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  • Les Chaires ennemies: l’Église, l’État et la liberté d’enseignement secondaire dans la France des notables (1830–1850) par Sylvain Milbach
  • Robert Tombs
Les Chaires ennemies: l’Église, l’État et la liberté d’enseignement secondaire dans la France des notables (1830–1850). Par Sylvain Milbach. (Bibliothèque d’études des mondes chrétiens.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2015. 664 pp.

The religious division of the ‘Two Frances’ has become a commonplace not only for modern historians, but for the general public. Even specialists are likely to assume that this has been a perennial division, going back well beyond the Third Republic. Sylvain Milbach does provide important links in this narrative chain, but he is determined to ‘nuance’ it. As he notes, the Third Republic largely created the ‘cadres interprétatifs’ (p. 23) of nineteenth-century historiography, and his book may, I think, be situated amid the work of several of the younger generation of French historians who are trying to get away from these established narratives and rethink the meaning of post-revolutionary history. This is being done by not taking the fundamentals for granted, by looking afresh at major issues—‘nuancing’ them—and taking a more sympathetic interest in movements, periods, and regimes that were long discredited or sidelined in conventional narratives. Thus, Milbach re-examines the disputes between the July Monarchy and its Université on one hand, and those campaigning in the 1830s and 1840s for la liberté d’enseignement—a question that emerged during the Restoration and ended, at least in the particular form he describes, with the 1850 Loi Falloux. The scene was soon transformed by what the author interestingly calls the ‘vrai pivot du XIXe siècle politique’ (p. 22): the 1851 coup d’état. The nuances come in when Milbach shows that this prolonged dispute was not an ingrained quarrel between a ‘Voltairean’ regime and a clerical bloc. ‘Voltaireanism’ scarcely existed, nor yet did la laïcité as subsequently understood. Neither side was united. Opponents shared much common ground and were genuinely eager to find a compromise that would consolidate public morals and the political order as they saw them. Why they failed politically is the subject-matter of this painstaking study. In brief, Milbach points to underlying difficulties connected with modernization, secularization, liberalism, and the social ambitions of the middle classes. The focus of the issue moved from liberalism in the 1830s, to clericalism in the 1840s, and to social conservatism after 1848, when the clergy rallied massively to Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, and Catholic liberalism fragmented. This is a major piece of research, in the exhaustive French tradition, and as one would expect includes a full analysis of existing research, a long list of archival and printed sources, an extensive bibliography (including several monographs in English), and [End Page 615] appendices containing biographical sketches, maps, and figures. In short, it is a work that adds to the distinguished tradition of ecclesiastical history in France, to the history of liberalism and its ill-starred political avatar the July Monarchy, and to a collective endeavour to rethink the French and European nineteenth century.

Robert Tombs
St John’s College, Cambridge


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