How much of the French patrimony was destroyed during the French Revolution?

Patrimony is usually thought of as monetary wealth and property in various forms, including monuments. But it can also refer to assets such as intellectual and cultural heritage. Obviously, the subject is very broad and could easily fill a number of books. I know of no attempts to quantify the destruction of even this first type of patrimony in France during the Revolution, and because of the lack of documentation, I doubt that the ‘how much' of your question can even be answered. At any rate, respecting the size of a response that one gives on Quora, I will focus on the first, and even with that focus, the best I can do is give an overview.

At the outset, it is also important to establish that the period of the French Revolution covers ten years, from the formation of the Constituent Assembly in June 1789 to the coup d'état of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. During this period, the Revolution underwent progressive radicalisation. Before getting into the actual destruction of patrimony that occurred, it is useful to delineate the major phases of the Revolution, because the destruction itself was influenced by the events of these phases.

1. June 1789 – June 1791: The Constituent Assembly. During this time, the hope that France might become a constitutional monarchy faded, because the king, who really believed that he ruled by divine right, consistently opposed the Assembly's broad civil reformation of the Church. It required the clergy to swear allegiance to the nation rather than the Pope, abolished the monasteries and so on.

2. June 1791- September 1792: The Legislative Assembly. A major event during this period was the unsuccessful attempt of Louis XVI and his family to escape into Austria. Whether true or not, their flight was interpreted as an attempt at military counter-revolution (Austrian troops were amassed at the border.). Mounting international tensions led to the Assembly's declaration of war on Austria and Prussia. Internally, the discontent of the population with the monarchy turned to fury, fuelled by mistrust and fear of foreign invasion.

3. September 1792 – October 1795: The longest and bloodiest phase. It began with the Convention, the first body elected by male suffrage, which tried and executed Louis XVI (January 21, 1793). This led directly to a declaration of war by Britain and Russia's severance of diplomatic relations with France. The growing threat of anarchy, fuelled by runaway inflation and mounting royalist sentiment in some regions, led to the formation of the Committee of Public Safety. The Committee's twelve members held the Convention's governing power, rather than its 782 elected deputies. The Committee was dominated by the radical Jacobins, was given dictatorial powers and instituted the Terror, sending tens of thousands to the guillotine. The Terror ended with the execution of Robespierre who had controlled the Committee, and the dissolution of the Committee itself.

4. November 1795-November 1799: The Directory, Reaction to the Terror. The Convention drafted a new Constitution providing for separation of powers, repealed the laws of the Terror and allowed exiled priests and royalists to return. But the government and the economy were unstable, the currency had little value, international wars continued, and Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence as a brilliant general. There were numerous uprisings and an attempt to overthrow the government. Finally Napoleon's successful coup d'état, when he established a Consulate, with himself as First Consul, ended this phase.

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Much of the destruction of French patrimony during the Revolution was aimed simultaneously at the monarchy and the Catholic Church, which was closely identified with it. Striking examples are the defacement of the cathedrals and churches themselves and the plundering of the tombs of French kings and queens which they housed.

Stone sculpture of royalty which adorned many cathedrals was destroyed, even if it represented royalty of the Old Testament. For example, the heads of the statues of the kings of Judea ornamenting the West façade of Notre Dame in Paris, were cut off, as were those of the actual king and queen of France. (The original heads were discovered in 1977 and can be seen at the Cluny Museum in Paris.) Destruction or defacement of statuary, paintings and religious objects, especially those associated with royalty, occurred all over France.

From the beginning, the revolution aimed at destruction of the authority and wealth of the Church. As early as its first phase, the Assembly melted down silver objects from the churches to fund the bankrupt national treasury, and this practice continued with reliquaries, church bells and other objects. As a revolutionary army was constituted during the second phase and maintained thereafter, the provisional government also melted down metals, such as bronze and lead for ammunition. They came from statues and other monuments in public places, leading in the roofs of cathedrals, including those at Saint Denis and Chartres, and the recumbent effigies which adorned the tombs of royalty and nobility in churches and cathedrals. The first dismantling of their tombs took place by order of the Convention in late 1792.

In October 1793, the Convention went a step further at Saint Denis, the first Gothic church in France, which had been the burial place of its rulers for centuries. In a move to eradicate all traces of the monarchy, the bodies of one hundred seventy kings, queens, princes and other royalty were exhumed, thrown into two common graves and sprinkled with lime to hasten their disintegration. Other royal tombs were likewise destroyed, including those of Henry II of England, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son Richard, Lion Heart at Fontevraud Abbey. These acts still arouse ambivalent reactions within France and abroad.

(In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte, then emperor, ordered Saint Denis to be restored. Ironically, he envisioned placing his tomb and those of his successors there so as to establish continuity with the French royal line. The abbey was not successfully restored until later in the century, however.)

A month after the opening of the royal tombs, the churches were closed as houses of worship and converted into manufacturing works, storage depots and stables, as were monasteries and cloisters. This resulted in further damage and destruction, which is some instances may have been at least partially unintentional. In other cases, ecclesiastical buildings were dismantled by residents and their stones used for local construction.

Later, after the Terror ended, and political tensions eased under the Directory, some churches re-opened. At the same time, other churches and monasteries in Paris were converted to ballrooms. The leveling of social classes and more peaceful conditions in the city led to an explosion of dancing in which different echelons mixed; members of the new bourgeoisie danced with workers and shop clerks. In 1797, eg., 640 balls were recorded in Paris.

The destruction of church patrimony was hardly limited to France. During the Napoleonic campaigns in Italy under the Directory, the gold and silver of the Vatican treasury was taken to help support the French currency.

The spoils of these victories extended to secular painting, sculpture, tapestries and Greek antiquities. While the French did not classify Napoleon's massive theft of artwork from the defeated cities of Italy and Flanders as ‘destruction of patrimony,' the Italians and Flemish certainly did. Besides funding further campaigns, this art helped to make the collections of the Louvre among the richest in the world.

Besides the churches, the French nobility was also a target of revolutionary anger. The social and economic lot of peasants, who made up around 85% of the population, had not improved much since the middle ages. The vast majority worked the land of a local lord, and had to pay taxes to him as well as to the church. Poor harvests in 1789 put many on the edge of starvation. From the first phase of the revolution, the peasants, encouraged by the reforms of the Constituent Assembly, and, at the same time prone to paranoia, armed themselves, at first to defend their meagre harvests. But then, they marched against the local nobility, destroyed the feudal contracts which kept them impoverished, and looted and burned chateaux and manor houses.

As you can see, the motives behind the destruction of patrimony were varied. There was a practical need for valuables to fund a bankrupt treasury in a nation where an enormous number of people were starving, a nation which then waged war for eight of the ten years of the Revolution. There was a pragmatic desire to erase all traces of the old order, which was struggling to re-assert itself and inspired fear. And there were feelings of revenge, hatred and pitilessness which became progressively unleashed in an environment of escalating violence and suspicion.

What seems important is not only the destruction of the patrimony itself, but at least some understanding of the wide-ranging motives behind it and of the numerous forms that that destruction took.


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