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Top 10 Books: French Revolution


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 specialised works.

1. The Oxford History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

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. A worthwhile purchase.

2. Citizens by Simon Schama

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.

3. The French Revolutionary Wars by G. Fremont-Barnes

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.

4. The French Revolution 1789 - 1799 by Peter McPhee

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.

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5. The Origins of the French Revolution by William Doyle

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.

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6. The French Revolution Sourcebook edited by John Hardman

History is written largely from primary sources, and I encourage any interested reader 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.
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7. French Society in Revolution 1789 - 1799 by David Andress

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.
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8. The Terror in the French Revolution by Hugh Gough

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 specialised volume but, since the guillotine, a machine made famous by the Terror, still dominates the more morbid extremes of our culture, an insightful one.
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9. The French Revolution - The Essential Readings edited by Ronald Schechter

This book is a sound idea well realised, providing a compilation of ten of the most important, and influential, essays and articles on the French Revolution with introduction and context. Not for the beginner, but a perfect way to enter the world of historical debate.
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10. The French Revolution - Rethinking the debate by Gwynne Lewis

Focusing more on the differing interpretations of historians then providing a general history of the French Revolution, this is another more specialised volume, ideal for any reader who wishes to take their interest further.
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