Enlightening short takes on a century of two halves

The Eighteenth Century, 1688-1815 - The Eighteenth Century, 1688-1815
September 14, 2001

This clearly conceived, thought-provoking and well-written collection approaches its subject in an interesting way. The six contributors were apparently asked to imagine that they had been allocated two 50-minute lectures in which to explain to an intelligent, interested but ignorant audience what was most important about their subject in the period in question. To a great extent this works very well, although there is a problem that I will turn to.

First, it is pleasant to note the high standard of the contributions. The only weak one is John Lynn's on international rivalry and warfare. Aside from straightforward error - Britain and France were not involved in a war with Spain in 17-29, and I am at a loss to understand how the ineffectual Spanish bombardment of Gibraltar in early 17 could have led to 15,000 "battle deaths" - this is a piece that offers a somewhat dated view of warfare before the French revolution, and it fails to give sufficient weight to other interpretations.

Of the other pieces, Sheilagh Ogilvie offers the best short survey of the 18th-century European economy that I have ever read. Placing particular emphasis on agriculture, she suggests that part of the delay in introducing new techniques outside the Netherlands and England before 1750 resulted from the difficulty of saving or borrowing the requisite capital. Ogilvie is cautious about change in other sectors: "Empirical evidence that such an 'industrious revolution' actually occurred in 18th-century Europe is still not fully established, as we saw in the section on industry, and in some parts of the continent it probably did not take place in this period. However, for some regions of Western Europe, there is evidence that during the 18th century people from ever wider social groups were consuming more traded goods."

In assessing social structures and change, Christof Dipper profitably draws attention to the need to consider the social ideas and expectations of contemporaries. Peter Marshall's assessment of relations between Europe and the rest of the world similarly draws attention to ideas, especially the rise of a sense of secular superiority at least on the part of Western European intellectuals. In examining politics and the state, Julian Swann looks at the rise in the belief that sovereignty lay with the people.

Tim Blanning provides an energetic and interesting introduction in which he locates the period and his own interpretation of it: "If no single concept or metaphor can summarise adequately an epoch lasting a century, the one word that best bridges all aspects of the 18th century is 'expansion'."

This is an explanation that comes naturally to a scholar working on the second half of the century, but it is less convincing as a description of the first half. Indeed, much of the problem with work on the century as a whole is that it proposes a unity (at least down to the French revolution) that may be inappropriate. If century-long units are to be adopted, then the first half of the 18th century in many respects sits more comfortably with the second half of the 17th.

In this volume, Derek Beales divides his fine discussions of religion and culture at mid-century and aims "to show how different were the tendencies of the first half of the century from those of the second half". Just so. Thus, neither expansion nor any other single concept will suffice. Ogilvie points out that "this was a century of economic divergence more than of any common European experience". This diversity has to be faced in general accounts, and it should encourage caution in judgement.

It is also important to employ hindsight with care. Maybe "it is difficult not to be exasperated at the sight of Louis XV and XVI consistently declining opportunities to adapt to changing conditions, especially the rise of the public sphere", but it is necessary to handle concepts such as the latter carefully.

This volume is part of a welcome series. It brings together scholarship of high worth and makes state-of-the-art research accessible. In the particular case of the 18th century, it is fair to note that general accounts have usually failed to place sufficient weight on the first half and have understandably been written with the knowledge of forthcoming changes.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

The Eighteenth Century, 1688-1815

Editor - T. C. W. Blanning
ISBN - 0 19 873181 7 and 873120 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 301

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