Friday, May 28, 2010

A Walk in Revolutionary Paris: Part One

A well known historical anecdote (but which defies attribution to any definite source) goes: upon being asked for his opinion regarding the significance of the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai replied “It is too early to tell”. Some events in history are such upheavals that it takes centuries before we can offer an adequate assessment of their significance.

Every year I start a course on Modern History with a unit on the French Revolution. From August until October I meet my class, usually about ten students, three or four times a week and we study this earth shattering event. In early October we finish our unit by taking the train to Paris for a four day study trip. It is one of my rituals of the academic year, Paris in the autumn. We stay at my regular, small hotel, in the centre of the Latin Quarter. Each student takes a site strongly linked to the revolution and prepares a 15 minute presentation. We plot a route ahead of time and during the next three days we walk the length and breadth of Paris, and the students give their presentations, creating a self-guided walking tour to Revolutionary Paris. Of course we stop at many cafes en route.

The revolution proper was preceded by the Tennis Court Oath in June 1789, a revolutionary act in itself, when the representatives of the Third Estate, or commoners, declared that they no longer represented just their Estate, but all people of France. The moment was immortalized by David’s famous painting The Tennis Court Oath – I usually get permission from the museum to have a student give a presentation on this event while standing next to the actual painting.

           The Tennis Court Oath by David

Most people associate the revolution with the fall of the Bastille. A student gives a presentation on the Place de la Bastille, noisy and heavily trafficked today; then we walk to a nearby museum to view these souvenirs hewn from the Bastille itself. The next photo shows a model of what the Bastille looked like. But it is a model with a difference, being made from a block of stone from the Bastille itself. Such models became bestselling souvenirs in the late 18th century, a must have for any truly ardent revolutionary.

This is followed by a presentation on The Rights of Man and Citizen, which was declared by the revolutionaries in August 1789. This photo shows a student giving a presentation on the influence of the declaration as she stands next to the original.

Outside the huge Pantheon, where the heros of the revolution are buried, a student gives a presentation on the architectural symbolism of the revolution.

Then we go inside the building and visit the crypt, where some of the heros of the revolution are buried. A student gives a presentation on the Enlightenment as we stand between the remains of Voltaire and Rousseau.

       Voltaire's Grave

       Rousseau's Grave

Some years ago I discovered the house where the radical leader Robespierre lived throughout most of the revolution. It was in this house that he was arrested, to be beheaded the following day, a stone’s throw from the house. Despite being the most powerful man in France during the years 1793-’94, Robespierre maintained a simple way of life and he lived in a rented room in a carpenter’s house. We stand in the courtyard of the house while a student gives an analysis of the importance of Robespierre’s role in the revolution. This student is sitting on a staircase that leads from the courtyard directly to Robespierre’s room.


  1. The two ways to help students understand the significance of major historical events is:
    a] get them to present material themselves, thus encouraging them to think through the issues before they stand up and speak, and
    b] take them to where it all happened.

    You are fortunate; you can do both. And when your students are 85 years old and writing their memoirs, they will remember the experience fondly. I would give my eye teeth to be able to take my students on a three day walk throughout Paris (although I would be looking at the Baron Haussmann to Belle Epoque era).

  2. A coincidence Hels, I used to do a three day tour that focussed on the period of the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque - the solution would be to take a one week trip and cover both the revolution and the 19th century. I am very lucky - tomorrow I leave for a five day trip to Istanbul with 25 students: The theme is to search for traces of the Ottoman past in today's Istanbul.