Few events have drawn the attention of as many writers as the French Revolution. The literature on the topic is truly enormous; it is possible to find monographs on everything from the conditions of peasant life in the various provinces to the intellectual currents that led to the formation of the radical revolutionaries’ republican ideology. And yet books on the history of the revolution continue to be published. Many of the questions it raised remain unresolved and contested, just as they were in the late 18th century.
One of the latest such contributions is Jon Elster’s France before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime. (Disclosure: Elster was one of my professors in college, and I deeply enjoyed taking his class.) In a narrow sense, France before 1789 is not about the revolution itself. Instead the book aims to provide a snapshot of how the old regime functioned. In a broader sense, however, all books about 18th-century France are (at least indirectly) about the history of the revolution — for all authors writing after 1789 know what is coming and can hardly ignore it. As Elster remarks of his own book, “the portrait of the [old] regime is harnessed to the end of understanding the Revolution.”
France before 1789 is the first volume in an intended trilogy. The second volume will cover America before 1776 and thereby lay the groundwork for the third, which will be a comparison of the constitution-making processes in the two countries. Accordingly, the first volume discusses the features of old-regime France that are most relevant for understanding the lead-up to the constitution of 1791.
The bulk of France before 1789 thus focuses on the various social groups and juridico-political structures of the old regime. Elster has sections on the peasants, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, the parlements (courts that also had some legislative power), the Estates-General (a national deliberative body that represented the three orders of society: clergy, nobles, and commoners, i.e., everybody else), the provincial estates (which were like the Estates-General but for regions rather than the whole nation), and the monarchy. The book’s technical language, as well as its level of detail, will appeal more to academic specialists than to general readers — yet there is plenty of material to interest general readers as well. This is a work of history, after all, depicting a state of affairs radically different from our own. All such works tell us something about the human condition: about the forms of social organization under which we have lived, about configurations of power and authority that are no longer considered legitimate, and about much else besides.