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The French Revolution Glossary

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This is a glossary of the French Revolution. It generally does not explicate names of individual people or their political associations; those can be found in List of people associated with the French Revolution.

The terminology routinely used in discussing the French Revolution can be confusing, even daunting. The same political faction may be referred to by different historians (or by the same historian in different contexts) by different names. During much of the revolutionary period, the French used a newly invented calendar that fell into complete disuse after the revolutionary era. Different legislative bodies had rather similar names, not always translated uniformly into English. This article is intended as a central place to clarify these issues.

The three estates

The estates of the realm in ancien régime France were:

- First Estate (Fr. Premier État , le clergé ) - The clergy, both high (generally siding with the nobility, and it often was recruited amongst its younger sons) and low.

- Second Estate (Fr. Second État , la noblesse ) - The nobility. Technically, but not usually of much relevance, the Second Estate also included the Royal Family.

- Third Estate (Fr. Tiers État) - Everyone not included in the First or Second Estate. At times this term refers specifically to the bourgeoisie, the middle class, but the Third Estate also included the sans-culottes, the laboring class. Also included in the Third Estate were lawyers, merchants, and government officials.

Note: Fourth Estate, a term with two relevant meanings: on the one hand, the generally unrepresented poor, nominally part of the Third Estate; on the other, the press, as a fourth powerful entity in addition to the three estates of the realm.

Social classes

  • Royalty - House of Bourbon, After the Empire was established.
  • Nobility (Fr. noblesse) - Those with explicit noble title. These are traditionally divided into
    • "noblesse d'épée" ("nobility of the sword")
    • and "noblesse de robe" ("nobility of the gown"), the magisterial class that administered royal justice and civil government, often referring to those who bought a title of nobility (rich merchants).
  • Ci-devant nobility - Literally "from before": nobility of the ancien régime (the Bourbon kingdom) after it had lost its titles and privileges.
  • Bourgeoisie - Roughly, the non-noble wealthy, typically merchants, investors, and professionals such as lawyers.
  • Active and passive citizens - During the period of the Legislative Assembly, approximately half of the men of France were disfranchised as "passive citizens". Only "active citizens", a category based on taxes paid, could vote; they also formed the basis of the National Guard.
  • Sans-culottes - literally "those without breeches", the masses of Paris.
  • Peasants, who represent 90% of the French nation's population.

Constitutions

  • Liberal monarchical constitution - Adopted October 6, 1789, accepted by the King July 14, 1790.
  • The Constitution of 1791 or Constitution of September 3, 1791 - Establishes a limited monarchy and the Legislative Assembly.
  • The Constitution of 1793, Constitution of June 24, 1793 (Fr. Acte constitutionnel du 24 juin 1793, or Montagnard Constitution (Fr. Constitution montagnarde) - Ratified, but never applied, due to the suspension of all ordinary legality October 10, 1793.
  • The Constitution of 1795, Constitution of August 22, 1795, Constitution of the Year III, or Constitution of 5 Fructidor - Establishes the Directory.
  • The Constitution of the Year VIII - Adopted December 24, 1799, establishes the Consulate.
  • The Constitution of the Year X - Establishes a revised Consulate, with Napoleon as First Consul for Life.
  • The Constitution of the Year XII - Establishes Bonaparte's First Empire.

Governmental structures

In roughly chronological order:

  • The ancien régime - The absolute monarchy under the Bourbon kings, generally considered to end some time between the meeting of the Estates-General on May 5, 1789 and the liberal monarchical constitution of October 6, 1789.
  • Parlements - Royal Law courts in Paris and most provinces under the ancien régime.
  • The Estates-General, also known as States-General (Fr. Etats-Généraux) - The traditional tricameral legislature of the ancien régime, which had fallen into disuse since 1614. The convention of the Estates-General of 1789 is one of the events that led to the French Revolution. The Estates General, as such, met May 5–6 , 1789, but reached an impasse because the Third Estate refused to continue to participate in this structure. The other two estates continued to meet in this form for several more weeks.
  • The Communes - The body formed May 11, 1789 by the Third Estate after seceding from the Estates General. On June 12, 1789 the Communes invited the other orders to join them: some clergy did so the following day.
  • The National Assembly (Fr. Assemblée Nationale) - Declared June 17, 1789 by the Communes. The clergy joined them June 19. This was soon reconstituted as...
  • The National Constituent Assembly (Fr. Assemblée nationale constituante); also loosely referred to as the National Assembly - From July 9, 1789 to September 30, 1791 this was both the governing and the constitution-drafting body of France. It dissolved itself in favor of…
  • The Legislative Assembly (Fr. Assemblée Legislative) - From October 1, 1791 to September 1792, the Legislative Assembly, elected by voters with property qualifications, governed France under a constitutional monarchy, but with the removal of the king's veto power on July 11, 1792, was a republic in all but name, and became even more so after the subsequent arrest of the Royal Family.
  • The Paris Commune (French revolution) - During the waning days of the Legislative Assembly and the fall of the Monarchy, the municipal government of Paris functioned, at times, in the capacity of a national government, as a rival, a goad, or a bully to the Legislative Assembly.
    • Further, the Sections were directly democratic mass assemblies in Paris during the first four years of the Revolution.
  • The Provisional Executive Committee - Headed by Georges Danton, this also functioned in August–September 1792 as a rival claimant to national power.
  • The National Convention, or simply The Convention - First met September 20, 1792; two days later, declared a republic. The National Convention after the fall of the Montagnards (July 27, 1794) is sometimes referred to as the "Thermidorian Convention". Three committees of the National Convention are particularly worthy of note:
    • The Committee of Public Safety (Fr. Comité de salut public) - During the Reign of Terror, this committee was effectively the government of France. After the fall of the Montagnards, the committee continued, but with reduced powers.
    • The Committee of General Security (Fr. Comité de sûreté générale) - Coordinated the War effort.
    • The Committee of Education (Fr. Comité de l'instruction)
    • The tribunal révolutionaire 'revolutionary tribunal', instituted in March–October 1793 to prosecute all threats to the revolutionary republic, was the effective agent of the Comité de Salut Public's reign of terror in Paris until its dissolution on May 31, 1795.
  • The Directory (Fr. Directoire) - From August 22, 1795, the Convention was replaced by the Directory, a bicameral legislature that more or less institutionalized the dominance of the bourgeosie while also enacting a major land reform that was henceforward to place the peasants firmly on the political right. The rightward move was so strong that monarchists actually won the election of 1797 but were stopped from taking power by the coup of 18 Fructidor (September 4, 1797), the first time Napoleon played a direct role in government. The Directory continued (politically quite far to the left of its earlier self) until Napoleon took power in his own right, November 9, 1799 (or 18 Brumaire), the date that is generally counted as the end of the French Revolution. The Directory itself was the highest executive organ, comprising five Directors, chosen by the Ancients out of a list elected by the Five Hundred; its legislative was bicameral, consisting of:
    • The Council of Five Hundred (Fr. Conseil des Cinq-Cents), or simply the Five Hundred.
    • The Council of Ancients (Fr. Conseil des Anciens), or simply the Ancients or the Senate.
  • The Consulate (Fr. Consulat) - The period of the Consulate (December 1799 - December 1804) is only ambiguously part of the revolutionary era. The government was led by three indiviuduals known as Consuls. From the start, Napoleon Bonaparte served as First Consul (Fr. Premier Consul) of the Republic. In May 1802, a plebiscite made Bonaparte First Consul for Life. In May 1804 the Empire was declared, bringing the Revolutionary era to a yet more definitive end.
  • The tribunat was one of the legislative chambers instituted by the Constitution of year VIII, composed of 100 members nominated by the Senate to discuss the legislative initiatives defended by the government's Orateurs in the presence of the Corps législatif; abolished in 1807

Political groupings

  • Royalists or Monarchists - Generally refers specifically to supporters of the Bourbon monarchy and can include both supporters of absolute and constitutional monarchy.
  • Jacobins - strictly, a member of the Jacobin club, but more broadly any revolutionary, particularly the more radical bourgeois elements.
  • Feuillants - Members of the Club des Feuillants, result of a split within the Jacobins, who favored a constitutional monarchy over a republic.
  • Republicans - Advocates of a system without a monarch.
  • The Gironde - Technically, a group of twelve republican deputies more moderate in their tactics than the Montagnards, though arguably many were no less radical in their beliefs; the term is often applied more broadly to others of similar politics. Members and adherents of the Gironde are variously referred to as "Girondists" (Fr. "Girondins") or "Brissotins"
  • The Mountain (Fr. Montagne) - The radical republican grouping in power during the Reign of Terror; its adherents are typically referred to as "Montagnards".
  • Septembriseurs — The Mountain and others (such as Georges Danton) who were on the rise in the period of the September Massacres
  • Thermidorians or Thermidoreans - The more moderate (some would say reactionary) grouping that came to power after the fall of the Mountain.
  • Society of the Panthéon, also known as Conspiracy of the Equals, and as the Secret Directory - faction centered around François-Noël Babeuf, who continued to hold up a radical Jacobin viewpoint during the period of the Thermidorian reaction.
  • Bonapartists - Supporters of Napoleon Bonaparte, especially those who supported his taking on the role of Emperor.
  • Émigrés - This term usually refers to those conservatives and members of the elite who left France in the period of increasingly radical revolutionary ascendancy, usually under implied or explicit threat from the Terror. (Generically, it can refer to those who left at other times or for other reasons.) Besides the émigrés having their property taken by the State, relatives of émigrés were also persecuted.

Ancien régime taxes

  • Corvée - A royal or seigneurial tax, taken in the form of forced labor. It came in many forms, including compulsory military service and compulsory tillage of fields. Most commonly, the term refers to a royal corvée requiring peasants to maintain the king's roads.
  • Gabelle - A tax on salt.
  • Taille - A royal tax, in principle pro capita, whose amount was fixed before collecting.
  • Tithe - A tax to church.
  • Aide - A tax on wine.
  • Vingtième – 5% direct tax levied on income.
  • Capitation – A poll tax.

Months of the French Revolutionary Calendar

  • Vendémiaire

Vendémiaire (French pronunciation: [vɑ̃demjɛʁ]) was the first month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the French word vendange (grape harvest).

Vendémiaire was the first month of the autumn quarter (mois d'automne). It started on the day of the autumnal equinox, which fell between September 22 and September 24, inclusive. It thus ended between October 21 and October 23. It follows the Sansculottides of the past year and precedes Brumaire.

  • Brumaire

Brumaire (French pronunciation: [bʁymɛʁ]) was the second month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the French word brume (fog) which occurs frequently in France at that time of the year.

Brumaire was the second month of the autumn quarter (mois d'automne). It started between 22 October and 24 October. It ended between 20 November and 22 November. It follows the Vendémiaire and precedes the Frimaire.

In political/historical usage, Brumaire often refers to the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in the year VIII (9 November 1799), by which General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the government of the Directory to replace it with the Consulate.

  • Frimaire

Frimaire (French pronunciation: [fʁimɛʁ]) was the third month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the French word frimas, which means frost.

Frimaire was the third month of the autumn quarter (mois d'automne). It started between November 21 and November 23. It ended between December 20 and December 22. It follows the Brumaire and precedes the Nivôse.

  • Nivôse

Nivôse (French pronunciation: [nivoz]; also Nivose) was the fourth month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word nivosus, which means snow.

Nivôse was the first month of the winter quarter (mois d'hiver). It started between 21 and 23 December. It ended between 19 and 21 January. It follows the Frimaire and precedes the Pluviôse.

The new names for the calendar were suggested by Fabre d'Églantine on 24 October 1793. On 24 November the National Convention accepted the names with minor changes. So it was decided to omit the circumflex (accent circonflexe) in the names of the winter months. So the month was named Nivose instead of Nivôse. Historiography still prefers the spelling Nivôse.

  • Pluviôse

Pluviôse (French pronunciation: [plyvjoz]; also Pluviose) was the fifth month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word pluviosus, which means rainy.

Pluviôse was the second month of the winter quarter (mois d'hiver). It started between January 20 and January 22. It ended between February 18 and February 20. It follows the Nivôse and precedes the Ventôse.

The new names for the calendar were suggested by Fabre d'Églantine on October 24, 1793. On November 24 the National Convention accepted the names with minor changes. It was decided to omit the circumflex (accent circonflexe) in the names of the winter months. So the month was named Pluviose instead of Pluviôse. Historiography still prefers the spelling Pluviôse.

  • Fracoiss
  • Germinal

Germinal (French pronunciation: [ʒɛʁminal]) was the seventh month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word germen, which means germination

Germinal was the first month of the spring quarter (mois de printemps). It started March 21 or March 22. It ended April 19 or April 20. It follows the Ventôse and precedes the Floréal.

Germinal sometimes refers to the downfall and execution in March-April 1794—Germinal by the Republican Calendar-of the indulgents, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins.

  • Floréal

Floréal (French pronunciation: [flɔʁeal]) was the eighth month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word flos, which means flowering.

Floréal was the second month of the spring quarter (mois de printemps). It started 20 April or 21 April. It ended 19 May or 20 May. It follows the Germinal and precedes the Prairial.

Floreal is also the name of one town on Mauritius and another in Brazil.

  • Prairial

Prairial (French pronunciation: [pʁɛʁjal]) was the ninth month in the French Republican Calendar. This month was named after the French word prairie, which means meadow. It was the name given to several ships.

Prairial was the third month of the spring quarter (mois de printemps). It started May 20 or May 21. It ended June 18 or June 19. It follows the Floréal and precedes the Messidor.

  • Messidor

Messidor (French pronunciation: [mesidɔʁ]) was the tenth month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word messis, which means harvest.

Messidor was the first month of the summer quarter (mois d'été). It started June 19 or June 20. It ended July 18 or July 19. It follows the Prairial and precedes the Thermidor.

  • Thermidor

Thermidor (French pronunciation: [tɛʁmidɔr]) was the eleventh month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the French word thermal which comes from the Greek word "thermos" which means heat.

Thermidor was the second month of the summer quarter (mois d'été). It started July 19 or 20. It ended August 17 or 18. It follows the Messidor and precedes the Fructidor. During Year 2, it was sometimes called Fervidor.

Thermidor has come to mean a retreat from more radical goals and strategies during a revolution, especially when caused by a replacement of leading personalities (see Thermidor reaction).

  • Fructidor

Fructidor (French pronunciation: [fʁyktidɔʁ]) is the twelfth month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the Latin word fructus, which means "fruit".

Fructidor is the third month of the summer quarter (mois d'été). By the Gregorian calendar, Fructidor starts on either August 18 or August 19 and ends exactly thirty days later, on September 16 or September 17. Fructidor follows the month of Thermidor and precedes the Sansculottides.

Under this calendar, the Year I or "Year 1" began September 22, 1792 (the date of the official abolition of the monarchy and the nobility).

Events commonly known by their Gregorian dates

  • The 14th of July—The storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. The flashpoint of the revolution.
  • The 4th of August: The National Constituent Assembly voted to abolish feudalism August 4, 1789.
  • The 10th of August -- The storming of the Tuileries Palace, August 10, 1792. The effective end of the French monarchy.

Events commonly known by their Revolutionary dates

  • 22 Prairial Year II - Passage of a law greatly expanding the power of the Revolutionary Tribunals.
  • 9 Thermidor Year II - The fall of the Mountain and the execution of Robespierre and others, July 27, 1794.
  • 13 Vendémiaire Year IV - Failed coup and incidence of Napoleon's "whiff of grapeshot", October 5, 1795
  • 18 Fructidor Year V - The coup against the monarchist restorationists, September 4, 1797.
  • 22 Floréal Year VI - Coup in which 106 left-wing deputies were deprived of their seats, (May 11, 1798).
  • 30 Prairial Year VII - Coup backed militarily by General Joubert, under which four directors were forced to resign (June 18, 1799).
  • 18 Brumaire Year VIII - The coup that brought Napoleon to power, establishing the Consulate (November 9, 1799).

War

  • The First Coalition - the opponents of France 1793 - 1797: Austria, England, Prussia, Sardinia, The Netherlands, and Spain.
  • The Second Coalition - the opponents of France 1798 - 1800: Austria, England, Russia, and Turkey.
  • The Vendée - Province where peasants revolted against the Revolutionary government in 1793. Fighting continued until 1796.

Symbols

  • Fleur de lys - the lily, emblem of the Bourbon monarchy.
  • The "Marseillaise" - the republican anthem.
  • Tricolor - the flag of the Republic, consisting of three vertical stripes, blue, white, and red.
Cockades

Cockades (Fr: cocardes) were rosettes or ribbons worn as a badge, typically on a hat.

  • Black cockade - Primarily, the cockade of the anti-revolutionary aristocracy. Also, earlier, the cockade of the American Revolution.
  • Green cockade - As the "color of hope", the symbol of the Revolution in its early days, before the adoption of the tricolor.
  • Tricolor cockade - The symbol of the Revolution (from shortly after the Bastille fell) and later of the republic. Originally formed as a combination of blue and red—the colors of Paris—with the royal white.
  • White cockade - French army or royalist.

Other countries and armies at this time typically had their own cockades.

Religion

  • Civil Constitution of the Clergy (Fr. Constitution civile du clergé) - 1790, confiscated Church lands and turned the Catholic clergy into state employees; those who refused out of loyalty to Rome and tradition were persecuted; those who obeyed were excommunicated; partially reversed by Napoleon's Concordat of 1801.
  • Cult of Reason, La Culte de la raison - Official religion at the height of radical Jacobinism in 1793-4.
  • "Juror" ("jureur"), Constitutional priest ("constitutionnel") - a priest or other member of the clergy who took the oath required under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
  • "Non-juror", "refractory priest" ("réfractaire"), "insermenté" - a priest or other member of the clergy who refused to take the oath.

Other terms

  • Assignats - notes, bills, and bonds issued as currency 1790-1796, based on the and noble lands appropriated by the state.
  • Cahier - petition, especially Cahier de Doléance, petition of grievances (literally "of sorrow").
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Fr. Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen - 1789; in summary, defined these rights as "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression."
  • Flight to Varennes - The Royal Family's attempt to flee France June 20–21, 1791.
  • The "Great Fear" - Refers to the period of July and August 1789, when peasants sacked the castles of the nobles and burned the documents that recorded their feudal obligations.
  • Lettre de cachet - Under the ancien régime, a private, sealed royal document that could imprison or exile an individual without recourse to courts of law.
  • "Left" and right" - These political terms originated in this era and derived from the seating arrangements in the legislative bodies. The use of the terms is loose and inconsistent, but in this period "right" tends to mean support for monarchical and aristocratic interests and the Christian order and religion, or (at the height of revolutionary fervor) for the interests of the bourgeousie against the masses, while "left" tends to imply opposition to the same, proto-laissez faire free marketeers and proto-communists.
  • Terror - in this period, "terror" usually (but not always) refers to State violence, especially the so-called Reign of Terror.
  • Reactionary - coined during the revolutionary era to refer to those who opposed the revolution and its principles and sought a Restoration of the monarchy.
  • September Massacres - the September 1792 massacres of prisoners perceived to be counter-revolutionary, a disorderly precursor of the Reign of Terror.






Published - May 2011







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