There are few eras in history as contested as the French Revolution. Not only are its causes disputed, but its goals, achievements, and legacy remain bitterly divisive amongst historians. With leading revolutionaries considered heroes to some and monsters to others, acquiring the best books on the revolutionary era is critically important. The below list of the best books on the French Revolution is required reading for all who seek a balanced and informed view of the major historical event. All of these book recommendations are non-fiction.
Best Classic Books on the French Revolution
Citizens by Simon Schama
For decades Simon Schama’s “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution” has remained one of the preeminent history books on the French Revolution. Covering in-depth the events leading up to the outbreak of the revolution, this large and impressive work is not for the faint-hearted. Excellent at painting a vivid picture of revolutionary Paris and the court of Versailles, the book has no shortage of fans who exclaim it as the best book on the french revolution. In particular, this New York Times best-seller offers a fresh perspective on the Old Regime, offering a unique and more nuanced view of the government and institutions which the revolution replaced. However, at 800+ pages, Citizens can be a daunting read, especially for those only familiarising themselves with the revolution.
No book is without its critics, and although Citizens is regularly cited as one of the best books on the French Revolution there are several notable flaws. Schama does not specialize in the revolutionary era, and his research methods have been questioned by some who criticize his lack of footnotes and a detailed bibliography. Furthermore, the book focuses extensively on the events leading up to the revolution (40% of the book is dedicated to events prior to the fall of the Bastille), resulting in some criticism that it fails to adequately cover the revolutionary period from 1789-1794. Finally, Scaham is accused by some of harboring a conservative bias against leading revolutionaries and ‘the mob’ which supported them. However, Schama’s revisionist style is well-articulated and draws on the approaches of many like-minded historians. Schama’s revisionist perspective cannot be ignored if one seeks to acquire a complete view of the many perspectives on the French Revolution.
Pros: Often considered the modern classic, Schama tells a vivid and enthralling story that captivates his readers in this epic 800+ page tome. Of particular note is the fresh perspective Schama offers on the Old Regime, rejecting opinions that France was saddled by a lethargic government hostile to all forms of change.
Cons: Given the length of Citizen’s, you may be better off starting with a shorter book if you’re only familiarising yourself with the French Revolution. Furthermore, much of the book focuses on the downfall of the Old Regime, resulting in less material on the actual revolutionary era itself.
The French Revolution by George Lefebvre
“The French Revolution: From its origins to 1793” is a fantastic book written by the acclaimed French historian George Lefebvre. Known for his groundbreaking work on the peasantry during the revolution, Lefebvre is an expert in the field and his work reflects his experience and skill. “The French Revolution” focuses on the events up to and including the Fall of the Monarchy and the initial invasion of France in 1792. Hailing from the Marxist school of historiography, Lefebrve offers a unique take on the problems which bedeviled the Old Regime, the National Assembly, and the Legislative Assembly. Don’t let the label “Marxist” throw you off. Lefebvre’s professionalism and expertise provide a relatively balanced although class-heavy view of the revolution. Succeeding in incorporating the events in France into the wider geopolitical affairs in Europe, Lefebrve’s short work is not to be missed.
Pros: Written by a pioneering historian of the French Revolution, this book offers a succinct summary of the revolutionary era up until 1793. Presenting a more sympathetic view of the revolutionaries and the people than others, no balanced library is complete without it.
Cons: At times the book’s age is apparent, as is a general lack of a captivating story. Lefebvre’s work is no page-turner, but its excellent approach and succinct style make it one of the best short books on the French Revolution nonetheless.
Best Recent Books on the French Revolution
Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee
Written by the respected Historian Peter McPhee, “Liberty or Death: The French Revolution” offers a fantastic and thorough account of the revolutionary era. Critically, McPhee superbly covers the events outside of Paris, both in the provinces and abroad, in order to offer a more holistic view of the revolution. Providing a more sympathetic take to the actions of the revolutionaries, no library is complete without this notable work.
Criticisms of the book center on its comprehensive details. At times, the exceptionally well-researched book can be heavy on the statistics and minor details, catering to historians rather than casual history enthusiasts. In prizing impartiality and academic rigor, the book lacks the flair, drama, and engagement that other works inspire. Despite the details, the book remains comprehensive and accessible, earning praise from many.
Pros: Accessible to all audiences, “Liberty or Death” is thoroughly researched by a specialist in the field. McPhee offers great coverage of the events outside of Paris, a rarity amongst many books on the French Revolution.
Cons: Valuing its academic professionalism, the book at times lacks ‘page-turner’ qualities as it successfully paints a vivid world using statistics and minor details.
A New World Begins by Jeremy D. Popkin
A fresh and modern account of the revolution, Popkin offers his readers a comprehensive story traversing the entire revolutionary era. Examining the critical events and commanding characters of the revolution, Popkin’s work offers readers a lengthy narrative in which to immerse themselves. Seeking to leave no stone untouched, this considerable book manages to touch on almost all major topics of the revolution without sacrificing its depth.
Pros: A recent and comprehensive account of the revolution, ‘A New World Begins’ is one of the best books available for those who have read all the classics on the revolutionary era.
Cons: Although well-researched, the book can at times lose momentum, lacking the emotional pull of other works. In seeking to cover so much (without being a huge tome), the book might require prior knowledge of the revolution to produce maximum enjoyment.
Best Short Books on the French Revolution
The French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert
One of the best introductory books to the French Revolution, Hibbert’s novel-like work is perfect for a short read on the revolutionary era. Although not written by a historian who specializes in the field, Hibbert’s work is nevertheless well-researched and offers a fantastic story of the revolutionary era. Adopting a traditional approach to viewing the revolutionary events, “The French Revolution” won’t please everyone, but at less than 400 pages, something inevitably is lost in the compression. Hibbert’s work remains one of the most recommended books for those looking to die their toes into the revolutionary era, with few books doing such a good job at straddling the fine line between approachability and historical professionalism.
Pros: One of the best short books on the French Revolution, this short and concise book is approachable and accessible for everyone.
Cons: People already familiar with the revolution may not find much new in this short read, although they may still enjoy the novel-like story nonetheless.
Best Specialist Books on the French Revolution
The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett
If you want to understand the Reign of Terror, you need to read Timothy Tackett’s “The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution”. Designed for those already familiar with the key pillars of the revolution, this groundbreaking work offers a unique perspective as to how rumor, suspicion, and factionalism changed the character and course of the revolutionary project. Not recommended as one’s first book on the revolution, “The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution” should be compulsory reading for all who wish to truly understand the most controversial component of the French Revolution.
Pros: Exceptionally well-written, Tackett offers his reader a fresh and unique understanding of why the Terror became a core component of the revolutionary project. Unmissable for any who seeks to understand why the Terror arose from a revolution initially focused on liberty.
Cons: Not recommended for those unfamiliar with the key components of the French Revolution. A fantastic book to be read once familiar with the revolution’s core events.
Twelve Who Ruled by Robert Palmer
The events of 1793 and 1794 cannot be discussed without one thing: The Committee of Public Safety. Eventually becoming the government of the revolutionary era, all of the Convention-era’s key policies were impacted by the work of the twelve who ruled. Subtitled “The Year of Terror in the French Revolution”, Palmer’s work offers a unique perspective and a fresh take on the role of leading Jacobins in the revolutionary government, and what deeds can and cannot be reasonably attributed to the most famous revolutionary, Maximilien Robespierre. Despite covering the events of only one year, Palmer provides a fantastic insight into life both in Paris and the departments as he details the tremendous work of men stationed across the country.
Pros: Thoroughly well-researched, Palmer does an excellent job of creating an engaging read while maintaining all the minor details. No study of the Committee of Public Safety is possible without reading this acclaimed work.
Cons: As Palmer focuses on the Committee of Public Safety, his work naturally focuses on the narrow time period of 1793-1794. As a result, ‘Twelve Who Ruled’ is not recommended as the first book for those new to the French Revolution.m
Revolutionary Ideas by Jonathan Israel
“Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre” is a must-have for all who are fascinated by the power of ideas. This large epic on the revolution focuses on the Enlightenment, and Israel does a superb job at exploring the movement’s ideas and values as it relates to revolutionary France. Historians have long debated the impact of the Enlightenment on the revolution’s outbreak and development, and Israel, an expert in the Enlightenment, offers a fresh take that places the movement at the heart of the revolution’s character. The book is a must-read for those seeking to understand how the Enlightenment impacted the French Revolution, with this specialist approach making it one of the best books on the revolutionary era.
Pros: A thorough examination of the revolution while elevating the Enlightenment to a central position. Despite its focus on ideology and ideas, the book remains accessible to all.
Cons: At times it is apparent that Historian Israel specializes in the Enlightenment, not the French Revolution. Furthermore, Israel’s retelling can be perceived as overly critical of Robespierre and leading Jacobins.
Best Robespierre Books
Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life by Peter McPhee
The most controversial and elusive figure of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre is a historical enigma. Some consider him to be a tyrant, a forerunner for modern dictators of the 20th century. Others consider him a misunderstood hero, a champion of the people, and a scapegoat inappropriately blamed for the crimes of others.
“Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life” is a fantastic bibliography on Robespierre which provides a fresh perspective on the revolution’s most divisive figure. Historian Peter McPhee, who specializes in the French Revolution, dives into Robespierre’s formative years in order to provide a rich portrait of the man. Using this background, the book explores Robespierre’s influential moments in the revolution, as well as his less-known personal life. Examining the great conflicts and challenges which Robespierre faced, McPhee presents a human rather than a myth, a flawed revolutionary rather than a simplified legend. In short, McPhee explores Robespierre’s successes, failures, and shortcomings while addressing the criticisms long associated with his controversial actions.
Pros: Detailed, balanced, and professional in all senses, McPhee offers a compelling portrait of one of the revolution’s most controversial figures.
Cons: No page-turner, the book occasionally makes for dry reading. Readers need to be familiar with revolutionary events in order to get the most value out of this compelling biography.