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French Historical Studies 27.4 (2004) 725-731

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Il Faut Savoir Compter

i am honored and happy to open this celebration of daniel roche—l'homme et l'oeuvre, if I may use an antiquated formula from literary history. As to the man, I have known him for thirty-three years and am delighted to pay tribute to a dear friend. The work now fills shelves in libraries throughout the world. It has left an indelible mark on our understanding of history.

Compliments of this kind, however, can sound dangerously like an obituary. Daniel is very much alive, in top form, full of energy, still churning out books, and stirring things up with an inexhaustible stock of ideas and knowledge. I propose, therefore, to concentrate on the oeuvre, especially the early part of it, leaving the later work to the speakers who will follow me.

When I first got to know Daniel in 1970, he quoted the advice he had received from his mentor, Ernest Labrousse: "Pour être historien, il faut savoir compter." At that time, Daniel was preparing his doctoral thesis on the provincial academies. Labrousse had hoped to inspire a Labroussean approach to cultural history—one that would consist of locating a homogeneous run of material in the archives and evaluating it in a way that would reveal the fundamental structures underlying human activity. From histoire sérielle to structures et conjonctures and ultimately histoire totale, the program bore the marks of the Annales school then dominant in France; and I admit I found it horrifying. The quantification of culture! Was not culture a matter of finding meaning in the human condition? Collectively constructed meaning, to be sure, but something that could not be counted like the price of grain? Even when [End Page 725] it was just a glimmer in his eye, Daniel's thesis challenged conventional modes of studying history. It still is a challenge today, a third of a century later.

When it was published, Le siècle des Lumières en province contained, sure enough, a vast amount of quantification: two huge volumes, with 166 pages of statistics, graphs, and maps.1 It provided an overview of a vast cultural landscape, the world of provincial academies and the elite who set the tone of intellectual life everywhere outside Paris. Having taught history at a lycée in Châlons-sur-Marne, Daniel appreciated the importance of presenting material clearly, without obfuscating jargon and pretentious discourses on method. He also had developed a healthy appetite for archival research, because the papers of the academy of Châlons were exceptionally rich. They included dozens of treatises submitted to essay contests sponsored by the academy on subjects such as poverty and abuses in criminal law—topics so daring that eventually the foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, ordered the academy to shift its attention to themes less likely to inflame public opinion. Here then was a body of material that represented Enlightenment thought at a crucial level of diffusion. The Enlightenment itself had been radicalized by the prize essays that Rousseau had submitted to the Academy of Dijon. In the archives of Châlons, Daniel found a run of essays by contemporaries of Rousseau, writers who remained obscure but stirred up a lively debate on public questions in a small provincial city.

The thesis revealed the nature of that debate and of the elite that sponsored it. Daniel had spent fifteen years studying the activities of all thirty-two academies and the social position of their six thousand members. Half of the academicians belonged to the nobility, and their proportion did not decline from the end of the seventeenth century until 1789. Twenty percent came from the clergy, although their role diminished somewhat after 1750. And the commoners were mainly administrative officials and professional men, especially doctors. They included very few bourgeois in the strict, economic sense of the term: only 3 percent were merchants or manufacturers. The Parisian academies had no one at all from that economic sector. In fact, three-quarters of the members of the Académie...


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Archived 2004
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