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For the Revolution did not just stimulate a widespread attraction to the past, it also shaped how this history would be written and with what sources. By tracing the impact of the revolutionary upheaval on objects and things—and not just in the s, but also deep into the nineteenth century—we can appreciate how material culture helped undergird the flourishing of historical awareness.

The idea that the Revolution might have played a positive role in this domain would have seemed strange to its early conservative opponents. The most obvious locus for examining the new status of such objects was of course the public museum. It has been argued that the closed world of the connoisseurs was shattered at the Revolution, and that art was inserted into a national, civic culture.

Yet in the face of this fascinating scholarship, the persistence of the private collectors has often been overlooked. Instead of rehashing the old polemics about the Jacobin vandalism, scholars need to pay more attention to the fate of objects that were displaced , rather than destroyed or displayed, by revolutionary fervour. By switching our inquiries from museums to private collections, we also help retrieve the diversity of motives—psychological, financial, scholarly, affective—that prompted individual agents to conserve and appropriate the past.

In this way, the world of collectors might act as a counterweight to the reduction of French history to purely political considerations. And this was particularly true for materials relating to the Revolution. When successive regimes shunned the painful reminders of the guillotine and civil war, it was lone individuals who stored and sheltered the strange alluvium of the First Republic. It was these individuals, largely forgotten in surveys of the foremost interpreters of , who played a crucial role in the reception and transmission of the revolutionary heritage.

Indeed, for the first historians of the Revolution, there were few alternatives. The place of material culture therefore needs to be worked back into the history of historiography. In this work of reconstruction, they built directly on the first generation of collectors, those contemporaries of the Revolution who began to preserve even in the midst of the maelstrom.

From its opening chapter, the Revolution presented an irresistible opportunity to scavengers of historical artefacts. In the summer of , the smouldering ruins of the Bastille were overrun with eager collectors, picking their way through the charred remnants to lay their hands on ancient manuscripts. Among this group of gleaners was the playwright Beaumarchais, looking for trophies of his bravery, as well as Matthieu-Guillaume Villenave, autograph connoisseur. A quick-witted Paris bookseller persuaded the cart driver to hand over the doomed cargo, in exchange for the same weight of scrap paper, and then made a fortune selling on the treasures to antiquarians in England.

During the paranoid years of the Terror, keepsakes from the old regime carried the whiff of counter-revolution.

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One boy from the provinces stuffed his pockets with records looted from the Bastille in , only to see his mother burn the whole stash four years later. As troops massed nearby for the siege of Lyon, she feared that safeguarding lettres de cachet signed by a former King Louis might be political suicide. Duplanil, a scholar and translator, was lucky to escape with his life after a chance inspection revealed drawers full of manuscripts signed by monarchs and aristocrats, such as Louis XIV and Turenne.

The fact that his correspondents were long dead did not apparently dispel suspicions that he was in league with enemies of the people. Duplanil escaped with his life, but his precious papers were pulped into ammunition. The stone heads of France's kings, lopped off from the west front of Notre-Dame cathedral, were uncovered intact in a cellar as late as Yet for the bold collector, the upheavals of the s offered an unparalleled chance to lay hands on a host of unique, profitable and peculiar historical objects.

An assistant to Lenoir, one Ledru, was able to salvage coronets, sceptres, burial robes and even mortal remains from the desecration of Saint -Denis. Later mayor of Fontenay-aux-Roses, and uncle to the radical politician Ledru-Rollin, he constructed a personal ossuary from the broken royal tombs. Giving tours around his ghoulish collection, Ledru would recall with a shudder the day he gazed upon the exposed cadavers of the French kings—Louis XIII still sporting his moustache and Louis XIV unchanged except for an ebony hue in his face.

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Ledru kept his collection a secret from all except trusted savants , since he feared having to return his booty to the state. The nineteenth century would continue to wrestle with the question of restoring countless dispersed objects to their original owners. Though the returning Bourbon monarchy may have been inaugurated in a symbolic blaze of reburials and restitutions—whether the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, or the heart of Turenne—the redistributive process went on far beyond The government was so eager to suppress the scandal that it intervened to put a halt to the sale.

In parallel to the proliferation of state museums under the July Monarchy, there thus existed a nebulous network of private collections, crammed with rich pickings gleaned out of the revolutionary turmoil. Mirabeau's skull adorned the home of Dr Joseph Sue, father to the melodramatic novelist, while Voltaire's finger, snapped off during his exhumation in , languished in an amateur natural history cabinet in Troyes.

He set an example to other collectors in chronologically grouping together autographs, rare books and engravings related to the same period. In contrast to some recent interpretations, it would thus be a mistake to imagine private collections simply as capricious sanctuaries, diametrically opposed to the educative purpose of modern museums. The skull of Richelieu owned by Armez was exhibited to a select group of historians, including Victor Cousin, and in was loaned out to an artist charged with painting the cardinal's portrait in the state council chambers. Journalist Henri Rochefort fondly recalled the abundant bargains to be found amidst the second-hand stalls of the Empire and Restoration.

As a result, the capital was flooded with the debris of the old regime, helping to stimulate and supply the growing vogue for historical souvenirs. Although it generated little income at the time, it signalled the arrival of a cultural practice that would mushroom over the coming decades, and eventually advance claims to being a historical science in its own right. This context of collecting seems particularly important for the fresh avenues opening up in historical writing by the mid-nineteenth century.

The richness of potential sources lurking along the Seine contrasted markedly with the difficulties amateur historians encountered in using public resources. Many Parisian archives were still not catalogued, had restricted access, and relied on curatorial nepotism. Ministerial archives in particular, such as foreign affairs, were almost entirely off limits. In the process, historical writing and thinking became enmeshed in a context that significantly inflected intellectual approaches to the past. We therefore find many lines of historical inquiry emerging directly out of the booming trade in bibelots and bric-a-brac.

It also reflected a growing conviction in the explanatory potential of material culture. There is a second aspect of the Revolution's relationship with material culture that we need to consider. Not only did it rip out the fixtures and fittings of the old regime, furnishing the Romantic generation with an abundance of new tools for reconstructing the past, but it also produced its own glut of plates and pikes, bonnets and banners, pamphlets and petitions, seals and swords.


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This was part of a concerted policy of oubli. In contrast to the state-sponsored commemoration of distant epochs from the French national past, the eighteenth century, and especially the Revolution, were conspicuous by their absence. It thus provided a mental landmark which all those who lived through came to invoke in their own experience.

How widespread was the practice? For those whose career peaked during the Revolution, or who knew some of its leading actors, the urge to collect obviously overlapped with autobiography. He drew directly on his own collections when penning his popular biographies of Napoleonic military heroes. Family members and relatives also played a crucial role in safeguarding the possessions of radical politicians. Until was officially embraced by the Third Republic, many of these potentially seditious items were kept away from prying eyes, and often reserved for a circle of reliable initiates.

One such shrine was the home of Lucas de Montigny, the adopted son of Mirabeau. In , the upstanding and devout Madame Lebas still cherished a Marseillaise -singing parrot once owned by her father, the landlord of Robespierre. For others, modern collectibles represented a sound investment. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, souvenirs of leading Jacobins changed hands at derisory prices: in , writings by Saint-Just went for just 4 francs, while Robespierre's decree setting up the revolutionary tribunal cost merely 15 francs. Lockets, papers and keepsakes belonging to revolutionary politicians were regularly auctioned off by impoverished relatives.

In , the personal effects of notorious public prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, fetched over francs in a sale overseen by his widow. Swords, axes and cutlasses changed hands easily, though the inconvenient size of the prize guillotine made it harder to sell. By reconstructing the afterlives of some of the most iconic symbols of the Revolution, we can clearly see how hiding and trading radical memorabilia was a cross-class affair. When it came to light again in , the priests struggled to find any national institution willing to house the infamous piece.

Although uncertainty surrounds how it was first acquired, the cranium of Marat's murderer passed through several hands until around it served as a grim table-decoration, terrifying select dinner guests at the house of the aforementioned prankster Corbeau de Saint-Albin. However unusual these objects, the tangled itinerary of both relics nonetheless sheds light on the context in which revolutionary material circulated.

It is a strange web of connections stretching from lowly flea-markets to wealthy scholars and connoisseurs. The foremost collector of French Revolution ephemera in the nineteenth century was no friend whatsoever to the principles of It is ironic that his decision to collect such materials came in the midst of a trip in which he repeatedly lamented the devastation wrought by the Jacobins in the south.

Thus, though the market value for revolutionary items may have grown over the century, this should not be seen as an infallible marker of reviving republican ideals. The price of old regime personalities also soared. It was the historical, rather than political, valence of an object that carried the greatest weight. A collector since , Fillon also dabbled in the distinctly un-revolutionary pursuits of Poitevin ceramics and numismatics.

Having discussed why it was that individuals amassed historical artefacts, we now need to investigate how they were used. For arguably the nature of these materials helped open up new avenues in social and cultural history. By the mid-nineteenth century, personal stockpiles were contributing significantly to French historiography, and especially to the historiography of the Revolution. For Vatel, the collectors were not simply facilitators, but collaborators in his project.

However, the harmonious co-operation of collectors could not be assumed. Following a spate of high-profile forgeries and frauds, the authenticity of artefacts was always contentious. Collaboration between historians and collectors remained fraught with tension, hedged around with suspicions of ingratitude, pilfering, even confiscation by the state. On one hand, working with different sources prompted historians to refine new techniques of looking at and handling evidence, and reshaped their interpretive assumptions.

On the other hand, collectors refused to languish as unacknowledged accomplices to the historian, but took pride in being coevals in a shared scientific endeavour. The editors of the autograph review Isographie regarded their growing expertise as a worthy counterpart to the methodological rigour of the Ecole des Chartes. An alternative figure, the historian-collector, was born; and with him, came new ways of retrieving the past. In a string of publications, a range of historian-collectors drew on their own eclectic possessions to expand the ways in which the recent past was visualized.

In , Pierre Hennin, a diplomat and antiquarian, published a numismatic history of the Revolution, where the principal actors and events were resurrected through a panoramic survey of the imagery embossed on its coins. Hennin lamented the horrors of iconoclasm, which had ravaged the public collections, and regarded his work as a warning against descending into further strife and factionalism. By the Second Empire, aspects of the revolutionary mindset were frequently deduced from contemporary poems, cartoons, clothing and songs. The most celebrated of all collectors-cum-historians of this period were undoubtedly the brothers Goncourt.

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Though they may have deplored Champfleury's want of taste, they too began their historical career with the study of revolutionary artefacts. Constructed out of over 15, autographs bought from the Charavay brothers, the text furnished a glittering mosaic of inventories and epigrams, panorama and analysis, knitted together through virtuoso stretches of dense, descriptive prose. For instance, the authors allocated far more space to Palloy and his Bastille merchandise than to the fall of the fortress itself. Stripped of their finery, French ladies were depicted decked out with the latest commemorative jewellery, such as tricolour snuff-boxes, rings inset with Bastille stones and crystal earrings inscribed with constitutional slogans.

But predating these methods, and perfectly embodying the convergence between cultural history and collecting practice, was the work of Auguste Challamel. In an survey of the character types found during the Revolution, he decried the scarcity and transience of revolutionary culture. Himself a collector of songs and music from the Revolution, he was highly sensitive to how objects, texts and tunes could be modified and appropriated by successive regimes.

He owned the score of a patriotic hymn composed by Gossec, which under the Restoration had been converted into a religious motet. For him, such transformations in the life of an artwork or an image offered vital clues to transformations in popular mentality. Evidence of these contested symbols could still be seen scratched into the walls and doorways of the French capital.

A turning-point in young Challamel's career came when he entered a basement on the rue des Boulangers, in the wretched Faubourg Saint-Manceau. The acknowledged doyen of Parisian collectors, Feuillet de Conches, was staggered by the abundance of objects gathered together. Challamel was not the only historian to be bowled over by Maurin's grotto. Skilfully cultivating relationships with relatives and descendants, he bought from Marat's sister many items belonging to her martyred brother. Challamel's response to this sans-culotte storehouse was, however, unique.

Here, Maurin's collection was treated not simply as an auxiliary to research but a meaningful locus of study itself. It offered both raw materials, but also a guiding itinerary through the cultural history of the republic. Hence he also drew on the manuscripts and objects preserved by the collectors Villenave, Hennin and Deschiens. He hoped that orientation towards tangible, concrete evidence would help liberate history from factional polarities.

He interrogated the conversations of the salons and the broadsides of the clubs, the iconography of the festivals and the renaming of civic space.

Thanks to his alliance with collectors, Challamel thus investigated a body of sources largely absent from the grandiose narratives of his more illustrious contemporaries. If the Revolution caused the disruption and dispersal of countless objects, it also acted as a catalyst for novel methods of recovery, in both physical and textual forms. Why has the role of material culture in the transmission of the Revolutionary heritage been obscured? Collecting certainly did not fade away in the later decades of the nineteenth century—in fact, stockpiling Revolutionary remnants became established as an impeccably polite and respectable pastime.

So, the idea of a new history of the American Revolution for a French public was regarded as a profitable investment by my publisher, who long ago convinced me that time is money. This was not my initial idea though. I intended to write a biography of Benjamin Franklin, the most popular American in eighteenth-century France.

But my publisher suggested that I expand the scope of my study, which I did. GP: The years saw French and American relations deteriorate dramatically. What was it like to be a French historian of the United States then?

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BC: It was difficult. I was then working on a project with Dale Van Kley and other American colleagues in Ohio, but it aborted because of the Iraq war, though we managed in due time to publish two collections of essays. I took this as a personal failure. Our idea was to study American and French patriotism in a comparative perspective.

One cannot understand the tumultuous history of French and American relations without bearing in mind their profound kinship and common naivety. A historian is a medium of sorts: he or she is sensitive to present events and seeks to understand the causes of such events in the past. But a historian is anchored in their time.

GP: Did you use your position of authority — as a historian of Protestantism — to assert the secular dimension of the American Revolution? BC: Yes, absolutely. French readers needed to understand this. The French perceive the United States as a country imbued with religion; they see it everywhere! I was once in South Carolina on the fourth of July. A good illustration is when Americans put their right hand on their heart when taking the oath of allegiance or singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

GP: Does writing about American history in French give you a certain liberty? Does language create a safe distance between historians and their topics? BC: Yes, indeed. And I would add that a foreign historian should not feel compelled to write in English. Multilingual comprehension 9 should be a viable alternative for Europeans, if they really believe in Europe as a pluralistic association.

In many instances, I have seen how English, when used indiscriminately, hampered communication and impoverished debates. BC: I am not sure. It all depends on the public. This is precisely what I did when my Calvin was translated into English and published in the United States: I rewrote whole passages for the American reader. All references are English-language references.

BC: Yes, of course. I would add that today, any French reader with an interest in the history of an English-speaking country has a reading knowledge of English. This may be taken for granted. This was not the case some fifty years ago. Have such illustrious figures discouraged or encouraged French historians to write other histories of the American Revolution?

You mentioned Tocqueville: I am a very keen Tocqueville reader. Alexis de Tocqueville was a nineteenth-century French aristocrat who witnessed the emergence of democracy in the United States and France, a transformation that he regarded as inevitable and damaging for his own status. As a member of the French aristocracy, he would have much to lose. There is a sense of tragic inevitability in his writings. But what I admire most about Tocqueville is the way he gets involved: he, as a subject, is involved in his writings, yet he does not write about himself.

He is a writer who dares to think. He is a writer who makes you think. Good history is precisely this: it makes you think. And this is how our two Revolutions may be connected: through the writings of people like Alexis de Tocqueville. GP: Which brings me to my central question: have French historians of the American Revolution long lived under the shadow of the French Revolution?

In other words, may we hold the view that the French historiography of the American Revolution has had to emancipate itself from the French Revolution? Have French historians of the American Revolution succeeded in doing so? BC: It has been a long process and I still believe that the two revolutions are very much connected.

As a historian, I turn to great authors for guidance. Alexis de Tocqueville is one of them, Karl Marx is another. From a historiographical viewpoint, Marx is the opposite of Tocqueville. Historians have turned to Marx to escape Tocqueville and vice versa. I read them both. Conversely, many people have turned to Marx for answers, wishing to know how history would unfold. But Marx never meant to predict the future!

So I read both Marx and Tocqueville, because they give complementary explanations of the two revolutions. They are two intellectual giants who lived in the same century and were equally fascinated by England and the United States. The problem is that French historians have long privileged Marx over Tocqueville and they have based their works on an erroneous interpretation of Marx, as E. Thompson pointed out in his Poverty of Theory.

In spite of its remarkable historical precision and acumen, the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution, propagated by the Communist post-war generation owes more to Robespierre than to Marx. Marx never was a Jacobin. He even blamed the Communards for attempting to reenact the French Revolution! Marx would have probably sided with Furet in the raging controversy of the s. One should always make a clear distinction between Marx and Marxism. Marx is a complex, fascinating figure, while Marxism is a boring, mechanistic, autocratic, totalitarian caricature.

Marx is the author of a complex, unfinished body of writings, which does not boil down to the Communist Manifesto. And few people realize that Marx was actually fascinated by the American Civil War and the Reconstruction. As a journalist, he was at first not quite convinced by Abraham Lincoln, whom he found too moderate; but after a few months he realized that Lincoln was a methodical, incredibly efficient politician. For him, these events were of equal significance to the revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

He saw the American Civil War as a conflict between two modes of production: slavery and paid labor.

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BC: Yes, there were such attempts; but given the prevalence of the French brand of Marxism, these initial attempts failed. This infuriated Albert Soboul, who saw it as an attempted American takeover of the French Revolution. I find such debates completely irrelevant. It is simply futile to try to substitute one revolution for the other! GP: What impact, if any, did the bicentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence have in France?

Did it create an opportunity for French historians of the United States to become more visible? BC: Yes, a number of academic events were organized. But French historians of the United States became more visible in French academia only. Her book studies the nation-building process underway at the time of the American Revolution.

Her approach, I would say, is linked to our common experience of decolonization. We are a generation of historians who witnessed the dislocation of the French colonial empire, the war with Algeria and the birth of new nations carved out of this empire. The American Revolution also marked the end of a first colonial empire.

These readers were published in France, in English. American history had earned its place among English studies and its ascendance was not over.