Georges Lefebvre

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Georges Lefebvre (6 August 1874 – 28 August 1959) was a French historian, best known for his work on the French Revolution and peasant life. He coined the term "history from below", which was later popularised by the British Marxist Historians, and the phrase the "death certificate of the old order" to describe the Great Fear of 1789. Among his most significant works was the 1924 book Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française ("The Peasants of the North During the French Revolution"), which was the result of 20 years of research into the role of the peasantry during the revolutionary period.

Personal background[edit]

Lefebvre was born in Lille. He was the son of a small commercial employee,[1] and his family could not afford to put him through college. Lefebvre attended public school, obtaining his secondary and university training with the help of scholarships. Lefebvre attended the University of Lille, and it was here that he followed the "special curriculum", which emphasized modern languages, mathematics, and economics instead of the classical languages.[2] It was as a result of his schooling that Georges Lefebvre was able to teach in a series of secondary schools for more than twenty years after his graduation in 1898.[2] After his career in teaching secondary school students, Lefebvre began teaching at the university level.[3]

He became more and more influenced by Marxism about the time of the Second World War. Lefebvre was influenced by the Marxist idea that history should be concerned with economic structures and class relations.

He died in Paris in 1959.

The French Revolution[edit]

Lefebvre began writing in 1904, but it was not until 1924, at the age of fifty, that he was finally at the point in his career - no longer preoccupied with supporting his family - that he was able to finish his doctoral thesis: Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française.[2] This work was a detailed and thorough examination of the effects of the French Revolution on the countryside. Lefebvre’s work on this thesis was "based on a thorough analysis of thousands of tax rolls, notarial records, and the registers of rural municipalities, whose materials he used to trace the effects of the abolition of feudalism and ecclesiastical tithes, the consequences of property transfers, the movement of the bourgeoisie onto the countryside, and the destruction of collective rights in the peasants villages".[2] It is this document that accounts for Lefebvre’s ever growing interest to engrave and contemplate his own viewpoints on the revolutionary issues that continued to influence modern events.

He often wrote from a viewpoint which he felt the peasant of the time would have held.

One aspect of Lefebvre’s life that other historians are particularly keen on examining is the period of 1924-1959. This period in Lefebvre’s writings is repeatedly chosen because he wrote his most influential and "much more complex interpretation of the Revolution than had hitherto prevailed amongst historians".[4] Jones elaborates that Lefebvre’s take on the Revolution has three major roles, which he describes as the active pursuit of the French country to partake in the Revolution, that such participation was not influenced by the bourgeoisie, and that the peasants agreed on their anticapitalist way of thinking, that resulted in their way of thinking in the 1790s.[4]

Georges Lefebvre’s accomplishments[edit]

Lefebvre's account of the origins of the French Revolution was written in Quatre-Vingt-Neuf, and published in 1939 to mark the sesquicentennial of the events of 1789, but the Vichy government that took over the following year wanted no left-wing history or sympathetic understanding of the Revolution, as they drew their support from the anti-republican right. The Vichy régime suppressed the book, ordering 8,000 copies to be burned; as a result the work was virtually unknown in its native land until it was reprinted in 1970. Its reputation was already secure in the English-speaking world, however, since the English translation, The Coming of the French Revolution (1939) had established it as a clear, yet subtle, classic. It remains the definitive explanation of the Marxist interpretation of the causes of the Revolution. His seminal work, La Révolution Française (revised edition, 1951) was translated into English as two volumes: The French Revolution From Its Origins To 1793 (1962-4) and The French Revolution from 1793 to 1799 (1964). He also wrote a highly regarded study of Napoléon (4th edition 1953; translated in 2 volumes, 1969).

A doctoral dissertation by Lawrence Davis, entitled Georges Lefebvre: Historian and Public Intellectual, 1928-1959, as the title suggests, concentrates on the latter part of Lefebvre’s life and on the scholarly publications that made Lefebvre among a noteworthy historian. Davis expands on the concept of mentalité that Lefebvre developed, arguing that this is "a term that represented their collective goal of documenting the material and mental worlds of people of the past, where the social and cultural existed comfortably side by side".[5] Throughout the work, Davis concentrated on the notion that Lefebvre used this concept of mentalité of the peasantry in relation to the Revolution.

Recognition[edit]

In 1935 Georges Lefebvre became the president of the Societé des Études robespierristes and the director of the Annales historiques de la Révolution française.[6] In 1937 Lefebvre was named the Chair of the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne.[7]

By 1914 he had already published a collection of documents, entitled Documents relatifs à l’histoire des subsistances dans le district de Bergues pendant la Révolution (1788-An V). Lefebvre continued to engrave all that he could on the French Revolution and all that dealt with it, well into his old age and beyond his retirement from the position of Chair at the Sorbonne in 1945.[6] Georges Lefebvre died in Boulogne-Billancourt on August 28, 1959.

Selected works[edit]

  • Quatre-Vingt-Neuf (1939)
  • Napoléon (1935)
  • La Révolution Française (Volume I, 1951)
  • La Révolution Française (Volume II, 1957)

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Lefebvre, Georges (1962). The French Revolution Volume I: from its Origins to 1793. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. ix–xiv. 
  2. ^ a b c d Bienvenu, Richard T. (2008). "Lefebvre, Georges". Encyclopedia Americana. Retrieved 2008-03-06. [dead link]
  3. ^ Evanson, Elizabeth M. (1962). The French Revolution Volume I from its Origins to 1793 (preface). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. ix–xiv. 
  4. ^ a b Jones, Peter M. (Spring 1990). "Georges Lefebvre and the Peasant Revolution: Fifty Years on". French Historical Studies (Fairfax: JSTOR. George Mason U. Lib.) 16 (3): 645–663. doi:10.2307/286492. JSTOR 286492. 
  5. ^ Davis, Lawrence H. (2001). Georges Lefebvre: Historian and Public Intellectual, 1928-1959 (PhD dissertation). University of Connecticut. 
  6. ^ a b Evanson, Elizabeth M. Foreword. The French Revolution Volume I from its origins to 1793. By Georges Lefebvre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. ix-xiv.
  7. ^ Evanson, Elizabeth M. Foreword. The French Revolution Volume I from its origins to 1793. By Georges Lefebvre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. ix-xiv.

Sources[edit]

  • Bienvenu, Richard T. (2008). "Lefebvre, Georges". Encyclopedia Americana.  Grolier Online. 16 Feb. 2008 [1]
  • Davis, Lawrence H. (2001). Georges Lefebvre: Historian and Public Intellectual, 1928-1959. Ann Arbor: Diss. University of Connecticut. 
  • Evanson, Elizabeth M. Foreword. The French Revolution Volume I from its origins to 1793. By Georges Lefebvre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. ix-xiv
  • Jones, Peter M. (Spring 1990). "Georges Lefebvre and the Peasant Revolution: Fifty Years on". French Historical Studies (Fairfax: JSTOR. George Mason U. Lib.) 16 (3): 645–663. doi:10.2307/286492. JSTOR 286492. 
  • Root, Hilton L. "The Case Against Georges Lefebvre's Peasant Revolution," History Workshop (1989) 28 pp 88-102. Disputed Lefebvre's argument that an independent peasant revolution coexisted within the French Revolution and that it sought a return to a precapitalist, prebourgeois society. Root holds that the rebellious behavior of the peasants was caused by the rise of bureaucracy, not by the introduction of markets or capitalism.in JSTOR See also rebuttal by P. M. Jones, History Workshop (1989), Issue 28, pp 103-106 in JSTOR; Root's final response in JSTOR

External links[edit]