians have looked to a variety of eighteenth-century sources, from Rousseau’s writings to Old Regime protest tactics. A Natural History of Revolution suggests that it is perhaps on a different shelf of the Enlightenment library that we might find the best clues for understanding the French Revolution: namely, in studies of the natural world. In their attempts to portray and explain the events of the Revolution, political figures, playwrights, and journalists often turned to the book of nature: phenomena such as hailstorms and thunderbolts found their way into festivals, plays, and political speeches as descriptors of revolutionary activity. The particular way that revolutionaries deployed these metaphors drew on notions derived from the natural science of the day about regeneration, purgation, and balance.
In examining a series of tropes (earthquakes, lightning, mountains, swamps, and volcanoes) that played an important role in the public language of the Revolution, A Natural History of Revolution reveals that understanding the use of this natural imagery is fundamental to our understanding of the Terror. Eighteenth-century natural histories had demonstrated that in the natural world, apparent disorder could lead to a restored equilibrium, or even regeneration. This logic drawn from the natural world offered the revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying revolutionary transformation. If thunder could restore balance in the atmosphere, and if volcanic eruptions could create more fertile soil, then so too could episodes of violence and disruption in the political realm be portrayed as necessary for forging a new order in revolutionary France.
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About the Author
Mary Ashburn Miller is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College.
Table of Contents
Introduction1. Ordering a Disordered World
Natural Historians Confront Disorder
A History of Natural Violence: The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, and the Messina and Calabria Earthquakes of 17832. Terrible Like an Earthquake: Violence as a "Revolution of the Earth"
The Glacière Massacres: Avignon, 1791
The September Massacres: Paris, 17923. Lightning Strikes
Lightning in the Atmosphere
The Scepter from Tyrants: Lightning and Sovereignty in the Revolution
The Utility of Destruction: The Victims of Lightning
The Saltpeter Initiative: Forging Thunderbolts in Backyards
Lightning in Crisis: The Explosion of Grenelle4. Pure Mountain, Corruptive Swamp
The Natural and Political Mountain
The Virtuous Montagnard
The Sublime and the Sacred Mountain
Nature Returned to Itself: Purging the Marais
The Festival of the Supreme Being: A Theology of Terror5. "Mountain, Become a Volcano"
Volcanoes in Scientific Inquiry
Passion, Terror, and Virtue: The Volcano in Year II
The Terrible after the TerrorConclusion: Revolutionary Like Nature, Natural Like a RevolutionNotes
What People are Saying About This
"Earthquakes, floods, lightning strikes, volcanoes.... By listening closely to the metaphors of natural disaster with which the French revolutionaries peppered their speech, Mary Ashburn Miller arrives at a wholly new explanation for the violence of the Terror. A Natural History of Revolution is itself a tour de force."
"A Natural History of Revolution is a bold and strikingly original study of revolutionary political culture. Mary Ashburn Miller argues that the French revolutionaries of 1789–1794 turned new 'enlightened' understandings of natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, lightning, and volcanoes into powerful verbal and visual metaphors that made revolutionary violence appear not only natural but also necessary, even providential. Graceful prose and fascinating analysis make this book a pleasure to read and a provocation to discuss."
"In this illuminating book, which draws on cultural, intellectual, and political history, Mary Ashburn Miller shows how examples from natural history served not only to justify but also to encourage violence during the French Revolution."
"Mary Ashburn Miller's fabulously creative and historically revealing book shows how beliefs about nature informed the French Revolution and sometimes excused its violence. Mistakenly interpreted as the triumph of the will, the revolutionary era in fact allowed for disguising sometimes murderous human choices as if they were part of the course of nature: lightning strikes, the earth trembles, and mountainswhen they become volcanicexplode. It has long been known that 'revolution' began as a scientific notion later assigned to human events, but only Miller has explored the inseparable connection that the natural and the political maintained. A gift for historians of science interested in naturalistic discourse, literary readers insistent that figurative language matters, and Europeanists concerned with the origins of modern politics, A Natural History of Revolution is a wonderful lesson in how the social imaginary shapes real politics in every era."
"Anyone inclined to think that there is nothing much more to be said about the French Revolution ought to read this fresh and exciting new book. Historiographically sophisticated and deeply researched, it combines the best of extant French revolutionary scholarship with seminal insights drawn from environmental history and the history of science to offer a novel vision of the Revolution as natural wonder, a spectacle both awful and sublime. At once a political history of nature and a natural history of politics, Mary Ashburn Miller's creative work will be of interest to all who study the eighteenth century, as well as to anyone keen to see how new methods and approaches can continually animate the past."