The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
Contact Us

Militias and Citizen-Soldiers in Early Modern France (1550-1800)

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

       This project studies militias and citizen-soldiers in France during the early modern era (1550-1800), a story with five distinct phases. In the first phase, the private armies of medieval France gave way to France’s royal army, creating a sharper distinction between civilians and soldiers than had previously existed. In the second phase, while France’s royal army grew, its bourgeois militias deteriorated, and the provincial militia became a new (and unpopular) institution. In the third phase, eighteenth-century Enlightenment writers presented myriad proposals for reshaping France’s army, many based on the ideal of recreating the citizens’ armies of the ancient Roman Republic. In the fourth phase, following the outbreak of the French Revolution, well-off citizens formed bourgeois militias throughout France and used them to police poorer citizens. In the final phase, while at war against most of Europe, France instituted a citizens’ army in which all adult men theoretically were soldiers.

       Telling this story helps explain several key phenomena, including the rise of the centralized state, the place of violence in the French Revolution, and the centrality of social class in French history. It will also help reexamine the role of civic republicanism in France’s Revolution. Throughout this period there were citizens who performed part-time military duty during peacetime and who were called up to full-time duty during wartime. At first glance the heterogeneity of their roles and the different militias make these seem like separate phenomena, but they warrant being treated together in one research project as part of France’s search for a way to maintain its “monopoly on the legitimate use of force” in a way that combined public order with the attachment of inhabitants to the regime. The transformation of men from being “subjects” during the monarchy to being “citizens” of the republic should not obscure the continuity of a centralizing state trying to maximize control over its population while minimizing the costs of its military. The difficulty of this task meant that France never did establish a stable peacetime system of integrating civil society and the military. The history of French militias will be a welcome point of comparison for historians of militias and citizen soldiers elsewhere, especially in other parts of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

Back to top