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 and F. Billacois and Y. Bongert and N. Castan and Y. Castan and 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 and 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…

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