William Doyle

William Doyle is the author of The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, among other books. He teaches at the University of Bristol.

Revolutionary Yoke: Le Nationalisme

William Doyle, 27 June 2002

Recording the moment Samuel Johnson startled his friends in 1775 by declaring patriotism to be the ‘last refuge of a scoundrel’, Boswell felt that the definition needed to be glossed. Johnson ‘did not mean’, he assured readers, ‘a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for...

Feuds and Law and Order

William Doyle, 14 September 1989

Ever since the 18th century it has been universally accepted that one of the main foundations of a civilised society is the rule of law. The Enlightenment taught that Nature itself worked by clear and invariable laws, and saw no reason why human society should not do the same. Much that was wrong with existing institutions could be explained in these terms, and when the French Revolutionaries set out to build a new order from its foundations, they proclaimed the rule of law as the most basic of all their guiding principles. All the nationalists of the 19th century who sought to build new states of their own did the same. It underlined the legitimacy and respectability of their aspirations.


William Doyle, 19 May 1988

The very title of one of these two massive works represents a minor act of courage, and, I suspect, authorial obstinacy in the face of editorial conservatism. It is high time that English-speaking authors began to call Maria Theresia by the name she was given at the font. Only a decade ago, Oxford University Press refused to allow authors to do so; and Cambridge, apparently, still does if we are to judge from Professor Beales’s subtitle. I cannot believe him conservative enough to prefer Maria Theresa if left a free hand, for he is no less bold a scholar than Dr Dickson. Both authors came new to Habsburg history, that most labyrinthine of subjects, with reputations already made in other fields. Both have spent many years mastering secondary literature in a wide range of languages, and in sampling archives all over Europe and even America. These years of patient, careful and imaginative scholarship have now borne fruit, happily enough in the same year, in books which make a fundamental reappraisal of the reign of the Queen-Empress and her tempestuous son. It is appropriate that new perspectives should extend to the name she bore.

What is progress?

William Doyle, 6 March 1986

I never knew E.H. Carr. I never heard him lecture, even on the radio. But I once saw him in Cambridge, and that was memorable enough. The History of Soviet Russia, begun when he was in his fifties and finished in his eighties, would have been enough to make him a legend, and no doubt he would regard it as his monument. But those 14 forbidding volumes, whatever the importance of their subject, seem destined always to be more talked about than read. Like some Titan rocket, they will probably be remembered in the history of historiography for boosting into orbit a disproportionately tiny payload. But it is the payload that matters, and I suspect that already Carr’s name is chiefly known among students of history for the shortest book he ever wrote. What is history? made its controversial appearance in 1961. I was an undergraduate, and I remember how we all bought and devoured it. The extraordinary thing is that students have continued to do so ever since. It is a remarkable achievement for a book written at an age when academics have normally retired. In the late Sixties elderly prophets sometimes did appeal to the young. One thinks of Marcuse, whom Carr befriended. But his vogue passed, while Carr’s has not. His reflections on the nature of history are as much in demand as ever, as this new edition testifies.

Prussian Officers

William Doyle, 23 January 1986

Can the history of Prussia really be as dreary and barren as most of the books make it sound? Only German specialists can say, but little that they choose to tell us in English suggests that German scholarship is unearthing a new and unfamiliar Prussia bursting with unsuspected colour and vitality. The history of France or our own country has been transformed since the war by the researches of social, economic and cultural historians; and even though the dividends of this work are perhaps now diminishing, and historians returning to more traditional questions, the look of French or British history will never be the same again. During all this time it would appear, however, that the look of Prussian history has scarcely altered. Those who study it seem obsessed, as they always have been, with battles and bureaucracy.

Robespierre thought that, if you could imagine a better society, you could create it. He needed a corps of moral giants at his back, but found himself leading a gang of squabbling moral pygmies. This is...

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Alan Ryan, 9 November 1989

Whatever else the French Revolution was it was certainly a literary event. Indeed, it was a literary event in a good many different, though related ways. As Robert Darnton has emphasised, it was...

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Last Farewells

Linda Colley, 22 June 1989

On display at the British Museum at present is one of the most brilliant propaganda campaigns ever launched. Something very different from the glossy philistinism of Saatchi and Saatchi...

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Downward Mobility

Linda Colley, 4 May 1989

We live in reactionary times. One indication of this is the growing trend among both politicians and academics to prescribe what historical study should be: how it should be organised and...

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Cobban’s Vindication

Olwen Hufton, 20 August 1981

Few historians have had their judgments as little challenged as Alexis de Tocqueville. When he pronounced that the French Revolution had its origins in the very society which it was destined to...

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