William Doyle is an expert on the French Revolution and in this early volume he describes the European Order which was challenged in the late eighteenth century. It is a well written book, full of insight which provides an excellent overview of the continent-wide nature of change while identifying differences attributable to national characteristics.
It was, of course, the period of the Enlightenment, manifestations of which were present throughout the years surveyed. The sources of change - the impact of new discoveries on religious opinion, attacks on the role of the monarchy as absolute ruler, the rise of rationalism and the emergence of utility (long before Jeremy Bentham) trace what later became the foundations of materialistic philosophy.
The underlying nature of the conflict remains open to interpretation, although there appears to be a unanimity that the French Revolution represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. In the long term the men of "liquid wealth" and the lawyers (as ever) were those who benefited from revolutionary change. Previously excluded from the high offices of state and political power they seized it in France but by harnessing, then releasing, popular power in its worst form they deterred revolutionary reform elsewhere. However, wherever revolutionary ideas did flourish they were based on the French model of removing despots, abolishing aristocracies, confiscating Church lands, rationalising administration and introducing representative government.
What is clear is the inter-relationship between Church and State in the Old Order. Church offices (including Bishoprics) were largely occupied by members of the aristocracy. In France, for example, "in the 1780's a quarter of the episcopate was in the hands of thirteen families." The Church was used as an instrument of social and political control teaching obedience to the Monarch and educating children in the ways and doctrine of the Church. In criticising the one, opposition forces criticised the other and, although some religious orders were noted for their charitable work, the financial burden on the populace, levied through tithes, added to the unpopularity of all established institutions.
It didn't help either that in many countries the priesthood was as ignorant of Christianty as the laity. There was an emphasis on the veneration of saints and relics and an interpretation of natural phenomenon as God's intervention against sinful beings. In many cases the name was Christianity but the religion was otherwise. The educated classes, as today, were concerned with the impact of "enthusiasm" - the more so as the dual drift towards Deism and rationalism became apparent from the 1590's onward and found fruition in the sceptical philosophy of Hume and Kant.
There is an excellent bibliography which emphasises that traditional diplomatic history is not as popular as it once was. Emphasis on causes in history (real and imagined) has tended to overlook the perceived reality facing the people involved, although this has been addressed by the growth of individual country studies as a means of trying to understand the dynamic of history. However, this early volume met a need which is still valid and is well worth the five stars awarded.
This book comes as something of a disappointment in the Oxford History of the Modern World series, when compared to Bonney's European Dynastic States or Jones' The Limits of Liberty, and also compared to Doyle's own Oxford History of the French Revolution. While covering most of the necessary ground, the writing, this offering lacks some of the lucid narrative necessary in general surveys in favour of an increased emphasis on analysis. Without doubt of great value to the student, this will probably be easy to digest for those with a more leisured interest in history reading.