Imagine that you are writing a study of Paris during the Terror. In the form of a short essay (not more than 900 words) consider the following three questions: 1. What kind of primary source is this and what strengths and weaknesses does it have? 2. Are there any particular words and phrase in the document that require elucidation or special comment before you can make use of it? 3. What can you learn from this source with respect to Paris and the Terror? You should distinguish, where appropriate, between witting and unwitting testimony.
This document in its original form as a speech is an unpublished document. However, because it has been translated and printed as a part of a book, it is now a published document. As a source for study, it has several strengths. Firstly, it is now a part of a recognized historical document. Secondly, it fulfills the criteria of being a relevant document because of the author’s proximity to the Paris Terror. It also provides good clues about the view points (however biased) of Jacques Roux and others like him living in Paris at that time.
On the other hand, while this speech’s translation into English will ensure it reaches a wider audience, important nuances of the French language may have been lost in the crossover. As a result, significant connotations gained from a choice of French words may no longer be obvious and this may even affect the amount of unwitting testimony one might have been able to extract from it. Another weakness this speech will have is its bias. It is very obvious that Jacques Roux is passionate about the role of the government in the persecution of his people.
The reader is presented with one side of the struggle without being aware of whether the government was in fact guilty of what it is charged with. The foot notes are also open to interpretation. How sure can the reader be of the accuracy of the information? While reading Jacques Roux’s speech, it may be difficult to decipher certain terms, one of which is the sans culottes. If one investigates, one will be faced with the task of interpreting which version was meant and used by Roux. In order to truly understand the context of the speech, one would also have to understand what occurred at Marseilles and how it affected the sans-culottes.
Another question that arose was how did the Capet family fit in? What was their role in the struggle? Is Roux singling them out because of some misperceived wrong done to him or did they commit a criminal offence? Reference is also made to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Constitutional Act. Before this speech can be completely useful as primary source, there has to be a clear understanding of what these documents are and how they would have influenced Roux’s feelings. From this speech, a historian will certainly discover that crime was rife in the city and that hoarding of food meant that some people may have suffered starvation.
The question ‘Have you declared the death penalty for hoarders? ‘ gives us this information but through unwitting testimony Roux also tells us that he and those involved in the struggle felt that this was a crime so serious that it deserved the death penalty. Another fact easily researched is the outlawing of counter-revolutionaries. However, what is clear from the choice of vocabulary ‘reddened the scaffold with the blood’ and the endorsement ‘you have done well’ is that Roux was exceptionally pleased with the outcome.
This again is unwitting testimony as he unconsciously expresses his thoughts on the struggle through his words. Whether the term ‘three quarters’ is an exaggeration or not, Roux’s discussion of the cost of provisions suggests to the historian that food prices were inflated and that many citizens were below the poverty line and therefore unable to maintain a decent standard of life. The undercurrent in Roux’s words is one of decadence and pack of interest from the upper class and government while innocent citizens suffered.
To a historian, this unwitting testimony is a goldmine of information particularly as Roux was directly involved and affected. We also learn that the economy was being sabotaged by traders and manufacturers. According to Roux, the manufacturers were manipulating and misinterpreting loopholes in the law for their own benefit. His unwitting testimony reveals that he felt that although the clause stated that ‘one is allowed to do everything that is not forbidden by law’, merchants and traders should bear some moral responsibility towards the poverty stricken citizens of Paris.
Although much of what Roux says can be checked against other documents of the era, his speech would be of significant use to a historian as except for the translation to English, it has not been manipulated in terms of personal interpretations or open to discussion. It is mainly for this reason that for a historian, Jacques Roux’s speech is a minefield of information about the personal struggles of a Parisian living during the Terror.
An Introduction to the Humanities. History, Classicism and Revolution. Block 3. Open University Press. 1997 An Introduction to the Humanities. Resource Book 2. Open University Press. 1997