‘Jeux de mémoire et de l’oubli’
On 5th June 2014 the French National Archives held a study day on ‘Constuire les sources d’une histoire de la Révolution française, jeux de mémoire et de l’oubli’ co-hosted by the Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française. Having personally been faced with incomplete inventories, confronted the scarcity of sources, and dug through archives boxes containing all manner of ‘mélanges’, the topic of memory and neglect seemed more than appropriate.
The day’s papers offered a variety of insights into the current status of French Revolutionary research, covering a variety of topics from parliamentary minutes to memoires, from the Revolutionary governments’ ordering of ever increasing statistics to today’s methods of classification and publication. The papers relied upon sources from a range of archival institutions (both public, such as the Archives nationales, the Bibliothèque national de France, international online sources, such as Gallica and Stanford’s collections, and private collections). Throughout the papers there was the strong sense of the relative paucity of the archive because of the disintegration and destruction of innumerable documents, both at the time and later by events such as the Paris Commune fire. The archive is always selective in its holdings, as we in turn are selective in our visits and research today. To this effect, the idea was raised that archives should be more readily accessible, partially to combat our subjective selection through the confrontation of the mass of information. Regardless of the archives’ absences, there was still the strong feeling that as yet unfound sources could overturn the dominant narratives of French Revolutionary history. This was even stronger since the archive is ever expanding, with new collections and sources arriving, classifications changing, and the very notion of a ‘source’ expanding beyond the written text.
The reunion of archivists and historians was particularly fruitful in rethinking the changing methodologies of historiography and the publication of archival information. The famous narrative work of Jules Michelet was juxtaposed to the scientific rigour demanded by modern approaches. Pierre Serna correctly illustrated that such a scientific approach denied the essential role of emotions, which Bettina Frederking argued could be found for contemporary readers in the narratives of Michelet. This narrative history was, however, reproached by multiple papers for its subjectivity, with Yann-Arzel Durelle-Marc and Anna Karla contending that memoires and the processes of self-glorification played a large role in the construction of a selective account of the Revolution’s history. Throughout the day there was the consensus that French Revolutionary Studies is undertaking a Foucauldian archaeology. Academics and archivists are working together to exhume a more global picture of the French Revolution, which challenges the dominant narratives we know today. The archive was presented at multiple interludes as a crucial source for restabilising networks of relationships, a concept advanced as an essential step in the excavation of a more accurate picture.
The selection of papers by Jean-Luc Chappey, Cécile Robin and Anna Karla that treated Napoleonic and Restoration views of the ‘Revolution’ were particularly useful for this project. These societies reflected and organised their knowledge and memories of the Revolution as a means to terminate the Revolution, to end the chaos, and to relegate it to the past. The recurring need to distance oneself from the Revolution, be it in 1802, 1806 or the 1820s, begs the significant question, in returning to the sources, of whether it is time to question 1799 as the ‘end’ of the French Revolution.
University of Warwick