Cover image for Lost Worlds: The Emergence of French Social History, 1815–1970 By Jonathan Dewald

Lost Worlds

The Emergence of French Social History, 1815–1970

Jonathan Dewald


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Lost Worlds

The Emergence of French Social History, 1815–1970

Jonathan Dewald

“I found Lost Worlds highly stimulating. It taught me new things about nineteenth-century historiography and made me rethink things I thought I knew about the Annales school. Dewald’s book should attract a wide audience among French historians and people interested in the development of historical thought.”


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Winner of a 2007 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Today’s interest in social history and private life is often seen as a twentieth-century innovation. Most often Lucien Febvre and the Annales school in France are credited with making social history a widely accepted way for historians to approach the past. In Lost Worlds historian Jonathan Dewald shows that we need to look back further in time, into the nineteenth century, when numerous French intellectuals developed many of the key concepts that historians employ today.

According to Dewald, we need to view Febvre and other Annales historians as participants in an ongoing cultural debate over the shape and meanings of French history, rather than as inventors of new topics of study. He closely examines the work of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Hippolyte Taine, the antiquarian Alfred Franklin, Febvre himself, the twentieth-century historian Philippe Ariès, and several others. A final chapter compares specifically French approaches to social history with those of German historians between 1930 and 1970. Through such close readings Dewald looks beyond programmatic statements of historians’ intentions to reveal how history was actually practiced during these years.

A bold work of intellectual history, Lost Worlds sheds much-needed light on how contemporary ideas about the historian’s task came into being. Understanding this larger context enables us to appreciate the ideological functions performed by historical writing through the twentieth century.

“I found Lost Worlds highly stimulating. It taught me new things about nineteenth-century historiography and made me rethink things I thought I knew about the Annales school. Dewald’s book should attract a wide audience among French historians and people interested in the development of historical thought.”
Lost Worlds provides a provocative new analysis of French cultural contexts that contributed to the emergence of modern social history and the creative, critical insights of modern historical thought.”
“This book is an outstanding scholarly achievement that explores a revolution in scholarly thought with uncommon grace and erudition.”
“Dewald’s open-minded, thoughtful, judicious approach draws on novels and literary criticism as well as historiography. His lucid style and coherent argumentation make his book a joy to read.”

Jonathan Dewald is Professor and UB Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He won the Leo Gershoy Award of the American Historical Association for his book Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture: France 1570–1715 (1993).



Introduction: Historians and Modernity

1. “À la Table de Magny”: Men of Letters and Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century Paris

2. Ordering Time: The Problem of French Chronology

3. God and the Historian: Sainte-Beuve’s Port-Royal

4. Lost Worlds: Lucien Febvre and the Alien Past

5. Private Lives and Historical Knowledge

6. Nobles as Signifiers: Making Sense of a Class Structure

7. An Alternative Path to Rural History

Conclusion: On the Politics of Social History



Historians and Modernity

This book examines French historical thought from the early nineteenth through the mid-twentieth 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 lived, related to one another, and understood the basic conditions of their lives; in short, we want to know about the collection of topics that receives the conventional (and imperfect) label social history. This interest has applied to all categories of people, women as well as men, the disreputable as well as the esteemed, the weak and the powerful. Our historical thought is thus democratic, in that it resists assigning hierarchical value to different categories of actors and life-domains, and particularistic, in assuming that each human society organizes itself in its own ways, according to specific values and logics. So defined, contemporary historical practice seems to express a larger cultural modernity, both manifesting and contributing to our broader commitments to pluralism and egalitarianism. In this book, I ask how such ideas about the historian’s task came into being and what they imply for a broader view of European culture. Understanding modern historical practice, I argue, is central to understanding modernity itself.

This is so partly because European culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries accorded an immense place to historical knowledge. This commitment to history was itself a historical phenomenon, and already in 1961 Hannah Arendt believed that it was receding; a loss of interest in history, she wrote, was “inevitable in all completely modernized societies.” But things were otherwise through the mid-twentieth century. From the aftermath of the French Revolution through World War II, intellectuals of diverse ideological commitments and personal circumstances shared the belief that historical study could reveal the essentials of the human condition. “We know only one science, the science of history,” wrote Karl Marx, in 1845; in 1874 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the “mighty historical orientation of the age” (an orientation that he himself disliked); on the eve of World War II Raymond Aron added that “for man history is not an exterior fact, but the essence of his being. . . . I [as an individual] merge with my life-story, as humanity merges with its history.” Professional historians spoke more forcefully still. The development of historical thought during the nineteenth century, wrote the German historian Friedrich Meinecke in 1936, “was one of the greatest intellectual revolutions that has ever taken place in Western thought.”

So important a component of European thought has of course attracted a great deal of historical research and reflection. A central argument in the chapters that follow, however, is that scholars have misunderstood important aspects of the process by which contemporary historical ideas developed. Thus I offer at the outset an extended overview of recent discussions of the topic, against which my arguments are directed. Conventional accounts stress nineteenth-century intellectuals’ interest in political history. History (so run these accounts) first became an academic discipline in nineteenth-century Germany, and it manifested the intellectual preoccupations of its era. It sought to address the cultural needs of developing nation-states, most of them still marked by an aristocratic past. Wanting to give chronological depth to the politics of their own time, the great nineteenth-century historians viewed the state’s development as their principal subject matter, and they focused on the leaders who had made the state the organizing matrix of national life. Such a history was inevitably progressive, centering on the movement from inferior to superior modes of social organization, tracing a “grand narrative” that ultimately had religious foundations. In 1828, the French historical philosopher Victor Cousin summarized for his Sorbonne audience the Hegelian philosophy that he had learned during an exile in Germany: “It is because Providence is in history that humanity has its necessary laws and history its necessary course. History is the demonstration of God’s providential design for humanity; history’s judgments are God’s own judgments.” Across Europe, most nineteenth-century historians agreed. The great Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke spoke of “the religious foundation on which our efforts rest.”

Already in the late nineteenth century, so continues the standard account, some dissent from these views could be heard, in the works of historians such as the Frenchman Jules Michelet, the Swiss Jacob Burckhardt, and the German Karl Lamprecht. But the real challenges came after 1900, and they came from France. In fin de siècle Paris a variety of philosophies contested the worldviews on which historical thought had long rested. Psychology and sociology were emerging as distinct social sciences, posing interpretive challenges to any understanding of the past; and new developments in the hard sciences disrupted ideas about knowledge itself. World War I added existential crisis to the mix. Intellectuals who had experienced trench warfare and the collapse of centuries-old states could accept neither a providentialist view of history’s unfolding nor a history centered on political leadership. Hence a new kind of history began to emerge before 1914, a history as much concerned with social groups and cultures as with politics. New problems became legitimate subjects of inquiry, and new kinds of documents demanded attention. Narrative became less central as a mode of historical representation, because historians now attended to questions that had little to do with the established stories of national development. A history focused on problems in turn required new methods: quantification, comparison across national boundaries, insights derived from geography, sociology, psychology, and anthropology.

After the war, this kind of history began a steady march to prominence, first within French academia, eventually elsewhere. Its most prominent advocates were the French historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, both of them war veterans. As colleagues at the postwar University of Strasbourg, they began planning their journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale almost immediately after demobilization; it began publication in 1929, providing a forum both for new kinds of research and for theoretical reflections on where historical studies ought to be going. Such insistence that historians give more attention to the real life of past societies (so runs the conventional account) aroused suspicion among the political historians who dominated European universities, and Febvre and Bloch faced a difficult struggle in establishing the legitimacy of their enterprise. Peter Burke has recently described them as leading a “small, radical and subversive” band, “fighting a guerrilla action against traditional history, political history, and the history of events.” Georg Iggers describes Febvre and Bloch as occupying “a somewhat marginal position in the 1930s,” as “they pursued their conflict with [historian Charles] Seignobos and the traditional political historians at the Sorbonne.”

But after World War II the situation changed dramatically. Historians associated with the Annales acquired increasingly absolute preeminence within the French historical profession, and their example resonated abroad, among North American, British, and German historians. Bloch was executed in 1944 for his role in resisting the German occupation, but Febvre survived until 1956, to the end working to strengthen the framework that underlay the Annales. His lobbying bore abundant results. “The Annales school” ceased being a mere intellectual orientation, and became instead an institution: first a section of the already existing École Pratique des Hautes Études, then in the 1970s the fully autonomous, degree-granting École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, with its buildings, research centers, publication series, and programs for international outreach. By 1972, the American historian J. H. Hexter humorously noted the success of these efforts: he spoke of his “eerie feeling that . . . the Annalistes are on a march that by friendly persuasion is about to conquer the historical world.” Fifteen years later, in an essay mainly concerned with Anglo-Saxon historical writing, Gertrude Himmelfarb suggested that “even some of the Annalistes are beginning to suspect that they have unleashed a force that they cannot control. The very disciplines they have used to subvert the conventions of the old history threaten to subvert history itself.” Whether as subversion or inspiration, observers have repeatedly stressed the impact of French writers on historical consciousness throughout the twentieth-century West.

Conventional views of social history’s development thus offer an appealing narrative of intellectual progress. On this account the vigorous creativity of a few individuals combined with larger currents in the world around them to enlarge history’s subject matter, methods, and sympathies; at the same time these historians brought the discipline back into creative dialogue with society, allowing it to address pressing concerns of the age. The narrative includes elements of drama, notably the tragedy of Bloch’s death, and a happy ending: Febvre and Bloch confronted the incomprehension of their traditionalist colleagues, and they had to fight to bring their ideas from the margins of academic life to its center, but in the end they triumphed. Finally, this is a narrative authorized by an important historical source, the abundant writings of Lucien Febvre himself. Febvre wrote often and emphatically about the movement that he led. He emphasized the deficiencies in the traditions of historical knowledge on which he and Bloch had been raised, and he stressed the impact on his generation of the cultural shocks of the early twentieth century. As he explained in a 1933 lecture, the experience of World War I, “the repeated shock of new ideas, . . . the bankruptcy of old ideas, old doctrines thrust into the void by the new” had produced a “crisis of everything that surrounded and framed historical thought.” It is reasonable that historians have taken seriously his claims that the Annales represented “a new kind of history.”

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In the chapters that follow, however, I argue that these narratives are oversimple. They distort both our understanding of our own historical enterprise and our view of our predecessors. Valuable though it has been, I argue, the research underlying conventional interpretations has been marked by two closely related failings. First, it has tended to focus on a limited number of historians, and especially on those who fitted within the professional discipline of history, historians attached to university faculties and a few others who produced eventually canonical works. Second, research has given more weight to programmatic statements about how history should be practiced than to practices themselves. Here I emphasize instead practices, and I emphasize the breadth of interest in historical study in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. The very importance of historical knowledge within the culture of these years ensured that professional historians were only one among many groups to think seriously about the past and to apply high levels of scholarship to its study.

A different picture of historical thought emerges if one considers this full range of intellectuals who studied the past—essayists, philosophers, amateur historians, antiquarians, and novelists, as well as university professors. Examining their work shows that interest in the history of society and of private experience was not the invention of twentieth-century professional historians. From the 1820s on, numerous writers argued that history consisted of much more than politics, and they produced numerous examples of what we today term social history. Including such figures in our genealogy of modern historical thought is not a matter of historical accuracy alone, although it is partly that: these writers deserve attention simply because of the quality of their research and thought. More important, neglecting them has obscured the intellectual contexts from which the canonical works emerged, the books that figure so prominently in most discussions of historiography. I will suggest that these histories acquired some of their meaning and force from the implicit dialogues that they carried on with other works around them. Explicating their broader intellectual contexts, in other words, is a necessary step in understanding the intellectual choices that more recent historians have made and in decoding the messages in their work. In some ways, I argue here, reverberations from these implicit debates continue in the historical writing of our own time.

Such an approach is especially appropriate in the case of France, for throughout the modern period the French university has remained open to influences from outside its walls. Until the 1860s, courses given by prominent professors attracted crowds of auditors from polite society, often leaving serious degree candidates a small minority in the lecture hall, and lecturers sought to speak to the interests of this dilettante audience. In their published works as well, historians sought to reach this broad middle-class public, and many succeeded in dramatic fashion. In the 1850s and 1860s the historian Jules Michelet was able to earn twenty thousand francs annually from his book sales, according to the envious report of Hippolyte Taine, a sum about three times the income of a university professor. Publication for a broad market has remained characteristic of French academics, in history as in other disciplines; even today the gap between the university and the middle-class public is easily and often crossed. At the same time, French academics have taken participation in public life to be an appropriate extension of their intellectual activities. A number of them have played prominent roles in French political life, among them Victor Cousin, François Guizot, Jean Jaurès, and Jérôme Carcopino, and others have figured prominently in French journalism.

Conversely, French academics have understood that they constituted only one force among the many that shaped educated opinion. They both allied and competed with writers who lacked academic degrees and relied on the literary marketplace to supply their livelihoods. French society has always accorded such writers a great deal of respect. “France being without universities according to the German pattern,” observed Stendhal in 1825, with good-humored exaggeration, “conversation used to constitute the entire education of a Frenchman. Today, it is conversation and the newspapers.” Complaints that academics were pedantic and narrow-minded remained vigorous through the 1950s, and academics themselves often joined in the criticism. A history of historical thought limited to professors and canonical works risks obscuring the main tendencies in French intellectual life, tendencies to which even the professors were highly sensitive.

So also does a history that fails to balance attention to historians’ statements of their intentions (such as Febvre’s 1933 lecture) with a close reading of what they said about specific historical problems and situations. It is in the nature of historical research that labels and programmatic statements repeatedly prove inadequate to the realities that they claim to describe. Important works that are commonly termed social history include extensive discussions of politics, ideas, and personalities; and practitioners of the genre have used a variety of approaches to the past, shifting easily among them, in some instances within a single historical work. Even definitions of what a social history ought to be have differed widely, in some instances producing heated public debates. New historical approaches inevitably incorporate ideas and techniques from previous generations of scholarship. Focusing on what historians hoped to achieve risks missing these elements of continuity and recombination, while at the same time producing exaggerated images of generational differences and disagreements. The study of historical thought needs to look closely at what historians have actually done.

Historians have noted the variety of forces that contributed to giving history its centrality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. The experience of the French Revolution forced both intellectuals and the public to think about differences between historical eras, and suggested as well the difficulty of understanding the directions in which history was moving. Industrialization likewise heightened concerns about defining historical change and identifying its sources; even in a relatively slowly developing country such as France, intellectuals had an overwhelming sense that modes of life were changing around them and that all aspects of society would eventually be affected. History served more immediate political needs as well. Acquiring a clear vision of their past served both nations and social groups as a mechanism for asserting autonomy and identity; in the nineteenth century, new states sponsored historical research in order to bolster their positions, while in the twentieth emerging social groups have insisted on their own histories as an element in their identities. Ideas about the direction and pace of historical change have likewise cemented religious and political convictions, on both the left and the right.

Underlying this multiplicity of functions, though, has been a fundamental idea. As a science of what actually happened, a depiction of true events and real people, history, more forcibly than other humanistic disciplines, has claimed to represent the real. Hannah Arendt suggested many years ago that “‘reconciliation with reality’ . . . has been the secret motor of all historiography that transcends mere learnedness”; more recently, Hayden White has pursued this idea, suggesting that history confers “a kind of transcendental authority upon a given system of social praxis,” both by defining specific events in the past and by delineating the larger field of plausible human motives and behaviors. The case studies presented here take these observations as a starting point. I argue that thinking about the past has been a way for European intellectuals to define for themselves the dividing line between realism and fancy, and that nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians used the techniques of scholarship as means of thinking about the character of their own world.

Well into the twentieth century, I argue here, a crucial task in this project of defining the real was that of exploring the nature of modernity itself. As even the most sheltered scholars came to terms with the French and Industrial Revolutions, they found themselves having to define the specificities of their society; they also needed to think about social groups that directly posed the problems of modernity. The working class, political radicals, and urbanites raised questions from one direction, as visible representatives of societal transformation. On the other side stood peasants and aristocrats, who seemed to have survived from an earlier world. But as the nineteenth century advanced there were also increasing contacts with colonized peoples, and they too posed the problem of how modern and premodern differed. The encounter retained its full force through the 1960s, as a wide range of intellectuals concerned themselves with the problems of decolonization and with the economic development of former colonial territories. No Western scholar could altogether avoid these questions, and French scholars found them especially urgent, given their nation’s experiences of both revolution and colonial empire. I argue here that these issues lurk in even the purest scholarship of the period; surprisingly often, French historians addressed them directly, using the contemporary underdeveloped world as a metaphor for understanding early Europe.

Hence another theme running throughout this book is the problem of historical time. Writers on French history (I suggest here) returned repeatedly to the problem of periodization, asking when their nation had undergone the transition from premodern to modern and what the main causes of the change had been. Industrialization and political revolution might have provided easy answers to such questions, allowing French intellectuals to use 1789 as the divide between premodern and modern, but most found that solution unsatisfactory. The Revolution was too violent and too disconnected from much that intellectuals valued to define the nation’s modernity; and in France industrialization advanced more slowly than elsewhere. Rather, French intellectuals tended to see the decisive moment in their nation’s modernization as coming in the seventeenth century, with its great cultural achievements, newly effective bureaucratic government, and military triumphs. These considerations help explain a distinctive aspect of French historical writing in these years, its preoccupation with what historians today term the early modern period, the period from about 1550 to 1789. Studying their nation’s own preindustrial, predemocratic past, as I claim here, was a means for French historians to reflect on the nature of modernity and on the processes that led to it. As a result, apparently narrow scholarly debates about historical chronology had large implications. Discussing differences between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was implicitly to discuss the character of modern life.

Because the problem of modernization presented itself so forcefully to historians in these years, the politics of writing the history of society were complex, more complex than most students of the subject have recognized. Scholars have tended to see a sharp division between conservative and radical schools of history, and they have tended see interest in social history as attaching to political radicalism. Georg Iggers, for instance, has linked the triumph of the French Annales school in the 1950s to a “critical reconsideration” of “the attitudes that [historian Marc] Bloch, in Strange Defeat, charged had helped to pave the way for the catastrophe of 1940”; and he has similarly viewed the German social history of Hans Ulrich Wehler as reflecting a “political message” affirming social-democratic values. A German student of the working class has described the genesis of his own work in similar terms: “[T]he anti-authoritarian protest movement at the end of the 1960s, the period of socialist-liberal coalition,” and other movements from the period “stimulated a turn to themes that for decades only a handful of embittered outsiders had concerned themselves with.” From an explicitly conservative viewpoint, Norman Cantor has spoken of the “leftist political views” underlying Bloch’s French Rural History; conversely, from the Left E. P. Thompson described his own studies of English working-class history as designed to reinforce a radical understanding of the contemporary world.

Such descriptions (so runs another of this book’s main arguments) conceal the wide array of political positions from which historians actually considered the European past. Many influential historians of European society have held conservative political views. Others have oscillated in their positions or refrained from taking any. Enlarging our genealogies of modern historical practices makes it clear that much study of European society in fact derived from fears about the political future and eagerness to defend existing social arrangements, both of these stimuli to careful study of how society had functioned in the past. As important, I argue here, historical writing had (and continues to have) political effects that go well beyond its authors’ intentions, and that sometimes contradict those intentions. Lucien Febvre, for instance, was solidly on the republican left, but his great work on religious values in sixteenth-century France shared many ideas with the essays of the nationalist anti-Semite Charles Maurras, founder of the Action Française; in particular, both drew a sharp line between modern rationality and the savage thought of premodern groups. Conversely, the nineteenth-century historian Hippolyte Taine was frightened of democracy and advocated racist ideas of social differences. But his efforts to establish a history that made no reference to divine providence deeply unsettled his contemporaries; and he saw the Old Regime’s monarchy as the direct cause of many of the ills from which modern France suffered.

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In both the questions that it asks and the answers that it proposes, this book treats historical writing as a form of literature, and they thus inevitably engage to some degree with long-standing debates about the relationship between history and other forms of writing. A brief summary of how I view that engagement may be helpful at this point. This study takes for granted that history, like other writing, requires its authors to choose both the facts and the explanatory schemes that they deploy. Like novelists, historians must select among the immense array of episodes that their accounts might include, and like novelists they try to offer descriptions and explanations that their own contemporaries will find persuasive. I have also assumed that even the most scientific historical work repays literary analysis, attention to its language, imagery, and allusions. These formal elements helped constitute the meanings that it conveyed to its original readers, the more so in that historians (again like novelists) are borrowers, whose work advances through recycling and referring to that of others. Finally, I have assumed that historical writing contributes to the functioning of the society to which it is addressed, engaging (if only implicitly) with the world in which it is written, and thus possessing ideological content. In some instances it does this directly, through comments on the historian’s own world. More commonly, history’s ideological content is indirect, expressed through the historian’s ideas about causation, motives, and social structure. History thus contributes—alongside many other forms of cultural activity—to the store of ideas and judgments that people use as they deal with the world around them, but its contributions are the more influential insofar as history attempts to present the truth about the past. I thus see no contradiction between affirming history’s ideological functions and recognizing its scientific claims, its claims to provide accurate descriptions of the past based on hard evidence. On the contrary: historians’ very commitment to scholarship implies an engagement in their society’s efforts to define its vision of what the world is like and what constitute sensible approaches to it. Historians’ commitment to the factual makes their discipline more, not less, ideological.

These are not novel or radical claims, nor do they imply skepticism about historians’ knowledge of the past. To note resemblances between novels and histories is not to argue for their identity. I take seriously the scholarly standards that characterize the historical works addressed here, and I have sought to distinguish between more and less serious scholarly work. In one respect, however, these ideas do lead to what may seem a radical conclusion: this study argues for looking critically at the distinction between academic historians and other students of the past, and it emphasizes interactions between and commonalities among these groups. Such emphasis is especially appropriate in a consideration of nineteenth-century historical thought, for nineteenth-century writers themselves stressed the relatedness of different literary genres, and several of the writers considered here moved among them, producing in turn history, literary criticism, philosophy, and fiction. In a 1912 overview of French literary criticism, an American observer claimed that such a blending of genres was characteristic of the age. In an 1887 letter, Taine made a similar point in somewhat different terms. “Five writers and thinkers . . . ,” he wrote, “in my opinion are the men who, since Montesquieu, have added the most to the knowledge of human nature and human society”: despite his own well-known emphasis on science as the basis for historical thought, his list included two novelists (Honoré Balzac and Stendhal), a literary critic (Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve), and two historians (François Guizot and Ernest Renan). Such nineteenth-century readiness to see connections among history, fiction, and other genres makes the disciplinary anxieties of twentieth-century historians especially striking. I suggest here that we need to examine the twentieth-century rhetoric of intellectual professionalism as a distinctive intellectual choice, one move in a long-term discussion about the intellectual’s functions and social position.

These problems and themes have shaped the methods that I have followed here. They have led me to organize these studies around a series of moments in intellectual history, rather than attempting an overview of them, and to emphasize close readings of specific historical works and close attention to their contexts, as means of understanding how historians responded to one another and to their times. Texts and contexts of course overlap, especially in the ways that I use the terms here. I have given limited attention to the personal lives of the scholars that I have studied, and especially little attention to their social backgrounds. Whether academics or not, French intellectuals during this period lived in a coherent cultural world, marked by commonality of education and accomplishment, and by the overwhelming magnetic attraction of Paris; intellectuals of any ambition had to make their careers there, and in doing so they encountered the same books, people, and ideas as did their friends and competitors. In this world, differences of background and experience quickly faded, as writers found their places and made contact with one another.

Each chapter in this volume thus includes both close readings of individual texts and exploration of how different intellectuals engaged with one another. But in some chapters I am especially concerned with contexts, describing specific groups of writers and the flow of influences among them. In Chapter 1, I describe the Parisian writers who clustered around Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve and Hippolyte Taine in the mid-nineteenth century. The chapter shows their preoccupation with historical questions and their vision of history as concerned with social life and personal experience; and it argues for the distinctively modern quality of their understanding of the intellectual’s role. Chapter 4 deals with a second important group of intellectuals, those around the historians Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, founders of the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, between about 1920 and the 1960s. Here the focus is on university history-writing, and I seek to show the ideological concerns that underlay the group’s scholarly activity, with particular attention to their ideas about the dividing line between modernity and the premodern past. In Chapter 5 I look closely at two amateur historians, both of them fascinated by the history of private life, and both of them committed to establishing it as an important subject of research: from the late nineteenth century, the antiquarian Alfred Franklin; from the later twentieth century, the conservative intellectual Philippe Ariès and some of his associates. The example again shows important continuities between nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, and it suggests the artificiality of conventional divisions between professional scholarship and antiquarianism. Chapter 7 compares French historians with Germans, as each group dealt with the specific problems of constructing a history of the peasantry, the group within European society that most vividly exemplified the issues of backwardness and modernization. Comparison of these two national traditions of writing history demonstrates the force of each; French and German scholars found different issues important, and they turned to different explanatory schemes for historical understanding.

The remaining chapters are concerned more strictly with ideas. There I examine a series of historical problems and the solutions that different historians proposed to them. In Chapter 2, I ask how historians have defined the chronology of French history, where they have seen its most important turning points; and I seek to account for French historians’ fascination with the seventeenth century and its culture. Chapter 3 pursues this question, by examining an especially important case study: I consider intellectuals’ interest in seventeenth-century Catholicism and explore linkages between that interest and their understanding of their own functions and intellectual underpinnings. In Chapter 6, I examine historians’ treatments of the nobility, another group closely associated with premodern forms of social organization, showing how the group was repeatedly redefined so as to preserve interpretations of French history that centered on the bourgeoisie and on certain forms of modernization. The old nobles, it was commonly agreed, could not fully cope with the modern world; examining approaches to them thus offers yet another point of access to historians’ understanding of the divide between their own world and its antecedents.

Taken together, these specific inquiries are meant to answer broad questions about modern historical thought. They point to a basic fact: interest in the history of society has been central to French historical consciousness since the early nineteenth century. It could scarcely have been otherwise, given the importance that contemporaries attached to historical knowledge during these years and the societal dramas that they witnessed. This interest centered on a specific problem, that of understanding the nature of the premodern world and defining the qualities that divided it from modernity. In turn, these interests helped shape these writers’ understanding of the historian himself (and more rarely, herself), producing for the first time an image of historians as disengaged scientists, indifferent to the societal developments that they traced, without allegiance to any particular ethical system, unmoved even by hopes for social progress. Finally, all this entails a rereading of some of the great twentieth-century contributors to historical thought. In writing their own social histories, I argue here, Lucien Febvre and his colleagues entered an already existing field of inquiry, rather than creating something altogether new. But in doing so they gave this form of history a particular orientation, as ultimately a defense of modernity and of the French path to it. Their historical writing, like the other histories examined here, served the present in which they lived—as all good history ultimately must.