University of Reading cookie policy

We use cookies on to improve your experience, monitor site performance and tailor content to you.

Read our cookie policy to find out how to manage your cookie settings.

About the project

Fiscal Origins of the French Revolution: financial crises, public opinion and institutional change in early Modern Europe, 1688-1789

There is broad consensus among historians that it was a fiscal crisis that led to the collapse of the Old Regime, the spark that made the French Revolution of 1789 'doable' (W. Doyle) or 'possible' (R. Chartier).

Yet the only comprehensive monograph on the relationship between fiscal issues and the breakdown of the Bourbon monarchy is still Marcel Marion's Histoire financière de la France published in 1914. More than a century old, this synthesis, that draws upon nineteenth-century scholarship, is chronological and empirical in its approach, narrowly focused on high politics at Versailles and biased by the disputes of Marion's time. Yet it is still regularly cited by historians, and the need for a new fiscal interpretation of the rise and fall of the French monarchy is pressing.

Challenging key issues

A series of ground-breaking articles and monographs have brought to light substantial new material which fundamentally challenged the ways historians have addressed such key issues as

  • the relationship between taxation and privilege (Bien 1987, Bossenga 1991, Doyle 1996)
  • financiers and the development of the State (Bayard 1988, Dessert 1985, Yoon 2003)
  • war and credit (Riley 1986, Félix 1999, Legoff 1999, Béguin 2012)
  • financial institutions and economic efficiency (Weir 1989, Crouzet 1993, Legay 2012)
  • economic thought and institutional reforms (Kaplan 1984, 2001, Minard 1998)
  • provincial and local finance (Beik 1985, Collins 1994, Legay 2001, Swann 2003, Potter 2003, Dee 2009)

In addition, fiscal history has benefited from the introduction of econometric modelling (Hoffman 1996, Hoffman, Rosenthal & Postel-Vinay 2001, Velde & Weir 1992) and from use of the methods of cultural and intellectual history on the study of taxation (Kwass 2000), political economy (Shovlin 2006) and credit (Sonenscher 2007).

Fiscal impact

What is missing is a new synthesis that can draw together these disparate strands, and integrate the crucial dimension of fiscal history into the wider debate about the origins of the French Revolution.

What is also missing is a transnational agenda that can situate the French fiscal crisis in the wider European struggle for great power status, and ask to what extent the French experience, in contrast with the British model, can help identify another path from Old Regime to the Modern world.

With those objectives, the monograph will make a major contribution to our understanding of how fiscal issues impact on societies and ultimately threaten political stability.

Workshops and an international conference will complement the research project by bringing together fiscal experts to address themes common to all states and relevant to current discussions on the impact of financial crises on polities.


The research will result in the publication of a variety of academic outcomes:

  • One comprehensive and yet accessible monograph on the Fiscal Origins of the French Revolution (already contracted with OUP)
  • Two scholarly articles:
    1. article 1 will analyse the introduction of 'billets de monnaie' under Louis XIV (1701-1709) which was the first French fiat money experience and will link it with research about the international system of payments and monetary policy and France and in England during the War of the Spanish Succession
    2. article 2 will analyse the little known debates about public credit that took place in France in the two decades following the collapse of John Law's financial system (1720) and will examine what solutions were adopted under cardinal Fleury's ministry to provide the king with a system of credit and what were the long term consequences. The two articles will be submitted to the main international economic (The Journal of Economic History) and historical journals (Past & Present)
  • One chapter and the introduction of the proceedings of the conference on the development of fiscal transparency in early modern Europe; I have already mentioned this project to the editorial board of Histoire & Mesure, which publishes articles both in English and French, and of which I am a member
  • One chapter and the introduction of the conference on financial crises, public opinion and institutional change in Europe in the long 18th century. I will seek a publisher for the proceedings. Ashgate might be an appropriate venue
  • One article for History Today that will aim to reach a larger public and concentrate on the question of financial crises in early modern European history


Promotion and dissemination of the research will be achieved by:

  • Organising two international conferences with invited speakers specialised in the history or based at institutions in the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Italy. The two conferences will be held at the University of Reading, Henley Business School, and be part of the activities of the Centre for Economic History
  • Drawing on two existing European research networks - of which I am a member - on the history of public accounting and the relationship between the state and contractors in the long 18th century, of which I am a member
  • Issuing calls for papers to the two conferences
  • Subsidising post-graduate attendance to the conferences
  • Inviting speakers to the early-modern European History seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, of which I am a member
  • Planning and making a contribution to the series of public lectures on 'Financial crises of the past: what can we learn from these?' [provisional title] to be held at the University of Reading; I will explore possibilities to join the public lectures with major events in Reading (the Stenton lecture) or the Institute of Historical Research
  • Developing a website with the podcasts of the public lectures
  • Organising a virtual exhibition that will draw on the results of the first conference to publish in electronic format very rare and specific documents in relation to the development of fiscal transparency in early modern Europe
  • Contributing to the activities and relying on the infrastructure of the newly established Centre for Economic History, University of Reading