French historians at work, 1995-2010 (collective)

The general public has an ignorance of historical research, of its vitality, and therefore often the vision of a discipline, history, which would be a little sclerotic or even dusty. He also tends to reduce current historiography to a few media historians and the subjects that obsess them, such as Napoleon or the Second World War. However, research in history is very dynamic and innovative, and in many fields that are too little known. The publication in the Presses Universitaires de France of this collective work is an opportunity to take stock.

A historiographical panorama

The initiative for this work is credited to the French Committee of Historical Sciences (which has existed since the 1920s). It is the result of the January 2010 colloquium, described as a “refoundation” colloquium by Jean-François Sirinelli in his introduction. It is also an opportunity to take stock of French research, fifteen years after that of François Bédarida. All of this in an increasingly international context, where exchanges between researchers are increasing, but also where French research must show its dynamism.

The historical period approach

The work is divided into two main parts: the first takes up the university system of the periods, ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary. We know it is highly criticized (and rightly so), but it is probably the easiest and clearest way to take stock of the situation. The second part is thematic, with areas that cut across historical periods.

The four parts dealing with periods are of unequal size, and very different in content in approach to the subject. The first offers "an overview of research in the sciences of Antiquity in France from 1995 to 2010" (Stéphane Benoist), with a division between the history of the Near and Middle East and that of Greece and the Roman world. . We can regret a somewhat rapid treatment which gives a (misleading) impression of a lack of vitality in research in ancient history, but we must salute the precious bibliography included at the end of the article.

The second part, on the Middle Ages, prepared by Claude Gauvard and Régine le Jan, is the most consistent and by far the most fascinating and clear. After a general presentation on the profession of medievalist, on the challenges of defining the Middle Ages and the contribution of sociology and anthropology to research, the authors present to us the way in which research in medieval history is structured. (the articulation between research laboratories and various organizations such as the University Institute of France or the National Research Agency), then the “renewal of the themes studied over the past twenty years”; this sub-section is particularly rich and demonstrates the great dynamism (through debates, that on the year 1000 or the crisis of 1300) and the great diversity (the West, the East, the Mediterranean world for the geographical, but also very different themes, such as violence or the history of the elites) of a medieval history more alive than ever.

The article on modern history is also interesting, but like the one on ancient history can be a bit succinct and confusing; this is partly explained by what Roger Chartier observes: the problem of the delimitation of this period. This poses at least as much debate as it did in the Middle Ages, and modern history is often split in two with the main stake as the integration or not of the Revolution and the Empire; the author even speaks of a decline (admittedly relative) of modern history, in favor of the so-called contemporary period. This does not prevent research from being there as well, and even from contributing to other periods, thanks to the development of social history and economic history. In addition, modern history is distinguished by its interest in the place of France in the world with works on the slave trade and colonial expansion. This openness to the world is also seen in the opposite direction with the significant contribution of foreign historians to research on the history of France.

The last part therefore deals with contemporary history. As Philippe Poirrier said at the outset, "to reconstruct, in a synthetic and not caricatural manner, the main trends which have governed, for fifteen years, contemporary history in France is a challenge". By choosing precise axes, however, the author avoids drowning his remarks; it first describes the transformation of the academic landscape (for example the decline of interest in the 19th century, or the activity of researchers on the Revolution), then asks the question of a socio-cultural turning point in contemporary history and returns to the debates that animate it (the history of communism, the “culture of war” around the Great War, and colonial history). Philippe Poirier then tackles the very interesting question of global history, of Anglo-Saxon influence, but which is beginning to develop in France. It concludes with an analysis of the historiography and epistemology of the period, and a reflection on "the challenges of valuing research". We would once again welcome the presence of a bibliography.

The thematic approach

What is perhaps the strength of this book is this thematic approach. Eleven in number, they are very varied but all interesting (and some fascinating). Importantly, they seem more inclined to describe the vigor and diversity of historical research than the arbitrary periodical approach. In fact, most of these themes are transversal and allow us to go beyond the quarrels or rivalries that sometimes exist between historians of such and such a period.

From this thematic part, we will first retain the article on archeology, the latter having been of decisive importance for fifteen years in the research and work of historians (the authors speak of a turning point); again, a welcome bibliography is included. Then, we appreciated Dominique Iogna-Prat's text on "the religious and the sacred", where the author speaks for the period 1995-2010 of a "opening up of the religious" in French historiography; the bibliography is also essential here. The theme of gender is, for its part, approached in the four periods with an "abundance and diversity of research", but without for all that it emerges a "French way", according to Christine Bard (who also offers a bibliography on this too little known area). Finally, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau raises the question of the relations between French historians and globalizations, a theme that is closer to "current events", but tackled late by French research, especially in relation to the Anglo-Saxons. However, this article may lack a bibliography.

For which audience?

Can a book dealing with the results of French research in history then be addressed to all audiences? We must first salute this initiative, which has the merit of demonstrating the vitality of French historiography, against popular belief. It is also beneficial in an increasingly international context, where France must assert itself in relation to its foreign colleagues, and not just Anglo-Saxons.

Anyone interested in history should be aware of the development of historiography. You have to be able to get out of the guidelines given by the mainstream media and most publishers, by media historians, but also (we can regret it) by teaching history in school and in high school. This is why, when you love history and not just when you are a historian, you have to know this book and ignore the few passages that are more or less pleasant or easy to grasp and understand. And do not hesitate to look at periods and areas that are not usually ours.

J-F. Sirinelli, P. Cauchy, C. Gauvard (dir), French historians at work (1995-2010), PUF, 2010, 336 p.

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