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The Social Foundations of Nineteenth-Century French Historical Thought

Charles-Olivier Carbonell, Histoire et historians: une mutation idéologique des historiens français, 1865-1885 (Toulouse: Privat, 1976), pp. 589

The study of historical thought has been frowned upon in France since the days of Augustin Thierry. The result is that the research on how thinking about the French past refracts the social, ideological, and philosophical ferment of the times in which it is written has been carried out by Italian, English, and American scholars. Whether because of Annales' positivist foundations or because of the determinisms of both leftist and rightist French historians, the French historians have commonly resolved to look forward and avoid the questions provoked by looking back at their own discipline. Philippe Ariès's Le Temps de l'Histoire (Monaco, 1954) was scarcely read by professional historians; Paul Veyne's Comment on écrit l'histoire (Paris, 1971) shook the foundations of the historical establishment just a bit (see Raymond Aron's review in Annales, E. S. C., 26, 1971, pp. 1319-1354); and George Huppert's The Idea of Perfect History (Chicago, 1969) finally began to acquaint French historians with their ancestors. So did the recently published lectures on historiography by George Lefebvre. Appearing as it does now, Carbonell's pioneering thesis may have a deeper impact and stimulate more research in historiography if it is read by the dozen or so historians who today in Paris make up the "Establishment" that virtually determines future avenues of research and publications.

Carbonell's work is really two books in one. The first is a major statistical study of publication in history by year, region, subject, century, and by the social status, professions, and ages of the historians who published all these works. The approach is reminiscent of what H.-J. Martin accomplished in his monumental study of seventeenth-century book publishing, and of Daniel Roche's thesis on the provincial academies in the eighteenth century. Like Martin's, Carbonell's findings are so new and massive that it will take at least a decade for historians to digest and interpret them by altering the general framework of French history to take these findings into account.

Carbonell demonstrates that the writing of history remained overwhelmingly in the hands of learned nobles, clergy and notables who were historians by avocation. These elites continued, as their forebears had done in the eighteenth century, to seek in the past the origins of their own families, parishes, towns, dioceses, and medical-legal professions. Down to 1885 the bulk of French historical scholarship, then, reflected socially what Carbonell defines as a "persistance des ordres," a phrase that will warm Roland Mousnier's heart. The discovery of this deep structural relationship between society and historical thought does not so much surprise us as disconcert us. Nourished as we all are by ideologies about freedom of choice, and by the growth of liberalism in the nineteenth century, it is sobering to learn that the so frequently studied bourgeois and liberal nineteenth century takes its place beside the Enlightenment and the Renaissance as an essentially minority culture that is a harbinger of the future. In the overwhelming mass of historical writing of the late nineteenth century, the bourgeois scarcely has a place, either as writer or subject — do his values — any more than do the peuple and theirs.

Alongside the dominant older elites new cadres had long since begun to appear (lycée professors, departmental archivists, and university professors), but their overall contribution to historical scholarship remained slight until after 1871. The great textual publications financed by the Second Empire remained, for example, still largely in the hands of individuals having sufficient income from other sources to permit them the leisure of historical research. Indeed, when the university professors finally made a significant appearance it was, at least numerically, as writers of textbooks.

Among all those teaching in universities, it was not only those who taught history who published history; mathematicians, engineers, philosophers, and physicians did so as well. Added to theirs were publications from those in government service, the army officers and civil servants being notable examples. Works by what would later be categorized as "professional" historians remained small in number.

Carbonell does not draw any conclusions about the relationships between learning and the elites who wrote history, but for this reviewer it seems apparent that the venerable humanist tradition sustained by the still very classical education of the nineteenth century flowered to make history still an avocation, not a profession or a job. Who in the nineteenth century might have put down "historian" as a profession on his passport? For the writers of history also wrote poetry, essays on moral philosophy, memoirs, works of piety, and translations of the classics. History was one genre, among many, in a still humanist culture where learning was ennobling and immortalizing. The pursuit of gloire through writing remained a powerful motivating force in the nineteenth century. Carbonell suggests by his findings that most of those who published history were in their sixties and seventies. They had written verses in their youth, for was there not a genre appropriate to each stage of the life cycle? Clearly the still humanist learning of the nineteenth century is yet another world that has been lost, as historical scholarship has been professionalized. When French elites turned later in life to historical scholarship, it was in order to do research on their families, a kind of searching for ancestors that may not have totally disappeared in the twentieth century as social mobility has increased and the peasants and working people have become favorite subjects.

Here and there Carbonell categorizes a writer as a journalist. This is anachronistic. What was a historian in 1865? Carbonell cannot seem to refrain from imposing his own rather unexamined assumptions about what history is. What is apparent among the so-called journalists is a greater emphasis in their writing on the period after 1789. Contemporary history in popular form was a "growth" industry among nineteenth-century writers, and what was said in popular form deserves to be analyzed with perhaps more sophisticated techniques of analysis than the essentially philological method used to access so-called learned works. But do such distinctions stand up under scrutiny? With the statistical studies behind him to demonstrate the continuities, Carbonell then turns to the roles of individuals and the effects of religious and political debates upon historical thought. The short sections exploring the influences, or rather the demonstration of the non-influence of Taine, Renan, and Fustel de Coulange reveal Carbonell's own philosophical presuppositions more clearly than anywhere else in the book. Has anyone ever claimed that these writers had a powerful influence on the mass of historical writing of the late nineteenth century? I doubt it. In these discussions the import is almost too philosophical to catch the range of influence that are commonly discerned in intellectual history.

Renan's writings were perceived as part of the secularizing stimulus that the founders of the ultramontane Catholic scholars who created the Revue des Questions historiques sought to curb. A religious-political paradigm of values and ideologies shared by the governing elites had been attacked by Renan, and Marius Sepet, Léon Gauthier, and their Catholic colleagues felt the need to reply to the challenging historicity of Renan and other like-minded secularists. The historical thought of the governing elites as described in Part I of the book was hagiographical and exemplary. Catholic writers sought to edify readers by recounting the piety, charity and miracles of deceased churchmen. How could such Catholic historical thought survive in a capital of intellectual ferment after Renan? Fustel's role was more complex, largely because of the divisions of opinion and moral doubts provoked by the Franco-Prussian war.

Until that war historical thought as practiced by the Parisian university professors was heavily influenced by German historical scholarship. To accomplish for France what Ranke was accomplishing for Germany seemed to be the wave of the future to the professionalizing historians being produced by a bourgeois society and state. But what occurs when this increasingly influential minority suddenly finds that the scholarship they are emulating has been in the service of a state that has defeated France? Fustel's anti-Germanism in the Cité antique revealed the new mood after the defeat of Prussia and signaled an effort to establish an autonomous French national history. A lesson, a terrible lesson would be learned, and not without causing such influential historians as Gabriel Monod to perceive that there was a danger in emulating any foreign scholarly tradition in historical thought. Henceforth French historiography was not only autonomous but unwilling to look back upon the stormy period when rampant nationalism threatened to destroy the historical thought of the professional elite. Had the new professional elite of historians failed, French historical thought would have become a humanistic relic like history in Spain -- a humanist scholarly tradition in the service of national myths. The Germanophilia, Carbonell shows, had been located in Paris. The provinces, where such men as Tamizey de Larroque went right on editing texts pretty much as their ancestors had done during the eighteenth century, were not yet under Parisian intellectual or professional influences.

Monod and his colleagues recovered their nerve, thanks largely to the ardent ultramontanist and royalist scholarship of the Revue des questions historiques. The Protestant Monod and the reformist republican Catholic, Fagniez, could collaborate to found the Revue Historique. The new professional cadre found inspiration and cohesion in replying obliquely to ardent Catholicism and royalism through their journal. One could have wished that Carbonell had measured each factor in the blend of Protestantism, republicanism, and professionalism that finally made up the intellectual foundation for a nationalist French historiography. When Fagniez withdrew were his reasons primarily religious, political or professional? Just what role did Protestants play in historicizing republican values from Guizot through Monod? As one draws near the end of the book the reasons for the taboo against the study of historical thought become apparent. Sepet, Monod, Fagniez, and others of the nineteenth century are not ancestors for historians currently at work in France in the way that Henry Adams, A. B. Hart, E. Channing, and A. Dunning are in American historiography. The upheavals of the twentieth century have created new historiographies in France whose ancestors are Saussure and Durkheim.

Finally, it should be noted that Carbonell does not entirely abandon statistical studies in the second part. His ingenious method for counting key adjectives and descriptive or analytical categories used by historians in writing about the Communards and the Germans adds yet another chapter to Michel Foucault's general synthesis about the relationships between the new elites of the nineteenth century, professionalization and scientism. The Germans are described in numerous works as beastly, barbaric, delirious, rabid, and insane, as were the Communards. In other words, the scientism that provoked the "Grand Renfermement" could be extended to the international insane as well. All this demonstrates how pitifully narrow the horizons and languages of historians may appear when their writings are scrutinized to reveal the place of historical thought in a society where a traditional value system and elite came apart in the 1870s and was displaced by a burgeoning sectarian and "professionalized" school of international historians that was part of that "scientizing" elite seeking to implement the values of Enlightenment.

Orest Ranum
The Johns Hopkins University