French Historical Studies 27.4 (2004) 741-745
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Roche on the Move
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse . . .
Daniel Roche has made illuminating intellectual journeys, and now he has chosen mobility itself as his path of inquiry. Like the citizens of Ithaca on Ulysses' return, we are lucky to be able to reflect with him on his many voyages. What itineraries has he followed? What new worlds has he discovered? And, having recounted these voyages so well, how has he transformed our understanding of his own land—France in the age of Enlightenment?
When Roche first embarked on his intellectual journey, there were two grand narratives to orient the historical traveler in the France of the Old Regime, those of Alexis de Tocqueville and Pierre Goubert. For Tocqueville, a disillusioned heir of the old political classes, the logic to the road maps of the Old Regime—whether geographical, political, socioeconomic, or cultural—was to be found in the precocious centralization of the state, on the one hand, and in the persistence of the eviscerated privileges of the kingdom's corporations and social estates, on the other. These two animating principles worked in concert to stifle the energies and liberties of the French at all levels of the social order and to impose a suffocating and deforming unity, in an increasingly tyrannical manner, on a luxuriantly diverse country. Tocqueville thus left us with an image of the Old Regime as a stalled society that finally rebelled against the state in 1789.
By contrast, Pierre Goubert—who was nourished in the cradle of [End Page 741] rural history, far from the projects and ambitions of Parisian bureaucrats and courtiers at Versailles—discovered another Old Regime that existed beneath the radar of the state. Goubert drew another map of France, a France woven together not by royal roads, but, rather, by a myriad of peasant pathways that defined and circumscribed the known worlds and itineraries of the great majority of French men and women. For Goubert, the distinctive character of the Old Regime was to be found in a patchwork quilt of particularisms: in the diversity of its laws, mores, and modes of existence.
Thus there was a paradox for Roche to resolve in order to move ahead in his understanding of his country's past. How was it possible to reconcile Tocqueville's portrait of an innovative yet despotic royalist state—one that would kill its subjects in order to save them—with the vast kingdom of isolated and timeless villages discovered by Goubert? Moreover, how could one explain the emergence of modern France—that is, a dynamic, capitalist, and democratic France—from this world of social immobility and state oppression?
Roche found the answer by finding a third point of entry into the Old Regime—civil society. This route permitted him to circulate and explore the world that lay between the state and society, leading him to investigate the kingdom's intermediary spaces, institutions, and layers. It was there—in the provincial towns, in the cultural institutions of civil society (salons, academies, theaters, coffeehouses, etc.), and in the world of commerce—that Roche discovered the multiple networks linking the social order and the state, and it was there that he found the sources of dynamism and innovation in eighteenth-century France.
He began this voyage in search of the Enlightenment. His questions were straightforward: Where did the Enlightenment happen, and how did it spread throughout France? His answers, elaborated magnificently in Le siècle des Lumières en province et Les républicains des lettres, are now well known.1 These maps of the itineraries of the Enlightenment vividly revealed the convergences and correlations between a new intellectual movement, urban centers, and commercial networks. But how could one account for the elaboration of these correlations and convergences? For Roche, the model of a linear and teleological diffusion of the Enlightenment (along the lines of his predecessor Daniel Mornet)—from high to low, from center to periphery—was inadequate. Roche, rather, views cultural change in the social world as unfolding as a [End...