A panorama of a whole civilization, a world on the verge of cataclysm, unfolds in this magisterial work by the foremost historian of eighteenth-century France. Since Tocqueville’s account of the Old Regime, historians have struggled to understand the social, cultural, and political intricacies of this efflorescence of French society before the Revolution. France in the Enlightenment is a brilliant addition to this historical interest.
France in the Enlightenment brings the Old Regime to life by showing how its institutions operated and how they were understood by the people who worked within them. Daniel Roche begins with a map of space and time, depicting France as a mosaic of overlapping geographical units, with people and goods traversing it to the rhythms of everyday life. He fills this frame with the patterns of rural life, urban culture, and government institutions. Here as never before we see the eighteenth-century French “culture of appearances”: the organization of social life, the diffusion of ideas, the accoutrements of ordinary people in the folkways of ordinary living—their food and clothing, living quarters, reading material. Roche shows us the eighteenth-century France of the peasant, the merchant, the noble, the King, from Paris to the provinces, from the public space to the private home.
By placing politics and material culture at the heart of historical change, Roche captures the complexity and depth of the Enlightenment. From the finest detail to the widest view, from the isolated event to the sweeping trend, his masterly book offers an unparalleled picture of a society in motion, flush with the transformation that will be its own demise.