“They said to her in a harsh voice: ‘Cry out: Long live the nation!’ – ‘No! no!’ she said. They made her climb onto a heap of corpses. … Then a killer seized her, tore off her dress and opened her belly. She fell, and was finished off by the others.” So ended the life of the Princess de Lamballe, a close confidante of Marie Antoinette, in 1792.
This harrowing episode is one of many documented in Peter McPhee’s 2016 book about the French Revolution, Liberty or Death: The French Revolution. This thorough and well-researched work takes off in pre-revolutionary France, which the author explains “was a land of mass poverty in which most people were vulnerable to harvest failure” and “in which the weight of authority guaranteed relative obedience and stability.” This state of obedience gradually disintegrated throughout the eighteenth century, as food-rioting and “complaints about the presumptions of the privileged” increased. A patchwork of overlapping authorities of monarchy, aristocracy and Church in those days, France was economically backward compared to England, where the Industrial Revolution was well underway by 1789. France’s peasants and artisans had ample reason for discontent with their rulers.