Review of previous edition: '... a remarkably succinct story.' John Wright, BBC
A Concise History of Franceby Roger Price
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This is the most up-to-date and comprehensive study of French history available ranging from the early middle ages to the present. Amongst its central themes are the relationships between state and society, the impact of war, competition for power, and the ways in which power has been used. Whilst taking full account of major figures such as Philip Augustus, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon and de Gaulle, it sets their activities within the broader context of changing economic and social structures and beliefs, and offers rich insights into the lives of ordinary men and women. This third edition has been substantially revised and includes a new chapter on contemporary France - a society and political system in crisis as a result of globalisation, rising unemployment, a failing educational system, growing social and racial tensions, corruption, the rise of the extreme right, and a widespread loss of confidence in political leaders.
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Cambridge University Press
0521844800 - A Concise History of France - by Roger Price
The entity we know as France is the product of a centuries-long evolution, during which a complex of regional societies was welded together by political action, by the desire for territorial aggrandisement of a succession of monarchs, ministers, and soldiers. There was nothing inevitable about the outcome. It was far from being a linear development, and we must try to avoid a teleological approach to explaining its course. The central feature was the emergence of a relatively strong state in the Ile-de-France and the expansion of its authority. Our task is to explain how and why this occurred.
The invitation to write a book covering such an extensive chronological period raises both attractive and daunting prospects. It represents an opportunity to set the normally more restricted concerns of the professional historian within a broad historical context, but also creates major problems of perspective and of approach. Questions will always be asked concerning 'the extent to which it is possible to reconstruct the past from the remains it has left behind' (R. J. Evans). The evidence historians have to deal with is made up of fragments, often chance survivals, which need to be contextualised, in an effort to re-construct their meaning. Every history is selective, but none more so than a work covering so many centuries. The problem is what to select, how best to make sense of the chaos of events, of the succession of generations which is at the heart of history, how to define historical time and the shifting boundaries between continuity and change. A descriptive, chronologically organised political history would be possible, but would run the risk of turning into a meaningless catalogue of great men and their acts.
The emergence of social history from the 1920s, often associated with Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, founders of the so-called Annales school, required even the political historian to set great men and the evolving institutions of the state within the context of a changing social system. However, the appealing simplicities of a structuralist, class-based, and neo-Marxist approach, associated in the 1960/70s with Fernand Braudel and Ernest Labrousse, were soon to be lost as historians continued their self-critical dialogue with the past and debated the relative importance of economic, cultural, and ideological factors in the process of social formation and change, and appreciated that an excessive concern with structures and classes resulted in an over-deterministic and reductionist neglect of the 'historical actors', of 'culture' and community. An earlier determination to integrate the 'poor' into the historical record was followed by a desire to recognise the significance of gender and ethnicity as keys to the explanation of choice and behaviour. The insights of social anthropology have also been deployed to create an awareness of the importance of language, images, and symbolic action in the construction of social identity and of a 'cultural' history which assumes that ideology rather than society and the economy are central to the human experience.
In the absence of general laws of historical development and as a result of a greater awareness of the sheer complexity of human interaction, a crisis of confidence developed amongst historians. This deepened in the face of a challenge from a 'post-structuralist' and 'post-modernist' philosophy associated with Foucault, Derrida, et al. which, at its most extreme, emphasises that every perception of 'reality' is mediated by language, that every text has a range of possible meanings, and that historical research itself is nothing more than a reflection on discourse. If the past has no reality outside the historians' representation of it, it follows that 'reality' cannot be distinguished from its representation. History thus becomes merely one literary genre amongst others, little different from the novel.
Valuable in encouraging historians to question their assumptions, a post-structuralism which challenges the bases on which the social sciences have been constructed, including the belief in a verifiable knowledge and the value of empirical research, has ultimately to be dismissed as an intellectual dead-end: as little more than the re-hashing of ancient philosophical arguments concerning the nature of reality. Jargon-ridden, and increasingly self-referential, post-modernism risks becoming a caricature of itself, an arrogant, élitist, linguistic game. Whilst it is important to acknowledge the need to develop more complex and inclusive models of causation, it is also vital to approach 'culture and identity...language and consciousness, as changing phenomena to be explained rather than as the ultimate explanation of all other social phenomena' (Charles Tilly). Individuals develop a social awareness within the multiplicity of complex situations experienced in daily life. Identity is not a constant. The construction of a meaningful explanatory context by the historian requires acknowledgement of the large- as well as the small-scale structures which impinge on the individual and provide the bases for social interaction.
The real crisis facing history is probably its fragmentation, the development of a plethora of approaches, intensified in the French case by the internationalisation of research and the influx of Anglo-Saxon historians inspired by very different institutional and socio-political perspectives. Typically the professional historian engages in research leading to the publication of monographs designed to advance knowledge and analysis, in teaching intended to develop critical and questioning attitudes amongst students, and in what the French refer to as 'vulgarisation' - a most unfortunate term to describe the essential task of communicating with the widest possible audience. The challenge this imposes is to reconcile professional credibility with the commercial demands of the media. In both print and on television, demands for accessibility threaten to result in simplifying distortions of complex historical situations and a return to the worst kind of descriptive history, together with accounts of the deeds of the great which, by down-playing context, ignore the revolution in historical method inaugurated almost a century ago by Bloch and Febvre.
The central theme of this book will thus be the continuing process of interaction between state and society. The state has been defined by the historical sociologist Theda Skocpol (in States and social revolution, 1979) as 'a set of administrative, policing and military organisations headed, and more or less well coordinated, by an executive authority'. The maintenance of these administrative and coercive organisations of course requires the extraction of resources from society - demands which are magnified in the case of war, which has thus served as a major stimulus both to the evolution of state institutions, and to social and political conflict. At least since Locke, liberal writers have tended to concentrate on the state as a morally neutral force, enforcing law and order and defending its citizens against external threats. This ignores the question of the social origins of legislators and law enforcers, the ways in which they perceived their roles, and their attitudes towards those over whom they ruled. The alternative tradition is represented by Marx and the Italian sociologists Pareto and Mosca who saw the state as the instrument of a ruling minority, and by Gramsci who insisted upon the significance not only of coercive state institutions but of the cultural predominance achieved by social élites as means of maintaining social control and limiting the impact of the otherwise competing value systems within a given society - an élite being determined by legal status, the possession of wealth, and particular forms of education. This is not to argue that the state somehow automatically represents the interests of a socially dominant class. It is certainly not to argue that the state is ever a unified entity. Its capacity for intervention in society varies over time and between places. The state's engagement in institutional, political, and military competition and efforts to strengthen its own institutions might well lead to conflict over the appropriation of resources. Nevertheless, the recruitment of senior state officials overwhelmingly from amongst members of social élites, and the superior capacity of these to influence the representatives of the state, strongly suggests a predominating influence. Even if this is accepted, however, competition within the élites to influence or control state activities remains a potent source of conflict.
The central questions posed will be about political power - why is it so important? Who possessed it? How is it used? In whose interests, and with what consequences? How do subjects react to the activities of rulers, for example to their demands for resources both to maintain themselves as landowners or entrepreneurs or, in the form of taxation, to maintain the machinery of state? The likelihood of collective resistance appears to have been determined by established perceptions of rights and justice, capacity for organisation, opportunities for protest, and perceptions of the likelihood of success or the prospects of repression, and thus to have been influenced by changes both in social structures and relationships and in institutional arrangements. Why does political change occur?
It should be evident that these are questions about social systems as well as political structures and behaviour. Indeed it should be obvious that social order is maintained not simply or even primarily through state activity but by means of a wide range of social institutions, including the family and local community, through religious, educational, and charitable bodies, and tenurial and workplace relationships - not according to some carefully conceived overall plan but because the processes of socialisation, and day-to-day contacts, serve to legitimise and to enforce a wide range of dependencies. The forms of control exercised are largely determined by the attitudes created in daily life, in short by the rationale of the age, and of the group, as well as by the social structure and resources employed by both the state and social élites . The sense of powerlessness so common amongst the poor and their need to be prudent suggest that the absence of overt conflict does not necessarily mean the non-existence of social and political tension.
Some social groups are privileged as subjects for historical study, others are marginalised. Fashions change. Thus predominantly male historians have been accused, and with reason, of gender blindness. This is not the place to argue the merits of community or class as opposed to gender as analytical categories, or to consider the practical difficulties of introducing gender as a concept into a history of France. Suffice it to state what has become and always should have been obvious, namely that men and women have unique as well as shared experiences and that gendered perceptions affect the formation of social identity and the whole range of economic, social, and political discourse and activity. The historian's objective ought to be 'to integrate any experience that was defined by gender into the wider social and economic framework' (Hufton), whilst acknowledging that gender too is culturally and historically conditioned.
Another dimension which we would ignore at our peril is the spatial - a theme which Fernand Braudel, reflecting the French tradition of close association between history and geography, made so much his own. The crucial importance of communications networks in limiting or facilitating the scope of both economic and political activity and the diffusion of ideas, will become obvious in the course of this book. The main purpose of this brief introduction, however, will be to set the scene by considering some of the continuities in French history.
An obvious feature of France (within its modern boundaries) is its geographical diversity. The geographer Philippe Pinchemel distinguishes five natural regions: an oceanic and temperate zone in the north-west, extending from the Vendée to Champagne, which is a lowland region, covered with a thick layer of fertile soil with abundant rainfall; the north-east, an area of plateaux and limestone cuestas with, apart from isolated fertile areas, poor soils, and suffering from severe continental climatic conditions; the south-west with its plains, hills, and plateaux, is greener, more fertile, and less rock strewn than the south-east, a region stretching from the Limousin to the plains of Provence, from Roussillon to the plains of the Saône. This he describes as a 'mosaic ... full of natural contrasts', with infertile limestone plateaux, and steep hillsides interspersed with small, discontinuous, and fertile areas of plain and valley enjoying a Mediterranean climate; and finally the mountains - the Massif Central, Jura, Alps, and Pyrenees - inhospitable to settlement because of their thin soils and short growing season, and obstacles to the movement of men and goods. If in general terms the north belongs to the temperate climatic zone, and the south with its dry summers and high temperatures to the Mediterranean, the mountains complicate the picture, in particular pushing northern climatic traits towards the south. Furthermore, as one moves inland oceanic climatic traits give way to continental tendencies. In climatic terms, France then is characterised by important local variations, by a high degree of irregularity and seasonal anomalies in temperature and rainfall. Since time immemorial, and well into the nineteenth century - for as long as low-productivity agricultural systems and isolation persisted - the menace posed by adverse climatic conditions, most notably in the north by wet summers and in the south by drought, to staple cereal harvests represented the threat of malnutrition or worse for the poor. At no other time was the pivotal question
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Figure 1 Relief map of France
of control of scarce resources, of access to land and food supplies, presented with such acuity. By intensifying social tension, poor harvests created major political problems.
Nevertheless, societies subjected to climatic stress were capable of adaptation. The development of the French landscape is indeed evidence of continuous human adjustment not only to geographical imperatives, but also to changing population densities and to socio-political pressures. Rural and urban landscapes are the product of a complex interaction between natural conditions and technological and demographic change, and of the complicated overlap between phases of development. The twentieth century and especially the post Second World War years with mechanisation, the use of chemical weedkillers and fertilisers and the amalgamation of farms, has seen more thoroughgoing changes than any other, but the contrasts between areas of enclosed and open field, often created in the middle ages as settlement spread especially along the river valleys and plains and lower slopes, still affect the landscape. In Picardy, the Ile-de-France, Nord, and Champagne and much of eastern France in particular, wide open spaces with few trees are associated with nucleated villages and the concentration of population, although the customary practices associated with the communal grazing and collective rotation of the three-field system began to disappear from the early nineteenth century. The Mediterranean region also, although the transport revolution transformed the agriculture of its plains by giving access to mass markets for wine, remains marked by earlier structures with its concentrated habitat, and the remains of terraces cut into the hillsides which signified the continuing struggle for subsistence. Only from the late nineteenth century, as population densities in the countryside declined, as autarky became unnecessary with access to reliable external supplies, did the long extension of cereal cultivation come to an end. Throughout the west, the landscape is still marked by enclosure and dispersed settlement patterns, indicating a gradual process of colonisation of the land in the middle ages. Although changes in scale have obviously occurred, the basic structure of settlement has remained remarkably permanent since the end of the middle ages. Thick hedges or granite walls mark boundaries and provide shelter for animals, whilst complex networks of often sunken lanes provide access to the fields. Lower Normandy and Brittany, Anjou, Maine, and the Vendée provide other distinctive types where arable farming in the valley bottoms was combined with exploitation of forest resources and upland pastures. Soil structures and natural resources rather than farming methods affected the capacity of local economies to sustain population. Densities therefore varied considerably as did living standards. Traditional building styles, often disguised by modern additions, provide further reminders of past regional distinctiveness. The railway,
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Figure 2 Comparative evolution of population (in millions). France, and
England and Wales.
motor transport, and decline in transport costs have led to mass production of building materials and greater uniformity in construction in both town and country as brick, and later concrete, replaced worked stone or wood.
In the traditional social system prevailing until the nineteenth century - overwhelmingly rural - the major stimulus to increased agricultural production was population growth, and the means employed to secure more food involved primarily the cultivation of previously unused land, and the more frequent cropping of the existing arable land, with slow improvements in crop rotation. Overuse and the farming of marginal land reduced productivity and increased the likelihood of harvest failure, undernourishment, the spread of disease, and the high mortality associated with a generally impoverished environment. This largely explains the obsessive popular concern with subsistence. In modern society the main stimulus to increasing agricultural production is urbanisation, and the changes in diet made possible by industrialisation and greater prosperity. Food supplies are secure because of the possibility of importation, and productivity increased by means primarily of technical change - fodder crops, increased specialisation, and most recently motorisation, fertilisers, weed killers, artificial insemination, and selective animal and plant breeding accompanied by the amalgamation of farms. Capital has increasingly replaced land and labour as the major factor of production. Cheap bulk transport and the more rapid diffusion of information have brought new opportunities for farmers, but within far more competitive markets.
The evolution of population also had a major impact on the environment, promoting successive waves of land clearance and the cutting down of forests until the later nineteenth century, and then, through urbanisation, the extension of towns and cities into the surrounding rural areas, and the reconstruction of the cities themselves, as railway lines and broad boulevards permitted the easier penetration of goods and people, and eliminated the picturesque confusion of the late medieval to early modern structures which survived until the middle of the nineteenth century. Again, the post-1945 years have seen far more extensive destruction and building than ever before. The centuries-long creation of an urban network has been of crucial significance for the overall development of French society. The urban population performs key commercial, administrative, judicial, military, religious, and cultural functions. In so many respects market villages and towns of varying sizes were the essential dynamic element within society. Growing as they did on crossroads in the communications systems, their demands served to stimulate the rural production of foodstuffs and manufactures, whilst additionally they exercised growing administrative and political control over their hinterlands.
Constructing a typology is difficult. Slow and expensive communications promoted the development of a network of often small market centres. Most small towns achieved only local or regional significance. The larger centres were, even before the coming of the railway, served by high-capacity water or seaborne links and by the circulation of thousands of little barges or ships. Paris, benefiting from the Seine and its tributaries, which brought food, fuel, and timber for construction, and also major regional centres like Lyon, or ports like Marseille, Bordeaux, and Rouen played a central historical role. Their location and activities and those of their hinterlands clearly affected the regional distribution of wealth. They exercised considerable administrative and cultural influence and served as residential centres for local élites and a complex mixture of professional and craftsmen. They also attracted large numbers of the poor and destitute in hope of work or charity. Industrialisation promoted a process of selective and accelerated growth within this
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Meet the Author
Roger Price is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He has written extensively on French history. His latest publications include The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power (2001) and People and Politics in France, 1848–1870 (2004).
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