The current issue of French Historical Studies (Fall 2004) has a number of articles dedicated to historian Daniel Roche. He is one of the greats of social history, employing quantitative studies of inventories and other odd documents in order to understand the rich Parisian tableau. One of his strengths was to abandon the typical social categories and discover complex social structures. While the life of “the people of Paris” may seem to be a depressing subject, Roche depicts the lower and middle classes as groups that were creative, able to respond to the rapid changes occurring in the eighteenth-century metropolis cosmopolis.

David Garrioch has a wonderful summary of Roche’s Paris (Project Muse subscription required): its history and its place within France. With regard to France and the Enlightenment:

Roche is not suggesting that Paris is more important, but rather that—for good or for ill—all the key transformations that represent for us the advent of modernity took place first in the urban environment and most precociously of all in the capital. It was there that we can first observe the widespread abandonment of traditional ways, the spread of literacy and of literate culture, the development of consumerism, and an increasingly secular way of life. These and other changes subsequently appear in provincial towns, and only later still do they affect the countryside.

Even before Paris became the city that took the best from the provinces and discarded the rest, it had the unique ability to represent the rest of the country. But without the social organism of other cities, individuals had to respond to the unfamiliar with novelty. Necessity of creativity fostered innovation. Roche’s Paris is a special place, but for its structure (drawing together people from throughout the nation) rather than something specific about Paris. Other cities of its type can play the same role, and perhaps that explains the creativity of Berlin in the early twentieth century.