What’s New About the Old Regime?

The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy 1598-1789: Society and State

by Roland E. Mousnier, translated by Brian Pearce
University of Chicago Press, 783 pp., $45.00

The French have been trying to come to terms with the Old Regime for nearly two hundred years, but they have never reached any agreement about its basic character. The Revolution keeps getting in their way, forcing them into ideological camps at the point where, in France at least, the “modern” phase of history gives way to the “contemporary”: 1789.

This way of looking at the past gives it a certain urgency. Define the Old Regime, and you will determine the understanding of the present. Map the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and you will command the ideological battleground of the twentieth. With so much at stake, it does not seem surprising that the French still argue about the Old Regime or that their arguments have produced a rich strain of historical literature, from L’Ancien régime et la Révolution (1856) by Alexis de Tocqueville to L’Ancien régime (1969-1973) by Pierre Goubert.

The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy 1598-1789 by Roland Mousnier adds another dimension to the debate, for Mousnier belongs to neither of the two sides that have dominated it during the last twenty years. To the Marxists he represents reactionary ideology, to the Annales school archaic historiography.

Mousnier earned the enmity of both camps by sniping at them from the Sorbonne, where he reigned over modern history from 1955 until his retirement in 1977. He wounded the Marxists by attacking the Soviet historian Boris Porchnev, who had seen elements of class war in a series of peasant uprisings that convulsed the French countryside in the seventeenth century. Mousnier interpreted the revolts in the opposite way—as the defense of a traditional hierarchy. Provincial nobles and their peasant clienteles rose up against the agents of the state, who were trying to bleed them by taxation and to subject them to the control of a central authority.

The question might seem academic today, but it stirred passions in France during the 1960s. To the right it dramatized the evil of the left; for what could remain inviolate if the Soviets invaded the history of the Old Regime? To the left it demonstrated the danger on the right; for Mousnier seemed to open the way to obscurantism by proclaiming that the ultimate cause of the troubles in the seventeenth century was “original sin and man’s refusal to obey the commandments of God.”

At the same time, Mousnier detected methodological sins in a pet project of the Annales school, an attempt by François Furet and Adeline Daumard to determine the social structure of eighteenth-century Paris through a statistical analysis of occupations and dowries as they appear in notarial archives. He did not object to the confusion of money and love but to the equation of money and status. Even if dowries did represent wealth, he argued, wealth did not determine social position. Frenchmen sorted themselves out according to notions of order, estate, and quality. To put quantity before quality is to misconstrue the basic character of the Old …

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