Boasts of the beefeaters

The English have been feeling superior to the French lately ÿ just like in the 18th century
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In the Chauvinist engraving The Roast Beef of Old England, a porter staggers before the gates of Calais carrying a huge side of meat, watched by a pair of starving French soldiers. As usual with Hogarth, the point is in the details. A fat friar gazes at the meat with gluttonous desire; the soldiers' only nourishment is a thin bowl of watery gruel; a posse of ill-favoured nuns do obeisance to a dead skate, while through the gate the Holy Spirit is represented on an inn sign.

Being an English Protestant meant eating well on beef and bread and ale, whereas being a French Catholic meant relegation to a diet of frogs' legs and sour wine. Henry Fielding joined the celebration of English food, which accounted for the triumphs of our warlike heroes against a puny foe who fed off stinking cheese. Before the bedding of Mrs Waters, Tom Jones consumes at least three pounds of beef. This is eating on a heroic scale.

TCW Blanning investigates the powers of ancien régime Europe from 1660 to 1789 by such delicatessen routes. We know the price of bread in the 1780s had a marked impact on the French Revolution. But what about the melodies of opera? Blanning begins his chapter on "The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution" with an investigation of the querelle des bouffons over the relative merits of French and Italian opera which raged during 1752-3. This involves going back to Lully in the 1670s, offering a detailed resumé of Rousseau's Le Devin du Village, analysing the assumption of French cultural hegemony, to bring us, after 20 pages, back to Rousseau's boast that he "probably prevented a revolution in France".

This is Blanning's method. He takes a subject – music is a favourite – and through investigating tiny episodes, attempts to trace the development of a cultural process. Until the end of the 18th century, he argues, music served one of three functions: "the representation of power, the propagation of Christianity, and the entertainment of aristocrats". Thereafter, it became merely "a commodity". His introduction, in which he makes these claims, relies rather heavily on the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, and Blanning himself seems more than a little awkward about them. He much prefers to urge "the great majority" of readers to push on to the more agreeable entertainment he has to offer at Versailles.

Indeed this book, unlike the majority by academics, seems positively to dislike theorising. Blanning is much happier passing on such memorable incidents as the ordinance passed by the French nobility in 1712, confining the pleasures of sleigh-riding to themselves; or Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who caused a sensation at a Spanish bullfight by severing a bull's head with a single stroke. He had, reputedly, 365 children (Augustus the Strong, not the bull), The Russian Count Kamensky kept a great whip hanging in the wings of his private opera house, to beat any of his serfs who failed to sing up with sufficient joie de vivre.

It matters little if Blanning's discussions of the machinations of the English governments of Bute, Greville, Rockingham, North and Pitt seems a little dated (I would guess by about 40 years); or if his treatment of George III's education is modernised by a footnote reference to a notorious Mars bar which, he acknowledges, comes from "the early 1960s". This is a book joyously unconcerned with modernity or theories, and the only "ism" to which it gives occasional notice is nationalism. There are no sans culottes worth mentioning, and in its 450 pages I only encountered two peasants, though whether or not they were starving is not stated.

The book's main preoccupation is music because, Blanning argues, it has suffered "relative neglect". So we are presented with a detailed breakdown of Haydn's salary for 1779 (when he ate 300 pounds of semolina); details for a Prussian opera house filled, when necessary, with soldiers to provide a cheap, if malodorous, form of central heating; and John Bull's solemn warning that "wherever Operas have been a constant Entertainment, they have been attended with Slavery".

In this pleasantly eclectic study there are no heavily argued theses, but serendipitous facts from far and wide. A page is devoted to quoting Shakespeare's Richard II (1595) to indicate a fear of "the enervating influence of foreign fashion"; elsewhere an interesting discussion presents the rise and popularity of concerts as "the cultural equivalent of the French Revolution". Diversity rules, particularly in his discussion of language.

French hegemony is apparently reached in 1714, when the Holy Roman Emperor signs an international treaty (Rastatt) written entirely in French. John Dennis (no shrinking violet) put the case for English in some heroic rhymes which trumpet that "there's no resisting an English Tar". The German case was rather different. Frederick the Great considered it a barbaric tongue. Leibnitz wrote in French to nobles, in Latin to scholars and in German, not quite to horses, but to his servants and relations. However, less than a century later, Herder argued passionately, in German, for "a single German fatherland".

Blanning picks and mixes his sources, some more original that others, but the general survey is agreeably varied. The unfortunate Lord North has for over two centuries borne the lamentable reputation as Britain's worst prime minister, allowing Manning to quip that his father used the comment, the worst prime minister since Lord North "without discrimination to each successive Labour prime minister".

This book, diverse and unexpected, is a richly serendipitous quest for the Old Regime. John Aylmer, examining the poor vegetarian diet – except for bacon lard – of the French countryman, let out a prayer which Hogarth, Fielding and many of us should applaud, thanking God "that thou wast born an English man" and not a Continental peasant.

David Nokes is professor of English at King's College, London.