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Considered one of the masters of French and European romanticism, Jules Michelet (1798-1874) is primarily presented as both the "father" ofhistory of France but also as the "teacher" of this nation. A man of the people, dedicated to the people, the historian has always believed that his mission was to enlighten them, to endow the still nascent republican institutions with a national history. Jules Michelet thus made himself a prophet of France, offering it an idealized and personified history. His prolific work remains today more essential than ever, but it is no less highly controversial. Rereading this pantheon of our history thus deserves as much caution and vigilance as it does pleasure and passion.
Jules Michelet, a relentless polygraph in the service of the Republic
Born in Paris in 1798, son of a printer, Jules Michelet grew up in the living memory of the Revolution. Doctor of Letters at 21, he became a history professor. In 1831, he entered the National Archives and taught at the university then, in 1838, became a professor at the Collège de France. Far from the sometimes idle image of the romantic, he presents himself as a tireless teacher. His approach to history is through teaching. His first writings are de facto school books that will give him an important first experience when embarking on his great national fresco.
The revolution of July 1830 struck the historian who then felt himself invested with a new mission, as he pointed out in his preface to the 1869 edition of the’History of France : “In those memorable days, a great light shone and I saw France. She had records, not a story ”. Michelet thus set about writing a monumental history of France, from the origins to the Revolution of 1789, seventeen volumes that took him over thirty years of his life. However, the prodigal historian, the relentless archivist researcher, is above all a man of letters and a fabulous storyteller imbued with romanticism and free thought. His desire was to give flesh to dead material, not hesitating to dramatize History in order to bring it to life.
Michelet will pause this fresco many times, especially when he feels the breath of the reborn Republic (the Second Republic) that he wishes to guide with his History of the Revolution (1847-1853), great indictment against the Ancien Régime. His hostility to the Second Empire deprived him of any official function, leaving him free to complete his History of France as well as write more poetic texts on nature such as The birds (1956) and The insects (1957). Michelet also wrote more moral essays on The women (1859) or again Love (1958), more controversial writings such as The people (1846) or The Bible of humanity (1864) without forgetting The witch (1862) where Michelet sometimes gives free rein to his imagination.
Jules Michelet died in 1874 as he had lived: while working on a History of the XIXe century.
A French historian with a contested legacy
Michelet’s work is one of the most prolific but also of the most complex. It is difficult to form an overall opinion on a work of such scope. One of the historian's merits was to rely on unpublished documents when he was head of the National Archives. However, as his career progressed, he sometimes fell into the easy, using unverified secondary sources and revealing himself a posteriori wrong.
When we read Michelet, we are above all struck by his beautiful pen, his unique way of romanticizing and bringing history to life, but also his bias. Two main elements are thus generally criticized by historians in Michelet: his lack of rigor and his omnipresent morality. Michelet writes History with his heart and does not hesitate to express his likes and dislikes in the face of past events. A man of the people, he remains undeniably attached to the Republic and its ideas, even passing for one of its propagandists.
It is thus necessary to place Michelet's legacy in its historical current, that of the French historical school resolutely republican and deliberately hostile to the Ancien Régime. To cite Michelet's writings is to cite texts aimed at denouncing the so-called misdeeds of past centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Revolution. The dominant idea then was to present history as a continuous progress both in techniques and in the moral sense until peace and republican justice. The ideal of progress which must be taught to the people, this is the creed by Michelet, a creed not without taking a position.
The work of Jules Michelet is thus characterized more by its generous and enthusiastic writing, its passion as a storyteller than by its historical truth. It is indeed from him that important historical errors flow as well as a large number of myths which have had and still have a strong hold on our history. Michelet has thus bequeathed to us a romantic rereading of the history of France, a legend that gives us dreams but also shows us the dangers of the confusion between morality, power and history.
- MICHELET, Jules, Histoire de France: Tome 1, La Gaule, les Invasions, Charlemagne, Editions des Equateurs, Paris, 2008.
- MICHELET, Jules, History of the French Revolution, Editions Gallimard, Collection Folio Histoire, Paris, 2007.
- MICHELET, Jules, La Sorcière, Editions Flammarion, Paris, 1993.
- PETITIER, Paule, Jules Michelet: The man in history, Editions Grasset, Paris, 2006.