For hundreds of thousands of weary eighteenth-century travelers, the first glimpse of Paris came from one of the low hills on the city's perimeter. In still, cold weather, a gray haze masked the city, mixing wood smoke and mist—a contemporary likened it to the city's breath in the cool air.1
In summer the whitewashed walls and pale stone reflected the light back into the sky. Some found Paris beautiful, exceeding their expectations; others were disappointed. But almost all were struck by its sheer size: 810 streets (not including 88 culs-de-sac) and 23,019 houses, according to one popular description.2
Unless the traveler was a blasé Londoner, accustomed to the bustle of an even larger metropolis, the scale of Paris came as a shock even to those who had read about it. From the North Sea to the Mediterranean, there was no human settlement so large, although no one knew exactly how large. Guesses at the number of inhabitants ranged from 500,000 to over a million.3
Threading their way through the ribbon of suburbs and into the maze of the center, newcomers lost all sense of direction. Most came from small towns and villages, and they searched in vain for landmarks amid the profusion of spires, the long lines of tall whitewashed houses, and the stone-faced public buildings. The average traveler was overwhelmed—many of them recorded these first impressions—by the din, the confusion of traffic, animals, cries, the crowds of people, the labyrinth of streets winding interminably in every direction. In provincial cities, even during Carnival, there was nothing to compare with this.
But that was merely the beginning of the city's wonders. At night the streets were lit by thousands of tallow candles, later by oil lamps, a wonder to eighteenth-century eyes accustomed to the pitch-darkness of overcast nights. By the end of the century the luxury shops for which Paris was famous boasted painted decors, mirrors, and elaborate window displays to delight the eye and—in the case of food shops—make the mouth water. Inside the great noble houses were riches untold, burnished interiors that shone in the living light of a hundred pure wax candles. Silk and satin, velvet, gilt, and silver were the stuff of life for the wealthy. The huge central market was another amazement, street after street of stalls laden with every kind of produce, even if a significant part of the population could not afford to buy it. Magnificent public buildings lined the bustling riverbank.
Even the longtime Paris resident was hard-put to encapsulate this reality. Eighteenth-century writers strained for the right metaphors. Instinctively, many reached for organic ones: Paris was the swollen head on the body of France; it was the heart of the kingdom; a mouth that devoured innumerable immigrants; a stomach consuming the wealth and the products of the provinces. Increasingly, commentators drew on contrasts as a way of describing the city. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's best-selling novel La nouvelle Héloïse,
written in the late 1750s, the hero, Saint-Preux, spoke of Paris as a place "dominated simultaneously by the most sumptuous opulence and the most deplorable misery."4
Twenty-five years later Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who loved his native city, nevertheless painted his vast Tableau de Paris
in similarly contrasting colors, luxury and plenty juxtaposed with poverty and dearth. The same theme was taken up by many lesser figures: the now-forgotten novelist Contant d'Orville had his heroine exclaim, "What a contrast between these immense and magnificent residences, which reflect the greatness, luxury, and corruption of their masters, and those humble forests inhabited by misery, and sometimes despair!"5
This was also how many visitors saw Paris. "I doubt," wrote a Sicilian visitor to Paris in 1749, "that there can exist anywhere on earth a hell more terrible than to be poor in Paris." For a German tourist, "Here was certainly not the new Jerusalem I had finally arrived in, but rather had I fallen into hell." In 1759 Louis-Charles Fougeret de Montbron published a biting critique of Paris and subtitled it "the new Babylon." Images of hell and of heaven, of Eden, Babylon, and the new Jerusalem sprang more readily to the early modern mind than to ours and had far more concrete meaning.6
Literary contrasts provided a convenient way of summing up a labyrinthine reality. Yet too often they have been taken at face value and endowed with a kind of explanatory force: excessive luxury and extremes of wealth and poverty inevitably produced bitterness, social tension, and revolt, turning the City of Light into the City of Revolution. This is the Dickensian picture, one influenced by nineteenth-century fears of a bitterly divided society, and it retains a superficial appeal to a post-Cold War world. The real Paris, like today's Rio or Bombay, was indeed a place of contrasts; but there is more to the story. As in some of today's megalopoli the city's extremes and contradictions were crucial to its economy. The flourishing industries that made Paris the capital of eighteenth-century European fashion, luxury, and culture reposed on a large informal sector, on the immense unpaid labor of women, children, and the elderly. The Parisian economy depended on the conspicuous consumption of the nobility and on the city's status as the capital of an absolutist state. So too did the Enlightenment. Around the royal court, government ministries, and the attendant cluster of religious institutions and law courts, lived a large, educated, and affluent population that provided the critical mass indispensable for a brilliant intellectual and cultural life. Eighteenth-century Paris was the home, usually physically but always intellectually, of most of the philosophes: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Holbach, d'Alembert, Helvétius, Condorcet, and many others, most of them dependent—directly or indirectly—on the very disparities of wealth and political practices that some of their work brought into question.
Yet the existence of extremes and paradoxes did not make Paris a jungle or create a society perpetually on the brink of disintegration. Life may have been fragile, but most Parisians were bound to their city by powerful affective ties and by bonds of community and moral obligation. The city created its own networks, to some degree reproducing those of the villages and small towns from which two-thirds of the population came, yet imposing distinctive patterns of its own.
Recent research has placed far less emphasis on the extremes in Parisian society. It has revealed the existence of a large and growing consumer market. Despite widespread poverty, eighteenth-century Paris was a dynamic and expanding society built on thriving trade and industry. Even servants and other working people were beginning to buy consumer items in the second half of the eighteenth century, and many of them were materially better off than the previous generation. The gap between rich and poor was widening, yet the "middling sort" were growing in numbers and prosperity.7
Their expansion and wealth helped make Paris unique in France, and as the work of two generations of historians has shown, these were the very people who led the Parisian Revolution after 1789.
Thus an old paradox remains. How could Paris have produced the revolution that took place there? (I refer to the revolution in this city, not the French Revolution as a whole.) How could a metropolis with low rates of violence and apparent political passivity have led an upheaval that would transform Europe? Where did the energy come from, the motivation for enormous sacrifices of time, effort, and money by thousands of people—even of their lives, in the case of thousands of Parisian men who volunteered to serve in the revolutionary armies? Where did they draw the inspiration, the heroism, the faith? If some of it came from the Enlightenment, then how could the city of Enlightenment, with its growing material prosperity, growing religious toleration and humanitarianism, its exceptionally high rates of literacy and education, and its extraordinary confidence in the perfectibility of humanity, have become the scene of revolutionary violence, of extremism, persecution, and bloodshed? These questions haunt all writing on eighteenth-century Paris and they are one of the central preoccupations of this book.
To address them we need to go back at least to the beginning of the century and to strive for a long-term view of the city's development. Too much writing on the French Revolution, even on its causes, begins with the 1770s or at best the 1750s. The "Old Regime" becomes simply the status quo ante: the political and social system that existed before 1789, static, "traditional," and unchanging.8
It is true that the revolutionaries, who first used the term ancien régime,
portrayed it this way. It was in their interest to do so, since the idea of a new departure, a regeneration of debased and corrupt Babylon, was the whole justification for their enterprise. The prerevolutionary monarchy also portrayed itself as static: again it had to, because tradition, precedent, and stability were its sources of legitimacy. Yet Old Regime Parisian society was far from static. It was changing rapidly, and particularly after the middle of the eighteenth century, when demographic and economic expansion and the Enlightenment began to have a major impact.
A great many books have been written about Paris. Yet a few years ago when I taught a course on the history of Paris I was astonished to find that there was no readily available general history of the city in the eighteenth century. Certainly, some aspects of Parisian life have been exhaustively researched, and much of that work is available to English readers. Students of literature have pursued novelists and philosophes into the salons and the libraries of the city. Robert Darnton and others have written wonderful accounts of some of the journalists, printers, and booksellers for whom the Enlightenment was a means of livelihood.9
Architectural historians have traced ideas about building styles from blueprint to completed edifice.10
Higher education and the medical world have been comprehensively explored by Lawrence Brockliss and Colin Jones.11
A number of studies focus on politics in Paris, and much work about France as a whole inevitably contains much on the capital.12
There are also a great many books and articles dealing with particular institutions and those who peopled them: hospitals, theaters, the courts.13
Our understanding of the Paris trades has recently been revolutionized by Steven Kaplan and Michael Sonenscher.14
There are some partial social histories available in English, such as Arlette Farge's Fragile Lives
and my own work on neighborhood communities and on the Paris middle classes. Other books deal in an anecdotal way with daily life in the city, usually primarily with the social elites, and some of them make good reading.15
Yet in the last thirty years, only two works available in English can claim to be general introductions to the social and economic history of eighteenth-century Paris. Jeffry Kaplow's marvelously evocative work The Names of Kings,
although focusing on the laboring poor, is a rich source for the social and economic geography of the city, and for elite as well as popular ideas and attitudes. Kaplow drew attention to the importance of the dissident religious movement known as Jansenism, to the significance of the city's floating population, and to the relevance of medical thought to the program of late-eighteenth-century urban reformers. He found and used sources hitherto neglected. But The Names of Kings
came out in 1972 and has been superseded by a large quantity of new work. We now know far more about the economy and politics of the city, and about both the popular and the middle classes. Furthermore, the conceptual and historiographical framework of Kaplow's book is now dated—its quest for an eighteenth-century Marxist-style proletariat and its organizing notion of a "culture of poverty." Since the 1970s, too, feminist history and the "new cultural history" have transformed our approaches to social relationships and to social change.
The second general introductory work on eighteenth-century Paris, available in an excellent English translation, is Daniel Roche's enormously rich People of Paris,
first published in 1981. It is informed by an innovative approach to material culture that Roche has subsequently developed in other work and that has inspired many other historians. The People of Paris
focuses on wage earners but sheds some light on other social groups. It too contains a superb survey of the social and economic geography of Paris and more thoroughly explores the social composition of the popular classes. It employs new sources and methods and, unlike Kaplow's book, has much to say about changes across the century, in living conditions, patterns of consumption, and manners.
Yet both of these books deal primarily with the popular classes and therefore offer only hints of some of the wider changes that were taking place in the city. Neither has much to say about politics or gender. Both are organized thematically, and it is not easy to get a sense of how the city operated at any one moment. Nor does either author take the story into the revolutionary years or explore the ways in which changes during the eighteenth century help us understand the Parisian experience of revolution. Kaplow, in the end, finds little evidence of change in the politics of the laboring poor, and Roche does not attempt to link the evolution of material culture to the mentality and politics of revolution.
My purpose is to explore how the city and the lives of its people changed between 1700 and 1800. My primary focus has been on social relationships, not institutions or occupations. I have tried to show how the transformation of material life, the appearance of new ideas and social practices, demographic shifts, and far-reaching religious, political, and institutional change all had a profound long-term effect on Parisian society and on the ways of thinking of the population. Obviously, not every aspect of life or every social group can be included. There are some we as yet know only a little about: Jews and Protestants, much of the foreign-born population, the ordinary clergy of the parishes, homosexuals.16
Some of the key sources—the parish registers, the tax records, and the archives of the trades corporations—have disappeared. These misfortunes leave the economic and demographic history of Paris little known, while huge areas of religious and lay sociability remain mysterious to us.
This also is a local history, not a national or even a regional one. Paris cannot be separated from the rest of France, of course, and some of what I say about Parisian society is true of other parts of eighteenth-century France, particularly the cities. Yet Paris is not France. The social changes I am describing often happened differently, or at different times, in other places. The Parisian urban environment itself was hugely important, the city far more than a backdrop against which events took place. The size and topography of Paris not only created practical problems for administration and economic life but promoted ways of thinking and social practices that were at odds with the "official" social order. Parisians' relationship to space, whether they saw it as sacred or secular, as belonging to them or to someone else, as friendly or hostile, had a big impact on their thinking and their behavior. Interpretations of the urban environment as pestilential, or unnatural, or ugly, were influential components of the social and gender ideologies of the late eighteenth century. In all of these ways the city was a player in its own history.
Through the first half of the eighteenth century Paris remained overwhelmingly a "corporate" and "customary" society characterized by a powerful sense of hierarchy. It is a world very foreign to us today. The whole political and social structure of eighteenth-century France was based on the idea of "corporations," in which the original organic sense of "body" remained strong. "All of your subjects, Sire," the Parlement of Paris reminded Louis XV in 1776,
are divided into as many different bodies as there are different groups (états) in the kingdom. The clergy, the nobility, the sovereign courts [of law], the lower courts, the officials attached to these tribunals, the universities, the academies, the financial companies, all represent, throughout every part of the state, bodies that one can consider as the links of a great chain, the first of which lies in the hands of Your Majesty as the head and sovereign administrator of the whole body of the nation.17
The Parlement might have added to its list every town and village council in France, the forty thousand or so parish councils, and hundreds of thousands of other bodies. In Paris alone there were around fifty parish vestries, hundreds of religious confraternities, over 120 trade guilds, and many other professional groupings. Even the soldiers of the city watch, the fishermen on the River Seine, and the town criers had a corporate identity. Every one of these bodies was legally constituted, with its own statutes, approved by the Crown and legally registered. Each one ran its own affairs, held meetings, elected its own officials. Membership of a corporation bestowed legal rights, privileges, and indeed obligations. This was where local political life took place in Old Regime France.
It was possible to belong to more than one corporation. But those who belonged to none—many unskilled laborers, the homeless, beggars, some of the peasantry, more women than men—had no legally enforceable rights. Even so, the corporate mentality was so powerful that some of these people were part of neighborhood or trade communities that, while lacking any legal existence, offered them customary rights and gave them a place in a hierarchically ordered society.
Custom and hierarchy were the organizing principles of this corporate society. Within every community, however humble, innumerable unwritten conventions and usages governed the relationships between people. Poor, rich, female, male, young or old, all were subject to the dictates of custom. It determined the calendar, the rituals of state and Church, the rights and privileges enjoyed by families, individuals, and groups. Each person, according to his or her rank and station, had customary rights and obligations, determined (in theory at least) by long practice. The early chapters of this book explore how the corporate city functioned; how it was governed; and how it was held together by relationships—often tense and conflictual ones—that nevertheless bound not only people of similar rank but also rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless.
By the 1750s and 1760s, though, the customary, corporate, and hierarchical social organization of Paris was being seriously challenged—though not eliminated—by changes in the city's economy and demography, by new ideologies and new social practices. Attempts to reform and "civilize" the city, often initiated by the royal authorities and spurred by changes in religious thinking and by new medical theories, were beginning to affect people's everyday lives. From midcentury on, educated Parisians were increasingly influenced by enlightened ideas and by economic and material changes that were widening the gulf between rich and poor. They were more anxious about the physical and moral consequences of city life, and about rising crime rates. They were adopting patterns of cultural and material consumption that combined to broaden their horizons not only beyond their quarter or parish, but beyond the city and even outside France. In response to all these things, many began to abandon their commitment to collective values and sanctions, and to place more stress on individual religious belief and on individual rights.
Both the "middling sort" and the noble and wealthy elite of Paris began to aspire to a broader "metropolitan" culture, a shared culture yet one that each group lived and interpreted in different ways.18
The old hierarchies certainly did not disappear, but they became blurred. A "confusion of ranks"—something the upper classes often complained about—was facilitated by the growing wealth and consumer practices of part of the population, by greater movement around the city, and by the impossibility of enforcing either sumptuary laws or deference. The rule of law was actively promoted by magistrates, lawyers, and by servants of the state and was gradually accepted by the nobility. In a large and increasingly anonymous city the rule of law was in almost everyone's interest, yet it supplanted older codes of civility and of custom. In tandem with all of these developments, the philosophers and novelists of the Enlightenment disseminated new ideologies of "equality." So too did new social practices. The Société philanthropique founded in Paris in 1780 not only proclaimed the equality of all its members, whatever their rank, but constituted a new form of lay organization with no statutes and hence no legal existence. It is one of the best examples of "private people come together as a public," creating new forums for social and political action.19
These were all steps, as we can see with hindsight, toward a class society, although the completion of that process would take decades longer.
The social and cultural transformation of the eighteenth-century city did not in itself cause the Parisian Revolution of the 1790s. But they do explain a great deal about the form that it took. I say "Parisian Revolution" deliberately. The revolution that took place in the capital was in many respects different from the one that convulsed rural areas and small towns. It was in general more radical and less easily controlled (by either local or national elites), thanks in part to the size and economic dynamism of the city, in part to the strange mix of subjection and independence specific to the prerevolutionary urban environment. The culture of Paris was more egalitarian and more secular, strongly influenced by Jansenism but also by the particular relationship between state, monarchy, Church and city. The character of the Parisian Revolution was influenced by the monarchy's attempt to reform and control urban life. Arising in part from Enlightenment thought, in some measure from state building, and partly from social change, the action of the Old Regime authorities helped broaden political awareness and encouraged the growth of a participatory political culture. Another significant factor was the way emerging uses of urban space by all groups in Paris helped create new alliances alongside new social and political ideologies that were also stronger in the capital than elsewhere. The burgeoning consumer culture, in its origins an urban phenomenon, was one of the bases of significant social tensions both during the Old Regime and in the revolutionary years. Alongside all these changes, the continuing importance of a customary culture among certain elements of the Paris population helped create expectations of what the Revolution would bring and prompted disappointment and sometimes direct action when it fell short. While many of these characteristics applied to other urban centers, notably Marseille and Lyon, and indeed to cities outside France, they were more marked in Paris.
Nevertheless, I am not suggesting that the evolution of eighteenth-century Paris predetermined the shape of revolutionary events. Decades of historical research have demonstrated that it is impossible to predict, from the prerevolutionary career or socioeconomic position of most individuals, precisely how they would react when confronted with an entirely unforeseen situation. It is not as if the teams were already lined up in 1789, waiting only for the signal to begin. Certain events of the 1790s—the persecution of nobles and of the clergy, even the overthrow of the monarchy—were produced by developments during the Revolution itself and were not inevitable in 1789 or even in 1790. Yet to suggest that changes in thinking during the preceding decades opened the way for these developments and helped shape the way they happened involves no contradiction. The Parisian Revolution did not spring from nowhere. Changes in the city and its society during the eighteenth-century made certain events possible and sometimes even likely. They helped shape the reactions of Parisians to new situations and provided the physical, social, and cultural context for revolution.
The events of the 1790s in turn did much to shape the nineteenth-century history of Paris. Conservatives have seen in the French Revolution a great disaster, a bloody spectacle that hindered economic growth and fostered irreligion. Left-wing and liberal historians, until recently, have portrayed the Revolution as a victory for the bourgeoisie, opening its way to political power and greater economic control. Both representations are oversimplifications. The Parisian Revolution brought tragedy, misery, and disillusionment yet fostered new ideologies of hope. It reinforced trends that were already present before 1789—the social and cultural continuities are very important—but at the same time transformed the earlier period's political and social ideologies, including those of gender. It was both destructive and enormously creative. Whether interpreted positively or negatively, the revolution penetrated every cul-de-sac and attic room. It changed the city's social organization, urban environment, and the way people thought about the world around them. It was, to use a favorite eighteenth-century metaphor, the phoenix's pyre: both a culmination and the beginning of a new world.