France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte, by William Doyle

Robert Zaretsky on a study that shows how history defeats not just prediction, but also our predilection for theory

August 8, 2013

Follow the money or follow the woman: the formidable historian of the French Revolution, William Doyle, does both with great elegance and intelligence in this collection of essays on France before and after 1789. On the subjects of venality and of women, men of the old and new regimes all agreed: both were corrupting, both were evil, and both were necessary.


All these essays are marked by Doyle’s easy erudition and crisp prose – important virtues when it comes to the complex subject of venality, or the buying and selling of public offices. Few practices, we discover, played so central a role in the rise and fall of the French monarchy. Established in the 1520s by Francis I, la vénalité proved nearly as enduring as the Renaissance king’s paintings and palaces.

By the eve of the Revolution, more than 50,000 individuals owned public offices. Having paid vast sums for these positions, the owners expected even vaster returns. Perhaps this explains the smile of Francis’ greatest purchase, the Mona Lisa: the monarchy, by outsourcing critical services such as justice and finances, had made itself, and its subjects, hostage to this peculiar institution. The bulk of royal finances grew so dependent on this revenue stream that its abolition appeared impossible: to buy out office holders would have beggared the state.

Yet powerful voices called for its abolition. Louis XIV’s minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was determined to rid the nation of these “professions that uselessly consume a hundred thousand of your subjects without contributing to your glory”. But Colbert mistook the true source of French glory – war – and was duly corrected by his king. Ordered to find the resources to fund Louis’ military adventures, Colbert hawked public offices with the same energy he had previously displayed when seeking to eradicate them.

A century later, Voltaire also inveighed against venality – despite having once purchased the position of Gentleman of the Bedchamber. (He later sold it for a tidy profit.) The practice, he declared, was a “shameful traffic against which the entire universe cries out”. Well, not quite. Although most philosophers followed Voltaire’s lead, Denis Diderot, while denouncing venality, also defended it as the last bulwark against monarchic rule. Office holders may well be greedy fools, but at least they were greedy fools independent of the regime.

It is striking, Doyle notes, “how few of venality’s many old regime critics thought anything could be done to change it or get rid of it”. But then an event no one predicted, the Revolution, erupted. Venality vanished with the rest of the Ancien Régime —the impossible made possible by the expropriation of Church property, used to reimburse office holders. Yet there also vanished the freedoms enjoyed by women – Mesdames du Deffand, Geoffrin and their fellow salonnières come to mind – under that same regime.

Doyle acknowledges the force of feminist critiques of the Revolution, but suggests that they misrepresent the event. Recalling the actual chronology, he observes that a progressive divorce law passed on 20 September 1792 – the swansong of the Legislative Assembly, led by the Girondins who supported female equality. But the Jacobins, whose ascendancy began under the subsequent Convention, deeply feared women (as did Napoleon, who instituted this hostility in his Code Civil). Thus Doyle’s fine phrase: the true revolutionaries were not Robespierre and company, but instead the Girondins who perished during the Terror “not because they were too moderate…but because they were too radical”.

Something similar can be said of the inclinations of Doyle. His resistance to historiographical trends such as the “cultural turn” or the concept of “desacralisation” is the work of a radical, not a reactionary, historian. By digging deeply for the roots of past events, Doyle shows how history defeats not just prediction, but also our predilection for theory. How genuinely revolutionary is his simple observation that the lives of 18th-century men and women, “like our own lives, were determined as much by chances and genuine choices as by contexts”.

France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte

By William Doyle
I. B. Tauris, 336pp, £56.50 and £16.99
ISBN 9781780764443 and 64450
Published 30 June 2013

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