The Fronde

I’ll say up front, I am somewhat biased about this book. I lived through its creation, which was over a decade of my father researching and writing and organizing his history. I’m also not necessarily recommending you all run out and buy it; it’s an academic’s piece for academics, though it can be read like a novel and it’s quite engaging if you do so. Growing up with a historian, surrounded by other historians, it was kind of impractical to ask my father “what about the American revolution?” and get a high-level answer. “It’s complicated.” Indeed.

That’s why I am going to drop a few pieces from this book: revolutions are complicated. I think it’s time to talk about the process of revolution, because there’s a lot of casual “There’s going to be a revolution!” talk going about and … well, it’s just fractally wrong to say something like that. By “fractally wrong” I mean “wrong at every level of detail.”

There are things I feel I should pull out and summarize, and other places where I feel like I should just quote extensive swaths. I may do a bit of both. This won’t exactly be a book report, or a book review, or even a teaser: it’s a bunch of fragments and interesting bits and fascinating things I learned. To give you an example:

How many of you know that there was not “A” French Revolution?  There was a series of them, about nine, that ended in The Big One that became The Terror.

How many of you have heard of The Revolt of The Judges? This is perhaps my favorite French Revolutions thing, ever. The crown maintained for itself the right to arrest someone, turn them over to the court, and order the court – basically – “convict this person and sentence them to imprisonment in the Bastille!”  A process similar to how US political prisoners are created. As France began the tremors of revolution, at one point the judges responded to the crown’s arrest orders by being unavailable to hold court, which meant that it wasn’t possible to try anyone and imprison them. Oops. This occurred at a critical time, when the crown really would have appreciated being able to take certain people off the field, but couldn’t.

Revolutions are fractally detailed. Someone has to throw the first rock, kill the first cop, make the first IED, pull the trigger. It is always that way.

I. Breaking The Law

Is revolution breaking the law? The immediate response to this question is that revolution is much more complex and large-scale than lawbreaking. Many instances of petty crimes and felonies come quickly to mind, crimes that certainly must have occurred in seventeenth-century France, though there was nothing revolutionary about them.

But what obtains when individuals or groups of individuals willfully break the law? Or fail to comply with it? An inability, and a refusal, to pay taxes marked the beginnings of the Fronde.

And what happens when a complicity develops between lawbreakers and the residents of the neighborhood, city, or countryside where lawbreaking occurs? Law enforcement officers and individuals who were refusing to comply with the laws of the land alike felt surrounded by the eyes of a hostile crowd or population. Weapons brandished by the police and judges black robes suddenly failed to convey authority, as a silent complicity with lawbreakers developed. Now, for all but a tiny minority of the population, the French state was little more than a law-enforcement agency and a tax collector. It offered nothing in the way of social services and could not always assure order and respect for property. For seventeenth-century Frenchmen the Fronde was an ever-widening and deepening support for an increasingly radical and willful violation of the king’s laws.

Even if defended on some higher moral ground, lawbreaking and adamant refusals to comply with orders (for example, an order to turn one’s hay or crops over to the army) break the tissue of respect that binds state and society. If illegal action causes property damage, physical injury, or death, those entrusted with maintaining order are compelled to prosecute offenders and bring them to justice.

What occurs when the people charged with keeping the peace begin to break the law? In the France of the Fronde, royal officers began showing a massive “lack of zeal” in prosecuting lawbreakers as early as 1645, and this complicity turned into outright strikes and disregard for the law in the spring of 1648.

Tax officials reported to Paris that peasants simply would not pay taxes, and that in many instances could not do so. Occasional reports of peasants breaking into tax offices and destroying records, setting fire to houses in which tax officials lived, or physically intimidating or accosting those officials were all part of the routine of seventeenth-century government. Without a company or two of soldiers to support his efforts to raise taxes by confiscating property for non-payment, the tax collector could do little but wring his hands and inform Paris that tax revenues in his district had dried up.

The line between enforcing the law and complicity with those who could not or would not pay up was often very thin. After all, while the recalcitrant peasant might be socially inferior, he was a neighbor and occasionally even a relative. At the local level the highest percentage of tax revenue did indeed come from those who were the most well-off. While it is impossible to discern just how able to pay were the coqs du village – that is, the more propertied villagers or the owners of tiny plots who survived by selling their labor to others – it is nonetheless possible to infer the existence of a complicity about non-payment among both the better off and the truly marginal laborer in a peasant community. And also the existence of a complicity with the tax collector, or to be more accurate simply “a lack of zeal” about carrying out his duties.

The Fronde in Paris began when the Parlement of Paris, the principle law court charged with prosecuting violators of the law, stopped hearing cases. In contemporary terms we would say that the judges went on strike. Though the judges broke no statutes when they suspended their work, they ignored a royal edict ordering them to resume trying cases. At precisely that moment the judges became lawbreakers, and the state’s powers to enforce law and order virtually ceased.

The judges of the Parlement of Paris – and those in the Great Council, the Chamber of Accounts, and the Court of Excises who followed their lead – wanted the boy king, his mother the regent, and above all the Council of State to be aware that they were breaking the law. At this point, during the spring of 1648, they had not yet worked out lofty moral grounds for ceasing their duties. These would be articulated in the months ahead.

Carrying their illegal actions a step further, these judges from various courts joined together and solemnly decided to sit as a collective deliberative body – not in order to enforce the king’s laws but to discuss the issues “troubling” the state. In short, by breaking the law, judges were making a bid for power, were striving to assume an exclusive right claimed by the Council of State, namely the right to rule France. The image of sober black-robed judges meeting together to discuss tax cuts scarcely conforms to our contemporary image of a revolutionary council. These same judges, however, were lawbreakers; and as royal decrees from the Council of State thundered across the Seine from the Palais Royal ordering the judges to cease and desist their deliberations about matters on which only the Council could make decisions, it became evident that a general breakdown of law enforcement had occurred and that the state, as defined by contemporaries, was tottering and threatened with collapse.

The great lesson that early-modern European revolutions can teach the contemporary world is that revolutions may also be made by individuals who already hold power. One does not have to be excluded from power, or be a guerilla warrior, to be a revolutionary. When law enforcement officers – tax collectors, police commissioners, and judges – stop enforcing the law, they in fact break the law and challenge the stability of society. Thus they tear away the power of the state.


I love “the revolt of the accountants”!!

Revolutions do not occur when armed bands barricade the street, or snipers begin interdiction and harrassment attacks on military convoys. This is why I tend to laugh at the all-too-easily stereotyped “2nd Amendment Buff” who keeps their weaponry as if it were some kind of talisman that protects them from the abuse of the state. By the time it’s time for snipers and IEDs, there will be plenty of weapons to be had, because the final stage of revolution is when the regular military begins to divide its loyalty between the rebels and the state. People who fantasize about taking their rifle to the streets, like a minute man, ignore the fact that the power of the state must already be so weakened that it cannot prevent people taking to the streets with rifles. Put differently: a dozen well-placed accountants can do more to destroy the power of a state than a hundred riflemen.

When I find myself in a conversation about revolution, I find that most of the people I meet are deeply steeped in the American propaganda about its own revolution. That was propaganda necessitated by the US’ rapid transformation from an imperial colony to an oligarchy: the new rulers of the new state needed “lofty moral grounds” that were articulated in the months following the successful revolution. Mostly, that was done by pointing at the writings of Thomas Paine, which were ignored in fact in the implementation of what was to come (Paine was radically democratic and anti-slavery)

So you say you want a revolution? First, you’d better be able to answer the question my father asked the Students for a Democratic Society Frondeurs who occupied Low Library in the 60s: “Suppose you do overthrow the USA, how do you keep what you create from turning into a dictatorship?” [stderr] The US damn near did. France did. Russia did. Egypt did. The list goes on and on and on. The only approach that I would see as working is not overthrowing a government but fragmenting it and disempowering it, while remaining vigilant at all times for the appearance of the inevitable would-be Bonaparte. In this context we can almost see Trump as a Bonapartean figure: the fake two-party system overplayed its hand and undermined the legitimacy of its own state through its weaponized use of budget theatrics – congress disempowered itself and the new Jacobin radicals (“Tea Party”) sprouted the seeds of destruction: the US was left with a ‘choice’ between a representative of the ancien regime, and a bomb-throwing ideology-spouting asshole. The surprise is mostly Trump’s because he clearly expected to be able to rule like a dictator and is petulantly disappointed that he’s being forced to negotiate for power with the US political class that he thought he could casually dismiss. The good news is that Trump is not popular enough to assume power as a dictator: he lacks the élan of a Bonaparte or the charisma of a Caesar. I see him as a squib that fired too soon. Lucky us!

Cyprus bank 10k run, 2013

Cyprus bank 10k run, 2013

I use inner terminology for some of this: “weaponization” when applied to philosophical or political topics, is what I call it when you take an idea and invert it so as to make it a point of attack. So, for example, weaponizing Epicurus would be a matter of asking “what is it that brings comfort to my enemy?” with a follow-on: “…. and how do I take it away from them?”  In politics, weaponizing the foundations of the state against itself would be analyzing what underpins the state, to find weaknesses that can be exploited. Usually, in history, this happens as a natural side-effect of things going wrong: France at the time of the Fronde was also suffering from famine that was just mild enough not to disempower the populace, but severe enough to make everyone worried. And there was the endless-seeming wars like the futile war with Spain that was ongoing at the time. Russia’s revolution similarly resulted when the state accidentally knocked out its own underpinnings through its military disaster in WWI and famine.

We can look at the US and see, easily, places where US standard practices can be weaponized to pressure the state and possibly cause it to fail. Depending on the amount of credibility you assign to various theories, Osama Bin Laden did exactly that, by luring the US into Afghanistan (and accidentally got a “two-fer” in Iraq)  What worries me is that there are people out there who are thinking this way: the strategists behind ISIS being the most prominent example. They observed what happened to the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and are cheerfully sucking the empire further and further into the quagmire; they will defeat the US because there’s no amount of money that can be spent or high explosive that can be dropped (a form of money) that will remediate the US’ position in the greater Middle East. These are weaponizations of US strategies against US interest. What are some we could do? The obvious one is to attack the money supply. It would be hard to do as good a job as Wall Street is already doing, but an orchestrated run on the banks would be legal and devastating and best of all it would be mostly devastating to the oligarchs, who would Flip The Fuck Out. A general tax revolt would also be devastating (and would confer the side-benefit of forcing the US to choose whether to spend money on its military or domestic police, with predictable results). Other attacks on the American Way of Life would be to engage in cultural warfare: re-instate the draft as a bogus cost-saving measure and peel the military’s loyalty from the state by making it resentful and representational of the population at large. Encourage the US to go to war with Iran; a massive, insanely costly and immoral war, prosecuted by America’s overpriced, overstretched, military would probably break the military/industrial complex’ monopoly on violence. Another fairly obvious attack would be to weaponize the military’s religious bias and racism against itself and begin fomenting internal divisions in the military: that’s why the US Government has worked so hard to eradicate Anwar Al Awlaki and his bloodline.

There are many obvious reasons I don’t think we should be doing all or any of those things, yet. Mostly, because I don’t think the scary scenarios of the US turning into an Orwellian nightmare are practical. The US is too big and too stupid, for one thing. And too over-extended for another.

The US is not close to the misery level that France and Russia experienced prior to their revolutions. In both of those countries, the vast majority of the people had nothing. In France, something like 70% of the land was owned by the crown and the nobility, and another 15% by the catholic church. The clear argument is that the nobles and clergy got sloppy and stole too much; they couldn’t control their own rapaciousness and the famines and tax revolts were an inevitable consequence of the insane inequality in the country. Of course, inequality in the US is rising rapidly, and the wealthy appear to be set on removing the social safety net from the poorest part of the population. The imperialists in Rome were smart enough to try to buy the people off with bread and circuses – the oligarchs in charge of the US appear to be too crazed with greed to think strategically. Things will have to get much much much worse before there could be a revolution from the masses, but the kind of middle-tier revolution of the Fronde: it could happen.


  1. nastes says

    Hi Marcus,
    Tha books sounds really interesting, I put it on my reading list!
    I started to find the French revolution a bit more fascinating since I moved to Paris (I also realized I did not know much about it to begin with…)

    And in case you do not know it: Revolutions podcast ( ) is in my opinion a good podcast on (surprise, surprise) revolutions, including the French one.


  2. says

    What a fascinating book! Definitely went on my reading list. I just got myself pulled out of the French Revolution last night (and plunged into 13th century Ireland), reading Fred Vargas’s latest, A Climate of Fear (Temps Glacier). A historical association looms large in the book:

    ‘No,’ said Danglard, passing from one photo to another. ‘It’s a very faithful re-enactment of the sessions of the National Assembly during the Revolution. Am I right?

    ‘Quite right,’ said Chateau, his smile even broader.

    ‘I presume that the speeches being declaimed by the orators and the other deputies are the actual historical texts?’

    ‘Of course. Every member receives a full text of the session for that evening ahead of time, with his own interventions marked, depending on who he is playing. It’s done via a website that you need a code to access.’

    Depending on who he’s playing?’ asked Adamsberg.

    What was the point of playing at the Revolution?

    ‘Yes, necessarily,’ replied Chateau. ‘one member will play Danton, another Brissot, Billaud-Varenne, Robespierre, Hébert, Couthon, Saint-Just, Fouché, Barere and so on, all the leading politicians of the time. He has to learn by heart the speech he will deliver. We function over two-year cycles, from the sessions of the Constituent Assembly of 1789 to the Convention of 1793-1794. We don’t do them all of course! Or the cycles would last five years, would they not? We choose particularly representative or memorable dates. In short, we are scrupulously reproducing history. The result is rather impressive.’

  3. says

    I’m not familiar with the revolutions podcast! I will be. I just took a look at their back-catalogue and it looks like someone has put a huge amount of time into the material; this ought to be good!

    It’s wonderful to be able to wander around Paris and see the places where the mobs ruled. My family used to stay in a little hotel near Place Nation, where the guillotine did its work. And the cafe where I liked to have brunch was right in Saint Honore, where Napoleon gave the whiff of grapeshot. I’m glad I can only see those things in my imagination.

    Paris probably never looked like Aleppo does now, but it was certainly as nasty at times. And when you start inventorying all the factions and players, the Jacobins, the Montagnards, the Chouans, the Sans-culottes, etc – it makes the situation in Syria seem simple (except it’s not)

    The movie “Danton” is worth a watch, too and it’s probably on netflix. I recall the costumes and interiors are great.

    One of the things I had trouble with for a long time was the fanatical zeal that Bonaparte managed to inspire. And (knowing a bit about Danton, Marat, Robespierre, et al, growing up) it never made sense to me that people would play politics so hard. “Deadly serious” doesn’t even begin to describe it. It only begins to make sense when you look at it as the culmination of those peoples’ entire lifetimes being spent in political turmoil and uncertainty. This is one of the reasons I am dismissive of many positions that see the Middle East as somehow “fixable” by the injection of outside military ‘assistance’ – when things are as screwed up as France was 1770-1814 you’re going to have characters emerging that from a completely different world in terms of political cynicism and they manage you, not the other way around. I remember asking my dad, once, why Robespierre was the way he was, and dad said something like, “Initially, he was an idealist.” That was sort of his stock answer for most of those people and, of course, it was a really good explanation.

  4. Siobhan says

    How many of you know that there was not “A” French Revolution? There was a series of them, about nine, that ended in The Big One that became The Terror.

    I don’t remember if it was snark from a French scholar or my history teacher, but I was taught about “The Revolving Door Revolution” spanning years, rather than “the” revolution.

  5. says

    I’m currently plowing my way through the Revolutions podcast’s (as referenced by nastes) gargantuan series on the French Revolution (1785-179?). It is fucking exhausting and I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to retain.

    I’ve been meaning to get “Liberty or Death: The French Revolution” by Peter McPhee, but will also add “The Fronde” to my way-too-big Amazon wishlist.

  6. says

    He has to learn by heart the speech he will deliver


    I still have those Fred Vargas books on my input queue, which has gotten way out of control this winter. :(

  7. says

    I Have Forgiven Jesus@#5:
    It is fucking exhausting and I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to retain.

    You shouldn’t try. It’s a whirlwind. I think that’s the main point. It’s incredibly interesting to see how everyone’s lives got intertwined and elevated or broken, and it all seems so random, to me. I think the reason to learn about these events is so we can come away with fragments that remind us of the whole thing. And if you ever get to visit the places, they look so ordinary now.

    Dan Carlin has an episode in his Hardcore History Podcast on the “Macedonian Soap Opera” which gives me a similar feeling. It’s just a high level whipthrough of who killed who and betrayed what and poisoned so-and-so delivered at breakneck speed. It makes its point.

  8. says

    “The Revolving Door Revolution” spanning years, rather than “the” revolution

    That was good. A lot of the time it’s taught like there was a great big event, and then they chopped some people’s heads off, and then Bonaparte came and Made France Great Again. It’s more complicated than that!

  9. says

    The names and places just run together after a few episodes (figuring out the spellings for further Googling has been a nightmare). I honestly think I’d have an easier time of it if Dan Carlin were the narrator – he just speaks in a way that I hang on every word (although I definitely can’t say the same about “Common Sense”). The guy on Revolutions just doesn’t do it for me, but I think it’s worthwhile just getting a thematic outline.

  10. Holms says

    “Is revolution breaking the law?”

    Pfft, easy question. If the revolution lost, then yes, it was illegal… If it won, then no. Brought to you by the concept of history being written by the victors.

  11. says

    Huh. So, just yesterday, someone mentioned this book to me in a completely unrelated context. It looked interesting, I noted that its author had the same surname as a blogger I read, but I wasn’t completely pushed over the line in terms of buying it. That appears to be fixed now :)

  12. says

    I didn’t put it on my recommended reading list because I thought that might look bad. But also: it’s not general literature – it’s an academic’s book for academics. (Those are the author’s own words!) There are a lot of really fascinating bits in it, but about halfway through you will be clutching your temples saying “How did anyone keep all this straight!?” I remember only a very little bit about the details, and the big picture I come away with is that revolutions tend to be great big swirling messy affairs with many factions pulling in all directions and there’s a certain amount of backstabbing and frontstabbing (Marat!) and you don’t get the kind of clean story we’re presented with when the propagandists are done with it. I’ve read a bit about the Russian revolution, and the English revolution, and it’s the same great big whirl of confusion. “Great big whirl of confusion” is mostly what I remember of all three of those revolutions.

    I don’t want to make this book part of my regular “Recommended Reading” list but if you want, I’ll be happy to offer you my guarantee. You’ll find it interesting but unless you have an amazing memory or plan to become a French historian, you’ll lose most of the details.

  13. says

    That’s very generous of you! Still, I very much doubt I’ll be a burden on your finances, as, although I’m not a historian I am relatively experienced with reading reasonably academic works. And it certainly sounds like I’ll get my money’s worth out of it, even though I’m sure there’ll be a few brainmelts and a need for my technical-reading-notepad along the way :)