- Cobbsian Historiography Takes on the Revolutionary State
Richard Cobb—long considered the lone wolf of revolutionary historiography—is back with a vengeance. Although Cobb passed away in 1996, his legacy continues in two recent books by Howard Brown (State University of New York, Binghamton) and Joseph Clarke (Trinity College, Dublin). Like their forebear, Clarke and Brown have spent years mining the riches of archives; and both focus systematically on le menu peuple and profess to reveal how politics touched their lives. Or, more precisely, how it accidentally battered their lives. Neither Clarke nor Brown has much patience for revolutionary enthusiasts, rather they emphasize the devastating toll the tumult took on the families and communities left in its wake. Both downplay the long-term advances wrought by the Revolution in the domains of education, jurisprudence, or human rights, and instead stress the hypocrisy and failings of the First Republic and its various post-Thermidorian successors. [End Page 468] By ending the Revolution in 1802 or 1799 instead of 1794, they demonstrate the powerful way that periodization molds history. Educators should take care to balance the harsh appraisals provided here with the more equitable assessment of the period by scholars such as James Livesey or Martyn Lyons. Although the erudition of Clarke and Brown is laudable, the bitterness expressed in these books is cause for caution.
Clarke's Commemorating the Dead is a feisty tome. The topic—bereavement and memory—is of perennial human import, and the approach is promising. Focusing on the rituals, commodities, and oratory associated with the victims of the turmoil and warfare that marked the years 1789–1799, Clarke proposes to explain why those practices and objects emerged in their historical moment and what ends they served. Although his claims to originality are sometimes exaggerated—one need only conjure up John McManners's writings on funereal practices or Carol Blum on revolutionary virtue—Clarke nevertheless affects an independence of spirit that is invigorating. Emphasizing the importance of Catholicism in the lives of French people even under the Terror, Clarke refuses to believe that words like saint, martyr, or sacrilege were irrelevant or could be reinvented to serve the ends of revolutionary ideology as readily as historians such as Lynn Hunt and Mona Ozouf have claimed. Like Cobb, who famously debunked republican populism by studying the tax records of wealthy sans-culottes, Clarke has a keen eye for the telling detail. This attentiveness to the hidden meanings of words and ritual allows for some surprising interpretations, including the deconstruction of the Marat cult (185–209). Citing French sources in the original makes the claims persuasive, as demonstrated in his analysis of the artful use of pronouns tu, vous, and especially nous in Abbé Fauchet's sermons (54–86). These passages do a masterful job of revealing the mixed motives—of worshipful sorrow as well as fear and opportunism—that drew crowds to memorials, parades, and other public shows of remembrance.
Commemorating has some rough patches. The introduction will raise hackles by dismissing contemporary cultural history as the work of historians who "prefer the firm and reassuringly familiar ground of ideological engagement to the shifting sands of individual emotion" (6). Clarke claims to reintroduce agency into history by eschewing the "fashionable effusions of sentimental literature" in favor of "real tears shed by real families" (6). This assertion shocks by its naive assumption that some forms of textual evidence are more "real" than others. Just as the funerary practices so beautifully described by Clarke are rooted in a specific sense of time, place, and the sacred, so the memoirs of widows and common folk he relies on to tell this story are rooted in literary genres of almanac, breviary, and saints' lives, not to mention local legend. Clarke's impatience with literature seems hard to reconcile with his dedication to nuance.
But there is much to admire in Commemorating. Clarke...