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Idealized sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845).
Idealized sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845).

The sans-culottes (French: [sɑ̃kylɔt], literally "without breeches") were the common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime.[1] The name sans-culottes refers to their clothing, and through that to their lower-class status: culottes were the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the 18th-century nobility and bourgeoisie, and the working class sans-culottes wore pantaloons, or trousers, instead.[2] The sans-culottes, most of them urban labourers, served as the driving popular force behind the revolution. Though ill-clad and ill-equipped, they made up the bulk of the Revolutionary army during the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars.[3]:1–22

The most fundamental political ideals of the sans-culottes were social equality, economic equality, and popular democracy. They supported the abolition of all the authority and privileges of the monarchy, nobility, and Roman Catholic clergy, the establishment of fixed wages, the implementation of price controls to ensure affordable food and other essentials, and vigilance against counter-revolutionaries.[3][4] The height of their influence spanned roughly from the original overthrow of the monarchy in 1792 to the Thermidorian Reaction in 1794.[2] Throughout the revolution, the sans-culottes provided the principal support behind the more radical and anti-bourgeoisie factions of the Paris Commune, such as the Enragés and the Hébertists, and were led by populist revolutionaries such as Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert.[1][5] The sans-culottes also populated the ranks of paramilitary forces charged with physically enforcing the policies and legislation of the revolutionary government, a task that commonly included violence and the carrying out of executions against perceived enemies of the revolution.

During the peak of their influence, the sans-culottes were seen as the truest and most authentic sons of the French Revolution, held up as living representations of the revolutionary spirit. During the height of revolutionary fervor, such as during the Reign of Terror when it was dangerous to be associated with anything counter-revolutionary, even public functionaries and officials actually from middle or upper-class backgrounds adopted the clothing and label of the sans-culottes as a demonstration of solidarity with the working class and patriotism for the new French Republic.[2]

But by early 1794, as the bourgeois and middle class elements of the revolution began to gain more political influence, the fervent working class radicalism of the sans-culottes rapidly began falling out of favor within the National Convention.[2] It wasn't long before Maximilien de Robespierre and his now dominant Jacobin Club turned against the radical factions of the National Convention, including the sans-culottes, despite their having previously been the strongest supporters of the revolution and its government. Several important leaders of the Enragés and Hébertists were imprisoned and executed by the very revolutionary tribunals they had supported.[2] The execution of radical leader Jacques Hébert spelled the decline of the sans-culottes,[2] and with the successive rise of even more conservative governments, the Thermidorian Convention and the French Directory, they were definitively silenced as a political force.[3]:258–259 After the defeat of the 1795 popular revolt in Paris, the sans-culottes ceased to play any effective political role in France until the July Revolution of 1830.

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(left) Sans-culotte, compare figures wearing culottes right.
(left) Sans-culotte, compare figures wearing culottes right.

The distinctive costume of typical sans-culottes featured:[2]

  • the pantalon (long trousers) – in place of the culottes (silk knee-breeches) worn by the upper classes[3]:2–3
  • the carmagnole (short-skirted coat)
  • the red Phrygian cap, also known as a "liberty cap"
  • sabots (a type of wooden clog)

Montagnard influence

The working class was especially hurt by a hail storm which damaged grain crops in 1788, which caused bread prices to skyrocket.[6] While the peasants of rural France could sustain themselves with their farms, and the wealthy aristocracy  could still afford bread, the urban workers of France, the group that comprised the sans-culottes, suffered. In the city, division grew between the sans-culottes and these wealthy aristocrats; the former had a particular hostility “towards those with large private incomes.”[7]

The faction known as the Montagnards expressed concern for the working classes of France.[8] When the National Convention met to discuss the fate of the former king Louis XVI in 1792, the sans-culottes vehemently opposed a proper trial, instead opting for an immediate execution. The moderate Girondin faction voted for a trial, but the radical Montagnards sided with the sans-culottes, deeming that a trial was not necessary, and won with a slim majority. Louis XVI was executed on January 17, 1793.[9]

The demands of the sans-culottes did not stop with the execution of the King, and the Montagnards worked hard to fulfill their mounting orders. This increased pressure from the radical masses exacerbated the ideological split between the Montagnards and the Girondins, and tensions began to grow within the Convention.[10] Eventually, by May of 1793, the Montagnards worked with the National Guard -- which was, at this time, mostly sans-culottes -- to depose many of the Girondin deputies. Jeremy Popkin writes, “[the Montagnards and the sans-culottes] surrounded the Convention, and two days later they intimidated assembly suspended twenty-nine Girondin deputies. The defeated Girondin leaders fled to the provinces. The Montagnards were left in control of the Convention, which itself was clearly at the mercy of whoever could command the armed sans-culottes battalions.”[11] Now, whoever was in control of France’s destiny had to answer to the sans-culottes, who “effectively exercised legislative power” in situations of unrest.[12] Otherwise, they would risk a similar uprising and their own exile, or possibly even execution. This political shift towards radicalism would soon turn into the Reign of Terror.

Reign of Terror

The mass violence of the sans-culottes created a lasting impact on the Reign of Terror. These revolutionaries allied themselves most readily with those in power who promised radical change. The sans-culottes believed in a complete upheaval of the government, pushing for the execution of any that were considered corrupt by the leaders, even going as far as wanting “the enemies of the republic [to] hang-main and the guillotine to stand like the first patriots, the finisher of the law.”[13] The support of the sans-culottes could be used as a political weapon to get rid of enemies of the Revolution. The key to Robespierre’s Terror lay in their willingness and ability to mobilize. Thus, the Committee leaders used speeches to gain their support. In a speech On the Principles of Political Morality.[14] Robespierre proclaimed: “It has been said that terror was the mainspring of despotic government. Does your government, then, resemble a despotism? Yes, as the sword which glitters in the hands of liberty's heroes resembles the one with which tyranny's lackeys are armed.” Robespierre expressed a desire for liberty that the sans-culottes admired. They pushed the Committee for radical changes and often found a voice with Robespierre. Their desperate desire for immediate changes and their aptitude for violence made the sans-culottes a necessary group in implementing the Terror.


The popular image of the sans-culotte has gained currency as an enduring symbol for the passion, idealism and patriotism of the common man of the French Revolution.[15] The term sans-culottism, sans-culottisme in French, refers to this idealized image and the themes associated with it.[15] Many public figures and revolutionaries who were not strictly working class styled themselves citoyens sans-culottes in solidarity and recognition.[2] However, in the period immediately following the Thermidorian Reaction the sans-culottes and other far-left political factions were heavily persecuted and repressed by the likes of the Muscadins.[2]

The French Republican Calendar at first termed the complementary days at the end of the year Sansculottides; however, the National Convention suppressed the name when adopting the Constitution of the Year III (1795) and substituted the name jours complémentaires ("additional days").[2]


According to Sally Waller, part of the sans-culottes mantra was "permanent anticipation of betrayal and treachery".[16] The members of the sans-culottes were constantly on edge and fearing betrayal, which can be attributed to their violent and radical rebellion tactics.[17] Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observes that the sans-culottes were a 'shapeless, mostly urban movement of the labouring poor, small craftsmen, shopkeepers, artisans, tiny entrepreneurs and the like'.[18] He further notes they were organised notably in the local political clubs of Paris and "provided the main striking-force of the revolution".[18] Hobsbawm writes that these were the actual demonstrators, rioters and constructors of street barricades. However, Hobsbawm maintains, sans-culottism provided no real alternative to the bourgeois radicalism of the Jacobins;[18] from Hobsbawm's Marxist perspective, the ideal of the sans-culottes, which sought to express the interests of the 'little men' who existed between the poles of the bourgeois and the proletarian, was contradictory and ultimately unrealizable.[18]

The Marxist historian Albert Soboul emphasized the importance of the sans-culottes as a social class, a sort of proto-proletariat that played a central role in the French Revolution. That view has been sharply attacked by scholars who say the sans-culottes were not a class at all. Indeed, as one historian points out, Soboul's concept has not been used by scholars in any other period of French history.[19]

Modern colloquial usage

Ironically, given its origin as a term to describe men's breeches, the term "culottes" in French is now used to describe women's underpants, an article of clothing that has little or no relation to the historic culottes. The term "sans-culottes" has been used colloquially to mean not wearing underpants.[20]

See also


  1. ^ a b Sansculotte. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chisholm, Hugh (1911) Sans-culottes. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 1911). This saying meant "ordinary patriots without fine clothes", and referred to the fancy clothes that famous patriots wore. They wore pants with cuffed, rolled up bottoms.
  3. ^ a b c d Soboul, Albert (1972). The Sans-Culottes: The Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government, 1793–1794. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-691-00782-9. Retrieved 2011-02-17.
  4. ^ Darline Levy (1981) Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789–1795 (University of Illinois Press, August 1, 1981). Translated by Harriet Applewhite, Mary Johnson. Pg 144. Quotation:

    The sans-culottes (...) campaigned for a more democratic constitution, price controls, harsh laws against political enemies, and economic legislation to assist the needy.

  5. ^ Patrice Higonnet (1998) Goodness beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution (Harvard University Press, October 25, 1998). Pg 118. Quotation:

    In the summer of 1793 the sans-culottes, the Parisian enragés especially, accused even the most radical Jacobins of being too tolerant of greed and insufficiently universalist. From this far-left point of view, all Jacobins were at fault because all of them tolerated existing civil life and social structures.

  6. ^ Jeremy D. Popkin, A Short History of the French Revolution. (London: Routledge, 2016), 22.
  7. ^ Albert Soboul, The Sans-culottes: The Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government 1793-1794. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P., 1980), 10.
  8. ^ Popkin, A Short History, 68.
  9. ^ Popkin, A Short History, 64.
  10. ^ Popkin, A Short History, 66.
  11. ^ Popkin, A Short History, 67.
  12. ^ Soboul, The Sans-culottes, 97.
  13. ^ The Appearance, Predictions and Advice of the Devil, to the National Convention of France, in the Month of Nov. 1793.Taken from the Sans Culottes Gazette. (London: N.p, 1793).
  14. ^ Maximilien Robespierre, "On the Principles of Political Morality" (speech, Paris, February 1794), Internet History Sourcebooks,
  15. ^ a b Sansculottism. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.
  16. ^ Waller, Sally. "How Significant was the Part Played by the Crowd and the Sans Culottes?" France in Revolution, 1776–1830. Oxford: Heinemann, 2002. 162. Print.
  17. ^ Soboul, Albert (1980). The Sans-culottes: The Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government, 1793-1794. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691007829.
  18. ^ a b c d Eric Hobsbawm 'The Age of Revolution' (St Ives, 1962; repr. 2008), p.84
  19. ^ Paul R. Hanson (2009). Contesting the French Revolution. John Wiley. pp. 95–96.
  20. ^ "sans-culotte", Passons de la sans-soutif de l'Upper East Side à la sans-culotte de Times Square, And from no bra on the Upper East Side ... ... to no panties in Times Square.

Further reading

  • Andrews, Richard Mowery. "Social Structures, Political Elites and Ideology in Revolutionary Paris, 1792–94: A Critical Evaluation of Albert Soboul's' Les sans-culottes parisiens en l'an II'," Journal of Social History (1985) 19#1 pp. 71–112. in JSTOR
  • Furet, François and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989), pp. 393–99
  • Sonenscher, Michael. Sans-Culottes: An Eighteenth-Century Emblem in the French Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2008). Pp. 493.
  • Woloch, Isser, and Peter McPhee. "A Revolution in Political Culture" in McPhee, ed., A Companion to the French Revolution (2012) pp. 435–453
  • Palmer, Robert Roswell (1958), Twelve Who Ruled.
  • Salmon, Jean (1975), Curés Sans-culottes En Province : 1789-1814. Langres: Diffusion Museé Saint-Didier.
  • Williams, Gwyn A (1969), Artisans and Sans-culottes: Popular Movements in France and Britain during the French Revolution. Foundations of Modern History. New York: Norton.
This page was last edited on 20 November 2018, at 19:01
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