S2.E4 Unboxed: French Revolution Documents and Broadsides

“Hey, everyone! Thanks for tuning in!

This is the UCSB Undergraduate Journal of History Podcast. This season, we are sharing with you our archive stories of unboxing the stuff of history from the vaults of the UCSB Library Special Research Collections. 

I’m your host Zoe Benink, a fourth-year history of public policy and law major. 

In today’s episode of Unboxed, I’m going to share French Revolution documents from the special collections at UCSB. 

For some images of today’s archival collection, follow us on Instagram at @ucsbhistjournal.  

Ok. Let’s see what this gray Hollander box has in store for us today.

– Act 1 –

Upon lifting the lid to the gray hollander box, I saw a series of discolored, timeworn documents beneath a protective veil of plastic. The sight of meticulously penned French words was intimidating, but nonetheless, I was eager to unravel the history of the French Revolution.

The collection is officially titled, “French Revolution Documents and Broadsides, circa 1790 to 1793”, and contains 15 papers. Last quarter, I took a French Revolution class with Professor Covo so when I saw this archive on the website I got really excited— this and also the fact I had a hyperfixation with les mis growing up. 

– Act 2 –

Before getting into the documents, I wanna preface that there is a lot of translation from French to English that happened. 

The first document I’d like to highlight is the “Biens Nationaux A Macon” document, which means “National Properties in Macon.” For context, Macon is a district in east-central France, north of Lyon. 

Starting in November of 1789, the estates and possessions of the Catholic church in France were seized by the National Assembly in Paris after the passing of a decree that placed all Church property ‘at the disposition of the nation’. These were declared “national property” or biens nationaux, and sold to offset the financial crisis caused by the French Revolution. 

The concept of national property was later extended to include the property of émigrés (meaning French aristocrats who fled France in the years following the revolution), which was confiscated after 1789. 

After translation, we find this document was created on January 5th and states, “at nine o’clock in the morning, we administrators of the district of Mâcon… were transported, accompanied by the national agent, to the audience room of the said directory… reception of the first auctions… the said goods consist; namely: pierre salomion antoine desbois.” Desbois was a nobleman who was the last grand bailiff of macon. 

This document is significant for many reasons. First, it provides a glimpse into administrators’ involvement in the auction of seized goods at the local level. The mention of a specific person (Pierre Salomion Antoine Desbois) also adds a personal dimension to the broader historical narrative of the French Revolution

I’d also like to share the “Certificat De Civisme” , a compelling document from the period known as the “the Reign of Terror,” during the French Revolution.

The Reign of Terror occurred between 1793 and 1794, and is marked by extreme political violence, mass executions, and suppression of perceived counter-revolutionaries.

During the reign of terror, the Committee of Public Safety created a system of political and moral surveillance by issuing certificates of civisme to people who had good conduct and political orthodoxy. To demonstrate loyalty to the revolutionary government, individuals were required to obtain this certificate

We see that someone in particular is being awarded this certificate. After translation, it states, “in accordance with the law, we have delivered to him the Prefect Civil Service Certificate, in accordance with the law, which he can use if necessary.” 

This raises the question of what specific criteria this person followed to obtain this document. It doesn’t give us anything more to work with. But overall, this document gives us an understanding of the intense scrutiny individuals faced in proving their allegiance to the revolutionary government. 

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Elena: I hope you’re enjoying this episode of Unboxed. My name’s Elena– 

Troy: And I’m Troy. Both Elena and I are members of the UCSB History Club and avid listeners of UNBOXED. That’s right. Troy. 

Elena: The UCSB History Club is a big supporter of the Undergraduate Journal of History and hope that listeners of Unboxed will also consider joining us at History Club events. 

Troy: We sure do Elena! The History Club at UC Santa Barbara is a student run campus club that meets weekly during the academic year. We host faculty and graduate student speakers as part of our fireside chat series. We also get together to play games and study, host potlucks, and holiday themed events. 

Elena: And Troy, don’t forget that sometimes we even travel to local heritage sites around Santa Barbara. So if you want to get in on the fun, follow us on Instagram @UCSBhistoryclub. We hope to see you at the history club meetings soon. Okay, now let’s get back to this episode of Unboxed. Oh, I can’t wait to hear how this one ends.

– Act III –

The last document I want to cover is the “Commune D’Alais (De-Les), certificate of residency.” Alias is a commune in the Gard department in the Occitania region in Southern France.

During the French Revolution, problems of citizenship, such as who to include and exclude, were important to the revolutionary process of establishing and defining the new nation. The rules governing how foreigners could legally become French evolved throughout the 1790s. 

From 1790 to 1795, foreigners could gain citizenship through marriage, residency, property, business ownership, or recognized status as a bourgeois member of a French city.

Here we see a certificate of residency awarded to 8 individuals by the general council of the commune of the municipality of Alais. The document doesn’t provide any information about the backgrounds of these individuals or how they earned the certificate of residency which leaves us with a lot of questions. 

– Summary –

So you might be thinking, how does the Biens Nationaux A Macon, Certificat De Civisme, and Commune D’Alais documents add to our understanding of the French Revolution? I would say the fact these documents focused on specific individuals really gives us a glimpse into the personal experiences and motivations during the revolution and leaves us eager to learn more about these people. Hopefully, this podcast episode has provided you with more information on the French Revolution and has inspired you to go check out the archives at UCSB. 

– Sneak Peak –

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unboxed. Be sure to join us next week when Danika shares their archive story of unboxing records of Senator’s opinions about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War from the UCSB Library Special Research Collections. To see some images of today’s archival collection, check out our Instagram page @ucsbhistjournal, and follow us on Spotify at the Undergraduate Journal of History: The Podcast.