When a Parisian crowd stormed the Bastille in July 1789, it triggered an event of global consequence: the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of a new society. Most historians account for the French Revolution by viewing it in retrospect as the outcome of underlying conditions such as a faltering economy, social tensions, or the influence of Enlightenment thought. But what did Parisians themselves think they were doing—how did they understand their world? What were the motivations and aspirations that guided their actions? In this history, Robert Darnton addresses these questions by drawing on decades of close study to conjure a past as vivid as today's news.
By the end of this exhilarating book, Darnton has done so much more than provide an account of France during the dying decades of the monarchy. Ever since his breakthrough book of essays, The Great Cat Massacre, in 1984 he has concentrated on combining the forward thrust of narrative, or 'event,' history with due concern for the deep structures of the past. Historically, these two distinct methodologies have positioned themselves sternly in opposition to one another, but here Darnton proves that it is possible to have the best of both worlds. The result is deep, rich and enthralling, and gets us as near as we probably ever can be to that elusive thing, the collective consciousness.
The author of many important scholarly works on 18th-century French print culture, Darnton examines this development with not only erudition but writerly flair. He organizes his material into brief, chronologically ordered chapters with snappy titles ... Darnton concedes that these ripples are hard to trace and harder to quantify. (At its most compelling, his book provides concrete information about the print runs and sales rate of influential documents) ... He restricts himself instead to the apt — if more general — conclusion that in the run-up to the revolution, public opinion was 'a dangerous force, which could, under some circumstances, be turned against' the established order.
Darnton is one of the foremost Anglophone interpreters of French culture in the decades before 1789. In The Revolutionary Temper, he searches for that most elusive of historical subjects, a state of mind. Drawing on an ingenious array of archival materials to create a sequence of tableaux, he traces the emergence of a popular mentality ... Darnton maps the irreversible alterations of the public mood.