Norman Hampson

Norman Hampson is a professor of history at the University of York. His books include The Enlightenment, The Social History of the French Revolution and Danton.


Norman Hampson, 20 August 1992

Once upon a time, a distinguished French Department in a well-known British university set a question on Diderot in its Final Examination. Owing to a couple of unfortunate misprints, his name appeared as ‘Piderst’. Understandably, it was not a popular question. But it did attract one answer, from a candidate who discussed the merits of Piderst with enthusiasm, if in rather general terms. The department, contrary to its usual practice, gave him a viva, in which he sustained his opinion with a conviction that impressed his examiners. Diderot would have enjoyed that – and probably gone on to ask himself if he was not, in fact, really Piderst rather than Diderot, or maybe both at the same time. He was perhaps the most attractive of the 18th-century French philosophes, and certainly the most elusive. The problems that he poses are enough to frighten off the most intrepid biographer and one can only admire P.N. Furbank, not merely for tackling the job at all, but for doing it so well.’

Megalomaniac and Loser

Norman Hampson, 21 March 1985

Recent news from the French Revolutionary front is mostly about people who, for one reason or another, regarded the whole business as a disaster. No doubt as we approach 1989, things will change, and a chorus of pious commemoration will drown the irreverent voices of those who express their reservations about the quality of the Emperor’s tailors. This is as it should be: historians, however scrupulous and dispassionate, usually derive from the present the incentive to persevere in their arduous exploration of a past whose significance depends to some extent on the angle from which it is illuminated. If they were to stop changing their minds and disagreeing with each other, we should know that they were all dead.


Norman Hampson, 19 April 1984

This is the first volume to appear in the ‘Fontana History of Modern France’, edited by Douglas Johnson, which will eventually cover the period from the Ancien Régime to the present day. The intention is presumably to provide the student and general reader with a synthesis of the enormous amount of new writing on French history since Alfred Cobban published his much shorter history of modern France twenty years ago. The mere existence of this formidable corpus of information presents the writers of the new series with both opportunities and problems. With more space at their disposal than Cobban, they can afford to get away from Parisian politics, explore social and intellectual history and take account of the complexities of regional variation. At the same time, they are writing for a public that cannot be assumed to have any previous knowledge of what was going on. This calls for a framework of political history. Unless the reader is told which regimes succeeded which, and when, the study of the changing balance of social forces is likely to confuse him. Once this political basis is established, one can, of course, argue that it was the outcome of social conflicts. The social structure of France did not change much between 1847 and 1852, but it would be a bold determinist who argued that the way in which France passed from a monarchy through a republic to an empire was therefore of minor importance. General history of this kind has no need to be impersonal. If the pursuit of impartiality implies the elimination of the personality of the historian, it is likely, in practice, to mean that he endorses past orthodoxies, whether or not he is aware of doing so. Such pusillanimous objectives make for dull reading and the mechanical retelling of a familiar tale. At the same time, the historian must play fair. The reader of a textbook is entitled to know when his author is giving him the consensus of scholarly opinion and when he is putting forward an interpretation of his own. History can seem more exciting when the writer believes that one interpretation has been refuted by another, or when his own belief in the way things happen in history imposes a particular way of looking at the period as a whole: but the reader has to feel that the historian is a genuine explorer and not primarily concerned to impose a preconceived pattern on such parts of the evidence as he chooses to examine. Procrustes may have had a tidy mind, but one has doubts about his methodology. On all of these counts Roger Magraw’s book invites serious reservations.

British Politicians

Norman Hampson, 4 August 1983

If Robespierre could have read the second volume of John Ehrman’s massive biography of Pitt it would have saved him a good deal of worry. The two men had more in common than might appear at first sight, or than either of them would have cared to admit. Each was a decidedly cold fish, a bachelor of that alarming species that lives only for politics. This presents their biographers with insoluble problems since it is impossible either to delineate their personalities or to detach them at any point from the political history of their period, which was not so much the context as the content of their lives. Even so, Ehrman rather overdoes this side of things in his book, where Pitt himself is liable to disappear for fifty pages at a time. Both Robespierre and Pitt seem to have been convinced of their own infallibility. The latter had already written in 1785, ‘I cannot allow myself to doubt,’ which at least suggests that he had considered a possibility that probably never occurred to the Incorruptible, who had Rousseau to persuade him that he incarnated both vertu and the general will. Pitt was at least addicted to the bottle, whereas Robespierre preferred oranges. Each took the total rightness of the political values he personified so much for granted that he was incapable of even beginning to understand those of his adversary. For Pitt, Robespierre was probably no more than the worst of a bunch of criminal lunatics: Robespierre saw Pitt as the deist equivalent of Antichrist. Each thought of himself as a reformer and was indeed, at least to begin with, a man of vision, enlightenment and humanity. It was the tragedy of the times that the conflict that came to dominate their lives drove them to cruel and repressive expedients which frustrated the original objects of their political ambitions. There is a nasty parallel between the Treasonable Practices Act and the law of 22 Prairial, both designed to ensure that the courts could not rescue those whom the government was resolved to destroy. Pitt, moving in a familiar and traditional world, was less afflicted by apocalyptic delusions than either Robespierre or Burke. He had not their imagination.

Friend Robespierre

Norman Hampson, 5 August 1982

Francois Furet’s book, which appeared in France in 1978, reopens the debate on the nature and significance of the French Revolution. For a very long time, what Professor Soboul likes to describe as the ‘classical’ interpretation provided the frame of reference for all the arguments. It was challenged by the late Professor Cobban in his Wiles Lectures, published in 1964 as The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, but Cobban’s attack was essentially negative. He disputed many of the assertions of what he took to be Marxist historians of the Revolution, but, for all his pugnacity, he was more concerned to expose error than to construct a new creed of his own. Indeed, to an extent of which he must have been unaware, what he implied was not that the Marxist interpretation was wrong, but that Lefebvre and Soboul were bad Marxists. He accepted their theoretical assumptions but reversed their conclusions, claiming, for example, that ‘it was a revolution not for, but against capitalism.’ He answered their Jacobin patriotism with an economic determinism that flew the Union Jack: ‘There is nothing surprising in the fact that, the economic development of English society being so far in advance of that of France, its political evolution should also have shown much greater maturity.’ He cut the French Revolution down to size so drastically that one was left wondering what all the excitement was about. Since he wrote, many detailed studies, in America, England and, latterly, in France, have inflicted further, if sometimes unknowing damage on the ‘classical’ synthesis: but this was not the kind of evidence to overthrow the prevailing orthodoxy. Furet sets out to do just that.

Six French Frizeurs

David A. Bell, 10 December 1998

The moment in the 18th century when Anglo-French relations reached their lowest point was probably 29 May 1794 – 10 Prairial, Year II, as the French then styled it. On that day, the Jacobin...

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John Dunn, 4 April 1991

‘On ne peut point régner innocemment. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die.’ Saint-Just’s maiden speech to the Convention on 13 November 1792...

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Missed Opportunities

Judith Shklar, 4 August 1983

Rousseau has been loved and hated, but has never been ignored. His name rings in our ears because he expressed every form of human resentment with such intensity and intelligence that his endless...

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