Who were the Sans-culottes?

Lower-Class Activism Changed the Course of the French Revolution

Sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly
Sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Wikimedia Commons

The Sans-culottes were urban workers, artisans, minor landholders, and associated Parisians who took part in mass public displays during the French Revolution. They were frequently more radical than the deputies who formed the National Assembly, and their often violent demonstrations and attacks threatened and cajoled revolutionary leaders down new paths at key moments. They were named after an article of clothing ​and the fact that they didn’t wear it.

Origins of the Sans-culottes

In 1789, a financial crisis caused the king to call a gathering of the ‘three estates’ which led to a revolution, the declaration of a new government, and a sweeping away of the old order. But the French Revolution wasn’t simply the rich and the noble versus a unified body of middle and lower class citizens. The revolution was driven by factions across all levels and classes.

One group who formed and played a massive role in the revolution, at times directing it, were the Sans-culottes. These were lower middle-class people, craftsmen and apprentices, shopkeepers, clerks, and associated workers, who were often led by the true middle class. They were strongest and most important group in Paris, but they appeared in provincial cities too. The French Revolution saw a remarkable amount of political education and street agitation, and this group was aware, active and willing to commit violence. In short, they were a powerful and often overwhelming street army.

Meaning of the Term Sans-culottes

So why ‘Sans-culottes?’ The name literally means ‘without culottes’, a culotte being a form of knee high clothing that only the wealthier members of French society wore. By identifying themselves as ‘without culottes’ they were stressing their differences from the upper classes of French society. Together with the Bonnet Rouge and the triple colored cockade, the power of the Sans-culottes was such that this became a quasi-uniform of revolution. Wearing culottes could get you into trouble if you ran into the wrong people during the revolution; as a result, even upper-class French people sported the sans-culottes clothing to avoid potential confrontations.

What Role Did the Sans-culottes Play in the French Revolution?

Over the early years the Sans-culottes program, loose as it was, demanded price fixing, jobs, and crucially provided support for the implementation of the Terror (the revolutionary tribunal that condemned thousands of aristocrats to death). While the Sans-culottes' agenda was originally focused on justice and equality, they quickly became pawns in the hands of experienced politicians. In the long run, the Sans-culottes became a force for violence and terror;  the people at the top were only ever loosely in charge.

End of the Sans-culottes

Robespierre, one of the leaders of the revolution, attempted to guide and control the Parisian Sans-culottes. Leaders, however, found that it was impossible to unify and direct the Parisian masses. In the long run, Robespierre being arrested and guillotined, and the Terror stopped. What they had instituted began to destroy them, and from them on the National Guard were able to defeat the Sans-culottes in contests of will and force. By the end of 1795 the Sans-culottes were broken and gone, and it is perhaps no accident France was able to bring in a form of government which managed change with far less brutality.