Looking for the Ancien Régime

Paris in the Age of Absolutism

by Orest Ranum
Wiley, 316 pp., $3.95 (paper)

French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase 1620-1629

by A.D. Lublinskaya, translated by Brian Pearce, with a Foreword by J.H. Elliott
Cambridge, 350 pp., $13.00

L'Ancien Régime Vol. 1, La Société

by Pierre Goubert
Armand Colin, 271 pp., 22 francs

At the beginning of the present century historians could speak of making a contribution to knowledge in a sense that is no longer possible. At that time, when academic history, if not in its infancy, was still, by present standards, only adolescent, the mere accumulation of facts could seem a virtue, provided the facts were set out in an orderly way. This is no longer true. As more and more researchers get to work, and more and more fields of research are brought under cultivation, teachers, not to mention students, of history are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the facts. The need is for explanations that will give the facts a meaning.

Explanations involve arranging the facts within a framework of a coherent argument and in relation to some general principles. As historians increasingly see the relevance to their subject of other disciplines, such as sociology, economics, and statistics, so that not only more, but more diverse kinds of facts are accumulated, the task of explaining becomes both more urgent and more difficult. Among other things it involves redrawing the lines of divisions between periods, since the conventional divisions seem arbitrary in the light of new facts and new insights; particularly it involves rethinking the familiar concepts, such as feudalism, absolutism, and the Ancien Régime, which have commonly formed the basis of the divisions, and in the past were often used without due reflection.

All such “isms” (and in effect the term Ancien Régime is merely an “ism” like the others) were invented for the sake of convenience, usually after the phenomena they described had ceased to exist. The word “feudalism,” Marc Bloch tells us in his introduction to La Société Féodale, is derived from the famous decree of the 11th August 1789, which declared that “the National Assembly totally abolishes the feudal regime.” The word “absolutism” was invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century; the phrase “Ancien Régime,” as Professor Goubert emphasizes in his work here under review, was first used in 1790. Significantly, perhaps, these terms were to start with terms of abuse. In the course of time, however, they have come to mean different things to different people and in different countries. We continue to use them because we cannot avoid doing so, but we change their meanings to suit our preoccupations.

Since preoccupations are different on the different sides of the iron curtain, the meanings given to words are different too. Feudalism in the communist countries still means what it meant to the French peasants in 1789, who called it “le temps des seigneurs,” though this is far from what it meant to Marc Bloch when he wrote his classic work on feudal society. Absolutism in the west means a particular form of autocracy; in the communist countries (where it stands, like the term Ancien Régime in western terminology, for a whole way of life), it means a particular set of social and economic relations of which a particular form of autocracy is…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.