In the Paris libraries and archives, in the autumn of 1958, I met
three persons who became life-long friends. The first was William Mendel
Newman, a remarkable medievalist so intense, hard-working and withdrawn
that he led the life of a hermit as he attempted to finish his great
project on the "clientage" of the lords of Nesle; I met the Comte
d'Adhémar de Panat; and I met Georges Dethan.
There was more than a touch of paranoia in Newman's views of French scholars. One day at lunch ("chez Pierre," upstairs, where we could bring sandwiches and buy hot tea, Newman said: "Don't tell the French anything about your research. They will steal your ideas." About a week later, at the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the archivists came up to me, saying: "I see you are ordering quite a few volumes in the série France from the 1630s. What is your project?" Upon hearing the question, my immediate thought was that this confirmed Newman's views of the French and that whatever small claim to originality of perspective I had, it would soon be lost. I summed up for the archivist what my project was, and he offered to lend me his École des Chartes thesis on Gaston d'Orléans. Meeting Georges Dethan occurred in just this way. His decline in health over the last few years, and now his death, removes a pillar of love and friendship in the lives of all the O. Ranums. Georges and Françoise became regular visitors to Panat; Georges came to the US to attend professional meetings and stay on Ridgewood Road; and correspondence remained constant between us for decades.
Georges was an indirect descendent of Adolphe Chéruel, a graduate of the École des Chartes and a life-long archivist and librarian at the Quai d'Orsay. While writing about the seventeenth century, Georges in fact had a much wider literary and historical range, with a prodigious memory, qualities evident in his books and his editing of the Revue d'Histoire Diplomatique.
Raised in an almost closed bourgeois, and in some respects a would-be-country-gentleman world, Georges suffered from the quite arbitrary shakeups that occurred at the Quai d'Orsay, under the name of "modernization," but that in reality are administrative power-shifting. Faced with cadres that did not appreciate history or his love of literature and Italy, Georges battled to keep the archives in Paris (and lost, partially), and he gradually withdrew to do his own research and writing. Those who have never been in the French bureaucratic administration will never know what it is like, especially when your life interests are scholarly!
Georges's childhood occurred in the mellow glow of late "seigneurialism" in Périgord. An ancestor in Rouen had sold the family business to buy a huge working estate ("la Côte") that the family would keep until after World War II. Georges confessed that he had wanted to continue as a gentleman farmer, but that his grandfather, no doubt watching the accounts, had discouraged him, saying that chateau life and a life based on income from la terre were no longer realistic. At many points, Georges's quite closed family life made it difficult for him to perceive changes in the culture and society around him, which is not to say that he was naive or poorly adapted for the life of a very technophile France after World War II.
Knowing that he had to do a thesis at the École des Chartes, Georges thought he might work on some aspect of Charles d'Orléans; but seeing quite a few works under that name in the card catalogue of the BN, and virtually nothing under the name that followed -- "Gaston d'Orléans" -- Georges took the leap into the seventeenth century. He identified deeply with Gaston, a prince who understood everything but who refused to accept the new coerciveness of Richelieu and the Ludovician state. Gaston betrayed his followers and disappointed everyone, including his daughter, the Grande Mademoiselle; yet Georges loved him as a reasonable, highly cultured prince. Gaston collected flower paintings; Georges collected seventeenth-century book bindings, including an exquisite little book bound in morocco and covered with G's, a pièce maîtresse in his collection. The G's of Gaston and George blended in the collector's mind.
His most analytically interesting work is Mazarin et ses amis. Personal friendship, intimacy and exchanges of gifts were the very stuff of politics in the seventeenth century, and Mazarin's practices here were really at the level of social-political art, which is, of course, partly why he created so many enemies, and why he survived to become the richest man in France after the king. George's general book of Mazarin has discerning judgments all through it; the volume he wrote for the new history of Paris is thoughtful, personal -- quite the opposite of what his loyal friend, René Pillorget, produced, remarkable for its range of solid fact.
In 1965 or 1966, Georges wanted to buy a new car, so he gave me his Simca Aronde for Panat, saying: "The reverse gear isn't very strong, but you don't use reverse very much, do you?" In exchange, I gave Georges a "British warm" I had bought in England a few years before -- really too much of a coat for New York. Georges got a pittance in royalties for his translation of my little book on Paris. I gave Françoise a new little Italian refrigerator for her typing, for she would not take money.
Deeply political, and Gaulliste, and a reader of France Soir in order to keep up with "what people thought," Georges was elected to the Academy of Normandy and became a corresponding member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques; but he took none of this as seriously as his constant efforts to raise money for charitable causes though a lay group devoted to St. Vincent de Paul.
Georges also loved Italian history, art and culture; he loved the big, intense paintings of the Baroque as much as the little dinners in medieval town squares in the moonlight. A formidable paleographer in both French and Italian, his work always has much more research and thought behind it than the almost popular style of his writing would suggest.
As I think back on all the love and friendship which these three friends gave me (us), and all we learned about French and France from them, I am struck by how each, in his own way, had a certain wonderful décalage between the contemporary and his own way of life. Above all, each had the time for building up the trust, the love and the intimacy of true friendship.
From the Revue des Sciences Morales et Politiques, 1999, no.2, p. 133: "... Georges Dethan était chartiste. Il avait obtenu son diplôme de l'École des chartes en 1947. Sa carrière s'est déroulée pour l'essentiel au ministère des Affaires étrangères, si on excepte un séjour d'un an comme conservateur à la Bibliothèque du Quirinal à Rome. Il fut tour à tour archiviste-paléographe au service des Archives du Quai d'Orsay (1947-1952), conservateur à l'Administration centrale au service des Archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères (1953-1968), chargé de la Bibliothèque du ministère (1967-1980) puis conservateur en chef de celle-ci (1980-1988). De 1983 à 1988, il fut également conservateur de la division historique des Archives du Quai d'Orsay. Cette carrière brillante se doubla d'un travail scietnifique fécond. Alors qu'il en était secrétaire, dès 1947, il devint, en 1962, directeur de la très sérieuse Revue d'histoire diplomatique. Georges Dethan nous laisse 8 ouvrages d'importance. Il a étudié le XVIIe siècle. ...: Gaston d'Orléans, conspirateur et prince charmant, sa thèse de doctorat, publiée en 1959, Mazarin et ses amis. Étude sur la jeunesse du cardinal d'après ses papiers conservés aux Archives du Quai d'Orsay (1968), Mazarin, un homme de paix à l'âge baroque (1981), et, enfin, Paris au temps de Louis XIV (1660-1715), qu'il publia en 1990. On lui doit également, en 1967, la publication d'archives diplomatiques sur le problème vénète de 1859 à 1866 ainsi que la publication des Carnets de Gabriel Hanotaux (1982). En raison de cette grande oeuvre, Georges Dethan fut élu correspondant de notre Académie dans la section "Histoire et Géographie", le 9 mai 1977. Il nous a quittés dans sa soixante-seizième année, le 1er janvier 1999.