Trauma and the Effects of Mass Violence in Revolutionary France

A Critical Inquiry

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Ronen Steinberg

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The Reign of Terror in the French Revolution was a traumatic event, yet the language of trauma was not available to contemporaries of the revolutionary period. This article examines how physicians, revolutionary leaders, and men of letters thought about the effects of the Terror on self and society before the advent of modern trauma-talk. It shows that, in the context of the medical and philosophical theories available at the time, many saw the Terror as a constructive and therapeutic experience. This finding should complicate how historians apply the concept of trauma to account for past experiences. Based on this proposition, this article argues that it is not that the concept of trauma can help us understand the revolutionary era. Rather, it is that the changes brought about by the revolutionary era created the conditions for the emergence of modern trauma theory.

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