The Working Class Revolutionary France

1789: The Fact and Fiction of the Sans-Culottes Movement



  • 1830 / 1832

  • 1848

    Works Cited




    The picture to the left portrays five 'sans-culottes', including a market porter, a cobbler, and a joiner; who are all armed with a pike.


    This picture was taken from a contemporary painting. It can be found on page 107 in Gwynne Lewis' Life in Revolutionary France.

    Importance of Sans-culottes Movement
    Sans-culottes were a prominent political group at the end of the nineteenth century, and played a large role in the French Revolution. The sans-culottes movement was important to the Revolution of 1789 and later revolutions, because it was one of the first working class groups that incorporated both a political stance and a social condition.
    The Members of Sans-Culottes
    The sans-culotte consisted of the working-class. During the height of the sans-culottes movement, Momoro remarked, "A sans-culotte is someone who goes everywhere on foot, who isn't loaded with money like the rest of you, but lives quietly with his wife and children . . . on the fourth or fifth floor" (Lewis, 102). The reference to the upper floors comes from the fact that the poorer workers tended to occupy the top floors or attics of apartment blocks. Such descriptions are evocative, but misleading. The sans-culotte did not necessarily represent the poorest section of the urban crowd, as pictured above. Some were poor, but the militant sans-culottes were more often than not skilled workers and shopkeepers from the middle class.
    The elite members of the sans-culotte preferred the trousers of the working-man. They disdained the breeches of the aristocracy or upper-middle classes. They felt that all classes were equal and, therefore, should not be segregated by fashion. In the picture above, the members are working-men and hold the pike to symbolize their militancy. The pike was a common weapon of the lower class, because it was easily constructable. It evened the playing field between the lower class revolutionaries and the king's army. The sans-culotte depicted in the caricature to the right is also wearing the typical sans-culotte garb.
    This caricature is of a Parisian Sans-culotte drawn
    between 1792 and 1793. Taken from (Furet and Ozouf, 362)
    The Desires and Politics of Sans-Culottes
    Socially, the sans-culottes were anything but cohesive. The politics of any member of the movement, or French society for that matter, depended on personal vendettas, professional jealousies, literacy, and economic factors. Although their politics could differ, sans-culottes did hold one opinion in common: they were against the rich.
    • Sans-culottes believed in the ideology that all men were equal.
    • Ideally, each citizen would own one piece of property, such as a farm or shop, and no one would control large enterprises or estates.
    • The sans-culotte were not opposed to the concept of private property, but did despise the indulgent wealth by the bourgoisie and the elite aristocrates.
    • Food should be taken from big landowners and grain-merchants and to be given to small workshops.
    • They called for a radical Republic based on Direct Democracy.
    • They wanted a tax on the rich.
    The political ideologies of the sans-culottes often clashed with the established French authorities in the late eighteenth century, causing the middle and upper classes to view the sans-culottes with hesitation and even fear. The depiction of the sans-culotte as a militant savage was commonplace in France at the time.

    More Representations of the Sans-Culottes on Page Two