Book Review: M. Maruschke, M. Middell: The French Revolution as a Moment of Respatialization

By Mathieu Ferradou

Since the 1990s, the historiography on the French Revolution has seen a major refocus in the context of the so-called “global turn”. However, the disparate conceptual framework within which this “turn” has taken place has led to confusions – is it “global” or “world” or “transnational” or “imperial” history? Despite some recent attempts, these hesitations have prevented the emergence of a cohesive narrative of the French Revolution in larger geographical (either at the Atlantic or even at the world scale) and historical (within the “Age of Revolutions”) contexts.[1]

The volume here reviewed puts forward an innovative approach: the editors propose to consider the French Revolution as a decisive moment in the longer process of globalization. In so doing, they rescue globalization (and the global turn) from its recent critics that challenged the metanarrative put forward by its (dominant) actors as the unstoppable march towards “progress” – integration within the liberal and capitalist world. As Matthias Middell points out in the preface, “processes of global integration have not dissipated and the rejection of ‘globalization’ as ideology has not diminished the need to make sense of both the actual existing high level of interdependence and the ideology that gave meaning and justification to it” (p. v). Drawing on the tools of critical geography, the volume therefore takes the question of the global seriously: a global analysis must integrate different scales. In this fashion, the French Revolution can be better understood within not so much a “global” turn but rather a spatial turn. The guiding hypothesis is that the French Revolution is a “decisive moment in the transformation of the Atlantic spatial order” (p. 15) and, as such, a “critical juncture of globalization”.[2]

The book opens with a concise and very stimulating state-of-the-field introduction by Megan Maruschke and Matthias Middell. After highlighting that the French Revolution compels to study the emergence of the people as an active actor of history, they review the different historiographic “schools” that attempted to meet this challenge, making this introduction a very useful teaching tool. Since the 1990s, the concept of Atlantic Revolution – first put forward by R. R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot in the 1950s – has come back to the fore, bereft of its Cold War charge, and as French historiography has declined relatively to American historiography, this Atlantic framework has included the post-colonial, areas and subaltern studies. Proposing a synchronic comparative perspective to understand the new spatial format which emerged, i.e. the “nation-state cum empire” (defined as a dialectical process of nationalization/ territorialisation of the metropole and an Enlightenment-inspired modernisation of the empire for the colonial fringes), the editors thereby try to avoid the pitfalls of methodological nationalism, of the diffusionist model, and of French exceptionalism.

Eleven contributions meet this historiographical challenge, organised into three balanced parts and with a meaningful progression. Part 1 (“Expanding the Scope of the French Revolution”) includes three essays by Manuel Covo (Chap. 2: “Why did France want Louisiana Back?”), Damien Tricoire (Chap. 3: “A Southern Ocean Perspective”) and Jane Landers (Chap. 4: “Blacks Rebels and Royal Auxiliaries”). Covo analyses the tension between the republican rhetoric and the imperial spatial/ economical relationship between metropolitan France and Louisiana as a process of “reterritorialization of the empire” (p. 46) since France was eager to end St Domingue’s dependence on US trade in the wake of the Jay Treaty of 1795. Tricoire charts the different – and ultimately failed – attempts of the revolutionary authorities in France at integrating the Mascarene islands, especially Madagascar, in a newly territorialized empire. The rhetoric of autonomy and integration floundered in its contradictions and was a mere “legal fiction” as the islands came into the British sphere of influence. Landers describes how the black population of Haiti clearly understood the interplay of powers during the revolutionary wars and navigated between (French and Spanish) allegiances and territories, playing one against the other to further their own goals of emancipation.

Each of the essays of Part 2 (“The Impact of the French Revolution”) takes a decentralised view of the French Revolution, provincializing France as the “Mother of Revolutions”, looking at it from the vantage point of interstitial spaces. This part is the most attention-gripping of the three. Christian Ayne Crouch’s chapter 5 on “The French Revolution in Indian Country” boldly proposes to consider that it is possible that the universalism of the French Revolution stemmed in part from the political experience of the Native American leaders who had to unify in front of American expansion, before influencing back Tecumseh’s attempt at resisting the United States expansion. Her argument is both stimulating and convincing when she reads Tecumseh’s appeal to “brotherhood” both within a Nativist discourse but also within a revolutionary framework as the project of a “Republic of Indians” emerged (p. 98-99 and 102). The following three chapters are equally thought-provoking as they all examine how the French Revolution triggered a series of reterritorializations that shed light respectively on the rise of modern capitalism through a story of the limitation of the scalability of the slave-plantation economy in New Granada compared with Cuban success (Ernesto Bassi’s chapter 6), on the tension between integration and autonomy of the Azores within the Portuguese Empire in the wake of the French invasion of Portugal and the transplantation of the royal court to Brazil (José Damião Rodrigues’s chapter 7), and on the redefinition of Cypriote insularity as a maritime interface between the Ottoman and British empires allied against France during the expedition of Bonaparte to Egypt (Antonis Hadjikyriacou’s chapter 8).[3]

Part 3 (“The New Spatial Organization of Societies”) comes back to Europe and treads on more familiar grounds. Laura Di Fiore and Frederic Morelli examine respectively the respatialization of Italy (the result of an egalitarian and homogeneous departmentalization, as well as of a compromise between “above” and “below” impetuses) and of Spanish America (the unravelling of the imperial monarchy which was replaced by a federation of the local communities) faced with the upheavals of the French Revolution (chap. 11 and 12), thereby renewing the prevalent historiographies on these aspects. Alan Forrest revisits the departmentalization of France (chap. 9) to show that reterritorialization did not necessarily entail a respatialization: it did so only when the existing urban hierarchy was disrupted and only in coastal areas where the relationship between port towns and their hinterlands was redefined, which might go a long way toward explaining its enduring success. These last chapters all raise the question of the link between reterritorialization and citizenship and, in colonial spaces, of race. Andreas Fahrmeir’s very stimulating chapter 10 addresses in more depth this question in France. Successive constitutions linked citizenship and territory in an heretofore unknown manner because the French Revolution spurred the profound transition from monarchical to popular sovereignty, which compelled borders to be redefined first in a territorial meaning (from frontier zones to lines), which then informed a political redefinition of citizenship (establishment – and not birth – in France was the guiding principle, distinguishing it from the more recent jus soli). This importance of territory (which is similar to local social integration in Spanish America) was the key to the tensions between large and restrictive conceptions of citizenship during (and after) the revolutionary decade, and helps to understand how the Bonapartist and Napoleonic periods were a retreat from the early universalism of the 1790s (a retreat that is still at work today in some states as the author concludes).

One of the common threads of this spatial approach is to highlight the key-role of the go-between, those who could cross political, linguistic or cultural borders, in other words the actors who were able to draw on social capital and networks, many of them already existing before the Revolution (especially chap. 2, 5, 6 and 8). In this regard, this volume somehow stops short of the promises of a geohistorical analysis of the French Revolution as the importance of social and spatial networks is only used in passing (except for chap. 6 and 11). Systematically including this dimension would have allowed this book to engage more fully with other historiographical currents and allowed a broader discussion with other social sciences, for instance challenging and historicising Jacques Lévy’s affirmation, in his seminal and provocative article, that globalization is the transition from the situation where control of territories enabled control of networks to its opposite.[4]  Despite this somewhat unfair reserve (one can always pinpoints to missing aspects), the significant intellectual and historiographical perspectives that this volume opens, inviting many new areas of inquiry, makes it a worthy addition to any attempt at understanding not only the French Revolution but the whole Age of Revolutions.


[1] E.g. for a recent attempt: Janet Polasky, Revolutions without Borders. The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World, New Haven 2015.
[2] Matthias Middell / Katja Naumann, Global History and the Spatial Turn. From the Impact of Area Studies to the Study of Critical Junctures of Globalization, in: Journal of Global History 5 (2010), p. 149-170.
[3] On scalability, see Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton 2015.
[4] Jacques Lévy, La mondialisation, un évènement géographique, in: L’Information géographique (2007) 2, p. 6-31.


Mathieu Ferradou: Book Review: Maruschke, Megan; Middell, Matthias (Hrsg.): The French Revolution as a Moment of Respatialization. Berlin 2019. ISBN 9783110639698, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 03.07.2020, <>.

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