Jules Michelet

Jules Michelet

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Jules Michelet was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 historian
Historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

. He was born in Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 to a family with Huguenot
Huguenot
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the 17th century, people who formerly would have been called Huguenots have instead simply been called French Protestants, a title suggested by their German co-religionists, the...

 traditions.

Early life


His father was a master printer, not very prosperous, and Jules assisted him in the actual work of the press. A place was offered him in the imperial printing office, but his father was able to send him to the famous Collège or Lycée Charlemagne, where he distinguished himself. He passed the university examination in 1821, and was soon appointed to a professorship of history in the Collège Rollin.

Soon after this, in 1824, he married. This was one of the most favourable periods ever for scholars and men of letters in France, and Michelet had powerful patrons in Abel-François Villemain
Abel-François Villemain
Abel-François Villemain was a French politician and writer.-Biography:Villemain was born in Paris and educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. He became assistant master at the Lycée Charlemagne, and subsequently at the École Normale. In 1812 he gained a prize from the Academy with an essay on Michel...

 and Victor Cousin
Victor Cousin
Victor Cousin was a French philosopher. He was a proponent of Scottish Common Sense Realism and had an important influence on French educational policy.-Early life:...

, among others. Although he was an ardent politician (having from his childhood embraced republicanism
Republicanism
Republicanism is the ideology of governing a nation as a republic, where the head of state is appointed by means other than heredity, often elections. The exact meaning of republicanism varies depending on the cultural and historical context...

 and a peculiar variety of romantic free-thought), he was above all a man of letters and an inquirer into the history of the past. His earliest works were school textbooks.

Between 1825 and 1827 he produced diverse sketches, chronological tables, etc., of modern history. His précis of the subject, published in 1827, is a sound and careful book, far better than anything that had appeared before it, and written in a sober yet interesting style. In the same year he was appointed maître de conferences at the École normale supérieure
École normale supérieure
An école normale supérieure or ENS is a type of publicly funded higher education in France. A portion of the student body who are French civil servants are called Normaliens....

.

Four years later, in 1831, the Introduction à l'histoire universelle showed a very different style, exhibiting the idiosyncrasy
Idiosyncrasy
An idiosyncrasy is an unusual feature of a person . The term is often used to express eccentricity or peculiarity. A synonym may be .-Etymology:...

 and literary power of the writer to greater advantage, but also displaying, in the words of the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, "the peculiar visionary qualities which made Michelet the most stimulating, but the most untrustworthy (not in facts, which he never consciously falsifies, but in suggestion) of all historians."

Record Office


The events of 1830 had placed him in a better position for study by obtaining him a place in the Record Office, and a deputy-professorship under Guizot in the literary faculty of the university. Soon afterwards he began his chief and monumental work, the Histoire de France that would take 30 years to complete. But he accompanied this with numerous other books, chiefly of erudition, such as the Œuvres choisies de Vico, the Mémoires de Luther écrits par lui-même, the Origines du droit français, and somewhat later the le Procès des Templiers.

1838 was a year of great importance in Michelet's life. He was in the fullness of his powers, his studies had fed his natural aversion to the principles of authority and ecclesiasticism, and at a moment when the revived activity of the Jesuits caused some real and more pretended alarm he was appointed to the chair of history at the Collège de France
Collège de France
The Collège de France is a higher education and research establishment located in Paris, France, in the 5th arrondissement, or Latin Quarter, across the street from the historical campus of La Sorbonne at the intersection of Rue Saint-Jacques and Rue des Écoles...

. Assisted by his friend Edgar Quinet
Edgar Quinet
Edgar Quinet was a French historian and intellectual.-Early years:Born at Bourg-en-Bresse, in the département of Ain. His father, Jérôme Quinet, had been a commissary in the army, but being a strong republican and disgusted with Napoleon's 18 Brumaire coup, he gave up his post and devoted himself...

, he began a violent polemic against the unpopular order and the principles which it represented, a polemic which made their lectures, and especially Michelet's, one of the most popular resorts of the day.
He published, in 1839, his Histoire romaine, but this was in his graver and earlier manner. The results of his lectures appeared in the volumes Du prêtre, de la femme et de la famille and Le peuple. These books do not display the apocalyptic style which, partly borrowed from Lamennais
Hughes Felicité Robert de Lamennais
Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais , was a French priest, and philosophical and political writer.-Youth:Félicité de Lamennais was born at Saint-Malo on June 19, 1782, the son of a wealthy merchant...

, characterizes Michelet's later works, but they contain in miniature almost the whole of his curious ethicopolitico-theological creed—a mixture of sentimentalism
Sentimentalism
Sentimentalism is used in different ways:* Sentimentalism , a theory in moral epistemology concerning how one knows moral truths; also known as moral sense theory* Sentimentalism , a form of literary discourse...

, communism
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

, and anti-sacerdotalism
Sacerdotalism
Sacerdotalism is the idea that a propitiatory sacrifice for sin must be offered by the intervention of an order of men separated to the priesthood...

, supported by the most eccentric arguments, but urged with a great deal of eloquence.

The principles of the outbreak of 1848 were in the air, and Michelet was one of many who condensed and propagated them: his original lectures were of so incendiary a kind that the course had to be interdicted. However, when the revolution broke out, Michelet, unlike many other men of letters, did not attempt to enter active political life, and merely devoted himself more strenuously to his literary work. Besides continuing the great history, he undertook and carried out, during the years between the downfall of Louis Philippe
Louis-Philippe of France
Louis Philippe I was King of the French from 1830 to 1848 in what was known as the July Monarchy. His father was a duke who supported the French Revolution but was nevertheless guillotined. Louis Philippe fled France as a young man and spent 21 years in exile, including considerable time in the...

 and the final establishment of Napoleon III, an enthusiastic Histoire de la revolution française.

Minor books


The coup d'état
Coup d'état
A coup d'état state, literally: strike/blow of state)—also known as a coup, putsch, and overthrow—is the sudden, extrajudicial deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to replace the deposed government with another body; either...

lost Michelet his place in the Record Office, since he refused to take the oaths to the empire. The new régime kindled afresh his republican zeal, and his second marriage with Mlle Athenais Mialaret, a lady of some literary capacity and of republican sympathies, seems to have further stimulated his powers. While his great work of history was still his main pursuit, a crowd of extraordinary little books accompanied and diversified it. Sometimes they were expanded versions of its episodes, sometimes what may be called commentaries or companion volumes. In some of the best of them natural science, a new subject with Michelet, to which his wife is believed to have introduced him, supplies the text.
The first of these (by no means the best) was Les Femmes de la revolution (1854), in which Michelet's natural and inimitable faculty of dithyramb
Dithyramb
The dithyramb was an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility; the term was also used as an epithet of the god: Plato, in The Laws, while discussing various kinds of music mentions "the birth of Dionysos, called, I think, the dithyramb." Plato also...

ic too often gives way to tedious and not very conclusive argument and preaching. In the next, L'Oiseau (1856), a new and most successful vein was struck. The subject of natural history was treated, not from the point of view of mere science, nor from that of sentiment, but from that of the author's fervent democratic pantheism
Pantheism
Pantheism is the view that the Universe and God are identical. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or creator god. The word derives from the Greek meaning "all" and the Greek meaning "God". As such, Pantheism denotes the idea that "God" is best seen as a process of...

.

L'Insecte, in the same key, but duller, followed. It was succeeded by L'Amour (1859), one of the author's most popular books. These remarkable works, half pamphlets half moral treatises, succeeded each other as a rule at the twelve months' interval, and the succession was almost unbroken for five or six years.
L'Amour was followed by La Femme (1860), a book on which a whole critique of French literature and French character might be founded.
Then came La Mer (1861), a return to the natural history class, which, considering the powers of the writer and the attraction of the subject, is perhaps a little disappointing.
The next year (1862) the most striking of all Michelet's minor works, La Sorcière
Satanism and Witchcraft
Satanism And Witchcraft is a book by Jules Michelet on the history of witchcraft, published, originally in French, in 1862. The first English translation was published in London in 1863. According to Michelet, medieval witchcraft was an act of popular rebellion against the oppression of feudalism...

, made its appearance. Developed out of an episode of the history, it has all its author's peculiarities in the strongest degree. It is a nightmare and nothing more, but a nightmare of the most extraordinary verisimilitude and poetical power.

This remarkable series, every volume of which was a work at once of imagination and of research, was not even yet finished, but the later volumes exhibit a certain falling off.
The ambitious Bible de l'humanité (1864), an historical sketch of religions, has but little merit.
In La Montagne (1868), the last of the natural history series, the tricks of staccato style are pushed even farther than by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo
Victor-Marie Hugo was a Frenchpoet, playwright, novelist, essayist, visual artist, statesman, human rights activist and exponent of the Romantic movement in France....

 in his less inspired moments, though—as is inevitable, in the hands of such a master of language as Michelet—the effect is frequently grandiose if not grand.
Nos fils (1869), the last of the string of smaller books published during the author's life, is a tractate on education, written with ample knowledge of the facts and with all Michelet's usual sweep, and range of view, if with visibly declining powers of expression.
But in a book published posthumously, Le Banquet, these powers reappear at their fullest. The picture of the industrious and famishing populations of the Riviera is (whether true to fact or not) one of the best things that Michelet has done. To complete the list of his miscellaneous works, two collections of pieces, written and partly published at different times, may be mentioned. These are Les Soldats de la révolution and Legendes démocratiques du nord.

Michelet's Origines du droit français, cherchées dans les symboles et les formules du droit universel was edited by Émile Faguet
Émile Faguet
Auguste Émile Faguet was a French author and literary critic.Faguet was born at La Roche-sur-Yon, and educated at the École normale supérieure in Paris. After teaching for some time in La Rochelle and Bordeaux, he returned to Paris to act as assistant professor of poetry in the university. He...

 in 1890 and went into a second edition in 1900.

The publication of this series of books, and the completion of his history, occupied Michelet during both decades of the empire.
He lived partly in France, partly in Italy, and was accustomed to spend the winter on the Riviera, chiefly at Hyères
Hyères
Hyères , Provençal Occitan: Ieras in classical norm or Iero in Mistralian norm) is a commune in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in southeastern France....

.

Masterpiece



At last, in 1867, the great work of his life was finished. In the usual edition it fills nineteen volumes. The first of these deals with the early history up to the death of Charlemagne, the second with the flourishing time of feudal France, the third with the 13th century, the fourth, fifth, and sixth with the Hundred Years' War
Hundred Years' War
The Hundred Years' War was a series of separate wars waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou, for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings...

, the seventh and eighth with the establishment of the rural power under Charles VII
Charles VII of France
Charles VII , called the Victorious or the Well-Served , was King of France from 1422 to his death, though he was initially opposed by Henry VI of England, whose Regent, the Duke of Bedford, ruled much of France including the capital, Paris...

 and Louis XI
Louis XI of France
Louis XI , called the Prudent , was the King of France from 1461 to 1483. He was the son of Charles VII of France and Mary of Anjou, a member of the House of Valois....

. The 16th and 17th centuries have four volumes apiece, much of which is very distantly connected with French history proper, especially in the two volumes entitled Renaissance and Reforme. The last three volumes carry on the history of the 18th century to the outbreak of the Revolution.

Academic reception


Michelet was perhaps the first historian to devote himself to anything like a picturesque history of the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, and his account is still the most vivid that exists. His inquiry into manuscript and printed authorities was most laborious, but his lively imagination, and his strong religious and political prejudices, made him regard all things from a singularly personal point of view. There is an unevenness of treatment of historical incidents. However, Michelet insistence that history should concentrate on “the people, and not only its leaders or its institutions” clearly drew inspiration from the French Revolution. Michelet was one of the first historians to apply these liberal principles to historical scholarship.

Political life


Uncompromisingly hostile as Michelet was to the empire, its downfall in 1870 in the midst of France's defeat by Prussia and the rise and fall of the Paris Commune during the following year once more stimulated him to activity. Not only did he write letters and pamphlets during the struggle, but when it was over he set himself to complete the vast task which his two great histories had almost covered by a Histoire du XIXe siècle. He did not, however, live to carry it farther than the Battle of Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands...

, and the best criticism of it is perhaps contained in the opening words of the introduction to the last volume--"l'âge me presse" (Age hurries me). The new republic was not altogether a restoration for Michelet, and his professorship at the Collège de France, of which he always contended he had been unjustly deprived, was not given back to him.

Grave


Upon his death from a heart attack at Hyères on Feb. 9, 1874, Jules Michelet was interred there. At his widow's request, a Paris court granted permission for his body to be exhumed on May 13, 1876. On May 16, his coffin arrived for reburial at Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Michelet's monument there, designed by architect Jean-Louis Pascal
Jean-Louis Pascal
Jean-Louis Pascal was an academic French architect.- Life :Born in Paris, Pascal was taught at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts by Émile Gilbert and Charles-Auguste Questel...

, was erected in 1893 through public subscription.

Further reading

  • To The Finland Station
    To the Finland Station
    To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History is a book by American critic and historian Edmund Wilson. The work presents the history of revolutionary thought and the birth of socialism, from the French Revolution through the collaboration of Marx and Engels to the arrival...

    by Edmund Wilson
    Edmund Wilson
    Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary and social critic and noted man of letters.-Early life:Wilson was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. His father, Edmund Wilson, Sr., was a lawyer and served as New Jersey Attorney General. Wilson attended The Hill School, a college preparatory...

  • Michelet by Roland Barthes
    Roland Barthes
    Roland Gérard Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, anthropology and...

  • Lionel Gossman
    Lionel Gossman
    Lionel Gossman is a Scottish-American scholar of French literature. He taught Romance Languages at Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University, and has written extensively on the history, theory and practice of historiography, and more recently, on aspects of German cultural...

    "Jules Michelet and Romantic Historiography," in Scribner's European Writers, eds. Jacques Barzun and George Stade (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985), vol. 5, 571-606
  • Lionel Gossman
    Lionel Gossman
    Lionel Gossman is a Scottish-American scholar of French literature. He taught Romance Languages at Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University, and has written extensively on the history, theory and practice of historiography, and more recently, on aspects of German cultural...

    "Michelet and Natural History: The Alibi of Nature," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 145 (2001), 283-333

External links