Ancient history

Five good reasons to re-read Jules Michelet

Last updated:2022-07-25

Jules Michelet photographed by Nadar around 1855-1856

1. He is a great writer

An “authentic genius and high-class prose writer. The judgment that Jean-Paul Sartre pronounces on Michelet in What is literature? is laudatory. The philosopher is not the only one to consider that the historian should be counted among the writers. Roland Barthes, who devoted a book to him, considered that Michelet should be admitted among the greatest writers of French literature of the 19 th century. The prestigious collection of the Pléiade, which publishes only the most recognized authors, has thus included Michelet in its catalog where he is, with Georges Duby, the only "modern" historian to appear (the "ancients" such as Hérodote, Thucydides and Tacitus share this honor with them). Michelet was indeed convinced that history could not only be an exercise in scholarship, but that it also had to bring the past to life. The historian therefore gives breath to his story, he paints large pictures and tries to render the interiority of the characters of the past (in particular by the free indirect speech of which Flaubert, his contemporary, had also made a specialty). By giving the writing of history a strong aesthetic dimension, Michelet largely contributed to making the past the subject of a new form of literature. History must be a “resurrection”, noted Michelet. By the power of his style, he certainly succeeds in bringing us into the company of the dead.

2. He bases history on the study of archives

"There are beautiful pages, but in terms of historical research, it sucks..." Pierre Chaunu, who was one of the masters of quantitative history and defended a history based on solid statistics, does not not go overboard when asked his opinion on Michelet. This contempt is however severe. Admittedly, Michelet sometimes read the archives from which he worked without much critical thinking. But at least he relied on them! He who was head of the historical section of the National Archives was directly in contact with the documents, and he was one of the first to consider that the work of the historian could not do without the study of the latter. Until the beginning of the 19 th century, history books were written without directly consulting the traces of the past, but only based on existing works. It is therefore easy to criticize Michelet's insufficient documentation:on the contrary, he clearly reinforced the methodological requirements of historical work, which were very limited before him. The great historian Lucien Febvre, who devoted a course to Michelet at the Collège de France, thus noted how innovative he was compared to the historians of his time, such as François Guizot or Augustin Thierry. “Let us not forget that the banalities of today were the almost revolutionary originality of yesterday and the day before yesterday,” he recalled. Before concluding:“Michelet has so completely won certain battles that we no longer even think that they had to be won. »

3. It clears the history of women, of the body, of the environment

Of course, the story progressed; knowledge has accumulated, methods have been perfected, and many of the ideas defended by Michelet in his works have become obsolete. However, his writings remain a reservoir of intuitions from which many contemporary historians draw. Michelet, in fact, was a daring historian who was not only interested in political history, a dimension to which the study of the past was then reduced. The immense medievalist Jacques Le Goff, who became a great defender of the history of mentalities, thus retained from Michelet the place he had given to the imagination in the medieval West, this "so great civilization of dreams". In recent decades, while the history of women has asserted itself, we remember that Michelet had already been interested in them. Madeleine Rebérioux noted that The Witch is the “first book in which the history of women is empowered”. Michelet was also interested in material civilization, thus being able to be regarded as a distant precursor of the School of the Annales of Lucien Febvre and Fernand Braudel, which would be the glory of French historiography in the XX th > century. He still looked at the history of the body, in particular by paying attention to the diseases specific to each era. Finally, while the history of sensitivities is developing today – which focuses on the sensory perception that men have of the world in which they live – at the same time as environmental history – which looks at the relationship between humans to an environment that we know is by no means fixed – his book La Mer has something of avant-garde research.

4. He “invented” the Renaissance

Michelet sees in human history a long ascent marked by successive ages. For him, humanity begins to enter adulthood in the 15th century. century, when it emerges from the Middle Ages. Admittedly, the Europeans then remained Christians, but they no longer lived in close dependence on the Church and were no longer exclusively occupied with the question of God. An immense progress is emerging in the arts, the sciences, and thought. This boom can be explained by a return to ancient texts, Greek in particular. Since we are returning to Antiquity, Michelet evokes a second birth, a “Renaissance”. The concept flourished and imposed itself to designate the period that ran from the middle of the 15th th in the middle of the XVI th century, both in French and in many other European languages. This Renaissance, he says, was born in Italy before spreading to France following the Italian wars. It was during these conflicts that a still medieval France encountered the homeland of the revival of arts and letters. Michelet then deploys one of his most beautiful formulas:“This barbarism recklessly collides one morning with this high civilization; it is the clash of two worlds, but much more, of two ages that seemed so far apart; shock and spark; and from this spark, the pillar of fire which was called the Renaissance. »

5. It makes the people the great character of history

While we were mainly interested in great men, Michelet no longer makes kings, emperors or popes the only protagonists of history. With him appears a new actor which he considers to occupy a major place in the transformations of the world:the people. The culture in which Michelet is immersed is dominated by romanticism, an artistic movement fascinated by popular folklore. His era was also marked by the rise of national sentiment, and Michelet himself witnessed multiple insurgencies of the Parisian working classes. A son of his time, he went through a period that pushed him to give the people – to whom he devoted a book in 1846 – a role that had hitherto been denied to him in the history of France. This people, sometimes, is embodied in singular figures, like Joan of Arc to whom Michelet devotes some of his most beautiful pages. An ardent republican, Michelet saw in the French Revolution the moment when the people became aware of themselves in order to give birth to a new world. This is why he held the History of the French Revolution – which he had planned to call The Foundation – for his most important work.