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The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution Review

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Deng Xiaoping’s quote “It is too early to tell,” on being questioned about the influence of the French Revolution might have been misunderstood – he thought that the question referred to the French 1968 May revolts, not to the great revolution of 1789 – but it still captures the essence of the sheer importance which the French Revolution holds in the history of the world. The modern era itself was born in 1789, in the break between the early modern and the modern world, and the social transformations which it caused continue to shake the foundations of the world. So it is no surprise that there has been a tremendous and massive historiographical legacy around the revolution, stretching from Tocqueville to other great French thinkers to a vigorous international, particularly Anglo-Saxon, study of the revolution. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution by Roger Chartier is a study of the French Revolution which builds on and provides nuance to The Intellectual Roots of the French Revolution from 1935, and functions to analyze some of the key claims about its origins such as the growth of literature and polemics, injecting a major sense of caution and equivocation into some of the key points of the preceding developments that led to the revolution.

Key among these principles are the rise of literature, literacy, political literature, the decline of the sacredness and public character of the king, secularization in France, and what immediate factors led to dissatisfaction with the situation in France prior to 1789, particularly in comparison with the English Revolution of the 1640s. Each of these has many rich elements which are part of it, in that it takes previously dominant interpretations and injects a new analysis showing how in fact these were nuanced. For example, it is definitively true that there was a major increase in literacy and literature published in France during the 18th century, and that a component of this was based around the literature of the philosophes, such as the encyclopedia of Diderot. But at the same time, as Chartier points out, simply owning or having read the encyclopedia in no way implied that one was supportive of the enlightenment principles within. The same continues on other subjects, such as the growth of general literacy and book ownership, which didn’t correlate with increasing politicization, since the bibliotheque bleue was mostly apolitical and even those which were politically themed were not interpreted as such.

Beyond the political effects which the growth of literacy had in France, there was also a fascinating discourse on the publishing trade in France and how it related to political authorities, one which helps show the multiple facets of French political and economic life. The two were perceived as intimately connected in regards to the book publishing trade, and there were multiple writers who wrote that it would be folly to consider it in purely commercial terms. Publishers used public intellectual to defend their interests, such as Diderot, and this resulted n tensions between the abstract principles which Diderot espoused of liberty of the press and the more pragmatic concerns of the publishers, about their permissions. And one of the most fascinating elements to the modern eye is how the permissions, the equivalent of copy right, implied that the state approved of what had been published, thus creating three categories – fully legitimate permissions, banned books, and tactic permissions which were not formally granted by the state but where the King indicated that he wouldn’t oppose the books either. The book trade is at the center of the transformations which happened in France during the period and Chartier does a great job of exploring the concrete structure and yet also the effects.

The same applies to other sections: secularization for instance, was real, but was a more fragmented picture, since some parts of France remained very Christian and others started to take an increasing distance from Christianity. The same phenomenon was at work with the king, where the king’s image changed dramatically from the 17th century onwards, such as the separation of the political and personal body of the king being abolished. It become more and more conceivable to have a critical, less worshipful attitude to the king – so that in 1789 when the cahiers de doleances were published, even if the population continued to formally declare their respect, allegiance, and admiration for the king, he had changed in content to become less in the way of a god or august presence and more as a father.

But the question which books such as this one raise is that if everything is so nuanced, if everything equivocal, then how do you explain such a dramatic event like the French Revolution? This is the problem with much of nuancing: that at a certain point every hard and decisive historical argument is removed. Instead, we just have the musty declaration that the French learned to be more critical of their government and more skeptical of the world. But the Revolution relied upon the loyalty and even the fanaticism of its members: can you really say that the French were simply more critical of authority and more skeptical, when the Revolution seems to point that the French were if anything by the end of the century capable of far more loyalty and devotion than ever before? Certainly, Chartier’s points are excellent in showing how the Revolution became possible, but less so in elaborating the Revolution’s spirit.


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