The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon by

20 April 2005

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ISBN: 0140130934

I’m not quite sure why I picked this one up, I’ve never had all that great an interest in French history, not after getting totally confuddled trying to study the Wars of Religion back in college. But I developed an interest, and thought that is looked like an interesting read. I know a little about the revolution, and afterwards with Napoleon, but not a lot, so hopefully this’ll give me a good overview.

And so far I’m really enjoying it. The author, Colin Jones, doesn’t beat about the bush the way some history books do. No euphemisms for him:

he had procured mistresses for the young Orleans when he was his tutor, had ignoble sexual liasons himself, was foul-mouthed (having a legendary propensity for telling members of the court aristocracy to fuck off) and was famously irreligous – pg 75

That was part of Jones’ description of abbé Dubois, and ally of the Regent Orleáns. And again on pg 78 Jones describes the actions of soldiers enforcing the regent&’;s orders re an outbreak of bubonic plague and the attempts to enforce a cordon sanitare:

one-third of the French army spent time enforcing it, patrolling the perimeter of the infected region and crushing the skulls of potential escapees with their rifle-butts – an interesting and rather brutal example, as Jack McManners has pointed out, of preventative medicine.

it is also interesting to have some sort of overview of the historical period that so many novels are set in. After all, this book covers the time of the Sun king, the American War of Independence, and the Frence Revolution among others.

He only shows that government propaganda is nothing new:

“opinion governs men” the marquis d’;Argenson wrote, “It is by opinion that men rule, with more or less power … information needed to be managed – maybe even created.”; (pg 118)

And while you or I may think of cross-referencing as merely ways of linking information, the authors and editors of France’s Encyclopaedie knew how to use them to make specific points, eg.

“Thus, at the end of the article on cannibalism (“anthropophagie”) the editors had put ‘See eucharist, communion, altar, etc’ – a subtle dig at the doctrine of transubstantiation. Truth lay in such coded connections, rapprochements and juxtapositions – processes in which the reader’s involvement was vitally necessary.” (pg 177)

for anyone else looking for a narrative history of France at the time, this is well worth looking at. Jones doesn’t spend a huge amount of time in detailed analysis, but he provides enough so that the book is not simply the “story” of what happened, but also why he thinks events turned out the way they did.

Ending just as Napoleon comes to power this book provides a very readable, interesting and well-written history of France.

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