The Insurgent Barricade
Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2011, ISBN: 9780520266322; 436pp.; Price: £27.95
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London
Date accessed: 3 June, 2023
In May 1995 Alain Corbin organised a conference on the history of the barricade, quite a novel departure at that time. Being asked to focus exclusively on one part of the insurrectionary process intrigued those of us invited to contribute. The findings, published by the Société de l’histoire du dix-neuvième siècle, drew attention to the barricade as a feature of 19th-century revolutions, particularly in France. The theme was taken up subsequently by Thomas Bouchet and Jill Harsin.(1) Bouchet highlighted the repercussions of the failed revolt rather than the impact of barricades on the events. Harsin offered descriptions of a variety of politically disruptive events from urban revolts to attempts to assassinate Louis-Philippe, but said little about the actual function of the barricade.
Mark Traugott has written an impressive number of works on 19th-century France include a ground-breaking study of the June Days, Armies of the Poor. Determinants of Working-Class Participation in the Parisian Insurrection of June 1848, a compilation of worker autobiographies which are essential reading for an undergraduate student of 19th-century social history, The French Worker: Autobiographies from the Early Industrial Era (1993) and seminal articles on 1848.(2) Holding a joint Chair in History and Sociology at the University of California, his stated determination to discuss concept and narrative separately gives this study a new perspective and agenda. While chapters one to three and five to eight are descriptive accounts of the use of barricades, the other chapters are more wide-ranging and theoretical. The more narrative chapters insist on a different chronology and a broader geographical perspective than most earlier studies. Historians have tended to assume that barricades only became a feature of urban revolt in the 19th-century. Traugott insists, quoting contemporary accounts and illustrations, that barricades were used two centuries earlier. The book also emphasises far more comprehensively than any earlier work the extent to which the French example was replicated in all the European revolts of 1848. Indeed if the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011 had occurred before this volume appeared, there may well have been a chapter at least on Freedom Square, Cairo.
Barricades evolved from the heavy chains that were strung from side to side of urban streets in parts of Europe in medieval times by prosperous citizens to defend themselves, sometimes from royal troops, sometimes from the local ‘underclass’. At the end of the 13th century the citizens of Ghent successfully used chains stretched across their streets to assert Flemish autonomy. In 1356 armed conflict was intense in France, both between Valois and Navarre factions and from the English under Edward III. In the extreme threat of civil disorder, Étienne Marcel, a wealthy merchant and senior administrator (prévôt de marchands) of Paris ordered the forging of heavy chains, firmly attached on the walls on either side of the main Paris streets. However the chains were not reinforced by barrels etc and the term barricade was not used.
In the late 16th century chains were reinforced with barrels (hence the term), carts, preferably loaded with heavy objects, paving and cobble stones, hefty lumps of furniture and whatever chunky material came to hand. The first defences that were identified as barricades were erected in Paris in 1588, although there is evidence that similar constructions were used a generation earlier. In 1588, during his conflict with the duc de Guise, Henri III tried to maintain control of Paris by stationing over 6,000 troops in the capital. Traditionally the capital had been held in order by its own militia. Citizens stretched chains across the main streets to try to keep out the king’s troops. The comte de Brissac, a close associate of Guise, suggested that the chains be reinforced with barrels filled with earth and paving stones. Within a few hours the Latin Quarter was covered in barricades and the king’s troops were unable to gain control. Brissac is thus often credited with inventing barricades, but perhaps only because their use on this occasion led to political change, contributing to the demise of the Valois dynasty. The idea of using barricades for urban defence spread to Lyon in 1589 and later to other cities.
The next significant instance was during Louis XIV’s minority when the Frondes, conflict between the parlements, representing the aspirations of the local elites, and the Regent, the Queen Mother, led to a period of prolonged upheaval. In 1648 again the specific provocation which sparked off barricade construction was the presence of massed royal troops in Paris. What was striking was the speed with which barricades were thrown up and the scale, perhaps 1,260 barricades were defended by 100,000 Parisians for three days. Almost equally disturbing for the authorities was the ubiquity of a popular memory of 1588 and the spontaneity of these barricades. The barricades of 1648 did nothing to resolve the conflict, but the memory of the sustained upheaval of which they were a part, ensured that Louis XIV and his successors were careful to protect royal power. Barricades disappeared in France until the 1789 Revolution.
Barricades next contributed to political change in Brussels in 1787. The Austrian Emperor Joseph II, as ruler of Brabant, attempted to institute reforms reminiscent of those urged by Enlightenment writers, including religious toleration and the abolition of guild privileges. The local elite, Roman Catholic, intensely conservative and proud of the autonomy of their Estates and their Civil Guard, protested at the lack of consultation. They stretched chains, reinforced by paving stones etc, to keep royal troops out of Brussels. Their successful rising and other instances of barricade construction led to full scale revolution and temporary independence in Brabant, terminated by invasion by French republican troops in 1792 and the imposition of precisely the reforms attempted by Joseph II.
In the prolonged upheaval of the 1789 Revolution, barricades were erected on a number of occasions, although historians tend to overlook them, and this author seems to note them merely to be absolutely precise, without trying to claim that these instances had any importance. Barricades were built on 14 July 1789 when the Bastille fell to a revolutionary crowd. They also appeared in Paris in June 1791 after the king’s flight to Varennes and twice in 1795, but they were very minor features of disruption in this period.
It was in the 19th century that barricades made the greatest contribution to political change. They were built in 1827 when Charles X clashed with the National Guard, and with far more import in July 1830, when the barricading of central Paris lost the king his throne. Spurred on by the Parisians, the Belgians raised barricades against the Orange dynasty, and successfully proclaimed their independence. In June 1832 came the most dramatically documented set of Parisian barricades, vividly recounted by Victor Hugo and still built nightly in a London theatre. In February 1848 the Paris revolution which unseated the Orleanist king, Louis-Philippe, saw barricades erected by the same skilled workers, in the same locations as in 1830 and 1832. Even more notable, barricades were a central feature of the unprecedented tsunami of revolts that followed the Parisian example in most European capitals.
Barricade culture was conveyed in engravings and the new European illustrated press, which quickly informed its middle-class readers of the Paris revolution. Many of these images appear in this volume, although one should recall that the art by which today’s undergraduates remember these events, Meissonnier, Hugo, Flaubert and Delacroix was, with the exception of Liberty Guiding the People, produced after 1848, Meissonnier’s Memory of Civil War (The Barricades,1848, shown first at the Salon in 1850-1851, Hugo’s Les Misérables in 1862 and Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale in 1869. Perhaps a better example of direct influence was the fact that foreign workers who had participated in the Paris revolution often took to the streets in their own capital cities, just as today’s Libyan rebels learned their fighting in Iraq. 1848 was the highpoint of barricade building, but only the Parisian February vintage actually led to a permanent change of regime. In 1871 barricades were confined to France, mainly to Paris, and were stylised symbols, rather than practical weapons, as the illustrations (p. 16 and p. 192) reveal.
The two final chapters focus on the wider perspective. There were 155 instances of barricade construction over three centuries, 92 of which occurred in France. Graphical representations show they were a real threat of regime change only in 1588, 1648, 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871, and then mainly in France. Around 4,000 barricades featured in the 1830 revolution. Their revolutionary efficacy declined with railways, the telegraph and the replacement of narrow streets with wide boulevards. However their mythic, symbolic influence went on to far exceed their practical impact in trying to unseat a regime. Unlike other insurrectionary techniques, the barricade was remarkably consistent in its structure over three centuries, as was the way in which insurrectionary crowds spontaneously organised themselves. Barricades could inspire less committed citizens and their opponents. The latter, usually the military, might, as in 1830 and February 1848, be won over to the rebels by the sight of local people, including retired military and women and children, defending a barricade, and providing the hungry, thirsty soldiers with sustenance.
Perhaps another reason why barricades ceased to be effective after February 1848, which is not dealt with in this book, was that soldiers became hardened to guerrilla warfare when they used artillery techniques that did not necessitate them seeing their enemy at close quarters. Traugott constantly repeats that barricades were designed to defend a neighbourhood. He might have taken this further to consider whether barricades had less resonance when workers no longer worked and lived in the same area. This was the case in Paris by the March 1871, and perhaps contributed to the failure to erect barricades spontaneously. The increasing power of the state to deprive those who manned barricades of their liberty and a livelihood, which is also not mentioned in this volume, is another factor which smothered insurrection after June 1848 in France. Louis Hinckner, in Citoyens-combattants à Paris, 1848-1851.(3) shows how those who fought on the barricades in 1830 and February 1848 were treated subsequently as heroic citizens to be rewarded, whereas those who joined barricades in June 1848, December 1851 and March 1871 always remained rebels, unworthy of a state pension, even from the Third Republic. Unfortunately Traugott does not discuss such aspects of the psychology which made people into barricade insurrectionaries.
This review has put together a continuous narrative of barricades and their relative success, which undergraduates may seek and at first will be disappointed at its absence in this volume, despite the excellent graphs (pp. 81–2). The substantial appendix A (pp. 243–311) consists of a database of barricade events, which includes not only comparable statistical data for each barricade, but also a brief summary of each event, but the overall effect is bitty and disconnected. The volume will be valuable for students, particularly those working on 19th–century history and those trying to fathom why fascination with barricades grew as their effectiveness as revolutionary tools declined. The three-century chronological span is admirable. This discussion on barricades and the culture of revolution should make students think, provoke debate, and take the topic further.
- Thomas Bouchet, Le Roi et les barricades. Une histoire des 5 et 6 juin 1832 (Paris, 2000); Jill Harsin, Barricades. The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830–1848 (Basingstoke, 2002).Back to (1)
- Mark Traugott, Armies of the Poor. Determinants of Working-Class Participation in the Parisian Insurrection of June 1848 (Berkeley, CA, 1985); The French Worker: Autobiographies from the Early Industrial Era (Princeton, NJ, 1993).Back to (2)
- Louis Hinckner, Citoyens-combattants à Paris, 1848–1851 (Villeneuve d’Ascq, 2008).Back to (3)
In responding to Pamela Pilbeam’s thorough and thoughtful review of The Insurgent Barricade, I will try to do three things: first, to set straight a couple of misapprehensions that I would not want to see gain currency in ongoing discussions of the history of the barricade; second, to engage some of Professor Pilbeam’s suggestions for where further study of the barricade phenomenon might go; and finally, to try to point out a couple of aspects of the book’s argument that are not addressed in depth in the review.
Professor Pilbeam begins by offering a detailed summary of the historical progression covered in the book. This will be of particular value to two categories of readers: first to those whose curiosity regarding barricades, while real, is also period-specific, and who would prefer to consult my book selectively; and second to those who may be interested in forms or techniques of collective action whose development parallels that of the barricade but who would hesitate to take on a tome of over 400 pages without some knowledge of its contents. Perhaps inevitably, the effort to render a long and complex argument more succinctly than I have been able to do has resulted in a few statements that require clarification, as they are not consistent with what I wrote.
For example, while acknowledging evidence I presented for the existence of barricades a generation earlier than the First Day of the Barricades, Professor Pilbeam nonetheless refers to the structures built in 1588 as ‘The first defences that were identified as barricades…’ This undercuts the main point of the chapter in question, which was to emphasize the essential ambiguity of historical origins, regardless of the phenomenon in question, and to try to clarify the processes that systematically privilege large events, led by recognizable personages, that take place in visible locations, even when their designation as the discrete moment of origination is demonstrably false. Thus, the review reprises the account of the comte de Brissac’s supposed ‘invention’ of the barricade without making it explicit that I reject this (and other) accounts that assign individual responsibility for what was, in fact, a collective process to which a considerable number of anonymous individuals made the crucial contributions.
As for the barricades which reappeared on multiple occasions during the 1789 revolution, I would agree that my discussion of them was partly aimed at correcting the historical record (in the face of categorical assertions by a number of noted historians that barricade use was unknown in that period). But at the same time, its larger purpose was to underscore the remarkable continuity in insurgents’ recourse to barricades at key moments in the history of French contention. This point underpinned the argument made in the concluding chapter of the book that a few peak moments in the long-term cycle of collective action – representing a relatively small proportion of the 330 years of history covered in the book – produced most of the important innovations in barricade use, an observation of much wider potential import. In this particular case, for example, the period of effervescence leading up to the French Revolution happened also to be the moment when barricades first spread beyond the borders of France (notably to Belgium, which Pilbeam mentions in connection with my discussion of that country’s use of barricades in 1830 without referencing its much earlier adoption of the tactic, beginning in 1787 and continuing throughout the Brabant Revolution).
A couple of other minor discrepancies are worth pointing out, if only to ensure that they do not become part of the acquired knowledge on the subject. First, the barricades that appeared in June 1791 in connection with the king’s flight were raised not in Paris but in Varennes, as part of the impromptu mobilization to capture the royal party. Second, of the hundreds of barricades constructed in Paris in 1871, a mere handful were ‘stylised symbols, rather than practical weapons’. The overwhelming majority are instead best described as entirely spontaneous barricades of classic form and function, which proved to be far more efficacious in the combat that ensued. The review’s subsequent reference to ‘the failure to erect barricades spontaneously’ in 1871 therefore risks being misleading, especially since my point in including a photograph of the most famous of the constructions of the Paris Commune’s Commission of Barricades was to illustrate why these prefabricated structures had to be ruled out of consideration as barricades in the sense that that term is used in my book.
As for new or alternative directions in which the study of barricades might be taken, I understand and sympathize with her wish that more attention had been paid to the motivation and psychology of individual insurgents; but in a work that covers three centuries of barricade use (and at one point takes the reader all the way back to the fourteenth century to consider the barricade’s antecedents in the medieval custom of extending chains), there were limits to what I could undertake. I have tried to address those issues in other contexts – for example, in a 1997 article written for the conference that Professor Pilbeam references at the start of her review, which examined the divergent orientations that developed as the 19th century advanced between categories of barricade defenders that I labeled ‘neighbors’ and ‘cosmopolitans’.(1)
With regard to the suggestion that barricades ceased to be effective after February 1848 because ‘soldiers became hardened to guerrilla warfare when they used artillery techniques that did not necessitate them seeing their enemy at close quarters’, this is certainly an insight worth pursuing and one that I see as entirely consistent with my general point of view. I do, after all, explicitly associate the decline in the barricade’s practical utility with the use of artillery against civilian populations (though I see this as a gradual process that can be traced at least as far back as Napoléon’s 'whiff of grapeshot', directed against one of the barricades of the French Revolution mentioned earlier). The issue of physical distance between insurgents and repressors may, however, turn out to be less crucial than it at first appears, because the critical moment when the barricade is capable of changing the course and affecting the outcome of a civil conflict typically occurs at a preliminary stage in the confrontation, when the opportunity for fraternization still exists, rather than when artillery fire has already begun. What is more, while recognizing that I am clearly in a minority, I am not a strong partisan of the view that Haussmann’s widening of Paris streets was in itself a major factor in the decline of barricade use. I find much more promising Pilbeam’s suggestion that workers who no longer worked and lived in the same districts were less inclined to turn to barricades as an insurrectionary technique. As I suggest in the book, this seems to have been a far more significant consequence of the rebuilding of Paris, which displaced to the suburbs a large share of the working population that had previously inhabited the central districts of the capital.
Like other scholars whose work falls squarely between disciplines, I am familiar with the problem that reviews inevitably emphasize one aspect of a book’s content more heavily than another. In these terms, I would characterize Professor Pilbeam’s as a historian’s review, as is entirely appropriate given both her own disciplinary affiliation and the fact that her text appears in Reviews in History. It is in these terms that I understand her regret over the absence of a ‘continuous narrative of barricades and their relative success’. But, because it risks leaving potential readers with a false impression, I feel the need to correct her statement, made near the beginning of the review, that, ‘While chapters one to three and five to eight are descriptive accounts of the use of barricades, the other chapters are more wide-ranging and theoretical’. Since there are only eight chapters to the book, this would suggest that only chapter four, the shortest of them all, has a conceptual purpose. It is certainly true that the early chapters, on which Professor Pilbeam’s synopsis is mainly focused, contain a great deal of historical detail. But chapters six (on the diffusion of barricades in 1848), seven (on the practical, sociological, and symbolic functions that barricades fulfill), and eight (on the long-term evolution that repertoires of collective action have undergone and the anomalous persistence that the barricade has exhibited, despite all these changes) – in addition to chapter four, which she explicitly references – are all primarily analytic in orientation. Readers who shy away from an approach centered in social-science history should be forewarned that a considerable portion of the book is theoretical in orientation (just as those who are more favorably inclined to such a perspective need to realize that they will be asked to wade through a substantial amount of historical detail, particularly in the first three chapters).
Let me close by noting the two brief mentions made of contemporary events, in particular the reference to ‘the “Arab spring” of 2011’. That insurgents of the present day (and in locations all over the globe) continue to build barricades as a way of linking themselves to the ideals that defined earlier insurrectionary episodes helps reinforce the central point I tried to make in my book. For me, the barricade, like other well established techniques of contention – the food riot, the strike, and the sit-in come immediately to mind – has a history of its own, the understanding of which sheds considerable light on how conflicts arise, are managed, and continually evolve. Without pretending that we can yet know whether the parallels that appear to link recent events with the ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ in 1848 are more than superficial, there are quite specific issues that cry out for explanation. Among the most obvious are the question of how a mass of individuals previously unknown to one another and with little in the way of pre-existing organization or material resources can mount effective challenges to powerful, long-established regimes; and under what circumstances events embedded in a seemingly unique historical and social context acquire the potential to spread like wildfire to new settings. Understanding how widely recognized, culturally transmitted repertoires of collective action make this possible is what The Insurgent Barricade is all about.
- See M. Traugott, "Les barricades dans les insurrections parisiennes: rôles sociaux et modes de fonctionnement," in Alain Corbin and Jean-Marie Mayeur, eds., La Barricade, (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997), pp. 71-81.Back to (1)