Everybody’s French Revolution

Revolutionary Europe, 1783-1815

by George Rudé
Harper & Row, 301 pp., $6.95

It has long been usual in France for the scholar to make his reputation by writing a learned monograph, but then to want to try his hand in some wider and more popular field. As the monographs multiply the need to keep the textbooks up-to-date becomes more pressing; as the university population grows the market for textbooks increases. These developments, now common in many European countries, have provided the scholar with his opportunity, and Professor Rudé is a case in point. He first became known to the academic world by a study of the crowd in the French Revolution and by comparable studies in the history of eighteenth-century England. Now he has produced a volume in a series of textbooks entitled “The History of Europe.” The series, in the traditional manner, is divided into chronological periods which in most cases begin and end with major international peace settlements. Professor Rudé’s period extends from the end of the war of American Independence to the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The field which Professor Rudé has to cover is thus very large, and the literature on many parts of it is continually increasing. The huge volume of historical writing at the present time, and the new angles of approach to old problems, are making it increasingly difficult to meet the demands which the conventionally organized series of textbooks exists to satisfy.

The purpose of any textbook is to provide the beginner with a foundation for further reading and, as Professor Rudé says, to whet his appetite for more. It must therefore set out the essential facts, but it must also organize them around a theme or themes, since mere information, undirected to any general conclusions, destroys the appetite for knowledge rather than whetting it.

IN THE PURSUIT of this double objective the writer of the conventional textbook nowadays encounters many obstacles. He has to read more than any but the strongest minds can digest; he is mainly if not wholly dependent on the quality of the research done by other people, and he is helpless where those aspects of his subject have been explored only on old-fashioned principles, or not explored at all. He is continually tempted to resort to paste and scissors—to piece together facts and interpretations provided by modern scholarship in some fields, with facts and interpretations which, in other fields, have been sanctified by conventions that are now outmoded. If he yields to the temptation, his work will lack point and unity. The reader will become bewildered and lose interest.

Professor Rudé’s work is much less open to these objections than are many conventional textbooks. It is uniformly well written; it holds the reader’s interest over large stretches; it has several clear themes. It is also judicious in its treatment of controversial issues. It could not, however, be said to escape all the defects by which conventional textbooks are commonly disfigured.

Professor Rudé’s discussion falls into three parts. He begins with a description of pre-Revolutionary France and Europe;…

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