the great nation: france from Louis xv to napoleon By Colin Jones, Allen Lane, £ 20
The 18th century was France’s century. It began at the end of what was called the Grand Siecle, the end of the reign of Louis XIV (1715) which had left France reduced by European war, its economy shattered, its society divided by religious discontent and its culture in decline. But France, in the course of the 18th century, rose again.
Through the century, till revolution and war engulfed it, its economy was buoyant and ushered in a period of prosperity. Intellectually and culturally, it was the centre of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot all belonged to this period. By the end of the century, though the monarchy had gone, France had begun to spread its frontiers into Europe. It was perhaps France’s finest hour, may be also its weakest.
Colin Jones, a well known historian of France, brings a novelty in his approach to the subject because he does not treat the French Revolution of 1789 as a great dividing line in French history. He treats the history of the ancien regime (a term that Jones prefers not to use) and that of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a unity. This is premised on the revisionist thesis that the ancient regime was not as doomed as was made out by a radical historiography. In fact, by seeing the Bourbon monarchy in the 18th century as an institution in decline, historians underestimate the achievement and strength of the French Revolution. The latter was historic precisely because it brought down a giant which many considered unassailable.
There is another new aspect to Jones’s book. Without underestimating the importance of social. economic and cultural trends, Jones returns to political history. The book is organized around themes of political history. This marks a shift in historiographical approaches and interests. It shows that French history has moved a long way from the influence of Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre and Fernand Braudel — all of whom disregarded high politics and the narrative mode of history writing. This, together with the influence of Richard Cobb and George Rude who developed the “history from below” approach, meant that pre-revolutionary political history has been neglected by historians. Jones tries to recover this ground.
Jones’s analysis is premised on the assumption that the political culture of the period between 1715 and 1789 was fundamentally unitary. He also argues that the philosophes, despite their ideological novelty, took part in an ongoing conversation. The Enlightenment was also linked to the development of commercial capitalism. Commerce, in the 18th century, denoted intellectual communication and economic trading. This semantic overlap, Jones suggests, highlights the extent to which the movement of ideas was dependent on economic networks.
Jones’s book marks a return of the elites to respectable history writing. The elites are his primary focus. But he also shows how innumerable individuals from a variety of backgrounds were affected by the process of making France a great nation under Napoleon. This was the major change through the 18th century. In fact, at least one event in 18th century France had an impact on the lives of people not remotely connected with France.