Origins of the French Revolution - Top Ten Booklist

Storming the Bastille

The French Revolution has been seen as a world-altering event. The revolution demolished a long standing monarchy and showed that it was a natural form of government. The Revolution also showed that it was possible to change society, using reason, for the better and worse. The French Revolution inspired many to agitate for democracy and equality around the world. It also unleashed an extraordinary amount of violence and paved the way for Napoleon's takeover of France. Many historians (not all) have argued that the French Revolution can be seen as the start of the modern world.

Top Ten

William Doyle. The Origins of the French Revolution. (1990). This work is a synopsis of the events that led to the Revolution. It particularly focuses upon the French monarchs’s role in unwittingly starting the Revolution. The French monarchy was actually reforming itself and this resulted in the formation of political opposition to the royal government for the first time in centuries. This together with the spread of ideas on democracy and equality undermined the royal government. Ultimately, this lead to a revolt of the French people against the King.

Roger Chartier and Lydia Cochrane. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (1991). The cause of the Revolution was because of changes in the culture of France. Due to the Enlightenment and growing levels of literacy, people began to question the existing political system of France. Many French citizens came to believe that the Royal government was deeply flawed. This ultimately led to the monarchy losing support especially among the middle class. When the kingdom was beset by a series of socio-economic crises the government failed to act success and the population became eager for dramatic change. This led to the Revolution and the fall of the French Monarchy.

George Lefebvre. The French Revolution from its Origins to 1793 - Vol. 1. Penguin Books (1962). The first volume of Lefebvre work is concerned with the origins of the Revolution. Lefebvre argues that the Revolution was a result of an ‘Aristocratic Revolution’. The Church and the nobility became increasingly frustrated with the government of Louis XVI, which was increasingly autocratic and disregarded their privileges. This led them to demand changes, such as the convening of the Estates General, to protect their privileges. The French elite demanded changes to the royal system but events spun out of control and a popular revolution occurred, that led to the fall of the monarchy and the destruction of aristocracy.

The French Revolution by George Lefebvre

Peter Cambell. Conspiracy in the French Revolution (2005). The book is a discussion of the various theories on the causes of the French Revolution. It argues that various groups especially in the aristocracy sought to use the problems facing France in order to secure and advance their own self-interests. Cambell, argues that a small group of people, engaged in a conspiracy against the king, during the sitting of the Estates General. They were inspired by some of the more radical ideas of the enlightenment such as equality and republicanism. They undermined the royal government and eventually this led the people of France to revolt and the fall of the French King.

Francois Furet. Interpreting the French Revolution (1983). This has been a very important book and it was deeply influenced by post-modernist theories. Furet, believed that people had long accepted the monarchy in France, because they believed that there were no alternatives. The Enlightenment taught many that there was the possibility of an alternative to monarch in France and for change. The idea that change was possible and that royal government was not ordained by God, meant that people were willing to seek changes. The search for an alternative to rule by a King, led to the French Revolution.

Thomas Kaiser and Dale Van Kley (ends). The French Revolution: From Deficit to Deluge (2010). This work is a collection of ten essays by leading authorities on the French Revolution. It discusses the various theories on the origins of French Revolution. The individual essays discuss various aspects the causes of the French Revolution. Many of the essays argue that the French Monarchy was become more repressive and intolerant as it entered a social and economic crisis. This provoked the French people to revolt and to establish a government that was based upon ideas of popular sovereignty.

Nigel Aston. Religion and the French Revolution: 1789-1804 (2006). This work discusses the role of religion in the French Revolution. Aston argues that changes in religion contributed to the fall of the French Monarchy. Jansenism, a group within French Catholicism, had encouraged many people to know longer see the monarch as appointed by God. Furthermore, because of the enlightenment increasingly members of the elite and the middle class no longer believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church. They increasingly refused to believe that the French King was appointed by God to rule the country. These religious changes meant that many people were more willing to challenge the monarch during a socio-economic and political crisis and this led to the French Revolution.

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution by Peter McPhee

Simon Schama. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. (1990). This work is a narrative and an analysis of the French Revolution. It is primarily concerned with the perspective of the main players in the French Revolution. The author portrays as France as a very vibrant society, that was advancing economically and intellectually. The royal government of Louis XVI was autocratic. Such a government was not suited for the vibrant and new society that was emerging in France. The elite and the middle class increasingly became frustrated with the monarchy. When there was a fiscal crisis in 1789, they decided to use this as a pretext to change the government and this led to the fall of Louis XVI.

Peter McPhee. Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (2016) This is a very recent book on the French Revolution from Yale University Press. The book is focused on trying to determine whether the French Revolution was a world changing event or simply a part of a longer period of violence around the globe. McPhee's book attempts to reinterpret the impact of the French Revolution.

Alexis De Tocqueville. The Old Regime and the French (1998) This work is a classic on the French Revolution by a great French historian. It was written in 1848. The author adopts a sociological approach and analyses the forces in society that produced the revolution. De Tocqueville argues that France was a society that needed reform in order to help the country to deal with its range of problems. The French did not want a revolution but want to reform their system of government. However, the failure of reform, led to growing frustration and anger and this ultimately led to extremists starting a revolution, that ended the ‘Ancien Regime’ in France.

The traditional view that a tyrannical king was responsible for the Revolution is now seen as no longer valid. Historians have revised their views on the causes of the French Revolution. It was a result of a complex series of interrelated events. The causes of the French Revolution were social, cultural, economic and political.

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