French History @IHR: Joseph Clarke on Providence and Politics in Revolutionary France

Date and Place: Monday 18th November 2019 in the IOE, Bedford Way, Room 728

Speaker: Joseph Clarke (Trinity College Dublin)

Paper Title: Making Sense of Revolution – Providence and Politics in Revolutionary France

Chair: Andrew WM Smith

On 18 November 2019, the IHR Modern French history seminar welcomed Dr Joseph Clarke from Trinity College Dublin, with Dr Andrew Smith chairing. During the session, Clarke set out the convincing argument that the language of providentialism was central to revolutionaries’ thought and practices from 1789 and during the years that followed. While a large section of the historiography of the French Revolution focuses on secular modernity, often assigning providentialism to the vocabulary of reactionaries, Clarke’s work builds on current research by scholars of that period that argues that the French did not live in a disenchanted world. Indeed, faith in divine providence remained central to the ideas, discourse, and practice of many. This is something that he has recently discussed in an article entitled ‘“The Rage of the Fanatics”: Religious Fanaticism and the Making of Revolutionary Violence’ published in French History (of which Clarke is also an editor).

In the seminar paper, Clarke defined providentialism as the belief that human destiny is determined by a divine entity. This framework helped him answer broader questions: How did ordinary French men and women make sense of the Revolution? What stories did the French tell themselves about the Revolution?

To investigate the continuity of providentialism in public life and in contemporary thought, Clarke looks at the protocols of ceremonies, including thanksgiving services, which he showed were spontaneous acts of devotion during which French people thanked god for the revolution. Providentialism also helped ordinary French men and women to make sense of the bewilderment triggered by the fall of the Bastille. Many thought that the speed with which the prison had fallen meant that human agency could not wholly explain this event. He then looked at popular culture, focusing on prints and songs that promoted the idea that a divine intervention had determined France’s revolutionary fate. Considering the revolutionary wars, Clarke referred to private letters to demonstrate how many French soldiers believed that providence was both a protective and punitive force primed to strike down the enemies of the revolution at home and abroad.

Of course, this providential reading of the revolution did not go unchallenged, particularly among radicals. At this point, Clarke focused on the debates that occurred among the Jacobins in general, and around Robespierre in particular.

In conclusion, Clarke showed that the conventional historiographical reading that suggests a linear development towards secularisation after 1789 needs to be complicated. Instead, as he shows, there was instead an intense re-sacralisation across French society in the late eighteenth century that framed the ways ordinary people processed revolutionary change.

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