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Study information

Violent Justice, Legal Reform and Revolutionary Terror: Law in Eighteenth-Century France

Module titleViolent Justice, Legal Reform and Revolutionary Terror: Law in Eighteenth-Century France
Module codeHIH1613
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Dr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

This module will give you the opportunity to explore France’s eighteenth-century journey from absolute monarchy to revolutionary republic – all through the varied historical lenses offered by a rich vein of legal sources from across this defining period in European and World history. The module will demonstrate the wide range of legal sources available to us as historians, and it will also emphasise the centrality of law and justice to the complex story of France’s eighteenth-century development. As a result, you will gain an understanding of the potential (and pitfalls) of using legal sources and legal history to understand this revolutionary era.

Module aims - intentions of the module

  • This module aims to foster an understanding of the importance of legal structures and the justice system in eighteenth-century French society. In so doing, it will introduce you to a variety of sources which historians can use to understand the changing dynamics of justice and the law during this period and their impact on wider society – in particular, in evaluating the origins of the French Revolution and assessing its chequered legacy. The module will also offer a colonial perspective by covering legal practices in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti).
  • This module will give you access to translated material from the French legal system (for example, police investigations, defence and prosecution strategies, and court records) but will also cover broader societal interaction with the law and the notion of ‘justice’ (including popular pamphlets describing the ritual of public executions, intellectual debate about the need for judicial reform, and political justifications of the need for ‘revolutionary’ justice and Terror during the French Revolution). All these sources come with their own advantages and challenges for historians, and the module will give you the opportunity to discuss these issues with reference to key texts where historians have engaged with such sources in innovative and influential ways.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Assess the nature of the role of law and concepts of justice in eighteenth-century French politics and society
  • 2. Work critically with a range of sources for the history of France in the eighteenth century

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Identify the problems of using historical sources, e.g. utility, limitations, etc., and compare the validity of different types of sources
  • 4. Present work orally, respond to questions orally, and think quickly of questions to ask other students

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Conduct independent study and group work, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning
  • 6. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment
  • 7. Work with others in a team and to interact effectively with the tutor and the wider group
  • 8. Write to a very tight word-length

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Royal authority and the Law in 18th-century France
  • Popular attitudes to crime and justice in 18th-century France
  • The death penalty: rituals of punishment
  • Law as a colonial weapon: the code noir in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti)
  • Redefining justice: enlightened opinion and the legal reform movement in pre-revolutionary France
  • Defence tactics: using print to defend oneself and the Nation
  • Revolutionary reform: radical legal codes in France and Saint-Domingue in the 1790s
  • Revolutionary justice and Terror
  • Popular justice: riots, lynchings and massacre
  • Investigating crime: policing and procedure

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching22 hour lecture: Introduction to module
Scheduled Learning and Teaching2010 x 2 hour seminars. At a meeting of the whole class generally a different group of 3-4 students will give a presentation to the whole class, followed by class discussion and working through the sources for that week carefully. Additional sources may be issued in the class and the lecturer will also use the time to set up issues for the following week.
Guided independent study128You prepare for the session through reading and research; writing a weekly source essay and preparing one group presentation in the course of the term

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group presentation (3-4 students)10-15 minutes1-7Oral
Lowest mark from portfolio of 4 commentaries750 words1-3, 5-6, 8Mark and written comments

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
3 highest marks from portfolio of 4 commentaries1002250 words (750 per commentary) (15% per commentary)1-3, 5-6, 8Mark and written comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
3 highest marks from portfolio of 4 commentaries3 highest marks from portfolio of 4 commentaries1-3, 5-6, 8Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading:

  • Arasse, Daniel, The Guillotine and the Terror (1989)
  • Bell, David A. Lawyers and Citizens: The Making of a Political Elite in Old Regime France (1994)
  • Brown, Howard G., Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon (2006)
  • Cobb, Richard, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (1970)
  • Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977)
  • Friedland, Paul, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France (2012)
  • Ghachem, Malick W., The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (2012)
  • Gough, Hugh, The Terror in the French Revolution, 2nd edition (2010)
  • Kelly, George A., Mortal Politics in Eighteenth-Century France (1986)
  • Maza, Sarah, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Célèbres of Prerevolutionary France (1993)
  • Sutherland, Donald M.G., Murder in Aubagne: Lynching, Law, and Justice during the French Revolution (2009)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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