Fifty Years of Rewriting the French Revolution

John Dunne signposts main landmarks and current directions in the historiographical debate.

Each age, we are often told, rewrites the past in its own image. In the case of the French Revolution, this is an understatement. In the second half of this century the scholarship has seemed to be in a state of almost permanent revolution as historians have taken up one interpretative or methodological approach after another. Some of the story of this historiographical roller-coaster ride may be known to readers, thanks to William Doyle's best-selling text book Origins of the French Revolution, which begins with a long and detailed survey 'Writings on Revolutionary Origins since 1939'. Although still the most widely read account of the scholarship in the English language, it was written as long ago as 1979, and a vast amount of water has flowed under the bridge since then. My main concern in this essay is to draw attention to important developments which have occurred in the scholarship – on the Revolution as a whole, not just its origins as in Doyle's book – over the last twenty years. How ever, let me start by briefly revisiting the territory already mapped by Doyle.

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