Opening Up the Ruling Class

L'Ancien Régime Vol. 2: Les Pouvoirs

by Pierre Goubert
Armand Colin, 262 pp., 25F

The first volume of Pierre Goubert’s Ancien Régime, which was concerned with French society between roughly 1600 and 1750, was published in 1969 and reviewed in these columns in January, 1970. The second volume, which has just come out, covers, for the greater part, the same period as the first, and deals principally with the state and its relations with the main social groups.

These works are a landmark in French historical writing for two reasons. In the first place Pierre Goubert, a professor at the University of Paris who won for himself an international reputation in 1960 by his study of Beauvais and the Beauvaisis between 1600 and 1730, is the first Frenchman of repute in the last fifty years to have attempted a specific study of the ancien régime as distinct from devoting a chapter or so to it by way of introduction to a history of the Revolution. Indeed apart from one or two writers whose works are no longer read, he is the first Frenchman to undertake this task since Tocqueville published his Ancien Régime et la Révolution in 1856.

In the second place, though Professor Goubert is a member of the French academic establishment, he attacks the judgments on the ancien régime to which this establishment has subscribed in the last half century and has repeated ad nauseam in textbook after textbook, notwithstanding the mounting evidence against them.

It has long seemed that French historians were deaf to all arguments where the ancien régime was concerned. However incontrovertibly the facts spoke against them, nothing, it appeared, would stop them from reiterating that the Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and from doing so not on the indisputable grounds that it made possible the emergence of bourgeois society, but on the untenable grounds that it was the culmination of a class struggle between an unprivileged bourgeoisie, which throughout the eighteenth century had been continually growing in wealth and self-consciousness, and a privileged nobility, which was becoming progressively more exclusive and impoverished.

These assertions were not only based on self-contradictory arguments; they were refuted seriatim by facts which the French themselves increasingly revealed in doctoral theses and other monographs. It was, however, American and British historians who first publicly expressed a sense of outrage at their continued repetition. For long these protests were ignored. As Professor Cobb once put it: what right had mere foreigners to challenge the judgments of such eminent native scholars as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul?

Now, however, Professor Goubert, with all the prestige of an established reputation and a chair in Paris to back him up, has come out on the side of the foreign historians. His work is a deliberate protest against current historical beliefs and attitudes. He prefaces his second volume with a plea to bring to the study of the ancien régime the intuition and sympathy without which it cannot be understood, and to look at the facts with a fresh and unprejudiced mind. When he himself observes…

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