Top Books: The French Revolution

painting of Storming of the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution
Storming of the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux. (Wikimedia Commons)

The French Revolution created turmoil across the whole of Europe, via a series of events which continue to captivate and inspire massive debate. As such, there is a vast range of literature on the topic, much of it involving specific methodologies and approaches. The following selection combines introductory and general histories with a few more specialized works.

By far the best single-volume history of the French Revolution (pick 1 stops too early), Doyle's book is suitable for all levels of interest. Although his sharp narrative may lack some of the flair and warmth of Schama, Doyle is engaging, precise and accurate, offering excellent insights into the material. This makes it a worthwhile purchase.

Subtitled "A Chronicle of the French Revolution", this beautifully written volume covers both the years leading up to, and the first period of, the French Revolution. The book may be large, and not for the casual reader, but it is continually fascinating and educational, with a true understanding of people and events: the past really does come to life. However, you might be better off with a shorter and more focused narrative first.

This small, vivid, volume provides an excellent overview of the French Revolutionary Wars via good text, illustration, and quotation. Although lacking in the military specifics, the book instead offers a firm insight into the overall historical importance of the wars, as well as the basic events and a framework for further reading.

This is a large, detailed and critically acclaimed volume by an expert on the Enlightenment, and it puts those ideas front and center. For some, this is a defense of the Enlightenment, for others returning those thinkers to central importance. More »

For some, Robespierre is the single most fascinating person from the French Revolution, and Scurr’s biography is a really good examination of his life and stark fall from grace. If you view Robespierre as just the murderous tyrant of the end, you should see what he was like before the mysterious change. More »

Written for early to medium level students, this volume provides introductory material on both the revolution and the historiography that has accompanied it. The book explains the main areas of debate, as well as the 'facts', and is highly affordable.

Focusing on the collapse of the 'ancien regime' (and therefore, the origins of the French Revolution) Doyle mixes explanation with a broad survey of the recent historiography, which has offered many differing interpretations. Whether used as a companion to Doyle's Oxford History (pick 2) or simply on its own, this is a very balanced work.

History is written largely from primary sources, and any interested reader may want to examine at least a few. This book is the perfect way to start, as it presents a selection of annotated works relating to key issues and people.

Written to balance what the author felt was an undue emphasis on political histories, this narrative examines the changing society of France during the final decade of the eighteenth century. Indeed 'change' is too limited a phrase for the social and cultural convulsions of the period, and Andress' book is a balanced examination.

Tackling one of the bloodiest periods in European history, the Terror, Gough examines how aspirations and ideologies of freedom and equality turned into violence and dictatorship. A more specialized volume but, since the guillotine, a machine made famous by the Terror, still dominates the more morbid extremes of our culture, an insightful one.

The Terror was when the French Revolution went terribly wrong, and in this book, Andress puts together a detailed study of it. You can’t learn about the opening years of the revolution without addressing what happened next, and this book will set you up to read some of the (often odd) theories elsewhere. More »

On this list you’ll find Doyle’s book on the origins of the revolution, but if you want to move onto the modern state of the historiography this collection of essays is perfect. Each tackles a range of different ‘causes’ and it isn’t all financial (although if there’s ever an event where reading up on the financials pays off…) More »