Origins Of The French Revolution by William Doyle: A Scholarly Review Of The Book

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A scholarly review of the book, Origins Of The French Revolution written by William Doyle.

William Doyle’s Origins of the French Revolution gives a specific, detailed account of the direct and indirect causes that led to the French Revolution. Doyle examines his personal views on the French Revolution’s causes, as well as introducing and analyzing recent research by historians that has challenged popular conceptions of the French Revolution.

Like Lefebvre’s book, The Coming of the French Revolution, Doyle’s book should be perceived, and as such read, as a history book, albeit a particularly detailed one. However, be that as it may, and keeping in mind Doyle’s discussion of the research of several major historians on the subject, the book is not all-encompassing, nor does it pretend to do so. A general background to the French Revolution is required to fully understand all of Doyle’s references in his book.

One such frequent reference is that to Lefebvre’s book on the French Revolution, thereby making it advisable to, out of the two, read Lefebvre’s book first – for one thing to gain a general understanding or background on the French Revolution, and secondly to understand Doyle’s references to the writer. If Doyle’s book were to be viewed from the standpoint of a purely independent study, the reader would have to have had some foreknowledge of the key elements of the French Revolution. As such, a bit of pre-textbook reading prior to undertaking Doyle would be most helpful in understanding the text.

Origins of the French Revolution is broken up into three separate parts. The first part is centered on the writings of prominent historians on the origins of the French Revolution since the late mid-twentieth century. Later, new research by historians would challenge the established views of the French Revolution, and the second and third parts deal with Doyle’s opinions and analysis of this new research. In the first part, Doyle discusses several different types of writing concerning the origins of the French Revolution, including the older, more classic interpretation, revisionism, and the newer post-revisionism. He thus divides the first part into three chapters:

Classic Interpretation, Revisionism, and Post-Revisionism. In the chapter Classic Interpretation, Doyle discusses Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution, which provides a clear discussion of the origins of the French Revolution. Doyle thus gives the reader an opportunity to see what the early historians believed caused the Revolution, which according to Lefebvre was “the rise of the bourgeoisie” (Doyle 5). In the other two chapters of the first part, the reader is introduced to historians who came after Lefebvre and challenged his view of the Revolution’s causes. Among these later historians was Cobban, who had a similar view of the nobility, in that they kick-started the French Revolution, but provides a whole new outlook on the role of the bourgeoisie. Through the first part of his book, Doyle demonstrates the complicated nature of the Revolution’s origins and how historians have developed their ideas on the subject over the year

The Tennis Court Oath - The Rise of the Third Estate (Image Source).

In the second and third parts of his book, Doyle summarizes the research of recent historians and provides his own opinions and outlook upon it. He describes every aspect and fault of the pre-Revolutionary political system in France, and events leading up to 1788 that provided a venue, or rather an opportunity, for political and social reform to take hold. In part two, Doyle focuses on aspects of the country, such as the government and economic system that hastened the regime’s demise.

He talks of the Economic Crisis plaguing the country at the time, talking of its troubles, such as war and debt, and the various reforms which were implemented but largely failed. As it seemed, the government had to support a lot of institutions or programs whose power or use had already been removed. Combined with irrational spending on behalf of the king and anything the government pain-stakingly gained through reform was immediately lost through irrational expenditure.

Doyle also talks of the French system of government and how exactly it was organized. He also discusses the role of each French king in each successive government and their doings or undoings. In part two, Doyle also discusses the effects that the Enlightenment had on the aspects of the French Revolution. For example, he asserts that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, though written during the French Revolution by revolutionaries, was basically an idea stemming from the Enlightenment itself. At the same time, however, Doyle does not overestimate or underestimate the Enlightenment’s effects either.

In part three, Doyle has a powerful discussion of the most important social groups in France at that period of time – the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the peasantry. He explains their motivations, defining characteristics, assertions of power, and how they might have acted in the coming French Revolution. Part Three also discusses major events of the time, such as the Election Campaign or the Economic Crisis, in which the said social groups were involved. Of all of the book’s parts, part three was the most structured and stratified, and though the reading was a bit dense, it was comparatively easier to read and understand. At some point in the book, Doyle mentions that part two and three can be read separately, but it is certain to the reader that it must be read together as a whole comparatively.

     In conclusion, Doyle accomplished his goal of using the research of previous historians and his own thought and opinion to present the origins of the French Revolution. Though the text has a few minor problems, it still remains rather clear, albeit sometimes dense, in its explanations.

After reading this book, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. Some basic background information about the French Revolution is recommended to know before attempting to read this book. One great aspect of the book is that though the writer provides his own analysis of the compiled historic research, he still permits criticism and remains open to future refutation or modification of the work. Overall, the work was thought-provoking and interesting, and is should be read by anyone interested in European history. One should read this book thoroughly and actively, yet also consider the works of other prominent historians, such as Lefebvre, in order to gain a different perspective on the French Revolution.

The Storming Of The Tuileries Palace in the latter part of the beginning phase of the French Revolution (Image Source).

© 2010 Gregory Markov


Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1999.


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