Magazine article The Spectator

Exploring the Revolutionary Legends

Magazine article The Spectator

Exploring the Revolutionary Legends

Article excerpt

REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE: 1788-1880: THE SHORT OXFORD HISTORY OF FRANCE edited by Malcolm Crook OUP, L37.50 (L14.99 paperback), pp. 250, ISBN 0198731868

In his introduction to this collection of essays, Malcolm Crook writes that from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871 `revolutionary France astounded and appalled in equal measure'. There are two persistent legends in French history: that of the Revolution and the cult of those who had sought to destroy privilege in the name of liberty and fraternity, that of Napoleon, the cult of the man who is associated both with the greatness of France in Europe and with rational government in France itself. These two legends have given rise to a third whereby the France that had proclaimed the Universal Rights of Man became the model for radicals of all shades.

But these legends have been questioned by many historians, especially in France itself. It is in order to explore these legends and their revisions that this volume has appeared. It is part of a series on French history under the overall editorship of William Doyle, that will eventually consist of six volumes, all of them concise.

This particular study consists of excellent essays by seven historians (none of whom is French), taking the story up to the 1880s, at which time it can be argued that a political consensus had begun to emerge. Each essay considers its subject directly. The volume is in no way a discussion of the work done by revisionist historians, which would have made it an exercise for specialists. The names of some of those who have had a profound effect on the study of these years are mentioned: Francois Furet, Alfred Cobban and Eugen Weber, for example. But their names are banned from the index, a sign that this book is not about their writings.

Nor do the contributors necessarily adopt a revisionist approach. Malcolm Crook, for example, explains the Terror of 1793 and 1794 by the exceptional circumstances that prevailed at this time. There was war and there was counter-revolution. It has been claimed that the Terror or the idea of the Terror was an essential part of the Revolution. Others see it as the work of a small group of men who were divided into mutually hostile factions, haunted by the fear of plots and conspiracies. But Crook does not consider these views. He also ignores certain recent views of the Revolution which make events in western France, in the Vende, all-important and which use words that carry a particularly sinister meaning, such as genocide. He explains what happened in the Vende when the so-called counter-revolution was crushed, but he gives equal importance to the furious repression that took place in the urban centres of the south and he quotes Fouche's proud boast, `Lyons no longer exists.'

Thomas Kselman writes about the State and religion, explaining the institutional changes that took place and the role of the clergy, both in political circles and in their parishes. He goes on to consider the beliefs and behaviour of the ordinary citizen, not only because of the importance of the consumer but because the laity often exercised pressure on the clergy. The cult of saints, the creation of shrines, the growth of the idea of purgatory and the practice of spiritualism, all these developments had their role in other spheres, such as movements for social reform. …

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