The more one studies the French Revolution the clearer it is how incomplete is the history of that great epoch, how many gaps in it remain to be filled, how many points demand elucidation. How could it be otherwise? The Great Revolution, that set all Europe astir, that overthrew everything, and began the task of universal reconstruction in the course of a few years, was the working of cosmic forces dissolving and re-creating a world. And if in the writings of the historians who deal with that period and especially of Michelet, we admire the immense work they have accomplished in disentangling and co-ordinating the innumerable facts of the various parallel movements that made up the Revolution, we realise at the same time the vastness of the work which still remains to be done.
The investigations made during the past thirty years by the school of historical research represented by M. Aulard and the Société de la Revolution française, have certainly furnished most valuable material. They have shed a flood of light upon the acts of the Revolution, on its political aspects, and on the struggles for supremacy that took place between the various parties. But the study of the economic side of the Revolution is still before us, and this study, as M. Aulard rightly says, demands an entire lifetime. Yet without this study the history of the period remains incomplete and in many points wholly incomprehensible. In fact, a long series of totally new problems presents itself to the historian as soon as he turns his attention to the economic side of the revolutionary upheaval.
It was with the intention of throwing some light upon these economic problems that I began in 1886 to make separate studies of the earliest revolutionary stirrings among the peasants; the peasant risings in 1789; the struggles for and against the feudal laws; the real causes of the movement of May 31, and so on. Unfortunately I was not able to make any researches in the National Archives of France, and my studies have, therefore, been confined to the collections of printed matter in the British Museum, which are, however, in themselves exceedingly rich.
Believing that it would not be easy for the reader to appreciate the bearing of separate studied of this kind without a general view of the whole development of the Revolution understood in the light of these studies, I soon found it necessary to write a more or less consecutive account of the chief events of the Revolution. In this account I have not dwelt upon the dramatic side of the episodes of these disturbed years, which have been so often described, but I have made it my chief object to utilise modern research so as to reveal the intimate connection and interdependence of the various events which combined to produce the climax of the eighteenth century's epic.
This method of studying separately the various parts of the work accomplished by the Revolution has necessarily its own drawbacks: it sometimes entails repetition. I have preferred, however, to take the risk or reproach for this fault in the hope of impressing more clearly upon the reader's mind the mighty currents of thought and action that came into conflict during the French Revolution — currents so intimately blended with the very essence of human nature that they must inevitably reappear in the historic events of the future.
All who know the history of the Revolution will understand how difficult it is to avoid errors in facts when one tries to trace the development of its impassioned struggles. I shall, therefore, be extremely grateful to those who will be good enough to point out any mistakes I may have made. And I wish to express here my sincerest gratitude to my friends, James Guillaume and Ernest Nys, who have had the kindness to read my manuscript and help me in this work with their knowledge and their criticisms.