Violent Justice, Legal Reform and Revolutionary Terror: Law in Eighteenth-Century France (HIH1613)

StaffDr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level4
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

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 students 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 students 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 students the opportunity to discuss these issues with reference to key texts where historians have engaged with such sources in innovative and influential ways.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 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.
  • 3. Assess the sources in relation to the historical debates surrounding the role of law and concepts of justice in defining eighteenth-century French society and contributing to revolutionary change at the end of the century.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

Syllabus plan

The following is an indication of the themes which this module will cover:
1.Royal authority and the Law in 18th-century France
2.Popular attitudes to crime and justice in 18th-century France
3.The death penalty: rituals of punishment
4.Law as a colonial weapon: the code noir in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti)
5.Redefining justice: enlightened opinion and the legal reform movement in pre-revolutionary France
6.Defence tactics: using print to defend oneself and the Nation
7.Revolutionary reform: radical legal codes in France and Saint-Domingue in the 1790s
8.Revolutionary justice and Terror
9.Popular justice: riots, lynchings and massacre
10. 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 teaching activities22 hour lecture: Introduction to module
Scheduled learning and teaching activities2010 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 study128Students 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 minutes1-4, 6-7, 9Oral
Lowest mark from portfolio of 5 source commentaries500 words1-5, 7-8, 10Mark 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
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries602000 words (500 per commentary) (15% per commentary)1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments
Essay on Sources401500 words1-5, 7-8, 10Mark 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
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries1-5, 7-8, 10Referral/deferral period
1500-word essay1500 word essay1-5, 7-8, 10Referral/deferral period

Indicative learning resources - 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)

Module has an active ELE page?


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date