Mark Traugott


On his book The Insurgent Barricade

Cover Interview of January 11, 2011

A close-up

The search for the origins of the barricade and attempts to identify the key moments in its evolution led me to some surprising conclusions.

For example, it has long been accepted that the barricade originated at the time of the First Day of the Barricades in 1588.  Indeed, the standard account even assigns its “invention” to a specific date (May 12), a precise location (the Place Maubert in Paris), and a particular individual (Charles de Cossé, compte de Brissac, who is said to have instructed the supporters of the Duke of Guise in how to build the first such structure).

The historical record, however, provides a far more muted and ambiguous picture. I found no fewer than three distinct versions of how barricades came to be constructed in 1588, and they differ in most particulars, including both when the plan was devised and who was responsible for this innovation.

As I looked into the matter more closely, I came to believe that about the only thing these various accounts of the origins of the barricade had in common was the fact that they are all wrong.

My conclusion was initially based less on historical documentation than on linguistic evidence.  In effect, the first use of the French word “barricade” dates from 1570 when it was used to describe a battle in Mont-de-Marsan, a town in the southwest of France caught up in the wars of religion that were then raging in that region.  If the term itself existed at this earlier date, then the concept of the barricade—and, of course, the thing itself—must also have existed.

It was this line of inquiry that convinced me that I needed an explicit and carefully constructed definition of the insurgent barricade as something more than a physical object, requiring both a certain shared understanding of the concept and a clearly articulated relationship to the insurrectional setting.

The case of the barricade also led me to examine the problem of retracing historical origins in general. Historians’ tendency to invest the moment of origination with a spurious precision—here exemplified by the standard account of the invention of the barricade by a well documented individual who played a central role in one of the landmark events of the era, one which just happened to take place in the most important and storied city of the realm—flies in the face of the reality uncovered by patient inquiry.  The consistent lesson is that origins lie shrouded in uncertainty because they are the result of a gradual process involving multiple overlapping steps, more or less simultaneously undertaken by a number of independent actors, most of whom stubbornly resist efforts to penetrate their anonymity.

My investigation into the origins of the barricade thus not only complicated the story as it has customarily been told but offered the opportunity to reflect on the reasons why origin myths are so common and persistent.

In my efforts to pinpoint the critical moments in the development of a barricade culture, I was also surprised to learn that the period of the French Revolution was one in which this insurrectionary technique was in frequent use.  This can only be considered surprising in light of the fact that there has been virtually no acknowledgment of the role barricades played in those events, and in fact the categorical assertion on the part of a number of prominent historians that none existed at all.

In reality, the barricade played a minor but consistent role in many of the key events of that period—including not only July 14, 1789 but also the Flight to Varennes and the Parisian insurrections of Prairial and Vendémiaire in 1795.

This opportunity to broaden historians’ awareness of the incidence of barricade events seemed all the more important because this was the very period that witnessed Belgians’ use of barricades in the Brabant revolution, the first appearance of the tactic outside its country of origin.