Liberty and Locality in Revolutionary France: Six Villages Compared, 1760-1820

By Peter Jones | Go to book overview

Conclusion

The challenge to compare the evolution of a discrete collection of villages over a sixty-year period has not been an easy one to overcome. There exists no generally approved methodology for the task, and the range of potential angles of approach is dismayingly large. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover that an influential handbook on methods for historians devotes little more than a page to the subject of comparative history.1 Yet nearly everyone in the profession acknowledges that the comparative approach is capable of bringing new light to bear on the process of change over time and space. It does not replace conventional modes of analysis, but rather complements them to produce a richer understanding of the forces playing on events and conditioning individual lives. How, then, has this study enriched our understanding of the micro-history of the French countryside during the second half of the eighteenth century and the initial decades of the nineteenth?

A number of themes have been explored, but the one that stands out is bureaucratisation. The village, as observed in our case studies, was caught up in the power politics of reforming absolutism long before it was pressed into service by the revolutionaries as a building block of the new civic order. One by-product of this process was an altered self-image that prepared the way for the mental transformations that 1789 and the years beyond would usher in. Having become part of the System, village elites learned how to play that System to their own advantage. The most obvious losers were seigneurs, whose behaviour had been predicated on the assumption that their lordly powers and prerogatives could scarcely be challenged. The confidence and energy of resident village elites, as we have depicted them, make it rather hard to recognise and endorse Alexis de Tocqueville's schematic interpretation of the ills of French government, therefore. The

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1
A. Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 213–14.

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