The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution by Alfred Cobban – Book Review

The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution is an analysis of the social background of the French Revolution by English historian Alfred Cobban.

If nothing else, I found the title of this book to be amusing, since Cobban spends the entire length of the work refuting the idea that the French Revolution was a social revolution at all. Cobban writes in direct opposition to renowned French historian George Lefebvre’s theory of a social revolution of the people of France against the institutions of feudalism. Cobban, on the other hand, challenges most of Lefebvre’s points and asserts that the revolution was predominantly political.

History, Cobban argues, is far too complex to be broken down into single, overarching themes (such as the theory that the revolution was a rebellion against feudalism). He makes compelling arguments, and I found myself agreeing with him more often than not.

The readability, it must be said, is extremely dry.

“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t that true of all history books?”

Not necessarily.

Of course, I may be a bit biased, because I love history and reading history books. That being said, there are many history studies out there that are both enjoyable to read and easy to grasp. While Cobban’s concepts must not be simplified, it would have been a relief if he would have used more…compelling language – or less stuffy wording, at the very least. Also, he often goes off on one or two sentence tangents that are made up wholly of French. As much as I would love to be fluent in French (and many other languages), I’m afraid I’m not – and likely the majority of his readers are not, since it’s a book written for English-speaking readers.

The points that Cobban makes are solid. It’s the presentation that is lacking. I’d recommend The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution to any serious history student, but anyone looking for general information should probably look for an easier read…or at least a fluid one.

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