Within months of the beginning of the French Revolution in the summer of 1789, its significance was recognized by both its critics and supporters, and in the succeeding two centuries the Revolution has remained the subject of bitterly partisan historical scholarship. Currently the neoconservative school, represented by Francois Furet and Pierre Chaunu, is in the ascendancy, testimony to the continued disagreement among the French people about the Revolution in its bicentenary year. It is with this neoconservative school of historiography that Simon Schama, the author of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, can be most closely identified.
Schama was born in London and studied history at the University of Cambridge, where he served as fellow and tutor of Christ’s College from 1966 to 1976. This was followed by four years in a similar position at Brasenose College, at the University of Oxford, and, in 1978, as Erasmus Lecturer on the Civilization of the Netherlands at Harvard University. He is currently professor of history and senior associate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies. Schama is the author of three major historical works, including The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987).
Schama has several objectives in undertaking his herculean task. First, he wants to write an exciting chronological narrative similar to those of the Romantic nineteenth century historians—a narrative which, “in bring[ing] a world to life rather than entomb[ing] it in erudite discourse,” will appeal to a popular educated audience as well as to professional historians. Second, he intends to synthesize recent historical literature on the Revolution and the Old Regime. In so doing, he hopes to demythologize the event which historians of both the right and left have regarded as the major watershed of modern history, realistically evaluating its causation and impact from a late twentieth century perspective. Third, Schama forcefully asserts that he does not intend to approach his subject dispassionately. Enough for him of scientific, sociological history with its “mantle of rigorous objectivity.” His “exercise in animated description” will be a story and an argument. The author has very definite opinions about the events and personalities of the Revolution and its antecedents and believes that historical objectivity is neither possible nor desirable.
Citizens is chronological in format, although Schama’s narrative is preceded by a chapter describing the impact of the memory of the Great Revolution on the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and followed by an epilogue evaluating the effect of the Revolution on France in general and certain revolutionary figures in particular. Perhaps surprisingly, the author devotes more than a third of his account to the approximately fifteen years before the convocation of the Estates General in May, 1789, and the beginning of the Revolution. Historians, in seeking the origins of the Revolution, have traditionally found them in the allegedly outmoded, inflexible, and inequitable social institutions of the ossified ancien regime. This term, first coined in 1790 to refer to the former regime, has become pejorative in the hands of those who view the Revolution as a conscious break from the past to modernity. Taking inspiration from Alexis de Tocqueville, the early nineteenth century observer of America and historian of prerevolutionary and revolutionary France, Schama rejects this tradition, emphasizing instead the elements of continuity between the France of the old regime and of the postrevolutionary period, and, most controversially, those destabilizing features of modernization before the Revolution which were rejected by the supposedly modern revolutionaries. Schama views the France of the Old Regime as a dynamic place. French industry, long overshadowed in historians’ eyes by the dynamism of the British Industrial Revolution, was expanding dramatically before the Revolution. Investment capital was fueling industrial expansion and contributing markedly to the breakdown of social distinctions. Upon investigation, the traditional argument by historians that an archaic system of privilege denied social mobility to qualified aspirants and stifled economic progress no longer remains convincing. Although France, like other nations of the time, maintained a social structure based upon rank and classes endowed with privileges, the nobility was not closed to aspirants from the Third Estate. Indeed, in the half century before the Revolution it became increasingly easy to gain access to the privileged orders. At the time of the Revolution, most French artistocrats were recently titled; one-quarter had received their titles during the eighteenth century and two- thirds during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition, again contrary to traditional teaching, aristocratic entrepreneurs were actively and directly engaged in manufacturing and commerce. Indeed, Schama argues, the familiar notion of the bourgeoisie, that “putative revolutionary class thwarted in upward social...
(The entire section is 2098 words.)