- The French Revolution is Not Over:An Introduction
Even as the French Revolution recedes further and further into the past, its importance continues to resonate because so much of our present was first rehearsed or performed during the revolutionary decade and its Napoleonic aftermath. Nineteenth-century historians, many of whom were politicians, related its political events, but these narratives eluded any consensus. Wave after wave of contemporary developments forced reassessments of the event, which led scholars to expand their attention to new subjects, particularly society and culture. Hovering over all these studies, right up to the bicentennial of the Revolution, was the desire to find a narrative that could accommodate the broad goal of some kind of consensus regarding the outbreak and the course of the Revolution.
Postmodernism, as well as the explosive growth of the scholarly community to include scholars from abroad, women, and people of color, made an agreed-upon synthesis more difficult. Although many historians focused on traditional subjects, others saw the Revolution as a new space that encouraged independence and innovation. Such changes accelerated the diversity of work on the Revolution and Napoleon.
"The French Revolution Is Not Over" takes stock of the complexity of current interpretations and provides a guide to what has become an extremely rich historiography. Conceived as a kaleidoscopic effort, the forum consists of five short sections, each examining a particular subfield. As a whole, the essays provide assessments of these subfields, without collectively putting forward an interlocking set of explanations. Some sections here focus on breadth, while others concentrate on depth. Some relate internal debates among historians, while others survey the landscape of discussion. Some concentrate on the changes within a subfield, while others tend to explain how the subfield has impacted broader interpretations.
The intellectual history essay by Jack Censer reveals the centrality of politics to current scholarly debates about the intellectual forces—including both ideas or systems of ideas (languages)—that led to the eruption of the Revolution in 1789. The essay on cultural history by Sophia Rosenfeld explains the [End Page 543] powerful jolt given to revolutionary historiography by historians who examine culture as a set of assumptions that frame understanding, as well as a set of activities and texts, including the theater, revolutionary songs, and more. Exploring global history, the newest field of inquiry in the study of the French Revolution, Paul Cheney describes the worldwide interactions that developed in the eighteenth century, for better and worse. Although historians often cast the Revolution as reinforcing traditional sexual norms, Suzanne Desan in her analysis of gender historiography powerfully argues that the Revolution also enabled a broader elaboration of gender roles. Likewise, in the essay on political history, Paul Hanson confounds the usual tendency to make Paris the geographical focus of political history and insists instead on the potent role played by the provinces. From these different perspectives emerge an up-to-date road map, at least for the present. [End Page 544]