In an academic economy dominated by ever-increasing productivity despite diminishing (if not negative) returns, the œuvre of David Bien offers a refreshing alternative. With an output that would appear modest by today’s quantitative standards, he has left a lasting impact on the scholarships of the ancien régime and of the origins of the French Revolution. Bien was master of the article, another academic form partially eclipsed today by its bigger relative, the monograph. In the absence of a synthesis, the current collection, edited by Rafe Blaufarb, Michael S. Christofferson and Darrin M. McMahon, of ten of Bien’s essays (including one previously unpublished) is thus especially welcome. It closely follows the republication (2010) of his ground-breaking Annales articles on the Ségur army reform, in the St Andrews series of Studies in French History and Culture. Between them, the two editions offer the English reader nearly all of Bien’s important essays (‘Offices, Corps, and a System of State Credit’ is perhaps the major exception, but is nevertheless widely available, in Volume One of The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture ). Following a preface by Keith Baker, Michael Christofferson’s introduction to this collection provides accounts of Bien’s life, work and professional relationship and friendship with François Furet. The first two chapters emanate from Bien’s early work on the Calas affair (the subject of his only monograph, published in 1960 and in an expanded French version in 1987) and on religious toleration among the magistracy. Subsequent chapters range across the various interconnecting themes of Bien’s later work: nobility and privilege, state finance, offices and corps, and army reform. Particularly of note are the chapter on the office of secrétaires du roi and the system of ‘manufacturing nobles’ in the eighteenth century; the provocative chapter on the Old Regime origins of democratic liberty; and the sequel to the Annales articles on army reform. The collection ends with a previously unpublished chapter on the nobilities of Toulouse during the closing decades of the ancien régime and an extended interview with Bien conducted by Norman Cantor, originally published in 1971. The Annales articles and the association with Furet have tended to identify Bien as a key protagonist of the ‘revisionist’ school on the origins of the French Revolution. Certainly, his findings on fundamental divisions within the nobility in the later eighteenth century have played a significant role in the demise of cruder notions of a struggle drawn strictly along class lines. But Bien, defying any pigeon-holing, was equally critical of the increasingly rigid form that ‘revisionism’ took in later years. Above all, perhaps, he resisted simplistic interpretations, especially with regard to the notion of progress, and enjoyed turning historical orthodoxies on their head. Just as he used the Ségur reform to argue against, rather than for, the hardening of class lines, so he identified counter-intuitive elements in the other debates which feature in this collection. The Calas affair, he argued, formed an exception rather than a rule of religious intolerance among the magistracy, explained by specific circumstances and contrasting with longer-term trends evidenced in its rulings on Protestant marriage. Likewise in the study of privilege and venality: where others saw an ossifying regime and its limits, Bien saw the workings of a state-of-the-art credit system, which allowed the French Crown to borrow at lower interest rates than the English. And the corresponding system of corps, when viewed from the inside rather than the outside, appears not just as the guardian of privilege and inequality, but also as the harbinger of democratic models and habits. The consequence was not a conservative glorification of the ancien régime, but rather a rethinking of the nexus among Enlightenment, Revolution and modernity. Bien uncovered the impact of Enlightenment ideas among the staunchest defenders of the old order, and traced in their routines the genealogy of modern economic and political institutions. Methodologically, this suggested the agency of culture in the social and political arenas and the lasting impact of habits and routines, a view which, incidentally, bears some indirect resemblance to the ‘environmentalist’ theories of Bien’s eighteenth-century army reformers as well as to the notion of habitus developed by his contemporary Bourdieu (also born in 1930). Explicitly, Bien did not engage with theory, foregrounding instead empirical analysis and historical comparison. In the vein of the Annales articles, his study of the secrétaires du roi in this volume demonstrates the powerful potential of what he described as ‘horse-and-buggy quantification’ for highlighting processes of historical change. More synthetic sections complement this deep empirical approach with wide-ranging comparisons across time and space, contrasting eighteenth-century French state-building with earlier and later regimes and with its contemporary English and other European systems. Necessarily broad-brush, these comparisons are nonetheless stimulating and help to contextualise the broader significance of his findings. If some details have been superseded and some perspectives expanded by subsequent research, Bien’s interpretations, as evident in this volume, remain essential and rewarding for any reader with interests in the ancien régime and its legacy. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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