The Sans Culottes
In paintings depicting scenes of the French Revolution and in films, when the mobs are shown, they are for the most part those of the Revolution who were called the sans-culottes. Sans-culottes means without breeches and designates them as members of the lower class, the pants to which the name refers were the knee breeches and stockings worn by the members of the upper class and the nobility. The sans-culottes made up the bulk of the mob which stormed the Bastille and other sites throughout the Revolution, and could be called the Revolutionary Army.
From around the time of the overthrow of the King to the end of the Reign of Terror the sans-culottes were used by the leaders of the various factions which emerged throughout the Revolution to enforce their views. The sans-culottes had some of the formal structure associated with a military command, and enforced discipline when necessary among their ranks. They were also susceptible to bribery and blackmail, often attacked other units supportive of opposing views, and were most prevalent in Paris and other large cities.
When the prisoners held in the jails of Paris were released during the September Massacre, it was into the hands of the sans-culottes to be executed. Many of those found to be not guilty of crimes against the state were executed by the sans-culottes anyway, a not uncommon occurrence in other mob actions. Following the flight of the King to Varennes and Lafayette’s order to the National Guard not to arrest him, the sans-culottes grew to view the Guard with considerable suspicion, and further tensions took hold among the Revolutionary hierarchy.
The sans-culottes demonstrated their bloodthirsty proclivities many times during the Revolution. Many of the revolutionary troops which fought the Royalist forces at Nantes were sans-culottes, who also provided the garrison force which supported the executions there. Sans-culottes were among the loudest voices denouncing the members of the nobility and aristocracy throughout the Revolution and especially during the Reign of Terror.
They also served sometimes as self-appointed enforcers of the laws and decrees enacted by the revolutionary government, addressing one another as Citizen and watching for violations of any regulations. The reporting of violations frequently led to rewards, which may include additional bread, meat, or wine, and sometimes even gold. They were frequently used as spies by the opposing political factions, and were often brought in to watch debates so that their loud and spirited reactions could be used to intimidate opponents. As one of the most radical groups of the French Revolution the sans-culottes were also one of the most dangerous, especially to those of the middle class and up.