The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon
THE FRENCH did not begin to call themselves the Great Nation until a couple of years before Colin Jones's story ends. But he believes they deserve the name for the whole of the period from the death of Louis XIV to the advent of Napoleon. After all, they inhabited the most extensive, most populous, most prestigious and - he comes close to claiming - most prosperous and successful country in western Europe. So why did they need a revolution?
He seems unsure that they did, and is certain that they neither foresaw nor desired the one they got. The real problem was that the absolute monarchy perfected by Louis XIV was unable to adapt itself to long-term changes in the French economy, society and, above all, culture. Commercial expansion on an unprecedented scale had broadened French appetites for material and cultural gratifications. Among the latter was participation in public life or, as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has taught historians to call it, the "bourgeois public sphere".
This was the site (a favourite word with Jones) where men of education, and a few high-flying women, learned to discuss freely everything that happened, and form an opinion about it. In Louis XIV's heyday the state, in close alliance with the church, laid claim to control all channels of opinion. By Louis XVI's time, public opinion had escaped from the clutches of absolutism. In many areas, in fact, the state felt obliged to follow public opinion wherever it led.
The one thing an absolute monarch could not concede was representative institutions which would allow the public to dictate state policy. Yet the crown's own conduct of that policy proved capricious, unpopular and ruinously expensive. Eventually, financial collapse opened the way for an increasingly impatient intelligentsia to take over the state and try to implement dreams forged over half a century of Enlightenment.
It was, Jones insists, a bourgeois revolution. He finds clear evidence for a rising bourgeoisie over the 18th century in its rampant commercialism and what he calls the Great Chain of Buying. He finds that "the middling sort - a variegated group, which could reasonably be called the bourgeoisie" were best placed to benefit from the revolution, and did so.
This baggy (another favourite term) group is no Marxist class of capitalists; but nor is it the declining, non-commercial collection of lawyers and professionals proposed almost half a century ago by Alfred Cobban. Jones and his publisher have set out to replace the earliest of Cobban's three- volume History of Modern France (1957) as the first port of call for anyone wishing to become acquainted with this period. They have done so magnificently, and at much greater length than the original.
But the subject is now scarcely recognisable as that outlined by Cobban, Only the time-span, which unusually takes in the old regime as well as the revolution, is the same.
Over the decades …