Who invented Vercingétorix?

Julian Jackson

  • Rethinking France: Les Lieux de mémoire. Volume I: The State by Pierre Nora, translated by Mary Trouille
    Chicago, 475 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 226 59132 8

Who broke the Vase of Soissons? Once, every French school child would have known the answer to that question, as they would have known that their ancestors were Gauls with blue eyes and blond hair (they knew this even if they were learning their lessons in Africa or the West Indies); that Charlemagne had a flowing white beard and cared about education (but he may have been most popular because his coronation date, 800, was so easy to remember); that Philip Augustus was a good king because he beat the Germans; that Catherine de Médicis was a bad woman because she killed so many Protestants; that Henri IV wanted every peasant to have a chicken in the pot on Sundays.

The children learnt all this from their primary school textbook, popularly known as the ‘Petit Lavisse’. It offered them a seamless account of the history of France in which even the monarchs of the Ancien Régime had contributed to the sacred task of making the country that beacon of humanity which culminated in the Third Republic. Its author, Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922), one of the luminaries of that Republic, was also the editor of an 18-volume collective history of France which was later much derided by the Annales school as the worst kind of positivist and exclusively political history.

Almost a century later, the seven volumes of Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire, of which this is the latest to be translated, stand comparison with Lavisse at least in ambition and scope. Sumptuously produced and copiously illustrated, they contain 130 articles by the most distinguished contemporary historians. The series appeared in stages: one volume entitled La République in 1984, three entitled La Nation in 1986, three entitled Les Frances in 1992. This is not history à la Lavisse. Nora and his contributors offer not a linear history but a history of France through the sedimentations of national memory; they study not the past ‘in itself’ but its construction through memory and myth. The ‘sites of memory’ include buildings and monuments (Notre Dame, Vézélay, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre), symbols and emblems (the tricolore, the Gallic cock), traditions (wine, the café, gallantry), individuals (Joan of Arc, Descartes), dates and commemorations (the centenaries of Voltaire and Rousseau), writings (Larousse dictionaries, A la recherche du temps perdu), institutions (the Collège de France, the Académie Française) and so on.

The Lieux de mémoire was symptomatic of a return to favour of political history after the collapse in the 1980s of the previously dominant Marxist or Structuralist paradigms. One sign of this was the new fashion for biography, a genre previously looked down on by the Annales historians. Now even some of them have tried their hand at biography – though not of an entirely conventional kind. The return to politics also avoided straight narrative and focused instead on ‘political culture’. No one has been more sensitive in sniffing out and amplifying these shifts than Pierre Nora, who is one of the most enterprising intellectual impresarios in France, operating at the intersection of three worlds: publishing, journalism and academia. As an academic, he teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes; as an editor at Gallimard he has helped to launch the publishing careers of several historians (Le Goff, Duby, Le Roy Ladurie) and edited volumes serving as manifestos for the ‘new history’; as a journalist, he has links to the left of centre Nouvel Observateur, and in 1980 he founded his own journal, Le Débat (published by Gallimard), which set out to fill the void left by the collapse of the intellectual certainties of the 1960s and 1970s, setting itself implicitly both against Foucault and against the Sartrean Les Temps modernes.

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