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Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon

Examine a crucial turning point for humanity-the French Revolution and its aftermath-in which common people threw off the shackles of oppression and seized freedom.
Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 198.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course This is a really excellent course. The professor is a most gifted lecturer and she really brings the subject to life. It is very informative and there are many illustrations in each lecture. I have learnt a great deal. I learnt about French colonies, (in particular Haiti), about military history (whan studying the career of Napoleon), about other European countries, about the influence of the American Revolution, about social history (including slavery), and about the subsequent influence of the French Revolution on history (such as later revolutions, decolonisation, Marxism and communism). A highly recommended course.
Date published: 2023-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly on target Having been fortunate enough to be in France on extended visits twice recently, I wanted to further my knowledge on this particular aspect of French history. Dr. Desan did not disappoint. She is an enthusiastic lecturer and gave a very balanced presentation. She was particularly able to give an understanding of the evolution of the French government during these turbulent times. I would say that the video is essential for these lectures.
Date published: 2023-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous! Best Great Courses class I’ve ever taken. Clear, exciting, and so informative. She poses all the questions that interested me and answered them in convincing ways. So excellent. And the subject matter is fascinating.
Date published: 2023-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In depth and lively presentation Fascinating and detailed look at an era I previously thought I knew a lot about.
Date published: 2023-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging & enjoyable; packed with details I thought I knew a little about the French Revolution & Napoleon (I was raised and educated in the UK, so possibly perspective a tad skewed) but I learned so much from this really enjoyable series of lectures. Dr. Desan's enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and she explains why things happened, not just what occurred. For anyone interested in history of this period and not already an expert, I'd highly recommend this.
Date published: 2023-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Detailed and informative Excellent lecture, well explained, detailed andbuilt up.
Date published: 2023-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautifully Taught, Fascinating, & Relevant Dr. Desan's passion for this history comes through in her superbly organized presentation. It is well paced, with plenty of examples, illustrations, and tie-ins to previous and subsequent lectures. She shows how this period of history is still relevant, and adds to our understanding to today's world events. If she were to sponsor a historical tour of France, I would sign up in a heartbeat - what a wonderful experience that would be!
Date published: 2023-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Profiles on a Large Canvas While preparing for a river cruise through Provence, I started taking this course. I have been curious about this time period for quite some time, especially after coming to realize Marie Antoinette was a Habsburg, the daughter of Austria's Maria Theresa, whose 300th Anniversary had been celebrated on my prior river cruise on the Danube. With a busy fall schedule and work finally recovering from docile days of Covid-19, I found I just didn't have time to watch it as quickly as I have taken other Wondrium courses. On top of that, I found myself napping during the courses, which I wouldn't pin on the course but rather simply needing sleep in what had been busy times. In any case, I finished the course last week. I think the instructor did an excellent job balancing political winds and showing how, as with all things glossed over by the winds of time, different opinions and passions rolled through what could be considered a rather homogenous age of enlightenment unfolding of principles of historical liberalism (as opposed to what we call liberal in the 21st century). I feel like this is a highly instructive course in seeing how revolutions unfold and can end up eating their parents along with extended family. I have found Napoleon fascinating for several years. Prior to this course, in my own mind I had come to think of him as something of a Donald Trump of his day. I think perhaps I find that more true now in terms of how divisive he was, though of course Trump was the only President in decades to not get the United States embroiled in a new war whereas Napoleon and the French Revolutionists before them were at war almost non-stop. I thought the professor did a particularly good job showing how Napoleon was a liberator but then also looted the royal treasuries and art, which makes him a lot more like Hitler, or perhaps in a better light, a Robin Hood stealing from the rich (in other countries) and giving to the poor, plus a lot for the French as what he might have felt was just payment for liberation. Then again, that's what most victors have done throughout history, with the United States being the notable exception, though we have perhaps a better way to conquer, with McDonalds, movies and computer programs yielding long term revenue for our countrymen. I think Napoleon and the Revolutionaries before him probably thought of themselves as setting Europe free from serfdom, which was a war that needed to be raged in the long run. I still find it hard to believe that in the midst of a revolution they would declare war on other countries, but the way it played out, with all the royal cousins deciding they needed to stomp out these upstarts, there really was no choice. Long story short, I recommend this class to everyone who wants to have a better grasp of what is happening now in our own country and throughout the world as well as in those remarkable years covered in this course.
Date published: 2023-02-06
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The 25 years between the onset of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Bourbon Restoration after Napoleon in 1814 is an astonishing period in world history. Now you can learn the full story of this era that shook the foundations of the old world and marked a permanent shift for politics, religion, and society-not just for France, but for all of Europe-in Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. These 48 thrilling lectures by Dr. Suzanne M. Desan of the University of Wisconsin√Madison will give you a broad and comprehensive survey of this pivotal era that speaks to some of the same issues and events in contemporary history, from the quest for civil rights in the United States to the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Suzanne M. Desan

I've devoted my career to studying the French Revolutionary era. This era-its actors, its dreams, its politics, its tragedies-it just won't let me go. I seem to be addicted to the French Revolution.


University of Wisconsin, Madison

Professor Suzanne M. Desan is the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Professor Desan is a historian of early modern Europe, specializing in 18th-century France. She holds a B.A. in History from Princeton University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley.


Professor Desan’s love of teaching has been recognized by various awards, including the University of Wisconsin Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award (2007) and the UW–Madison Undergraduate History Association’s Professor of the Year Award (2013). She has sought out wider audiences for her teaching by participating in Wisconsin Public Radio’s University of the Air, the Chicago Humanities Festival, and seminars and workshops sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Professor Desan’s research has often probed how individuals experienced French revolutionary politics in their daily lives. She has especially tried to understand the Revolution’s impact on ordinary men and women and to analyze how they engaged in politics in households, churches, and villages. More recently, her writing has examined the international circulation of revolutionary ideas and practices and has explored the influence of foreigners on French politics and political culture.


Professor Desan has written or coedited Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France; The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France; Family, Gender, and Law in Early Modern France; and The French Revolution in Global Perspective.


Professor Desan has spent many happy hours delving into archives in France. Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Philosophical Association, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Fulbright Program, and American Council of Learned Societies. 

By This Professor

Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon
Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon


Introduction and the Old Regime Monarchy

01: Introduction and the Old Regime Monarchy

Take a first look at the complexities of overthrowing a monarchy and constructing a democracy. This first lecture introduces you to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and lays the groundwork for the gripping drama of the French Revolution.

33 min
Privilege-Old Regime Society

02: Privilege-Old Regime Society

Look at the hierarchical society of France in the 1780s, which was divided into three estates-those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobles), and those who worked and paid taxes (the peasants). This system placed a heavy burden on the peasantry and set the stage for revolution.

30 min
The Enlightenment

03: The Enlightenment

Enter 18th-century salons and cafés to join the debates over modernity and politics. While writers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau argued over natural rights, political reform, the social contract, and more, the Old Regime cracked down on dissidents and threw writers in jail for criticizing the government.

32 min
France, Global Commerce, and Colonization

04: France, Global Commerce, and Colonization

See how global trade, the mercantilist system, and the slave trade disrupted traditional notions of societal hierarchy as non-nobles benefited greatly from the new economy. Additionally, global warfare-especially between France and Great Britain over colonization-left France weakened and deeply in debt.

31 min
American Revolution and the Economic Crisis

05: American Revolution and the Economic Crisis

Explore the economic problems of France in the 1780s. The nation was deeply in debt, due to war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. The opening of free trade hit the textile market and caused high unemployment. Finally, years of poor harvests and famine spurred grain riots.

30 min
The Political Awakening of 1789

06: The Political Awakening of 1789

When the Estates-General met in 1789 to tackle the nation's woes, several questions were on the table: Who would have political power? How could France reform its tax system? What would happen to the system of privilege? Explore how the Third Estate challenged the status quo and created a revolutionary new Assembly to represent all France.

32 min
July 14th-Storming the Bastille

07: July 14th-Storming the Bastille

Unpack the story of one of the most famous days in French history. In the wake of the Estates-General crisis, hungry crowds gathered in the streets of Paris. As the king gathered troops around Versailles, the politics of hunger took over in the streets and the crowds stormed the Bastille, sparking a nationwide revolution.

30 min
Peasant Revolt and the Abolition of Feudalism

08: Peasant Revolt and the Abolition of Feudalism

In the weeks after the storming of the Bastille, panic gripped the countryside. Peasants revolted against their lords, and rumors about grain hoarding, bandits, and foreign invasion swirled around France. Amid this "Great Fear of 1789," the National Assembly met and dismantled the feudal system as the political revolution morphed into a radical social revolution.

32 min
The Declaration of the Rights of Man

09: The Declaration of the Rights of Man

Study the origins and significance of this shocking declaration, from its influences in the Enlightenment and American rights declarations to its implications for religious liberty and the role of the king. Who would get these "universal rights"? How would they be implemented?

33 min
Paris Commands Its King

10: Paris Commands Its King

March to Versailles with thousands of women and National Guardsmen to protest the price of bread and to lobby the king for political changes. This huge demonstration compelled the king and queen to move to Paris and revealed the power of popular activism.

29 min
Political Apprenticeship in Democracy

11: Political Apprenticeship in Democracy

The press, political clubs, and elections-these three pillars of democratic, revolutionary politics set the agenda for the nation as France redistributed power, redrew its administrative map, and instituted a host of reforms that gave local voting power to the provinces.

31 min
Religion and the Early Revolution

12: Religion and the Early Revolution

Shift your attention from politics to the Catholic Church, which was at the heart of local communities throughout France. Despite an overall decline in religion in the 18th century, revolutionaries were playing with fire as they sought to reform the church, and their actions divided the country.

31 min
The Revolution and the Colonies

13: The Revolution and the Colonies

Turn to the French colonies and ask what the Revolution meant in places such as Saint-Domingue, the colony that would soon become the independent nation of Haiti. Did the Declaration of the Rights of Man apply to free people of color? Would the Revolution abolish the slave trade? These questions would take several years to answer.

30 min
Women's Rights in the Early Revolution

14: Women's Rights in the Early Revolution

Women had no official political role in the Old Regime, but the Revolution raised the question of women's rights and their place in the public sphere. Find out how two of the era's key feminists-Condorcet, a male mathematician, and Olympe de Gouges, a female writer-framed the demand for women's rights, and observe the many ways women engaged in politics.

30 min
The King's Flight

15: The King's Flight

On June 20, 1791, King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette disappeared, having fled into the night. This lecture shows you the king's secret-and ultimately doomed-attempt to escape France. This act became a significant turning point for the Revolution because it allowed the French to imagine their country without a king.

30 min
Foreign Reactions-A Divided Europe

16: Foreign Reactions-A Divided Europe

Travel to Great Britain to explore the foreign reactions to the French Revolution. Professor Desan walks you through Edmund Burke's defense of tradition and the aristocratic system, as well as Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," a response to Burke that lays out an argument for equality and a series of reforms.

31 min
The Path to War with Europe

17: The Path to War with Europe

Discover why France went to war with Austria and Prussia in 1792, and meet some of the key players in that decision-including the Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre who, ironically, feared war could destroy the Revolution and lead to a dictatorship. Study the causes of the war that would transform the Revolution.

32 min
Overthrowing the Monarchy

18: Overthrowing the Monarchy

Turn to ordinary citizens as they overthrow their king and embark on a bold political experiment. With France losing the war with Austria and angry crowds in the streets, the Legislative Assembly declared the homeland in danger. See how revolutionary leaders and Parisians took matters into their own hands to press for creation of a republic.

30 min
The King's Trial

19: The King's Trial

Experience the stunning trial and execution of King Louis XVI. This lecture begins by surveying the political alignments of the new republic and the debates between the radical Jacobins and the moderate Girondins over what to do with the king-a political division that would only deepen after the king's execution.

29 min
The Republic at War

20: The Republic at War

Consider the international issues while France was at war. How did the French army save the republic at the battle of Valmy? Could the French spread the Revolution abroad? Could they continue to face their growing list of enemies? You'll also learn about the French military and what it was like to be a soldier in the revolutionary army.

32 min
Revolutionary Culture and Festivals

21: Revolutionary Culture and Festivals

Step back and explore the culture of France as revolutionary leaders tried to stamp out the power of religion and the monarchy. From a new republican calendar to festivals that celebrated the goddesses Liberty and Reason, radicals enacted a fascinating series of changes.

31 min
Family and Marriage

22: Family and Marriage

Look beyond the larger issues of politics and economics and reflect on how the Revolution introduced new ideas of liberty and equality into family relationships. The revolutionaries legalized divorce, challenged the authority of fathers, and abolished unfair inheritance laws. Families became a microcosm of the Revolution as individuals figured out what liberty meant in everyday life.

31 min
Slave Revolt and the Abolition of Slavery

23: Slave Revolt and the Abolition of Slavery

The largest slave revolt in history took place in Saint-Domingue in the early 1790s. What made the revolt possible? How did insurgent slaves convince France that slavery should be abolished? Uncover the suspenseful story of Toussaint Louverture's rise to power, which paved the way for an independent Haiti.

31 min
Counterrevolution and the Vendee

24: Counterrevolution and the Vendee

Not everyone was on board with the Revolution. In fact, tens of thousands of peasants and artisans in the provinces were dissatisfied with what they saw as the atheism and the anarchy of the revolutionaries. Learn about the civil war in western France and the counterrevolutionary efforts to restore the king and the old way of life.

31 min
The Pressure Cooker of Politics

25: The Pressure Cooker of Politics

Return to Paris during the crisis months of spring 1793 as the leading revolutionaries wrestled with the ongoing economic crisis, war losses, and the growing fear of conspiracy and counterrevolution. The government took emergency measures and created the Committee of Public Safety, thus sowing the seeds for the Terror.

32 min
Revolution in Crisis-Summer 1793

26: Revolution in Crisis-Summer 1793

Witness the Jacobins' struggle to hold the republic together. French Federalists wanted local power, especially in the south and in Normandy. Although their revolt never gained traction, it stunned Jacobins in Paris. Another dramatic calamity came in July, with the actions of a woman named Charlotte Corday.

31 min
Terror Is the Order of the Day

27: Terror Is the Order of the Day

The beginning of the Terror is difficult to pinpoint, but by the fall of 1793, all the institutions of the Terror were in place. This lecture shows you how the Jacobins built the Terror, introduces you to some of its victims-including its most famous victim, Marie-Antoinette-and wrestles with the philosophical question of how the Terror emerged from the Revolution.

32 min
The Revolution Devours Her Children

28: The Revolution Devours Her Children

Continue your study of the Terror and explore the fundamental contradiction of using brutal means to create an egalitarian republic. Delve into the clandestine political plots and see how Robespierre tried to negotiate a middle path between the extremists who were for or against the Terror.

31 min
The Overthrow of Robespierre

29: The Overthrow of Robespierre

How was Robespierre overthrown? As the Terror intensifies, you will follow an exhausted Robespierre as he battles to maintain control, and you will meet a group known as the Thermidorians, who would take control of France and dismantle the Terror.

31 min
The Thermidorian Reaction

30: The Thermidorian Reaction

After the fall of Robespierre, France shifted to the right as the Thermidorians struggled to save the republic and create a social order free from the violence of the Terror. Witness the last great uprising of the Revolution, yet again over bread and politics, and trace the construction of the short-lived government called the Directory.

31 min
The Directory-An Experimental Republic

31: The Directory-An Experimental Republic

Examine the moderate new republic and its attempts to find a middle way to carry out the promise of the Enlightenment and the Revolution without the disorder of the preceding years. Because this curious moment is wedged between the Terror and Napoleon, it tends to be ignored in historical surveys, but it was a significant time as France expanded and experimented with revolutionary innovations.

30 min
Young Napoleon

32: Young Napoleon

Meet the famous Corsican who would one day crown himself emperor of France. This lecture introduces you to Napoleon as a young man. The context of his early military career will enhance your understanding of the mature general, and it demonstrates his complexity as an outsider striving to gain power.

31 min
The Italian Campaign and the Sister Republics

33: The Italian Campaign and the Sister Republics

As commander of the French army in Italy in 1796, Napoleon marched into Milan, drove Austria to its knees, and set up a sister republic in Italy, astonishing the rest of Europe. See what made Napoleon such a brilliant military strategist, and learn about Napoleon's politics and diplomacy as a young leader.

30 min
Sister Republics? France and America

34: Sister Republics? France and America

Review the relationship between France and the United States. Coming off the heels of the American Revolution, the two nations had a cozy relationship in 1789, but the friendship soured over the next decade. By 1798, they were nearly at war, thanks to U.S. proclamations of neutrality, the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, and the XYZ Affair.

32 min
Bonaparte in Egypt

35: Bonaparte in Egypt

Return to Napoleon's military conquests-this time in Egypt, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. After his Italian campaign, he grew restless in Paris and led an expedition to Egypt in an attempt to colonize it and spread French civilization abroad.

30 min
Bonaparte Seizes Power

36: Bonaparte Seizes Power

How did Napoleon seize power in France in 1799? Tensions were high between the royalists and the neo-Jacobins, and in this climate of crisis, Napoleon led a military coup and drew up yet another constitution for France, bringing the Revolution to an end.

31 min
Building Power-General and First Consul

37: Building Power-General and First Consul

Trace the early years of Napoleon's rule and see how he built his power step by step. At war, he maneuvered boldly against the Austrians and had an uncanny ability to make peace. At home, he combined repression with conciliation to secure his power, and in 1802 he was elected First Consul for life.

31 min
Napoleon Becomes Emperor

38: Napoleon Becomes Emperor

As his power grew, Napoleon's ties to the Revolution shifted. He spoke of the "nation" rather than the "republic," and he became more formal and remote. After a failed plot against his life, he declared himself emperor. Despite this shocking seizure of power, he built on some of the Revolution's better achievements.

31 min
Napoleon's Ambitions in the New World

39: Napoleon's Ambitions in the New World

In 1803, despite Napoleon's colonial ambitions, France sold 800,000 square miles of the Louisiana territory to the United States. Find out why by considering the international situation, especially Napoleon's attempt to re-establish slavery and the loss of Haiti after the slave revolt.

30 min
Taking on the Great Powers

40: Taking on the Great Powers

While Napoleon's ambitions in the Americas had been thwarted, he was ready in 1805 to take on the great powers of Europe. Go inside the Grande Armée and learn about Napoleon's corps system. Then take a look at several key battles, including Trafalgar at sea and the Battle of Austerlitz.

30 min
Expanding the Empire

41: Expanding the Empire

From 1806 to 1808, Napoleon pushed his empire beyond the limits of what he could actually rule, from Poland to Spain. Take a closer look at his military strategy as he reached the pinnacle of his power. He concentrated his forces for decisive victories in the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, and he hammered out a peace with Tsar Alexander of Russia.

31 min
France during the Empire

42: France during the Empire

Perhaps because Napoleon rose to power so unexpectedly, his legitimacy was always fragile. Survey the ways in which he built his own glory by transforming Paris and creating a new nobility. Then see how, needing an heir, he divorced Josephine.

32 min
Living under the Empire

43: Living under the Empire

Was Napoleon a modernizer who brought efficient and liberal reforms throughout his European empire, or was he a cultural imperialist who tried to export his vision of a centralized, authoritarian state? Historians debate this even today, and this lecture shows you each side of the Napoleonic legacy.

31 min
The Russian Campaign

44: The Russian Campaign

Follow Napoleon's harrowing march across Russia in 1812, and witness his doomed campaign from the viewpoint of his soldiers. Napoleon's fateful decision to invade Russia marked a turning point for his empire.

30 min
Napoleon's Fall and the Hundred Days

45: Napoleon's Fall and the Hundred Days

Experience the drama that followed the disastrous Russian campaign, where several European nations formed an alliance against France and forced Napoleon into exile. But in a surprising turn of events, he escaped the island of Elba and regained control of France without firing a single shot.

31 min
Waterloo and Beyond

46: Waterloo and Beyond

Against all odds, Napoleon struggled to hang onto power, but in the spring of 1815, all the major European powers had declared war against him. He needed one great victory to secure his reign, but the Battle of Waterloo became his final undoing and reverberated for years to come.

31 min
Emerging Political Models

47: Emerging Political Models

Take a look at the politics of France after Napoleon. The nation had changed too much over the preceding 25 years to simply return to a stable monarchy. See the emergence of competing political models of conservatism, liberalism, and Bonapartism during the Bourbon Restoration of King Louis XVIII.

33 min
Revolutionary Legacies

48: Revolutionary Legacies

In this concluding lecture, you'll look at how the ideas, symbols, and practices of the Revolution had far-ranging consequences that are still being debated today. From the European uprisings of 1848 to the civil rights issues of the 20th and 21st centuries, the questions raised by the French Revolution are still being asked.

32 min