Richard Cobb

British historian

Richard Charles Cobb CBE (20 May 1917 – 15 January 1996) was a British historian and essayist, and professor at the University of Oxford. He was the author of numerous influential works about the history of France, particularly the French Revolution. Cobb meticulously researched the Revolutionary era from a ground-level view sometimes described as "history from below".

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  • One should at least be grateful to Mr Crossman for having reminded us that what socialism is about is coercion.
    • Letter to The Times (30 April 1973), p. 15
  • Napoleon was a tyrant quite as abominable as Hitler; and the fact that he did not kill quite so many people is due merely to purely technical deficiencies. Even so, by early nineteenth century standards, he reached an unprecedented score.
    It is insulting to the brave Russian peasants, to the brave British and Allied soldiers, who died for the freedom of their countries, to suggest that they were on the wrong side, were deluded and failed to appreciate the merits of French liberty.
    • Letter to The Times (23 June 1973), p. 13
  • But my own greatest debt to the Duke was the discovery of Namier. Now here was a level of history the existence of which I had never previously suspected. I was absolutely enthralled by his use of the minutiae of personal case histories, and it seemed to me that he was a historian who was writing about real people, about human beings and not just about Heroes, great principles, ideas, and that sort of thing. I was delighted above all in his portrayal of the great Duke of Newcastle, for me the very quintessence of the anti-hero, a personage of delightfully unglorious proportions.
    • A Sense of Place (1975), p. 43
  • One is constantly amazed at the arrogant effrontery and insensitivity of intellectuals. What right has Bernard Levin to sit in judgment on the opinion of ordinary and decent people? How do Lord Longford and he know, what most people will doubt, that Myra Hindley, a woman of low and calculating cunning, as well as of consummate evil, is genuinely repentant? We do not believe it. What is there "hysterical" about hatred for utter and calculated cruelty? And is there to be no compassion for the parents of children loved and cherished, the victims of these two fiends? A minimum of modesty might have induced this self-appointed pontificator of morality to have spared us his attentions in this season of good will and family love.
    • Letter to The Times signed jointly with his wife (5 January 1978), p. 13
  • Dr Wober's letter is a timely reminder of the skill employed by members of the French Communist Party in "colonizing" institutions from within. Some measure of their patient ability in this respect may be gathered from the manner in which they penetrated research organizations and institutions of higher learning during the previous régime, at a time when they had no friends in high official posts.
    Now, with ministers in crucial areas of the bureaucracy, we may expect to see them extending their permanent influence and patronage, this time from above.
    One must cling to what crumbs of comfort that remain: after 1947, the ministries that had been in Communist control for the previous three years were effectively purged. But such a purge would be much more difficult a second time.
    • Letter to The Times (2 July 1981), p. 13
  • The book reminds us that 1789, far from being a year of hope and unity, was one already of intense disunity, and already produced features of the revolutionary years both in Paris and in the provinces: wild murders, lynchings, and decapitated heads placed on pikes.
    • 'Always bloody', The Times (25 May 1989), p. 21
    • A review of Simon Schama's Citizens

Quotes about Richard Cobb edit

  • Richard Cobb was an open opponent of the methods of the Annalists. If Theodore Zeldin analysed France in their fashion, Cobb regarded sociology as "a detestable and deplorable subject that will destroy any historian who gets involved with it". Sceptical of quantification, uninterested in the rise or fall of the gentry, Cobb thought history was about the individual lives of people. His book on the revolutionary armies and his accounts of the sans-culottes, bandits and suicides made him the best-known historian of revolutionary France at a time when the methods of the Annalists had so depersonalized history that French schoolboys could no longer distinguish between an herbertist and an indulgent or between 9 Thermidor (the fall of Robespierre) and 16 Thermidor (the vote to make Napoleon first consul for life). For Cobb history was about the odd ways in which people lived or the places where they died.
    • Noel Annan, Our Age: The Generation That Made Post-War Britain (1990; 1991), p. 369
  • Too many historical blockbusters are much admired but little read. This one really does deserve to be in the hands – not just on the shelf – of everyone who cares about history as a stimulating, entertaining, living evocation of the past.
    • Tim Blanning, 'The grass roots of Terror', The Times (22 October 1987), p. 20
    • A review of The People's Armies
  • Richard Cobb, eschewing sociology, has brilliantly recaptured the tangled human reactions, immediate reactions, of Frenchmen to the French Revolution.
    • Asa Briggs, 'International cultural network exists but is not fully effective', The Times (2 January 1973), p. 28
  • Mr. Cobb's book is one of the most important contributions to our knowledge of the French Revolution to have appeared since the war. The researches of almost twenty years have taken him on an extraordinary tour of national and provincial archives. Apart from the brief polemic by Hadengue, virtually nothing had previously been written on his subject and Mr. Cobb was exploring new territory from the start. Although no history can be definitive, it is difficult to imagine any subsequent historian going over the same ground again.
    • Norman Hampson, review of Les Armées Révolutionnaires. Instrument de la Terreur dans les Départements, avril 1793-floréal an II in The English Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 315 (April 1965), p. 363
  • No student of the Revolution can hope to understand the Terror without reading this book.
    • Norman Hampson, review of Les Armées Révolutionnaires. Instrument de la Terreur dans les Départements, avril 1793-floréal an II in The English Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 315 (April 1965), p. 364
  • Instead of systems and abstractions, this latter-day Diable Boîteux lifts the thatch off the cottage, peeps through the dirty windows of the septième étage and shows us not merely what happened, but what it felt like to be a sans-culotte. This calls, not merely for great erudition, but for imaginative writing of a high order, and the reader is disappointed in neither. Mr. Cobb's style, always picturesque and concrete, is at its best when he lingers with affectionate irony over the people who appeal to him so much.
    • Norman Hampson, review of Les Armées Révolutionnaires. Instrument de la Terreur dans les Départements, avril 1793-floréal an II in The English Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 315 (April 1965), p. 364
  • One has come to expect from Mr. Cobb's work a combination of erudition, verve, originality and eminent readability and those who approach this volume with these expectations will be in no way disappointed... The result is a work teeming in humanity and with the infinite variety of a Breughel canvas.
    • Olwen Hufton, review of The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1789–1820 in The English Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 341 (October 1971), pp. 802-803
  • The 1970s saw Richard at the peak of his powers and influence. Books now appeared with indecent regularity – Reactions to the French Revolution in 1972, Paris and its Provinces in 1975, Tour de France and A Sense of Place, both in the following year. The first two works continued to reveal that unique, narrative style, always laced with a malicious sense of humour. But what makes them unique is the intimate knowledge of the France he was writing about. Richard's history was experiential, complicit, compassionate, at least for life's victims; it was certainly not 'objective'.
    • Gwynne Lewis, 'Richard Cobb, 1917–1996', History Workshop Journal, No. 42 (Autumn 1996), p. 245
  • It could be argued of course, quite persuasively in fact, that Richard Cobb had to get out of history and its particular ideological corsets in order to realise his distinctive literary talents. He carried with him, however, that experiential, inquisitorial, almost psychological approach that characterises the best of his history writing. He was superb at conjuring up images of his past, of uncles and aunts, and the eccentric characters which inhabited his very English version of 'Fern Hill'.
    • Gwynne Lewis, 'Richard Cobb, 1917–1996', History Workshop Journal, No. 42 (Autumn 1996), p. 247
  • He has got to the roots of things, to find out what ordinary people thought, what actually happened, and what life was like for the French people affected by great events.
    • Harold Macmillan, speech at the presentation of the Wolfson literary award to Cobb for Death in Paris (29 November 1979), quoted in Philip Howard, 'Historical Macmillan compliments for winners', The Times (30 November 1979), p. 16
  • Richard Cobb's new book is a valuable and highly original addition to the growing volume of studies now being devoted to the French Revolution as seen 'from below'. No other writer in the field has so extensive a knowledge of the sources, Parisian and provincial, none has the same degree of wide-ranging erudition; moreover, the book is presented in the highly personal style with which Cobb's readers have become familiar: pugnacious, witty, irascible, irreverent, tendentious, impressionistic, and shot through with occasional passages of arresting brilliance. The familiar bêtes noires are here again: sociology, economic historians, 'scientific' history, Robespierre ('the Pope of the Supreme Being'); and a new and greater villian is added to round off the list: Napoleon, whose Empire is described 'France's most appalling régime'. In short, the reader, even though his hackles occasionally rise, will never be bored and is most likely to be both entertained and instructed.
    • George Rudé, review of The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1789–1820 in History, Vol. 56, No. 186 (February 1971), p. 114
  • Even now the [French] Revolution is often considered in its own self-image: as a single vast occurrence, a transformation in the order of things, whose effects were felt throughout society, and whose causality lies deeper than the will of individual men. There are historians who protest against that monolithic conception—Richard Cobb, for example, who unceasingly reminds us all of the waywardness, indifference, and mute attentisme of the provinces during the Revolutionary years.
    • Roger Scruton, 'Man's Second Disobedience: a Vindication of Burke', in Ceri Crossley and Ian Small (eds.), The French Revolution and British Culture (1989), p. 187
  • A British historian and deeply sympathetic observer of France gives a superb account of the human condition of occupier and occupied, primarily during World War II. He fastens on the gradations of differences among regions, classes, types of people. A wise and evocative book, "a private chronicle of war and occupation," perhaps a trifle too kind, too understanding of both parties. Cobb rejoices in every moment of privacy, of sexual escape, in anything that defies coercion and "the iron demands of the military collectivity."
    • Fritz Stern, review of French and Germans, Germans and French in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 61, No. 5 (Summer 1983), p. 1203
  • He knew the French Revolution inside out, was an outstanding teacher, and wrote some of the finest English historical prose of this century.
    • Norman Stone, 'A French historian at Oxford', The Times (18 January 1996), p. 18
  • In visual imagination, caustic caption, uncensorious appropriation of the human, breadth of sympathy, occasional excess and unfailing rationality, these essays are the captichos of Richard Cobb. He is the Goya of our craft. No social historian could want more.
  • Richard Cobb has long since proved himself incapable of writing history that is either orthodox or dull. Whether his subject is the French Revolution or the twentieth-century scene, his work bears the stamp of an idiosyncratic spirit; he is always present, an erudite and ironic tour guide, inviting us to poke into nooks and crannies of the past and evoking the shades of people and events from his own experience.
    • Gordon Wright, review of French and Germans, Germans and French in The American Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 1 (February 1984), pp. 140-141

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