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  • Olwen Hufton’s ‘Poor’, Richard Cobb’s ‘People’, and the Notions of the longue durée in French Revolutionary Historiography
  • Colin Jones

This will be an essay about the longue durée—that is to say, about long periods of time, and about long periods of time as the framework for historical analysis and reflection. The concept of the longue durée was originated and popularized by the French historian Fernand Braudel, editor of the historical periodical the Annales, and champion of the Annaliste cause in contemporary historiography.1 In this chapter I shall seek to highlight the critical role that the concept plays in the work of two of the most significant and influential historians of the French Revolution practising within British academic life in the last half of the twentieth century, Olwen Hufton and Richard Cobb. What I hope will emerge is a sense of the very varied and flexible uses to which the concept has been—and may be—put.

Autobiographically speaking, I can say at the outset that I have known Olwen Hufton for what seems to have been a très longue durée all of its own.2 [End Page 178] I first met her in fact when she gave a paper at Richard Cobb's seminar in his sprawling set of rooms at Balliol College in the late 1960s. I was an undergraduate, a mere child, still in rompers virtually—and Hufton herself was scarcely out of a gymslip. I remember the seminar as an incredibly impressive and cool performance on Hufton's part. She showed great presence of mind, great inner calm. She spoke for more than an hour: the room was totally rapt. She was unruffled by questions of any description from the audience, who hung on her every word. We heard about the vocabulary of poverty, varieties of begging, the family economy. There was a lot about women, too, unsurprisingly for us now—but rather surprisingly for that almost exclusively male audience then. Maybe we even heard for the first time the expression 'economy of makeshifts', for which she has become famous. Cobb—listening intently if abstractedly, as was his wont, then scribbling down in a frenetic fashion some mad note or jotting—was eclipsed. He was just finishing his book, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789–1820, which was published in 1970—the first monograph written in his native language (and he in his fifty-third year!) by a prolific author who became a minor English prose stylist in his own right, though one not as much read these days, I fear.3 She had recently completed her vivid article 'Women in the French Revolution, 1789–96', which Past & Present published in 1971. It was inspired very precisely, she admitted, by a wish to imagine a female equivalent to the male sans-culotte portrayed in the essay on 'The Revolutionary Mentality' which Cobb had published in 1957. At this seminar she was now giving us the first fruits of the researches which would lead to the publication in 1974 of her prize-winning book The Poor in Eighteenth-Century France.4 [End Page 179]

This seminar—a micro-epiphany, for me at any rate—brought together two of the finest English historians of the late twentieth century who worked on the late Ancien Régime and the French Revolution. Two historians whose names became—alongside those of E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and George Rudé—synonymous with the call for a 'history from below', a history which eschewed high politics in order to try to recapture the texture of past experience for the mass of the population.5 The names of Cobb and Hufton were often linked in this enterprise. The fact that Hufton contributed to Cobb's Festschrift volume in 1983 made many think she was his pupil. In fact, Alfred Cobban had been her mentor—she contributed to his Festschrift too.6 Cobb always spoke with unreserved warmth of her work. Her great work on the poor was 'a brilliant and sensitive study of the lost world of the very poor'.7 Reviewing one of his books in 1971, she praised him for 'a...