Browse Primary Sources
Primary sources from world and global history, including images, objects, texts, and digitally-born materials – annotations by scholars contextualize sources.

The Joyous Accord

This allegorical image represents the sentiments of social unity that the National Assembly sought to promote through the Festival of the Federation of 14 July 1790 during the French Revolution. This festival, though technically but a military parade of units from around the country, also implied to most observers the unity of all orders and classes.

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Tension between Rich and Poor

The Marquis de Mirabeau, a well–educated nobleman, worried about the migration of French nobles to the cities and the passing of lands into the hands of "new men," wealthy commoners without a sense of paternal obligation toward the peasants on that land.

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Scandal at the Church: José de Alfaro Accuses Doña Theresa Bravo and Others of Insulting and Beating His Castiza Wife, Joséfa Cadena (Mexico, 1782)

Systems of honor in colonial Mexico meant that insults were more than just Swords. Utterances that defamed men and women of good reputation had to be answered or the slight to their personal status within the community would be permanent. Gossip underscored these taints, and although usually not as open, it could serve the same purpose as insults.

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Beaumarchais’s Understandings of Inequality

Like his predecessors of earlier generations, playwright Pierre–Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais—who became an important figure of the late Enlightenment because of the controversy surrounding his work The Marriage of Figaro [1784]—believed that a truly rational society would not tolerate arbitrary inequality.

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Montesquieu’s Attack on the Nobility

In his Persian Letters, published anonymously and abroad in 1721, Charles–Louis de Sécondat, Baron de Montesquieu, president of the Parlement of Bordeaux and a noble himself, made a scathing critique of nobility that set the tone for the philosophes’ attack on the inequality of eighteenth–century French society.

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Voltaire’s Understanding of Inequality

This passage from François–Marie Arouet, pen–named Voltaire, who was perhaps the best–known writer of the eighteenth century, illustrates the spirit of investigation of the Enlightenment. The philosophes wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions.

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A Bread Riot

Bread was the basic staple of most people’s diets, and variations in the price of bread were keenly felt by the poor, especially by women who most frequently bought bread in the marketplace.

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Apprentices and Masters

Unlike the Marquis de Mirabeau, (see document Tension between Rich and Poor) Jacques Savary sought to promote commerce and those who engaged in it. In this excerpt from his 1757 edition of The Perfect Merchant, which was widely read, Savary comments on the proper relations between apprentices learning a trade and the masters who owned the shop.

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The Saint–Marcel Neighborhood

The writer Louis–Sébastien Mercier recorded in his Portrait of Paris detailed and witty commentaries on many aspects of life among the common people. In this article on the Saint–Marcel neighborhood, he comments on the difficulties faced by urban workers.

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People under the Old Regime

This image shows "the people" as a chained and blindfolded man being crushed under the weight of the rich, including both clergy and nobility. Such a perspective on the period before 1789 purposely exaggerates social divisions and would have found few proponents before the French Revolution, but the image does reveal the social clash felt so intensely by the revolutionaries.

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