Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview

9
Europe Turns East: Political Developments in the Eighteenth century

H. M. SCOTT

Political developments in eighteenth-century Europe have often been viewed through a French lens. There was, it must be admitted, considerable contemporary justification for such a perspective. At the beginning of the period, France was clearly the dominant European state. Her political leadership, based on abundant demographic and economic resources and Europe's largest and most powerful army, proved enduring, though by the mid-eighteenth century her relative military and international decline was becoming evident. Around 1700, however, France's army, monarchy, and system of government were all widely admired, as were her fabled court at Versailles and her élite culture, both of which set the standards for the other continental countries. Throughout the eighteenth century, French was the principal language of educated and aristocratic society on the continent, and was often used by rulers, statesmen, and diplomats in preference to their native tongues. The leading intellectual movement of the age, the Enlightenment, had important foundations in France. Above all, the revolution which began in Paris at the end of the 1780s seemed to confirm France's central place in the political world of eighteenth-century Europe.

The French Revolution's crucial importance for modern history has often distorted our view of eighteenth-century developments, which have been seen as a preparation for the dramatic events after 1789. France was and always remained a major state, yet its place in Europe's eighteenth- century history was less central than it has seemed. The key political developments of this period were located at the peripheries of Europe. In the

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