The Emergence of French Social History, 1815–1970
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: Penn State University Press
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The chapters assembled here were Wrst presented as separate essays, and each can be read on its own. But they were written as elements of a single investigation, addressing a set of core questions and developing a cumulative argument. The questions concern the genesis of modern historical thought, which I define as characterized by two fundamental...
Introduction: Historians and Modernity
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This book examines French historical thought from the early nineteenth through the midtwentieth century. Its focus is on a central fact about modern historical consciousness. Whereas Western historical writing long concerned itself mainly with political doings and the great men who performed them, contemporary writers and readers want to know how people in the past...
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In 1938, the philosopher Raymond Aron sought to define the essential qualities of historical thought. “The biographer interests himself in the private man,” he wrote, “the historian primarily in the public man. An individual enters history only by his impact on collective development, by his contribution to the moral future.”¹
2. Ordering Time: The Problem of French Chronology
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“Modern France does not date from 1789,” intoned Jules Michelet in a lecture of 1841; “it is eternal [de tous les temps].”¹ His comment reflected a concern shared by many intellectuals in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. What was the shape of French history? When had France become modern, and what were the respective contributions of the Old Regime and the Revolution to its...
3. God and the Historian: Sainte-Beuve's Port-Royal
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“Port-Royal has come into fashion,” as a topic that “reverberates everywhere,” noted Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve in 1848.¹ His assessment mixed surprise, gratification, and annoyance. He had begun his own book on the topic in complete isolation, he claimed, believing that the public would find Jansenist practices strange and repellant. In fact the public responded with enthusiastic interest. The...
4. Lost Worlds: Lucien Febvre and the Alien Past
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In this chapter I explore an idea that was central to French historical writing in the twentieth century: the idea that fundamental di¤erences of experience, feeling, thought, and personality divide contemporary society from what came before it, making the past so unlike the present as to constitute a “world we have lost.”¹ I seek... here
5. Private Lives and Historical Knowledge
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“Our project was fraught with peril. The ground we hoped to explore was untouched. No one had sifted through or even identified useful source materials, which at first sight seemed abundant but scattered. We had to clear away the brush, stake our claim, and, like archaeologists approaching a site known to contain riches too great to be systematically explored, settle for excavating a few preliminary...
6. Nobles as Signifiers: Making Sense of a Class Structure
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As Europe’s traditional ruling class, the nobility holds a central yet ambiguous place in an examination of modern historical thought. Aristocratic persons and deeds had constituted the core of traditional historical narrative, which described great men and their doings. But already by the late eighteenth century, writers had also begun to describe nobles as ill adapted to the conditions of modern...
7. An Alternative Path to Rural History
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Interest in peasants and rural life has counted among the distinctive features of historical thought since World War I, and it has stimulated some of the twentieth century’s great works of historical writing. Nowhere, it would seem, are the democratic tendencies of modern historical thought more visible, especially as concerns the medieval and early modern periods. Before the...
Conclusion: On the Politics of Social History
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“What was history then?” asked Lucien Febvre in 1925. His question referred to the year 1869, when one of Jules Michelet’s most important books appeared, and Febvre’s answer was blunt: “In spite of the efforts of Michelet to enlarge it, enrich it, and change the traditional idea of it,” history in that era “always meant setting out . . .the long struggle of the Kings, to establish in domestic politics...
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Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2006