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A worthy successor to Cobban's survey of 18th century France

The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon - Colin Jones

Back in the 1950s, Alfred Cobban wrote the first of what became a three-volume "History of Modern France" for Penguin Press. Together these books provided a primarily political history of France from the death of Louis XIV to the withdrawal from Algeria in 1962 and survived for decades as a standard English-language introduction to modern French history, thanks in no small measure to the readability and insights contained within the trilogy.

 

As the decades passed, however, Cobban's books increasingly suffered from the their inability to incorporate the ever-growing body of research into French history and the changes in our understanding which this has brought about. As a result, Penguin Press commissioned a new three-volume series designed to supplant Cobban's volumes. As is increasingly the case the task once entrusted to one historian was now divided amongst three specialists, with Colin Jones writing the volume covering France in the 18th century. While generally emulating Cobban in focusing mainly on political history, Jones gives more attention than his predecessor to social and cultural developments during this period, creating a more well-rounded overview as a result. Because of this, the book is chock full of insights absent from Cobban's book, with Jones's integration of the Enlightenment and his explanation of its influence on political developments a particularly notable improvement over Cobban's work. It's easy to see why it has supplanted Cobban's earlier volume as a standard history of 18th century France, one that will likely maintain that title for as long as its predecessor did.