Cobb, Richard (1917– )

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Cobb, Richard (1917– )

Cobb, Richard (1917– ), British historian. Richard Cobb has built a reputation for himself as one of the leading British historians of the French Revolution, but he has made his niche by writing his history from the viewpoint of the common person.

Fascinated by French culture since he was sent to France at the age of eighteen to study the language, Cobb has spent much time in his adopted second country, writing his first historical works in French. One of them, a two-volume work first published in the early 1960s, was translated in 1987 by Marianne Elliott as The People's Armies. The title refers to the volunteer forces used in 1793 during the French Revolution to enforce the will of the Republic's government among the general population. Their duties included taking grain from the peasants for the use of the military, harassing counterrevolutionaries, and robbing and vandalizing churches.

Cobb's 1969 effort, A Second Identity, combines previously published book reviews with an introductory explanation of how his love for France has etched itself deeply into his personality.

Cobb exhibits his preference for the history of the lower classes in one of his more unusual volumes, the 1978 Death in Paris. The book examines the records of the Basse-Geole de la Seine, the precursor of the Paris morgue, concerning sudden or violent deaths during the French Revolution between 1795 and 1801. Of the 404 cases listed for those years, almost all were poor and most were suicides, the majority of which drowned themselves in the river Seine. There were only nine murder victims. From the detailed records of personal effects found on the bodies—often suicides wore every piece of clothing they owned when they did away with themselves, even if it meant wearing several pairs of pants or many skirts in the heat of summer—Cobb pieces together what kind of lives these people might have led.

In 1980 Cobb produced two books, Promenades: A Historian's Appreciation of Modern French Literature and The Streets of Paris. Both are guided tours of a sort; in Promenades Cobb shows his readers around various French regions, including Burgundy, Lyons, Marseilles, and Paris, through the eyes of French authors such as Henri Beraud, Marcel Pagnol, and—Cobb's favorite—Raymond Queneau. The Streets of Paris, with photographs by Nicholas Breach, however, focuses on just one city, specifically the less prominent features of that city—a vanishing Paris.

French and Germans, Germans and French compares two periods when German soldiers occupied France: World War I and World War II. Cobb takes into account regional differences during the second occupation by examining Paris and northern France in the area of Lille near the Belgian border, both directly administered by Hitler's Third Reich, and the puppet government of Vichy in southern France.

Though usually interspersing incidents from his own life with history in his work, Cobb turned to more straightforward autobiography in his Still Life: Sketches From a Tunbridge Wells Childhood. Published in 1983, Still Life presents a picture of the neighborhood Cobb lived in as a child. In its pages the reader meets personages such as R. Septimus Gardiner, a taxidermist with a shop full of stuffed squirrels, fish, hummingbirds, and badgers; Dr. Footner, who made housecalls on Cobb's mother in a carriage; and the Limbury-Buses—the mother never went outdoors, the son never spoke, and the whole family followed precisely the same routine each day. Overall it is a quiet, unchangeable Tunbridge Wells that Cobb records, though he recounts his youthful fears about the flats his family lived in.

People and Places, which explores some of the various locales Cobb has lived in, and A Classical Education, in which Cobb recounts his teenage friendship with a youth who murdered his own mother, both saw publication in 1985. A collection of articles and reviews, People and Places ranges in its observations from Aberystwyth, Wales, where Cobb was a lecturer in history during the 1950s, to Oxford, and to Parisian department stores.

Cobb's third autobiographical venture appeared in 1988 as Something to Hold Onto. In the book Cobb conveys his childhood relationships with relatives. Recreating life with his grandparents—as well as with such characters as Daisy, whose room was piled with thousands of copies of the Daily Mail, and his Uncle Primus, whose only occupation was to wind the clocks, bang the gong for meals, and take two walks each day—Cobb focuses on life's rituals and routines, somehow important and enjoyable in their pure banality.