And I, who have sprung from them, I, who have lived, toiled, and suffered with them—who, more than any other have purchased the right to say that I know them—I come to establish against all mankind the personality of the people. –Jules Michelet
Leopold von Ranke famously advised his students to write impartial histories. An account of the battle of Waterloo, he said, should be agreeable to the French, Germans, and Britons alike. Jules Michelet (1798–1874) would have none of it. There was one perspective on history that interested him: the French perspective.
In this, Michelet was very much a child of his times, for nationalism was not then the quaint and suspect doctrine it often appears today, but a new and fiery religion, capable of inspiring the most ardent devotion imaginable. It was not a doctrine for conservatives and solid citizens either, as it would later become, but of liberals, reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. In practice, nationalism almost always steamrolled aspirations for impartiality in historical study during the early nineteenth century—even Ranke, for all his prudent counsel, tended to write as if Prussia were the apex of civilization.
What Michelet wanted, above all else, was to speak a living past to living people—to make the French aware of their past, and of their identity as French—not Gascons or Normans or Burgundians, not Catholics and Protestants or rich and poor, but a family united by common feeling and necessity. “Frenchmen, of every condition, every class, every party,” he said, “remember well one thing! You have on earth but one sure friend, France!” To bring his countrymen to this awareness, Michelet wrote an immense History of France (1833–1843; 1855–1867), which explained the origins of the French nation in the Middle Ages and ended, in its first installment, with a moving portrait of Joan of Arc.
She was in many ways a perfect hero for the story he wanted to tell. Like him, she was born into humble circumstances. Like him (and France), she inspired people far and wide with her idealism and bravery. And like him (and France), she ultimately paid the penalty of her virtues—but, like France also, the memory of her deeds continued to inspire. (Joan of Arc was burned by the English as a heretic; Michelet was forced out of the profession for refusing to take a loyalty oath; we note, in passing, that it was at about this time that heretics displaced saints as popular heroes.) Joan was the real spirit of France, Michelet argued, a commoner who had risen in an hour of crisis to defend the nation while the lords and clerics dawdled. She showed what the common people could do, if they believed.
This did not mean that Michelet was an adherent of the “great (wo)man theory of history,” so popular with his fellow romantics. Just the contrary—the people were his hero, not any one person, and his history was much, much larger than just her story. Similarly, Michelet was interested in the entirety of the past. He rejected the history of high politics pioneered by Ranke; economic, geographic, political, cultural, and intellectual history were all equally important, and he saw his task as spinning them together in order to reveal “the tableaux of France.”
What this view sacrificed in objectivity, it more than made up for in clarity of expression and power of feeling. Following Vico, whom he rescued from oblivion, Michelet stressed the importance of intuition, philology, and analogy in understanding the past. There was no need, as Ranke had advised, to view it as if from another planet—the historian must become resident. Similarly, because he saw in documents, not the dusty relics of an irrelevant past, but the voice of people clamoring to be remembered, to be resurrected (his expression, and emphasis), he was able, not just to see, but to feel, to think, to become, the past he wrote about. How else could one hope to explain what it had really been like?
The great moment of the nation, Michelet insisted in his History of the French Revolution (1847–53), was the early years of that eruption. This was the memory that must always be kept alive, for in those years every Frenchman and woman had known that they belonged to a single community, and had lived, thought, and acted as one. Because of it, the French had reformed their nation, abolished the entire rotten feudal order, and ruled the continent for a quarter century. The corruptors of the Revolution—Robespierre, Marat, and Napoleon—could not destroy that unity, and neither could it be defeated in war. Its ideals were too powerful to be forgotten or suppressed, and he rejoiced to see them spreading across Europe in his own time. But this was why, more than anything else, the French had to come together as a people. It was not just a question of idealism or fellow feeling, but of survival, for the rest of Europe was still ruled by tyrants who hated the Revolution.
“Before the ever-enduring coalition of aristocracies,” he reminded his countrymen, “you will always be guilty of one crime—to have wished, fifty years ago, to deliver the world. They have not forgiven it, nor will they ever forget it. You are their dread. … In the face of Europe, know that France will never have but one inexpiable name, which is her true, eternal designation—The Revolution!”
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.