The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

16
The Nobility's New Clothes: Revisionism and the Survival of the Nobility During the French Revolution

John Dunne

Whoever won the Revolution the noble landlord lost.

R. Forster, "The Survival of the Nobility During the French Revolution" ( 1967)1

. . . the old landed families survive[d] the decade of Revolution with their estates intact.

R. Forster, "The French Revolution and the New Elite, 1800-50," ( 1980)2

Forster's change of heart is a dramatic illustration of the remarkable shift that has taken place in historical opinion over the last twenty years concerning the "problem of the nobility and the French Revolution." Up until the 1960s, the notion that a decaying aristocracy paid for its resistance to the Revolution with its elimination as an effective social force was the one fixed point in a changing and uncertain historiography. Virtually all recent publications--both monographs and general histories of the Revolution--tell a very different story. The story goes roughly as follows. Far from the parasitic caste depicted in Sieyès' What Is the Third Estate?, the late eighteenth-century nobility was a remarkably open, diverse and--in its leading elements--dynamic group. It goes without saying that such a sociological nonentity was incapable of presenting a united front against the liberal revolution; indeed, many of the wealthiest and best educated nobles were in the vanguard of reform. Of course, as the Revolution careened onwards, many of them had second thoughts. But the idea of solid and implacable noble resistance to the Republic is now seen as a figment of radical rhetoric. In the end, however, not too much damage was done. Forster's contention that noble fortunes did not suffer unduly from the slings and arrows of revolutionary legislation seems to command general acceptance among the specialists. Indeed, for some the real issue is when in the course of the nineteenth century, and for what reasons, did the decline of the nobility actually begin. 3

This historiographical u-turn, of course, forms part of the wider paradigm shift that has occurred within the field of French revolutionary studies since Cobban's initial onslaught on the classic "bourgeois revolution"

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