The invention of national history in France (1789-1848)

The invention of national history in France (1789-1848)

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Historiography turns off many readers: isn't the history of history a history book intended primarily for historians? If we follow the textbooks, major currents or historians follow one another which has made it possible to advance “historical science” to become what it is today from a strongly teleological perspective. The invention of national history in France, 1789-1848 of David Gaussen published by Gaussen editions takes little interest in the major players in the discipline than in the context and the players who revolve around romantic historians such as Adolphe Thiers or Augustin Thierry to reach new conclusions on the development of the discipline in France contrary to certain ideas widely held in France.

Another way to write history

David Gaussen is both an editor and a historian. He was the editor of the journal Write History today published by editions of the CNRS and which had for subject the historiography and the epistemology of the discipline. But he is also the author of a thesis under the supervision of François Hartog (EHESS), a great specialist in historiography in France, defended in 2014 and entitled Making history in the romantic era. national history, new history (France, 1789-1848) from which the work is largely derived.

Under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, the great historians declared that one could no longer do history as before 1789. The author was therefore interested in the first chapter in the responses of contemporaries of the French Revolution. From the French Revolution, the actors have posed a major problem: the history of kings has been written but not that of the nation or the third estate. The reflection for the writing of this story but also on the usefulness and the ways of teaching it begins in the central schools with personalities such as Volney. If the subject of pedagogy is not approached in the other chapters, it has the merit of reviving debates which in certain aspects may seem very topical such as the question of the place of national history and of history of other countries in education.

The 19th century is the heart of the book. The author successfully demonstrates that historical research, but also the demand for historical books, boomed from the start of the Restoration. An economic war is raging as the market is booming. Specialized magazines appear and many collections are created intended for an ever-growing clientele for this new national history. It is necessary to define what national history is at the beginning of the 19th century. The history of the nation as we have mentioned had to be rewritten because until then it only served the interests of the powerful and the monarchs. The sources were "hidden" from the nation and it was necessary for the people to understand their story to publish them. So you have to publish them all so that the story can appear clearly. Source collections are a response to this demand. The naive desire to want to publish them all quite quickly ended in an impasse, all the more so as historiographic effervescence, somewhat forgotten today, thwarts and complicates the initial projects.

Armand-Alexis de Monteil, one of the key figures in the book, wants to write a history of the different states and not just of the third estate. He is interested in the marginalized, in the little people and promotes a real social history against a history-battle which is not interested in people. To achieve this, it produces new sources to focus on people left behind by chronicles. He created a real "archive economy" far removed from current canons: he bought archival documents at low prices, processed them and then resold them to secure income. He collects scattered scraps that he uses to write a story that he recognizes as fragmentary. He is one of the examples of these historian-entrepreneurs of the first half of the 19th century.

Between romanticism and scientific approach

Under the July monarchy, the state invested in the field of historical research. Guizot first created a private association, the Société de l'Histoire de France in 1833, with few resources. But for him, the State is the only one which can publish and edit all the sources of the history of France. It is from this desire that the Committee for Historical and Scientific Works, founded in 1834, emerges. If this committee has had a role of stimulating historical research, it is also a control body. David Gaussen offers an original reading of Guizot's action by focusing on projects that were not accepted by the Committee: we see that too “particular” stories that could revive tensions were very often dismissed, but also projects which entered into competition with others already underway by established personalities. The author shows that the desire for control goes badly in an already largely constituted environment. The Historical Institute is a good example. This association founded in 1834 by a rather extraordinary personality Eugène Garay de Monglave brings together many opponents from all sides of the regime. By virtue of its number of members and its actions such as the organization of the first international conferences, it constitutes a major force in historical research although it ultimately failed due to financial problems. We should not see in this association a simple regrouping of opponents but another more federalist vision of history opposed to the centralizing Orleanist project.

The last chapters deal with the heirs of Jules Michelet and Augustin Thierry and the professionalization of historians. Gabriel Monod indicated in an article in his review which remained famous in 1876 “On the progress of historical studies in France since the 16th century”: “We have perhaps gained in originality, at least from the point of view of the literary form; we have lost there from the point of view of the scientific utility of the works of our historians. They are almost all self-taught; they have had no teachers and they do not train students. The historian herald of the methodical school denies any filiation which nevertheless seems to have existed. David Gaussen shows that it is not. It makes us rediscover the career and work of Félix Bourquelot who has almost all the characteristics of a professional historian and who has been openly recognized as a disciple of Augustin Thierry. He is the author of a book on the history and perception of suicide and of a real monograph on the Champagne fairs. Henri Bordier is also a historian with whom Gabriel Monod could discuss. However, their respective students were too monarchists for the republican history being developed. It was therefore necessary to reject them en bloc and deny their direct filiation in order to establish their power. The school of the Charters becomes too particular because of the sympathies monarchists. Thus university history (that of the faculties of letters) is cut off from a number of original subjects which had emerged in previous years such as the history of hygiene and economic history and which are rejected in medical universities. and right. The perspectives opened on the history of mentalities are also put aside. The author defends a major historiographical rereading: the French Revolution engendered an epistemological revolution of which we are largely the heirs of which the Annales school or the New History are only the extension of the perspectives offered a century earlier. We are still in the same historiographical sequence.

Our opinion

In the end, this work is major in the sense that it offers an original and fascinating rereading of the beginnings of the constitution of historical research in France. Without directly contradicting the previous works, the author strongly qualifies the traditional historiographical account. Throughout the book, David Gaussen draws colorful portraits of historians forgotten today, but which are nevertheless very innovative for their time. In short, a demanding and interesting work.

The invention of national history in France, 1789-1848, by David Gaussen, October 2015.

Video: 26th August 1789: Adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by Constituent Assembly (May 2022).


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