Citizens : a chronicle of the French Revolution

by Simon Schama

Hardcover, 1989




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1989.


This award-winning, worldwide bestseller is an authoritative social, cultural and narrative history of the French Revolution.

Media reviews

Recumbent readers beware. Those who like to do their poring lying down will scarcely rush to take up this book. It is monumental. Once hefted, however, and well balanced on lap, knee or chest, ''Citizens'' will prove hard to put down. Provocative and stylish, Simon Schama's account of the first few years of the great Revolution in France, and of the decades that led up to it, is thoughtful, informed and profoundly revisionist. Mr. Schama, who teaches history at Harvard University, has committed other large and readable tomes. But nowhere more than here does he challenge enduring prejudices with prejudices of his own. His arguments, though, are embedded in narrative. Above all, he tells a story, and he tells it well.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wildbill
I had this book for a number of years before I got around to reading it. I shouldn't have been so lazy. I thought that this was a very good book. The author has a nice literary style, like Barbara Tuchman. He is a university professor, more of a scholar than Barbara Tuchman. In the preface he emphasizes two points. He went out of his way to write a narrative history of the French Revolution as opposed to a social history and he disagrees with the standard historiography on the causes of the French Revolution. Schama's review of the facts takes him to the actions of the aristocrats as a prime cause of the Revolution. It is my understanding that he was one of the first of a group of historians that were moving in that direction.
In France the world was changing and things were getting very tight and competitive for everybody. Anyone with privilege was squeezing all the money they could from it and at the same time asserting it's protection from the State, like not paying taxes. If the Parlement of Paris would have cooperated with Louis XVI instead of refusing to pay any taxes he would not have had to call the Estates General which began the revolution. The Estates General brought together the future leaders of the revolution. The political rhetoric of those men brought about the violence and drastic change that characterized the revolution.
The French Revolution is often portrayed as the victory of the bourgeoisie which created the modern nation state. Schama portrays it as a one of a kind, unique event. Since all history is different, he is right. Still there are at least some trends and some very distinct changes take place in the political landscape.
Schama cites to Rousseau a lot as the philosophical Father of the Revolution. Schama is very specific about the doctrine of the general will and its' use by the leaders of the Revolution. LaFayette is one of the prime action figures. His experience in America made him a natural and he grabbed at the power immediately. Little did he know.
Schama does an extensive portrayal of Louis XVI. He comes across as a nice mediocrity. He did have some interests and liked to work with his hands. Still the royal flight to Varennes was not very well done. Louis just couldn't give his wife an order. It got pretty savage and the speeches of Danton were very good.
I have this on audio so I can listen to it again. I sure that I could learn some more from it.
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LibraryThing member ccjolliffe
What is the significance of "Citizens"? To borrow Zhou Enlai's quip, it's too early to tell. The definitive account of the most controversial event in modern history will never be written, but the definitive attack on the republican orthodoxy may well be here. Schama's prose bristles with sardonic energy -- right down to the last word of his bibliographic essay! -- and if he occasionally gets carried away with his own "rhetorical adrenaline", there can be no doubting his command of the scholarly resources. This is one of those seismic books that alter the landscape of historical interpretation.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hubster
Simon Schama has a wonderful way of injecting passion into writing about history without descending into pop sensationalism, and this to my knowledge, is one of his best.

If you're a veteran of history books in general you're probably the sort happy with long reads which which this is. For those of you not don't panic as the pages fly once the words start to pull you in. Take your time and remember that this is covering a fairly epic subject in social history.

On a single down note, despite having read this several times over I've never been very comfortable with the first chapter. Not sure why myself as it's not badly written, but that's only a few pages. About time I gave it a re read when I get chance I think.
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LibraryThing member seabear
This is an extraordinary work of history. Schama brings the Revolution to life in a way that is reminiscent of a novel. The violence is brought to the fore in a way which I suspect is more appropriate than the prominence of ideology or demagoguery I've found in other works - and not only the September massacres or invasion of the Tuilieries, but small(er) events like the suicide of the Bishop of Grenoble in 1788, the suicide of Lamoignon, sacked minister of the crown, or the execution of Malesherbes.

I did think the narrative dropped off a little after the execution of Louis. It also focuses more on the causes of the Revolution and the changes that came with it rather than describing the events of the 1790s in a clear and chronological way. Probably not great as a first introduction to the Revolution. A standard history like The Oxford History of the French Revolution by William Doyle (1990) -- or something shorter -- would be good to read first.
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LibraryThing member literarysarah
Simon Schama is a master historian whose detailed account of the French Revolution remains engaging to the end. I recommended this book to three coworkers and now they're all Simon Schama fans. Lucky for us, he's a prolific writer and continues to choose fascinating topics to explore.
LibraryThing member Pippilin
An excellent ( but difficult ) read; in-depth study of the French revolution.
LibraryThing member experimentalis
too many words and too much obscurantism. however, i kept reading it
LibraryThing member billiecat
A book I waited over ten years to read, having seen it reviewed when it was published in the later 1980s and wanting to read it then, but not actually doing so until recently. Schama's voice, so well-known now from his "A History of Britain" television series, is on display throughout this book. Schama's deep investigation of the intellectual underpinnings of the Revolution and his criticism make this a fascinating account and a tough read. At times, Schama expects a familiarity by the reader with topics a casual student might not be aware of, but this book is far beyond a simple chronicle, despite it's subtitle.… (more)
LibraryThing member gmicksmith
How did we get citizens in the West? The short answer is that we have inherited death and taxes in service to the nation state. Though, there are a few advances, such as Baron Turgot's handling of the corvee.

"The corvee is the force labor service, which commoners owed to the state and from which much of its road building program had been named. Turgot was quite right o suppose that the corvee was generally loathed in the French countryside for abducting a precious (indeed often the only) source of manpower from a tiny family farm precisely at the time when it was most needed for crucial labor, such as plowing or harvest. The corvee could be commuted by the payment of a sum of money, but that presupposed that the peasant belonged to the kind of cash economy where this was feasible, and for the vast majority of the French peasantry nothing of the sort was true (p. 85)."

Turgot eliminated corvee so at least the peasants were better off in at least one respect.
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LibraryThing member alexleonard
Very detailed history of the French Revolution, with a detailed examination of the myriad factors that caused it. Engaging and well written.

My only criticisms would be that the huge number of names thrown at you can be a bit overwhelming - you're never sure whether a new name that is being introduced is one that you should take note of as it might pop up repeatedly, or whether it will just disappear as fast as it was mentioned.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hubster
Simon Schama has a wonderful way of injecting passion into writing about history without descending into pop sensationalism, and this to my knowledge, is one of his best.

If you're a veteran of history books in general you're probably the sort happy with long reads which which this is. For those of you not don't panic as the pages fly once the words start to pull you in. Take your time and remember that this is covering a fairly epic subject in social history.

On a single down note, despite having read this several times over I've never been very comfortable with the first chapter. Not sure why myself as it's not badly written, but that's only a few pages. About time I gave it a re read when I get chance I think.
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LibraryThing member hugh_ashton
The people and the surroundings that shook up Europe. Not a dramatic history, but after reading this, you have the feeling that you know why things happened, not just what happened.
LibraryThing member lisapeet
This has been on my nightstand for ages. The original plan was to read a chapter every Sunday night, and somewhere along the way I fell off that horse... but I fully intend to get back on. I love Schama's writing, and I really want to know my French Revolution inside and out.
LibraryThing member Becky444
Intelligent, well-documented history by a master.
LibraryThing member SHAUNAMURPHY
there's little doubt that schama is a master-storyteller. However, I would have prefered that he made the whole subject a little more exciting. It was too dull for me.
LibraryThing member Westwest
I bought this book when it came out in 1988 for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It has patiently sat on my shelves all these years and it was worth the wait. It sad to think that I may never get to read some of the books I've bought this year.
LibraryThing member raizel
Very detailed.
LibraryThing member kcshankd
Extremely readable narrative history. This has to be the definitive, 'entry-level' take on the French Revolution. I personally would have preferred more explicit references - footnotes, etc - on the areas I was especially interested in. I thought the ending of the book felt rather thrown together, but don't know enough about French history to suggest a better 'end point'.… (more)
LibraryThing member deckehoe
A visceral telling of the French revolution, starting and closing with Talleyrand and Lafayette. Well-written, told at breakneck speed, and covers a wide variety of players. Schama does not go into sufficient detail on particular aspects of the revolution, but if you are looking for an overall picture of the myriad reasons and results of this tumultuous period, this is a must.… (more)
LibraryThing member Luchtpint
There's not a great deal to say about the actual content of this book. The French Revolution is essentially much more interesting than Schama has presented it in Citizens. The events have been retold by many historians I've read before, and without exception, they all do a much better and rousing job of it than Schama has done. I suppose I really needed to read this one at some stage, given the fact that it is supposed to be a classic in many ways, but OMG, what an awful slog it was !

Schama has this irritating knack of using arcane / obsolete styles of commenting that remind me of 19th century philosophy, personal correspondence or even poetry, the latter evidenced by his tedious inclination to construct far-fetched metaphors.

Truth of the matter is that he can't captivate a wider audience this way, and I am getting the sneaking suspicion that this wasn't his intention anyway ! The author seemed to be primarily showing off in front of his academic colleagues by making this a personal essay stuffed up to the hilt with tiresome redundancies on just about any small detail he felt the need to be nit-picking on. He pays inordinate attention to irrelevancies whilst barely mentioning pivotal events, and I can imagine if he had discarded all this dross beforehand, there wouldn't be much of a story left !

This is not exactly a narrative you want to read from start to finish, for, if anything, it certainly feels like a highly personalized pseudo-intellectual dissertation, rather than a book destined to enlighten the general public. Which explains the hyper-analyzing, the grandiose ruminations on minor issues, the forced hyperbole and the continuous sidetracking towards unnecessary complexities the average reader is not going to bother himself with.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Professor Schama has managed to write a boring history about one of the most dramatic events on modern history.
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LibraryThing member MatthewFrend
An exceptionally well-written an accurate history. Schama's incredibly deep knowledge and understanding of the events and key figures of the French Revolution is translated into a colorful and enlightening epic. One gets the feeling that the author's insights have led you to a balanced understanding of the reasons for how and why those tumultuous events unfolded the way they did. Although the Terror has traditionally been portrayed as mob violence, Citizens gives a more insightful perspective, taking into account the treason of the French monarchy, the impending threat of invasion by the monarchies of other countries, and the royalist uprisings outside of Paris intended to thwart the rise of liberty in France. It was not surprising that desperate and ruthless measures were taken to protect that which the people had fought so hard to achieve.
A wonderfully enjoyable read.

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LibraryThing member rivkat
A lot of the book is a lead-up to the Revolution proper, which Schama argues had major continuities with rationalizing reforms attempted but not fully carried out beforehand. Reading it now, my main takeaway was how fluid the situation was; it wasn’t clear what would stick and what would fail, and people could rise and fall and rise again, in ways that seem a little too much like the present situation for my comfort.… (more)
LibraryThing member cpg
Wow! Schama is quite a writer, and the French Revolution gives him a lot of good material to work
with. Schama's thesis is that brutal violence was not just an unfortunate aspect of the Revolution but lay at its very heart. With the caveat that Schama sometimes addresses adult themes (like, in this book, the sexual slanders made against Marie-Antoinette), I give his work an enthusiastic recommendation.… (more)
LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
One of the most enjoyable history books I have ever read, although I have heard rumours that Schama may not be one hundred per cent correct with some of the history. Citizens covers the French Revolution, from the spark to its place in history and involving all the major figures, including the great Talleyrand, surely everyone’s favorite historical figure.… (more)
LibraryThing member sloopjonb
Phew, finished it. I didn't know much about the French Revolution before starting this huge, thorough, comprehensive book, and I'm not sure I know much more now, because it took me so long to read it I've forgotten what happened at the beginning ... Anyway, very well written, quite entertaining in places, very informative. Ends with the Thermidor coup of 1793; I suppose this is technically the correct place to end a history of the Revolution, but I would have liked it to carry the story on up to Napoleon, myself. I suppose the book couldn't really have got much bigger, though. Question: will eBooks end the physical constraints on book size? Will future history works rival Gibbon for length, and will the 22nd century J K Rowling be even more prolix? *shudder*… (more)


Local notes

Dust jacket covered
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