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French History: The Case of the Wandering Eye

Reactions to the French Revolution

by Richard Cobb
Oxford University Press, 310 pp., $13.75

The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1789-1820

by Richard Cobb
Oxford University Press, 416 pp., $2.95 (paper)

A Second Identity: Essays on France and French History

by Richard Cobb
Oxford University Press, 328 pp., $8.50

Crimes et criminalité en France sous I’Ancien Régime, 17e-18e siècles

by A. Abbiateci, by F. Billacois, by Y. Bongert, by N. Castan, by Y. Castan, by P. Petrovitch
Armand Colin, 22 F

Les Hommes et la mort en Anjou aux 17e et 18e siècles

by François Lebrun
Mouton, 88 F

Vision de la mort et de l’au-delà en Provence d’après les autels des âmes du purgatoire, XVe-XXe siècles

by Gaby Vovelle, by Michel Vovelle
Armand Colin, 18 F

In A Second Identity, Richard Cobb tells the story of Marie Besnard, a crafty peasant who confounded an array of lawyers, laboratory technicians, and criminologists trying to get her convicted for murder in a series of spectacular trials from 1952 to 1961. Marie showed that her accusers had scrambled the evidence so badly in their test tubes and jars that a kidney from one victim’s body was cohabiting in Exhibit A with the gall bladder from another, and an eye, which had disappeared from its home cadaver, had turned up in the middle of a foreign skeleton. The wandering eye did the job, Cobb observes with satisfaction: the scientists lost their case, and Marie won her freedom. He does not come right out and say so, but the story stands as a parable to be pondered by sociological historians.

Sociology is the villain of the last three books by Richard Cobb, professor of history at Oxford and one of the most controversial, original, and talented historians writing today. If you want to understand the French Revolution, he argues, strike out for the uncharted wilderness constituting the revolutionary “Mentalité.” The historiographical frontier is not to be found in statistical tables, economic models, computer print-outs, or social systems, but in the lost mental world of obscure persons like Marie Besnard.

Cobb is the only person to have explored this territory. For a quarter of a century, he has tracked down revolutionary “wildmen” (“enragés“), counterrevolutionary crackpots, neighborhood militants, primitive anarchists, and all the varieties of eccentric humanity that he could find in the labyrinthine ways of France’s archives. Cobb must have logged more hours in more French archives than any other historian, and he has done it with passion, not Guggenheims, living down and out in Paris and sustained by what Johan Huizinga (another great historian of mentalités) called “the impulse toward the past”—the exaltation at opening a dossier that had been closed for centuries and at coming into contact with vanished humanity.

Cobb went into the archives English and came out French, or both French and English (not franglais). The reviews and essays in A Second Identity tell this double story of the quarry and the quest. Since they are written with feeling and humor (“The Anatomy of a Fascist” must be one of the funniest reviews ever written by a historian) and in pungent prose, they make superb reading: not only do they freshen one’s sense of the past, they give a vision of the human condition that transcends the conventional limits of history writing.


How conventional historiography could accomodate Cobb was not clear in the Fifties, when he began to expose the human vagaries of the Terror in a series of articles culminating in Les Armées révolutionnaires (1961-1963) and Terreur et subsistances (1965). His last two books, The Police and the People (1970) and Reactions to the French Revolution (1972), make any historiographical “fit” seem even more unlikely, because Cobb’s viewpoint has become sharper and more eccentric, while French revolutionary studies have become increasingly sociological and confused.

The confusion comes from an outbreak of the old quarrels over the meaning of 1789 and 1793. Right-wing journals have chosen revolutionary historiography as a means of sniping at the left, and the left has replied with a barrage of articles about the true character of “the Mother of us all,” as the Revolution is known among her legitimate offspring.1 The fighting has some characteristics of a guerre dans la cimetière; the protagonists seem perched on tombs, defending heritages: Marx vs. Tocqueville, Mathiez vs. Aulard, Lefebvre vs. Febvre. But there is more to it than ancestor worship and ideological tribalism.

In the attempt to strip off the political superstructure of French society and to probe its anatomy, French historians have tended to use the sharp instruments of Marxism.2 But English and American historians have turned up data that is becoming harder and harder to fit into Marxist categories. George Taylor has exposed the non-capitalist character of the Old Regime’s economy; Robert Forster has shown the inaccuracy of identifying “feudalism” with the nobility; C. B. A. Behrens has revealed the way privilege cut across the boundaries of class and estate; David Bien and Vivian Gruder have measured social mobility within the army and the intendancies, and have found the opposition of bourgeoisie” and “aristocracy” to be of little relevance; J.F. Bosher has demonstrated that the royal administration is better understood as the institutional interplay of complex vested interests than as a class government by the nobility.

Class proves to be too narrow a concept for the analysis of the complexities and contradictions of revolutionary society and politics as they are unraveled in the work of Charles Tilly, M.J. Sydenham, Isser Woloch, and Colin Lucas. The fundamental Marxist idea that the Revolution resulted from a contradiction between a rising capitalist bourgeoisie and a feudal nobility has been exploded by Alfred Cobban, who stole most of his ammunition from the camp of his ideological enemies.

To be sure, Cobban’s explicitly anti-Marxist history (like that of Crane Brinton and R.R. Palmer) has had little effect in France. Albert Soboul, the best of the French Marxists, ignored it while reworking the old orthodoxies in Précis d’histoire de la Révolution française (1962) at the same time that Norman Hampson was producing a remarkable anti-Marxist work in English, A Social History of the French Revolution (1963). The language barrier may have prevented the outbreak of an Anglo-French battle of books. But in 1969, Pierre Goubert published the first volume of L’Ancien régime, an extraordinarily penetrating and sophisticated non-Marxist analysis, which has captured the textbook market throughout much of France. Finally, François Furet made a frontal attack on the Marxist interpretation of the Revolution in a brilliant polemical article, “Le catécnisme révolutionnaire” (Annales, March April, 1971), which provoked the present state of open war.

It would be wrong to view this warrare as an American challenge within the history profession or as a combat between Anglo-Saxon empiricism and Continental dogmatism in which the latter, after years of undermining and erosion, is doomed to come crashing down. Not only do the attackers include a heavy proportion of Frenchmen, who draw on their own rich tradition of non-Marxist social history, but the Marxist model is stronger and better defended than the Bastille ever was. Moreover, it is terribly difficult to abandon the idea that Soboul raises aloft in the very first sentence of his Précis: “The French Revolution constitutes, with the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, the culmination of a long economic and social evolution, which has made the bourgeoisie the mistress of the world.” Put that grandly, the proposition may seem easy to accept; yet it rests on assumptions that cannot be torn away without producing ruin. And if the revisionists succeed in dismantling the Marxist interpretation of the Revolution, what will they do with the rubble? They have no conceptual structure of their own.

Where in the general confusion does Richard Cobb belong? His early work cast him in the company of two Marxists, Albert Soboul and George Rudé, who reoriented the study of the Revolution by looking at it “from below.” That phrase has become hackneyed now, but in the Fifties and early Sixties it represented an inspired attempt to examine events from a new perspective, that of ordinary men and women, the people who provided the muscle for forcing the Revolution to the left in the series of Great Leaps Forward which were known as journées (July 14, 1789, October 5-6, 1789, August 10, 1792, and May 31-June 2, 1793) and who were crushed in the riots of Germinal and Prairial, Year III (1795) and rose again in the July Days of 1830, the June Days of 1848, and the May Days of 1871. These, in turn, served as ancestors for August, 1944, and May-June, 1968.

For Cobb, the concern with ordinary people led to the study of “mentality” (“mentalité” conveys a broader idea than its English counterpart)—that is, the examination of the common man’s outlook and perception of events, rather than the analysis of the events themselves. Cobb’s exploration of the revolutionary mentality complemented the work of Soboul and Rudé, who emphasized the institutional, political, and economic aspects of the sansculotte movement; and it communicated the atmosphere of the Terror in ordinary neighborhoods where the desire for cheap bread and for a primitive equality of jouissances was more powerful than Rousseauism, and where the belief in counter-revolutionary conspiracy was more important than the conspiracies themselves. By immersing himself in the archives, by his luminous historical imagination and a superb command of French and English prose, Cobb managed to bring the obscure people of the Revolution back to life. It was an extraordinary feat, as anyone can appreciate by sampling the essays in A Second Identity (notably “The Revolutionary Mentality of France”) or in Terreur et subsistances (notably “Quelques aspects de la mentalité révolutionnaire“).

In his recent work, The Police and the People and Reactions to the French Revolution, Cobb has shifted ground, moving from below to beyond the fringe of the Revolution. Here he concentrates on banditry, prostitution, vagabondage, murder, madness, and other forms of deviance. These themes may fascinate the reader, but they will not help him to sort out the confusion in current interpretations of the Revolution, because Cobb makes terrorist and counterterrorist, sans-culotte and criminal, militant and lunatic look alike; and he seems less intent on explaining the relation of violence to revolution than on exalting eccentricity and individualism for their own sake—a kind of upside-down moralizing that he turns against his former allies. For he never passes up an opportunity to poke at Soboul and to lunge at Rudé. He accuses them of dehumanizing the past by walling it up within a dessicated dogmatism. In fact, he pictures the revolutionary government as a form of totalitarianism manqué, suggesting that it fell short of Stalinism for want of technology, not for lack of trying; and he compares it unfavorably with “the full flowering of anarchical freedom” during the Thermidorean Reaction.

Where then, in the current historical battle, does, Cobb stand? Against ideology and against sociology. He has placed himself squarely in no man’s land and is fighting a private war on two fronts, in opposition to both the Marxist and the empirical versions of “scientific” history. Cobb has become every man’s heretic. His perspective on history is set at such an odd angle that it bathes the Revolution in a strange light: that is the fascination of his work, for it challenges the reader at every turn with its idiosyncrasy—a rare quality in a profession that tends toward conformism.

Consider Cobb’s reassessment of the popular or sans-culotte movement in The Police and the People. Soboul showed that sans-culottisme developed as a dialectic between popular revolution and revolutionary government during the Year II (1793-94); that is, he explained how the sans-culottes forced the Revolution to the left and why they were ultimately destroyed by the dictatorial Terror that they had brought into being. By close analysis and careful documentation, Soboul revealed an underlying logic of events, which still stands as the best explanation of the climactic phase of the Revolution.

  1. 1

    Contrepoint, No. 5, Winter, 1971; L’Humanité, February 18, 1972; La Nouvelle critique, April, 1972; and Guy Lemarchand, “Sur la société française en 1789,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (January-March, 1972), pp. 73-91.

  2. 2

    The best in this tradition is represented by Albert Mathiez, La Vie chère et le mouvement social sous la Terreur (1927); George Lefebvres, Les paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française (1924); and Albert Soboul, Les sans-culottes parisiens en l’an II (1958). For recent examples, see Régine Robin, La société française en 1789: Semur-en-Auxois (1970) and Claude Mazauric, Sur la Révolution française (1970).

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