Many of the characteristics attributed promiscuously to eighteenthcentury historiography become more persuasive when directed at a special form of it: that inspired by the renaissance (primarily French) of ideas and cultural ambitions which modernity has come to call the ‘Enlightenment’. This intellectual environment (at its most intense between, say, 1750 and 1790) gave rise to historical enquiry of a marked character and one by no means shared by other countries in other decades. It promoted a singular sense of the present as a moment of exceptional importance and weight in the history of the world. The philosophes of Paris seemed transparently pleased to be living in the eighteenth century and to have transcended the Greek and Roman cultures by which their contemporaries elsewhere still appeared obsessed. ‘European elites had lived since the Renaissance with a culture borrowed from antiquity,’ writes François Furet,

a period whose artists and authors represented unsurpassable models and whose literary genres constituted the authoritative canons of beauty and truth. Now Europe was raising the question of its cultural autonomy: the academic quarrel between ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns’ in France at the end of Louis XIV’s reign ultimately centred on the notion that classical culture was not a past but a present.