A Natural History of Revolution: Violence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination, 1789–1794

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9780801449420: A Natural History of Revolution: Violence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination, 1789–1794
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How did the French Revolutionaries explain, justify, and understand the extraordinary violence of their revolution? In debating this question, historians have looked to a variety of eighteenth-century sources, from Rousseau's writings to Old Regime protest tactics. A Natural History of Revolution suggests that it is perhaps on a different shelf of the Enlightenment library that we might find the best clues for understanding the French Revolution: namely, in studies of the natural world. In their attempts to portray and explain the events of the Revolution, political figures, playwrights, and journalists often turned to the book of nature: phenomena such as hailstorms and thunderbolts found their way into festivals, plays, and political speeches as descriptors of revolutionary activity. The particular way that revolutionaries deployed these metaphors drew on notions derived from the natural science of the day about regeneration, purgation, and balance.

In examining a series of tropes (earthquakes, lightning, mountains, swamps, and volcanoes) that played an important role in the public language of the Revolution, A Natural History of Revolution reveals that understanding the use of this natural imagery is fundamental to our understanding of the Terror. Eighteenth-century natural histories had demonstrated that in the natural world, apparent disorder could lead to a restored equilibrium, or even regeneration. This logic drawn from the natural world offered the revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying revolutionary transformation. If thunder could restore balance in the atmosphere, and if volcanic eruptions could create more fertile soil, then so too could episodes of violence and disruption in the political realm be portrayed as necessary for forging a new order in revolutionary France.

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About the Author:

Mary Ashburn Miller is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College.

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"Miller . . . does offer a convincing argument, demonstrating how tropes from the natural world―earthquakes, lightning, mountains, swamps, and volcanoes―were used as political propaganda, to justify the violence and eventual regeneration wrought by the Revolution. In short, she examines scientific, literary, and political texts to prove the importance of language in shaping and propagating revolutionary thought from 1789 to 1794. Her acute selection of thirteen period illustrations, like the one on the jacket, enriches her discussion, further proving that communication may be just as effective whether expressed through written or visual images."―Ivy Dyckman, New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century (Spring 2013)



"Miller Ashburn Miller succeeds in breathing new life into the topic. Part of her success is owing to her demonstration of how much these rhetorical gestures owed to recent advances in science and natural history. But Miller also offers an intriguing narrative of the rise and then sudden decline of a specific strand of revolutionary rhetoric, which put a set of violent natural occurrences―earthquakes, lightning strikes, volcanoes―to ideological use as metaphors for social and political events. The upshot of the story, Miller claims, bears directly on our understanding not just of revolutionary violence but of the Reign of Terror itself."―Johnson Kent Wright, The Journal of Modern History (December 2013)



"Anyone inclined to think that there is nothing much more to be said about the French Revolution ought to read this fresh and exciting new book. Historiographically sophisticated and deeply researched, it combines the best of extant French revolutionary scholarship with seminal insights drawn from environmental history and the history of science to offer a novel vision of the Revolution as natural wonder, a spectacle both awful and sublime. At once a political history of nature and a natural history of politics, Mary Ashburn Miller's creative work will be of interest to all who study the eighteenth century, as well as to anyone keen to see how new methods and approaches can continually animate the past."―Darrin M. McMahon, Ben Weider Professor of History, Florida State University



"A Natural History of Revolution is a bold and strikingly original study of revolutionary political culture. Mary Ashburn Miller argues that the French revolutionaries of 1789–1794 turned new 'enlightened' understandings of natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, lightning, and volcanoes into powerful verbal and visual metaphors that made revolutionary violence appear not only natural but also necessary, even providential. Graceful prose and fascinating analysis make this book a pleasure to read and a provocation to discuss."―Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University, SUNY, author of Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon



"Earthquakes, floods, lightning strikes, volcanoes . . . . By listening closely to the metaphors of natural disaster with which the French revolutionaries peppered their speech, Mary Ashburn Miller arrives at a wholly new explanation for the violence of the Terror. A Natural History of Revolution is itself a tour de force."―Sophia Rosenfeld, University of Virginia, author of Common Sense: A Political History



"Mary Ashburn Miller's fabulously creative and historically revealing book shows how beliefs about nature informed the French Revolution and sometimes excused its violence. Mistakenly interpreted as the triumph of the will, the revolutionary era in fact allowed for disguising sometimes murderous human choices as if they were part of the course of nature: lightning strikes, the earth trembles, and mountains―when they become volcanic―explode. It has long been known that 'revolution' began as a scientific notion later assigned to human events, but only Miller has explored the inseparable connection that the natural and the political maintained. A gift for historians of science interested in naturalistic discourse, literary readers insistent that figurative language matters, and Europeanists concerned with the origins of modern politics, A Natural History of Revolution is a wonderful lesson in how the social imaginary shapes real politics in every era."―Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History



"In this illuminating book, which draws on cultural, intellectual, and political history, Mary Ashburn Miller shows how examples from natural history served not only to justify but also to encourage violence during the French Revolution."―Dan Edelstein, Stanford University, author of The Terror of Natural Right: The Cult of Nature, Republicanism, and the French Revolution

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Book Description Cornell University Press, United States, 2011. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. How did the French Revolutionaries explain, justify, and understand the extraordinary violence of their revolution? In debating this question, historians have looked to a variety of eighteenth-century sources, from Rousseau s writings to Old Regime protest tactics. A Natural History of Revolution suggests that it is perhaps on a different shelf of the Enlightenment library that we might find the best clues for understanding the French Revolution: namely, in studies of the natural world. In their attempts to portray and explain the events of the Revolution, political figures, playwrights, and journalists often turned to the book of nature: phenomena such as hailstorms and thunderbolts found their way into festivals, plays, and political speeches as descriptors of revolutionary activity. The particular way that revolutionaries deployed these metaphors drew on notions derived from the natural science of the day about regeneration, purgation, and balance.In examining a series of tropes (earthquakes, lightning, mountains, swamps, and volcanoes) that played an important role in the public language of the Revolution, A Natural History of Revolution reveals that understanding the use of this natural imagery is fundamental to our understanding of the Terror. Eighteenth-century natural histories had demonstrated that in the natural world, apparent disorder could lead to a restored equilibrium, or even regeneration. This logic drawn from the natural world offered the revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying revolutionary transformation. If thunder could restore balance in the atmosphere, and if volcanic eruptions could create more fertile soil, then so too could episodes of violence and disruption in the political realm be portrayed as necessary for forging a new order in revolutionary France. Seller Inventory # AAJ9780801449420

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