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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.

I

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.

Nothing could be further from Cobb’s sense of history than logic; he attacks Soboul’s analysis for excessive intellectuality (it is, he writes, an over-choreographed “historical ballet”) and tries to show that the popular revolution was less a “movement” than an outbreak of anarchy. Cobb’s view stresses the temperamental defects of the sans-culottes—their bluster, their naiveté and shortsightedness—but it never really undermines Soboul’s argument, and it confuses the issues by reversing the chronology of events. Cobb’s account runs backward through the Empire, Directory, and Thermidorean Reaction to the Year III (1794-95), which he treats as the turning point of the entire Revolution. Finding no coherent sans-culottisme during those periods, he concludes that the movement must have been ephemeral even before them—a bizarre interpretation which seems to argue that because something died, it had not existed. Since Soboul traced the popular revolution’s demise to the end of the Year II and showed how and why it occurred, Cobb’s revisionism in reverse seems to miss its target. And when Cobb finally backs into the Terror, his account reads like spiced-up Soboul.

But not when he discusses the provinces. Soboul’s thesis does not account for the vagaries of the popular revolution outside Paris, while Cobb, who is a master of provincial history, reveals all the contradictions and crosscurrents that prevented sans-culottisme from gathering into a national force. Not only does he demonstrate that the extremists of Lyon came out on the opposite side of issues being championed by the “wildmen” of Paris, but he shows how the fire-eaters of Vienne opposed the lyonnais, and how the multitiered antagonisms of Paris-Lyon-Vienne differed from those of Paris-Rouen-Le Havre. Cobb goes further still: he explores the rivalries among neighborhoods, the feuds between families, the solidarity built up by occupational ties, and the schisms derived from quarrels over cock-fighting or bowls or women. Everywhere he sees variety, discord, individualism; general lines of interpretation blur, and the Revolution dissolves into buzzing confusion. Perhaps that is all it amounted to for the man in the street. In any case, Cobb shows the limits of the Parisian model.

II

He already did so in his earlier work. His last book, Reactions to the French Revolution, suggests that he cares less about revising standard interpretations than about stating his view of the human condition, as is suggested by a heavily existentialist passage from Camus’s L’Etranger, which serves as an epigraph to the book. In fact, Reactions to the French Revolution has little to do with the Revolution itself. It concerns anarchists, bandits, criminals, recluses, madmen, and a wild variety of individuals who lived outside politics, beyond the reach of the state. As these persons had nothing in common except their refusal to become integrated in society, and as asocial individuals have proliferated throughout French history, their stories do not lead to any general conclusions about their lives or their time.

It is the very timelessness of anomie, or “la vie en marge,” that attracts Cobb. For twenty-five years he wandered in the archives, searching out every eccentric he could uncover. He emerged with a fantastic collection of cases of deviant individualism, and in his last two books he has strung them together through “the selective use of the individual ‘case history’ as a unit in historical impressionism.” This method suits Cobb’s sense of the uniqueness of things and of the historian’s task, which is to show how phenomena are distinct, not how they are related. By constantly emphasizing the complexity of the past, his work stands as a warning against attempts to make history fit into prefabricated social structures. But Cobb’s insistence on uniqueness tends toward nominalism or nihilism. It suggests that generalization is impossible and that history can be reduced to case histories.

There is madness in that method, and a touch of madness may be necessary to understand the “cannibals” who ran amuck in September, 1792, traumatizing the Republic at its birth. One could hardly imagine a happier meeting of subject and author than Cobb’s sympathetic evocation of what Terror and Counter-Terror meant to people who experienced them. But his refusal to analyze and generalize makes him sound like an intellectual Luddite. Not only does he inveigh against “Annales” historians, intellectual historians, and sociological historians (see his reviews of Furet and Richet, Caute, and Tilly in A Second Identity); but in constructing his own version of events, he refuses to rise above the level of the fait divers. For Cobb, as for Restif de la Bretonne and Louis Sébastien Mercier, the revolutionary rapporteurs in whom he finds his greatest inspiration, it is enough to glimpse into the heart of the passer-by. History is soul history, and methodology is empathy.

The danger of this “historical impressionism” is not that it will budge Soboul’s rocklike thesis, or any other analytical structure, but rather that it may misdirect the development of the history of “mentalities,” Cobb’s chosen genre. Although it goes back at least as far as Burckhardt, the study of mentalité is undergoing a strong revival in France and has even crossed the Channel, if not the Atlantic. It is a sort of intellectual history of non-intellectuals, an attempt to reconstruct the cosmology of the common man, or, more modestly, to understand the attitudes, assumptions, and implicit ideologies of specific social groups (their “outillage mental,” according to Lucien Febvre, the great prophet and practitioner of this kind of history). Mentality is more a subject than a discipline. The French have discussed it in various prolegomena and discourses on method,3 but they have not arrived at any clear conception of the field. Nor has Cobb. His last two books treat such a bewildering variety of subjects—criminality, vagrancy, urban-rural conflict, suicide, insanity, popular culture, the family, the suppression of women—that it is difficult to find any coherent theme in the rush of chapters and subchapters.

But if Cobb’s last two books have any leitmotiv, it is murder; and since most of his deviants resorted to murder at one time or other, he concentrates on it long enough to produce some statistics. He counted 846 “political” murders in the Rhône Valley and adjoining areas during the last five years of the eighteenth century. The homicidal “score” according to time and place convinced him that the murder rate went up drastically during the years between the Terror and the Empire. Although the murders often reflected merely local motives (family feuds, règlements de compte; in practice Cobb concedes the impossibility of distinguishing political from non-political killing), he found that they correlated most closely with the political temperature. So he interprets homicide as a form of political protest, a counter-terror, which had the support of communities that had been alienated by the agents of the revolutionary government in Paris—hence its relevance to popular mentality and to the decline of the popular movement.

Cobb scatters his statistics in a manner that makes them difficult to evaluate, and to try to correlate them proves nothing at all, because he uses no consistent unit of measurement. For example, instead of telling the reader how many murders occurred each year in the Department of the Rhône, he presents his information as follows: in the Year III (1794-95) there were fifty murders in the Department of the Rhône and the Department of the Loire; in the Year IV there were twenty in the Rhône and the Haute-Loire; he has no figures for the Year V; in the Year VI there were four in the Rhône alone; and he has no figures for the Year VII. The numerical base is trivial, the geographical unit is never the same; and there are no statistics for two of the five years under study. Yet the Rhône was the area that Cobb investigated most intensively. For other regions his statistics are even scantier: they usually cover only one or two years and refer to inconsistent combinations of departments.

Cobb produces no statistics for any period before the Year III, yet he asserts that the murder rate of the Counter-Terror (Years III and after) was as high as that of the Terror (Year II) and was higher than that of nonrevolutionary years. That conclusion can only be substantiated by statistics covering the periods before and after the Revolution, which Cobb does not provide. He gives no idea of the outside boundaries of his data or of the representativeness of his statistics. What fraction of the whole number of murders has he unearthed? What is their relation to the population of the areas under study? How do they measure against some standard rate of murders per 100,000 persons over a long series of years?

Cobb never asks these questions; yet until he answers them, his conclusions should be taken as hypotheses. He disparages the importance of statistics, but he relies heavily on them, and on general remarks about incidence, to make sense of a multitude of subjects: prostitution, desertion, disease, vagrancy, and all forms of crime and violence. In every case, he sees a quantitative jump after Thermidor (July 27, 1794), and he seems to explain that increase by the change in the political climate—an interpretation that seems dubious on its face and is undermined by Cobb’s admission that much of his evidence comes from notes that he had jotted down “en passant” two decades ago, when he was looking for information about the revolutionary armies. That search took him through thousands of heterogeneous dossiers and made it impossible for him to produce statistics in a series, that is from a homogeneous source, capable of being quantified in units of equal value.

Does this statistical insouciance invalidate Cobb’s last two books? Certainly not, because he really cares less about measuring the rate of violence than about understanding the experience of it. In a section following the homicidal “scorekeeping” in The Police and the People, he describes the psychological isolation of former terrorists when the Thermidorean Reaction penetrated the countryside. As an imaginative evocation of the nastiness of village life, it is utterly persuasive; and it would compensate for a book full of faulty statistics.

The same is true of some marvelous accounts of popular attitudes toward food and “dearth,” of the dignity of the man who can say that he has “bread in the house,” and of popular language, which extremists manipulated through the use of black humor and scatological hyperbole (“I’m going to eat the head of a bourgeois, with garlic”). In treating this kind of subject, Cobb lets his historical imagination play; and his remarks carry conviction, because of his mastery of the material. The problem is how to move beyond evocation by anecdote and how to carry the history of mentalities past the point reached by masters like Lucien Febvre, who also combined great historical sensitivity with erudition and literary flair.

III

Criminality and mentality fit together so naturally as subjects that they suggest a way of resolving the antithesis between sociology and the history of mentalités that runs throughout Cobb’s work. If, instead of building barriers between history and the social sciences, he had made some forays into alien territory, Cobb would have found a rich literature waiting to be exploited. Some familiarity with criminology, for example, might have provoked him to question his thesis that the Revolution or the Counter-Revolution produced an upsurge in violent crime. Historical criminologists have found the opposite to be true, in the case of 1871 as well as 1789.4 They also have developed techniques for taking the trickiness out of statistics.

A glance at almost any criminology textbook5 or even at such untouchable journals as the Revue française de sociologie or the Annales could have helped Cobb untangle his figures on crime rates and might have put him on the track of the Comptes généraux de l’administration de la justice criminelle, which provide criminal statistics dating back to 1825. The Comptes have supplied material for social history since the time of A. M. Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet, early masters of sociology, who lived through the events Cobb describes and who studied criminality with a statistical sophistication that makes his work look primitive.6

Of course modern criminology cannot be applied indiscriminately to the past, because of the irregularity of criminal statistics before the nineteenth century. But criminology can suggest approaches, methods, and questions that might never occur to the asociological historian. It can show him how to measure criminality against demography; how to sort out factors such as age, trade, sex, and geography; and how to be sensitive to the attitudes (or mentalities) involved in the relations between those who break the law and those who enforce it. For crime provides a negative image of the sacred and a direct reflection of the taboo; and when studied over long periods, it can reveal shifts in a society’s value system. Analyses of sentencing show the sociologically significant moments when judges cease to apply laws that remain on the books but have passed out of the mores.

Robert Mandrou developed this approach successfully in his book on the persecution of witchcraft, Magistrats et sorciers en France au X VIIe siècle, and today’s newspapers are full of analogous cases: trials concerning abortion, homosexuality, and obscenity. Similarly, studies of the incidence of crimes may uncover changes in attitudes and behavior patterns. Thus Enrico Ferri postulated that as societies move into an urbanized and commercialized stage of development, they pass from a pattern of instinctual criminality to a pattern of calculated criminality, from crime against persons to crime against property.7 Although Ferri’s “law” may have been flogged to death, it has proved useful in comparing traditional and modern or rural and urban societies. The rate of violent crimes (murder, felonious assault) tends to be much higher in archaic, agrarian villages, where communal norms regulate conduct, except in its most explosive, impetuous moments, while economic crime (theft, fraud) predominates in modern cities, where uprooted, money-oriented individuals struggle anonymously to strike it rich or simply to survive.

This shift from passionate to commercial criminality seems to have occurred throughout the West during the early modern period (the present wave of muggings represents a change of tide), and so does the rise of the underworld, despite the gangland subculture (mostly mythical) that surrounded Robin Hood and Cartouche. Cobb treats rural, urban, and organized crime as expressions of the same deviant mentality; but criminology suggests that pitchfork murderers, city shoplifters, and mafiosi belong to different species.

Such differences can only emerge by comparative analysis, another genre that Cobb dislikes and that could have helped him to put his material in perspective. Do his four murders in the Department of the Rhône during the Year VI represent a high level of violence? Assuming the Rhône had a population of approximately 200,000, it had a murder rate of two per 100,000, which is about that of France today. So the area around Lyon, which Cobb describes as a gigantic chamber of horrors, might have passed into a phase of fairly bloodless criminality by 1789, and Cobb’s penchant for the violent anecdote may have made him misrepresent reality. The obscene, ritualistic killings in the remoter regions he studies suggest a more primitive pattern, like that of Colombia, Burma, or Indonesia today.8

Cross-cultural comparisons on a global scale may have little practical value, but Cobb might have compared his findings with those of other historians studying the criminality of eighteenth-century France. Teams of them have been plowing through archives in Lille, Caen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Aix, and Paris; and they already have produced significant results, as may be appreciated by the works-in-progress reports published by the groups working with François Billacois in Paris and with Pierre Deyon in Lille.9

The Parisian group found that theft accounted for 87 percent of reported crimes from 1755 to 1785—a figure that puts prerevolutionary Paris in a class with the metropolises of modern Europe (99 percent of the crimes in Paris today are thefts), in contrast to eighteenth-century French villages, where theft represented only a third or so of recorded crimes. The homicide rate was low (about one per 100,000), and all the evidence suggests that the criminal underworld had not yet come into existence. Even if one allows for considerable discrepancy between real and reported crime, the capital of the Revolution would look like a haven of nonviolence to anyone who lives in New York.

But it was hell for the criminals, who mostly stole to stay alive. Analysis of their origins, trades, domiciles, and family status shows that they belonged to France’s miserable “floating population,” which lived on the road between temporary jobs and stayed in squalid rooming houses. These “criminals” were the victims of poverty; their own victims were often semi-indigent also, and their oppressors showed one dominant attitude: protect property. The judges in the criminal courts of Paris had thieves hanged and tortured throughout the age of Enlightenment, but they showed indulgence for crimes that seemed less threatening to them: felonious assault, rape, and adultery.

The same pattern emerges from the research historians have done in Lille. It shows that criminal violence decreased dramatically during the entire revolutionary decade and that the rate of crimes against persons declined throughout the eighteenth century, while crimes against property increased. Judges ceased to enforce punishments for sacrilege, showed more leniency toward private immorality, decreased the use of torture (but continued to use it against thieves, if they were poor and ill-born), and suppressed even petty theft with great severity—greatest in the case of servants, beggars, and laborers. Criminal justice, as practiced in Paris and Lille, had abandoned the defense of traditional values and had become essentially an attempt to protect property against the propertyless.

That bottom category of poverty did not include the Parisian sans-culottes. They had regular jobs, fixed addresses, families, and “bread in the house”—even if there was not always enough of it to keep their stomachs full. The criminal population was densest in the very center of Paris, where the cheapest boarding houses were located, not in the faubourgs that supplied the sans-culottes. It therefore seems that criminal and revolutionary violence were unrelated, that the Bastille-storming and purse-snatching impulses had little in common, and that even seen from “below” the Revolution took place above the heads of France’s bread-and-butter criminals.

Historical criminology therefore has revealed realities of behavior and psychology that could not be reached by Cobb’s methods. The point is not that Cobb was wrong (his kind of history is too subjective to be classified as “right” or “wrong”) but that his historical impressionism does not lead anywhere. The comparison of his work on criminality and that of the social scientists suggests that the history of mentalities ought to ally itself with sociology, not fight it to the death.

IV

The sciences humaines, as practiced in France, contain so much diversity that the study of mentalité stands in little danger of succumbing to some party line. Its variety and richness may be appreciated by sampling the work of two sociological historians who have examined attitudes toward death and the afterlife in early modern France.

It is only recently, thanks to the breakthrough in historical demography, that historians have learned how much the basic life-and-death experiences have varied over time. Today we deal with death by remote control—by telephone, intraflorist, “nursing” homes, and “morticians,” a whole profession that we have invented (and pay extravagantly) to handle death for us, keeping it out of sight or dressing it up for one brief appearance, when cosmetics, candle light, and organ music soften its sting. In the time of Hobbes life really was nasty, brutish and short; and death, as Pierre Goubert has remarked, was at the center of life, just as the graveyard lay in the middle of the village. Who among the peasants of seventeenth-century France did not know the stench of death? Who had not carried a corpse? Who did not regard the death of a horse as a greater calamity than the death of a baby? Goubert, a master historian and demographer, first raised these questions and showed how a deeply human history of mentalities could be built upon a base of vital statistics. And it is just that combination of demography and mentality that makes the work of François Lebrun so remarkable.10

First Lebrun set out to discover the actual toll of mortality in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Anjou. By laborious research in parish registers, using the classic techniques of historical demography, he was able to show how death decimated the population of the province for two centuries. At every point when a famine or an epidemic struck, the lines of his graphs cross, showing catastrophic increases in deaths and decreases in births, as if some inexorable “Malthusian scissors” kept slicing through the population, except for some respite in the mid-eighteenth century, right up to the Revolution. How did the Angevins cope with such brutal facts of life? How did they meet death mentally? That problem sent Lebrun through a wide variety of sources: folklore, popular literature, medical records, sermons, religious tracts, reports of burial practices, references to the social use of cemeteries, and examinations of their physical layout. In the end, he concluded that early modern man in Anjou was as much a prisoner of archaic attitudes—a combination of primitive religion and an austerely “doloriste” Catholicism—as of Malthusian circumstances beyond his comprehension and control.

Lebrun’s work is complemented by Gaby and Michel Vovelle’s fascinating study of popular conceptions of death and the afterlife in Provence. 11 The Vovelles used statistics, iconography, art history, and the sociology of religion to trace the representations of purgatory in Provençal churches during the last five centuries. After making an exhaustive inventory of church decorations, they discovered that purgatory did not become a motif until the Counter Reformation, that it became remarkably widespead by the end of the seventeenth century, and that it continued to dominate church iconography until World War I.

Since it seems valid to assume a correlation between the common man’s view of the afterlife and the representations of it that he saw in the painting and sculpture of his church, the Vovelles managed to sketch a history of popular cosmology. They gave a convincing account of the evolution of eschatological attitudes from the Middle Ages, when purgatory did not exist in the popular consciousness, when Last Judgments showed souls caught between the tragic alternative of heaven and hell, to recent times, when plaques to the war dead and patriotic statues of Jeanne d’Arc came to fill niches where the dread St. Michael once stood, and when the fiery pits were covered over by pictures of a vacuous “beyond.” The Vovelles thus caught glimpses of some remote corners in the mental universe of persons whose thoughts and lives had seemed irretrievably lost:

This attempt to make contact with the mental life of history’s forgotten men and women distinguishes the history of mentalities from the common varieties of intellectual history. Such contact as can be made usually concerns the fundamentals of the human condition, the way people conceived of the facts of life and death. But historians of mentality also are studying popular culture, folklore, vagrancy, the family, sexuality, and prostitution. They have attacked these subjects by a variety of methods: statistics, demography, economics, anthropology, social psychology, whatever seems most appropriate. Although it is too early to make judgments on this new historical genre, the best examples of it suggest one methodological imperative: rather than relying on intuition in an attempt to conjure up some vague climate of opinion, one ought to seize on at least one firm discipline of the social sciences and use it to relate mental experience to social and economic realities.

That is not the method of Richard Cobb, prophet of the past, poète maudit, and, despite the inadequacies of his recent work, one of the finest historians we have. His latest pursuit of popular mentality has taken him through an intriguing variety of topics, but the subject has run away with him. He has galloped over fields that have been cultivated for years and that the younger French scholars are about to harvest. But few of them can have the quality that makes Cobb unique: an intensely personal vision of history. It does not do justice to the man or his work to fault him in methodology and to pick at the loose stitches of his analysis. Cobb is a visionary. It is the peculiarity of his angle of vision that makes it so penetrating. His books will take you on an extraordinary intellectual and emotional journey—provided that you suspend your disbelief, provided that you do not read them critically as you would read Soboul, but spiritually as you would read Gogol: in search of dead souls.

  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).

  3. 3

    See the essays by Lucien Febvre reprinted in Combats pour l’histoire (Armand Colin, 1965), pp. 207-239; Georges Duby, “Histoire des mentalités” in L’Histoire et ses méthodes (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, 1961), pp. 937-966; Robert Mandrou, “Histoire sociale et histoire des mentalités,” La Nouvelle critique (January, 1972), pp. 41-44; Alphonse Dupront, “Problèmes et méthodes d’une histoire de la psychologie collective,” Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations (January-February, 1961), pp. 3-11; and Louis Trénard, “Histoire des mentalitès collectives: les livres, bilans et perspectives,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (October-December, 1968), pp. 691-703.

  4. 4

    André Davidovitch, “Criminalité et répression en France depuis un siècle (1851-1952),” Revue française de sociologie (January-March, 1961), pp. 30-49; and Pierre Deyon, “Délinquance et répression dans le nord de la France au XVIIIe siècle,” Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire Moderne, No. 20 (1972), pp. 10-15.

  5. 5

    For example, Leon Radzinowicz and Marvin E. Wolfgang, eds., Crime and Justice: vol. I, The Criminal in Society (Basic Books, 1971), and Hermann Manheim, Comparative Criminology (Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

  6. 6

    A. M. Guerry, Essai sur la statistique morale de la France (1833) and Adolphe Quetelet, Sur l’homme et le développment de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale (1836).

  7. 7

    Enrico Ferri, La Sociologie criminelle, 3rd ed. (1893), chapter 2.

  8. 8

    In 1960, Colombia reportedly had 34.0 murders per 100,000 population; the United States had 4.5; and France had 1.7: Marvin E. Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti, The Subculture of Violence (Tavistock, 1967).

  9. 9

    Crimes et criminalité en France: 17e-18e siècles, pp. 187-261, and Deyon, cited above.

  10. 10

    Lebrun, Les hommes et la mort en Anjou. See also Philippe Ariès, “La mort inversée. Le changement des attitudes devant la mort dans les sociétés occidentales,” Archives européennes de sociologie (1967), pp. 169-195.

  11. 11

    Gaby and Michel Vovelle, Vision de la mort et de l’au-delà en Provence.

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