Professor François Crouzet: Celebrated anglophile French historian of Britain

Thursday 10 June 2010 00:00
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Professor François Crouzet was the greatest French historian of Britain of his generation, and he will probably be the last. In the introduction to one of his books he quoted his characterisation by an American historian as "a French francophobe anglophile", and he did not demure. He was certainly an anglophile, but he was by no means a francophobe. He loved France, and he loved Britain. He loved speaking perfect and precise English with a very strong French accent.

It does not fall often to a Frenchman to produce a successful textbook on British history, but Crouzet achieved this with his The Victorian Economy (1982). His long introduction to the book he edited on Capital Formation in the Industrial Revolution (1972) has stood several generations of students of economic history in very good stead. His The First Industrialists (1985), developed from the Ellen McArthur lectures that he gave in Cambridge in 1983, is full of insight as well as information.

François Crouzet left school just before the war broke out in 1939, and he spent the war as a student in Paris. His father was a teacher of history and an Inspector of Schools. The summer before he entered the élite Ecole Normale Supérieur in the dark days of 1941, he discovered economic history by reading his father's copies of Annales, the great journal begun by Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre in 1929 which revolutionised the French approach to economic and social history.

He was not, however, seduced by la nouvelle histoire. After a foray into medieval history for his master's degree under Jean Meuvret, Crouzet struck out for British empiricism. After the end of the war he was awarded a fellowship to undertake research into British history, and he found British economic history – combining, as it did, gentle theory with sensible quantification and a careful regard for facts – much to his taste. He found himself happily in the tradition of J H Clapham and T S Ashton. Not for him the self-important "Parisian gurus" (his own phrase).

Indeed, he found himself sitting at the feet of Ashton, since he had been attached to the London School of Economics, whence Ashton had just moved from Manchester to be Professor of Economic History. Crouzet spent many happy days in the post-war years dividing his time between the Public Record Office and the Institute of Historical Research, with a cup of tea and the odd visit to the LSE in between. Without losing interest in the French Revolution, he was now immersed in the Industrial Revolution.

When I once asked him flippantly whether he needed food parcels sent from France to sustain him in post-war London, he pointed out that I had quite misunderstood the situation. Coming to London with its efficient system of rationing and price control in restaurants meant that he could be well-fed after years of near-starvation in Paris, with its domineering black market and corruption. He added that the situation, however, changed after 1948.

During his London years he married Françoise, grand-daughter of Emile Levasseur, the first professor of economic history at the Sorbonne, from 1919. They quickly became and remained a devoted couple. Together they extended his researches into the provinces – Manchester (McConnell and Kennedy papers), Birmingham (Boulton and Watt), Aberystwyth (south Wales ironmasters), and elsewhere.

In 1949 he returned to Paris as an assistant in the faculté des lettres. Between 1956 and 1969 he served as a professor successively at Bordeaux, Lille and Nanterre, before returning to the Sorbonne as Professor of the History of Northern Europe. He took this to mean Britain; he held this chair with distinction until his retirement in 1992. His course on "Britain from Churchill to Thatcher" was remarkably popular.

His first great work was his doctorate on the economic impact of the Napoleonic blockade of Britain in the early 19th century, published in two large volumes in 1958. There followed a steady flow of major publications dealing not just with the history of Britain; he also wrote about French history and about comparative global history. Many of his most important and thought-provoking articles are collected in his Britain Ascendant: Comparative Studies in Franco-British Economic History (1990). The title of the French edition was more provocative: De la Superiorité de l'Angleterre sur la France (1985).

He held visiting appointments at Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Geneva and Leuven, as well as at Cambridge and Oxford, where he was a Visiting Fellow of All Souls. He became very well-known at conferences in Britain and throughout the world. In 1993 he gave the Neale lecture at University College London on a topic of comparative international finance; his inability to pronounce Rothschild in anything like the English manner meant that many students had no idea what he was talking about.

He received honorary doctorates from Birmingham, Kent, Edinburgh and Leicester, an honorary CBE and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. He particularly despised French caricatures of the English, and vice versa. He worked consistently for Anglo-French understanding, with considerable personal success.

A man of great charm, he always lived in Paris, where he and Françoise entertained with style and elegance, as well as bringing up their devoted family (who are now on the way to forming an historical dynasty). For some years they also had a gîte in Kent.

Negley Harte

François Marie-Joseph Crouzet, economic historian: born Monts-sur-Guesnes, Vienne 20 October 1922; research fellowship in England 1945-49; assistant in the faculté des lettres in Paris 1949-55; professor at Bordeaux 1956-58, at Lille 1958-64, at Nanterre 1964-69; Professor of the History of Northern Europe at the Sorbonne 1969-92; Emeritus Professor 1992; Honorary CBE; married 1947 Françoise Dabert-Hauser (one daughter, two sons); died Paris 19 March 2010.

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