The Rise and Decline of a Revolutionary Space: Paris' Place De Greve and the Stonemasons of Creuse, 1750-1900

By Harison, Casey | Journal of Social History, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Decline of a Revolutionary Space: Paris' Place De Greve and the Stonemasons of Creuse, 1750-1900


Harison, Casey, Journal of Social History


Physical spaces and social groups can have intertwined and sometimes meaningful histories. One thinks, for instance, of the relationship of Stonehenge and the Druids or the Mur des Federees and the Communards of 1871. [1] Though less well known, a similar relationship existed between the Place de Greve, the open square fronting Paris' Hotel de Ville (cityhall), and the migrant stonemasons from central France who used the setting as a hiring fair. The Place de Greve is especially noteworthy for its history of contentiousness in the nineteenth century, for it was here that crowds tended to gather, rumors of insurrection circulated and rebellions reached their climax; where the heightened social tensions that marked Paris from the Revolution of 1789 though the Commune of 1871 could be seen to take shape and play out. [2] Less well known is the Place's connection to the stonemasons. Yet this combination of physical space and social group contributed to a "contentious repertoire" that would help to make Paris the nineteenth century's "capital of revolution." [3]

Charles Tilly, in particular, has emphasized the importance of this "revolutionary square" in France's notably contentious history. [4] While the Place was situated in the very heart of the city, the seemingly alien stonemasons who frequented it and the images of violence popularly associated with the site made it a marginal and dangerous location in the eyes of police and public, a stereotype that lingered even as, during the Second Empire (1852-1870), the central city grew more bourgeois and workers were pushed to the urban periphery. [5] Yet it was not so much the geography and physical characteristics of the Place that turned it into a combative setting, since these qualities had long existed. Rather, the Place de Greve gained this meaning because it became a "microcosm," both symbolically and in reality, of the contentious merging of representational, political, economic, demographic and centralizing trends that had their origins in the eighteenth century, but saw their explosive results occur especiall y in the nineteenth century. [6]

A useful analytical tool for approaching this conjuncture and its relation to the many rebellions that occurred in Paris in the nineteenth century is the notion of a repertoire of contention. Developed by sociologists, a contentious repertoire is defined by Tilly as "a limited set of routines that are learned, shared, and acted out (by groups) through a relatively deliberate process of choice... They are learned cultural creations ... (that) emerge from struggle." [7] Contentious repertoires change over time, Tilly argues, with the French Revolution "pivotal" in the development of the modern form because it enlarged the power of the state, thereby forcing groups in opposition (notably workers, since modern governments almost always aligned themselves with employers) to assume more definitive and confrontational shapes. [8] Tilly, whose research has centered especially on France and who has long argued that capitalism and state centralization share a parallel and intertwined history, views rebellion as a resp onse to these developments and as a form of repertoire distinctive to the nineteenth century. [9] He notes, however, that as a scholarly tool "no one has demonstrated the repertoire of contention's utility with sufficient clarity and concreteness." [10] This paper does not employ the theory rigorously, but rather takes up the idea broadly as a means to explore the relationship among rebellion, repression and physical place in nineteenth-century Paris.

As this article describes, an important ingredient in the contentious repertoire at the Place de Greve were images of disorder and violence. These images were the products of modernizing trends that contributed to concrete actions, and which had their greatest impact upon the stonemasons who sought jobs at the hiring fair occurring every morning at the square. …

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