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French Historical Studies 23.3 (2000) 439-453

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New Work in French Economic History

Philip T. Hoffman and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal

Forum: New Directions in Economic History

Why should historians—and especially French historians—pay attention to economic history? After all, isn’t most of it written by economists? And aren’t their methods and concerns alien to most historians? In short, can’t it just be ignored?

We say no. It would be a mistake to ignore economic history, particularly for French historians. Indeed, some of the best recent work in economic history concerns France, and although much of this scholarship has been overlooked by historians, it bears upon issues at the heart of French history: the nature of politics under the Old Regime, the strategies that women pursued in French society, and the origins and course of the French Revolution. This research speaks directly to French historians, but even when economic historians address questions in economics, what they say has important implications for French history. In recent years, their work has overturned older Marxist and Malthusian models of French society, models that still linger on in the background of much cultural history. In the place of these models, economic historians have fashioned a new understanding of French agriculture and peasant society; of French industry and demography; of the French fiscal and financial systems; and, above all else, of economic growth and stagnation in France up to the twentieth century—all matters that touched the lives of French men and women in the past. [End Page 439]

What distinguishes this recent work from older economic history is not statistics or quantification but rather the use of ideas from economics. Some of the newer economic history is hardly quantitative at all, but all of it relies on tools borrowed from economics. These tools are far different from what one may imagine, for economics itself has changed considerably in the last twenty years, and economists are no longer limited to a single, all-purpose instrument—namely, the model of perfect markets. They have a number of other devices at their disposal, from game theory to the economics of information, which can be applied to vastly different patterns of behavior in the past.

When using these tools, economic historians have tried to steer clear of anachronism. Drawing upon extensive research with primary sources, they have taken care to fit their assumptions to the actions and the attitudes of actors in the past. And they have written history that is quite lucid and certainly doesn’t take a degree in economics to read.1 Let us examine what they say, beginning with a topic dear to nearly all French historians: the origins, course, and consequences of the French Revolution. We will then consider the insights economic historians have into absolutism and the new tools they have devised to analyze markets and social change, whether in the seventeenth century or the nineteenth. Finally, we will turn to research at the heart of economic history—in particular, research on economic growth and industrialization—and show how it challenges the models that many historians bring to the study of France’s past.

New Interpretations of the Revolution

While the historiography of the French Revolution has shifted by and large to the realm of political culture, the economic historians who study revolutionary France have quietly changed what they do. To begin with, they have dismissed one of the few bits of economic history that still figure in general accounts of 1789—Ernest Labrousse’s arguments about the economic crisis that helped precipitate the Revolution—and they have rethought the monarchy’s financial debacle in the late 1780s, bringing out neglected political implications of the struggle over taxation and budgetary policy. Finally, they have reassessed the economic [End Page 440] consequences of the Revolution, consequences felt long into the nineteenth century.

In Labrousse’s formulation, the crisis of 1789 was the result of Marxist contradictions in the Old Regime economy.2 Social historians subsequently gave his argument a Malthusian spin, which linked together the growing misery...


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pp. 439-453
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Archived 2004
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