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  • The French Revolution, Archives, and Mimetic Theory
  • Pierre Santoni (bio)

It is very widely accepted that the French Revolution represents a decisive moment in the history of archives, not only in France but throughout the world. The great German-born scholar Ernst Posner, writing in 1940, claimed that it "marks the beginning of a new era in archives administration."1 Posner's view has been reaffirmed many times since, in one form or another, by authors of various nationalities.

In France itself this opinion is not contested. Rather than assert a claim of historical primacy, however, the interest has been instead to emphasize the link between the Revolution and the present system of archival organization. A 2001 petition calling for the National Archives to be brought together under one roof, signed by a large number of respected historians, researchers, and archivists, weighed heavily in the government's decision to construct a new home north of Paris in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, dedicated in 2013 by President Hollande. The petition begins with the words: "There exists in our country a network of archival agencies, born of the French Revolution, whose duty is to safeguard the documents that constitute the foundation of our history."2 [End Page 251]

On a webpage titled "History of the Institution," the official Internet site of the Archives de France makes much the same claim: "The French Revolution created a specific [system of] administration for archives in order to respond to new needs." This initiative is said to have rested mainly on three texts: the decree of 7 September 1790, which "created the National Archives," and the "basic laws" of 7 Messidor Year II (25 June 1794) and of 5 Brumaire Year V (26 October 1796). The first of these two laws has always enjoyed great prestige. Was it not, until 1979, the "founding charter," the "basis of the entire system of the archives of France"? Did it not lay down the principle of archival centralization in France, by ordaining that "the archives established by the nation's representatives shall be a central depository for the entire Republic" (article 1), and that "all public depositories of title deeds shall come under the jurisdiction of the national archives as their common parent" (article 3)? And does one not also find stated there that other fundamental principle, of free public access to archives: "Every citizen shall be entitled to ask in every depository, on days and hours to be fixed, for the production of the documents it contains: he shall be provided with them at no cost, then and there" (article 37)? These two principles in combination gave rise to the idea of a network of archives, and it became customary to attribute, if not to the law of 7 Messidor II, then at least to that of 5 Brumaire V, the creation of an "archival network unrivaled in the world," "the first modern archival network" formed by a multiplicity of "archival agencies serving as the repository of the nation's memory." Thus the Revolution, by means of "an unmatched legislative endeavor," was supposed to have accomplished the noble purpose of "assuring and perpetuating the memory of the nation."3

Although this way of characterizing the achievement of the Revolution with regard to archival preservation, first sketched in 1855 by Henri Bordier,4 is generally accepted today, it rests for the most part on cursory inspection of a few articles of legislation rather than on detailed and thorough historical examination. The fact of the matter is that the archival history of France "has never been written in any systematic fashion."5 This is no less true, it should be emphasized, for the crucial period of the Revolution than for any other. The best documented studies were made by scholars during the second half of the nineteenth century who were hostile toward the Revolution and the Republic or, at the least, had grave reservations about them.6 Since then the subject has aroused little curiosity. Still less has been done to stimulate interest in it, with the result that the original documents of the institution itself from the revolutionary period are not mentioned in the official inventory of documents presently available...


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