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French Historical Studies 27.4 (2004) 733-40

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Daniel Roche and the History of Paris

Daniel Roche's contributions to the history of Paris go back a long way. In 1962 he published his first significant study of his native city, devoted not to the ordinary people but to the aristocratic Marais quarter.1 This was the area characterized in Louis-Sébastien Mercier's Tableau de Paris as a "canton of ferocious heiresses" and of dévotes, a district full of "complaining old men . . . , enemies to every new idea" (and of outdated furniture into the bargain!).2 The quarter that Roche uncovered was quite different. Drawing on the thesis he had completed for his diplôme d'études supérieures, a study of the "social structures" of the area, he showed that in the mid-eighteenth century the Marais was dominated less by "dévotes" than by magistrates of the Parlement. He noted the significant number of marriage alliances between nobles of the robe and those of the sword, very often within the confines of the quarter, a sign that these were not two warring groups but parts of a culturally united elite. There were differences, though: the sword nobles were more conservative in their investment strategies, for instance. Roche also demonstrated the important role that these nobles played in the city, both by providing work for artisans and servants and through their participation in parish government. The relationship between robe and sword was much debated in the 1950s and 1960s, and his conclusions were confirmed by later studies.3 [End Page 733]

What is most striking about this early work is that Roche was already beginning to explore many of the key themes that he has subsequently studied in depth. His Marais study, based largely on the archives of the Paris notaries, demonstrated the immense value of this source not only for the demography and the social geography of Paris, but also for understanding the value system of the Parisian nobility. And crucially, this early work betrays a keen interest in material culture, in the books, paintings, clothing, and furnishings acquired by the nobles of the Marais. Roche commented on the "aspiration to comfort" that they demonstrated—today we would speak of a developing culture of consumerism.

His huge thesis on the provincial academies took him away from Paris for some fifteen years, but in the late 1970s he returned to the history of the capital. It was now no longer the nobility that preoccupied him, but rather the poorer classes: immigrants from the provinces, servants, artisans, and workers. "The disdain for the popular classes manifested by yesterday's elite and the powerful men who govern us today deserves a reply," he wrote in the introduction to The People of Paris. This was therefore a politically engaged type of history, and it uncovered a very different Paris from the one commonly found in history writing of the 1960s and 1970s. Much of that work had shown us a city deeply divided: between rich and poor, between the "modern" cosmopolitan culture of the Enlightenment and the obscurantism of the police and the Parlement, and between an emerging working class and a bourgeoisie that grew more powerful as capitalism developed and that was above all concerned to get rich and join the ranks of the landed nobility.4 Certainly, the work of Marcel Reinhard and his students and of François Furet and Adeline Daumard had significantly modified our knowledge of the demography of Paris. But the conventional view continued to be that of Louis Chevalier: that the population of Paris had grown only slowly during the eighteenth century and that until the early nineteenth century it was contained by high mortality, late marriage, and relatively low rates of immigration.5 Other areas of the history of Paris had been well covered, with detailed studies of the Parlement, the [End Page 734] police, the fermiers généraux and the administration.6 The new social history was exploring urban criminality, infant mortality, the plight of the "marginal" elements of the...


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pp. 733-740
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Archived 2004
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