Approaches to politics in the ancien régime
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Understanding the nature of the state and politics requires a detailed analysis of the socio-political system. This should be based not principally on theoretical perspectives but on a new and wide-ranging history of politics that encompasses the mentalities of the elite.1 For well over a century, from at least 1850 onwards, an orthodox view of the political system of the ancien régime held sway.2 As historians were in broad agreement on the interpretation, they began to concentrate unduly on the minutiae of diplomacy and the arcane details of institutional structures. Challenges to this orthodox view were further delayed by the virtual abandonment of the history of politics and of the state by many of France’s finest historians after the Second World War. For nearly thirty years politics was neglected by scholars of ancien régime France. Under the influence of the Annales school, many preferred to leave aside traditional narrative history to concentrate on social, economic and mental structures, and seldom followed Marc Bloch’s lead in studying the elites.3 Political history was left to the institutional historians because it was ‘histoire événementielle’—the history of mere events-and could not be investigated statistically. There was a short-term loss, but in the long run the new kinds of history have brought benefits even to political history. They have enhanced our understanding and widened our horizons. In particular, the better understanding of social mores and cultural attitudes can now be integrated with traditional approaches to provide a more subtle history of the state. More recently, historians have turned to the social sciences and to critical theory for analytical tools that can help them to avoid anachronism and more accurately reflect the experience of times gone by. It is now possible to return to the study of politics armed with a deeper understanding of the period and a new repertoire of interpretative schemata.