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A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France

In contemporary political discourse, it is common to denounce violent acts as “terroristic.” But this reflexive denunciation is a surprisingly recent development. In A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France, Ronald Schechter tells the story of the term’s evolution in Western thought, examining a neglected yet crucial chapter of our complicated romance with terror.
For centuries prior to the French Revolution, the word “terror” had largely positive connotations. Subjects flattered monarchs with the label “terror of his enemies.” Lawyers invoked the “terror of the laws.” Theater critics praised tragedies that imparted terror and pity. By August 1794, however, terror had lost its positive valence. As revolutionaries sought to rid France of its enemies, terror became associated with surveillance committees, tribunals, and the guillotine. By unearthing the tradition that associated terror with justice, magnificence, and health, Schechter helps us understand how the revolutionary call to make terror the order of the day could inspire such fervent loyalty in the first place—even as the gratuitous violence of the revolution eventually transformed it into the dreadful term we would recognize today. Most important, perhaps, Schechter proposes that terror is not an import to Western civilization—as contemporary discourse often suggests—but rather a domestic product with a long and consequential tradition. 

304 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: European History, General History, History of Ideas


"[A] remarkable book. . . in his fascinating and lucid analysis, Schechter has suggested a new way to think about one of the most important political and cultural transformations of the modern world."

New York Review of Books

"Schechter’s excellent new book is a well-written, thoughtful piece on the pivotal role of “the Terror” of the French Revolution in changing and defining how people see, use, and feel the words terrorterrorism, and terrorist today. Highly recommended."


“By tracing terror in all its incarnations from the divine majesty of the ruler to views of punishment, potential medical cures, the workings of tragedy on the stage, not to mention aesthetic theory, Schechter has managed a feat that has long eluded scholars: fundamentally reframing discussions of the Terror during the French Revolution. The ‘Reign of Terror’ has been cast as the prototype of totalitarianism, a halting step toward socialism, or a desperate wartime effort to save the fledgling French republic, but it has never been put in this broader cultural context in so convincing a fashion. Years of ambitious and inspired research lie behind this magnificent achievement.”

Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights

“So many questions about the character and significance of the French revolution focus on the origins of the Terror. Yet no one before Ronald Schechter has had the brilliantly simple idea of systematically tracing the evolution of the word and its multiple meanings prior to 1789. With penetrating clarity, A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France jolts us into realizing that the making of the modern notion of terror in 1793 has made us lose sight of a broad and highly positive set of connotations for the term prior to 1789. This is a book that will be widely read, much discussed and widely admired.”

Colin Jones, author of Paris: The Biography of a City

"[A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France is an] elegant and penetrating study. . ."

Journal of Modern History

Table of Contents

1. Holy Terror and Divine Majesty
2. The Terror of Their Enemies: Kings and Nations
3. The Terror of the Laws: Crime and Punishment
4. Terror and Pity: The Springs of Tragedy
5. Terror and the Sublime
6. Terror and Medicine
7. Terror before “the Terror”: June 1789–August 1793
8. Terror Speech in the Year II

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