Winds of Change

History Today's special issue on the French Revolution's bicentenary focuses on the new ideas that are illustrating its causes and course. To open, Douglas Johnson considers the arguments about the 'Counter-Revolution' and the Terror exercising French historians of the Revolution in 1989.

In his last book, Fernand Braudel expressed the sentiment that in order to write French history it was better to be French. What, sighed Richard Cobb, have I been doing for the last fifty years? The remark, in Braudel's L'Identite de la France, published in 1986, after his death the preceding year, is ironical. It was about then that many Frenchmen became worried that the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution were going to become celebrations of the Counter-Revolution, and, in particular, celebrations of that part of France, the Vendee, which had been particularly hostile to the Revolution. It so happened that, until then, the most scholarly works on the Counter-Revolution in western France had been written by British and North American historians (one thinks of Tilly, Hutt, Tim Le Goff, Sutherland, Tackett), whilst French historians had, with a few exceptions, been partisans in a controversy which was local, religious and limited. The fact that in February 1984 Pope John Paul II had beatified ninety-nine of the martyrs from Angers who had been killed in the Vendeen war, did not appear relevant to historians.

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