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Of what is History capable?

Patrick Boucheron


Roger Chartier
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Welcoming Patrick Boucheron here is an immense pleasure for me. Presenting his work in a few minutes is an impossible challenge that I will not take up. However, three words may perhaps evoke its strength and acuteness. City will be the first. It was indeed the history of a city, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Milan, which laid the foundations of Patrick Boucheron’s work as a historian. In Le Pouvoir de bâtir, a thesis published as a book, he explored several histories, based on extensive archival work: the history of the urban fabric, that of civic politics, and that of the social and political uses of spaces and buildings. Three parallel histories that nevertheless had different chronologies and could conflict with one another when the intentions of the prince ran counter to the urban development dynamics. With this comprehensive history of a large urban project, from the study of materials and constructions to that of aesthetic choices and political investments, Patrick Boucheron became one of the best historians of medieval and modern towns, both in Italy and elsewhere.

2My second word is indiscipline. It may seem incongruous to apply it to a historian who, in all of his lectures and interviews, upholds the defence and illustration of the discipline that is our profession. Yet it seems fitting to describe his writing, which is vibrant, energetic, and steeped not only in erudition but also in passion and emotion. This writing does not refuse deliberate anachronisms or contemporary comparisons to facilitate our understanding of the strangeness of the past. In each of his books, it intertwines two narrative threads: that which unravels the history that has to be reconstructed, and that which speaks of the difficulty of this undertaking. As his Léonard et Machiavel shows, Patrick Boucheron takes liberties rarely found in his discipline. For instance, he makes up for silences in the archives by constructing a plausible account, or a probable one – in this case, that of an encounter between the two men, of which no documentary evidence exists. It is this departure from the rules that I call indiscipline. He shows what historical knowledge can expect from a controlled use of the imagination, while indicating, implicitly, the limits or the fragility of the historian’s discourse.

3A last word, the most important one: republic. Form book to book, from Lorenzetti to Machiavelli, from the fresco of the good (and the bad) government to the book of the Prince, Patrick Boucheron has proved himself to be a historian of public affairs, of the res publica, in a medieval and Renaissance Italy haunted by the fear of tyranny – that of the lords, destroyers of communal liberties – and by the obsession of the misfortunes of the time. Our own times are traversed by other fears, which put the Republic at risk. It is as a citizen and a historian that, in his most recent books, Prendre dates and L’Exercice de la peur, Patrick Boucheron endeavours to help in conjuring away this dread. He urges us to be watchful by citing Petrarch, who cites Saint Paul: “let us not fall asleep, as the others are, but remain awake”. The exercise is difficult, sometimes painful. It demands that we turn away from false questions, easy certainties, and dulled habits. But for whosoever has the knowledge and energy required, the task is not impossible.

4That is why, Patrick Boucheron, I am delighted to welcome you this evening in this institution. Of what is History capable? is the title that you have chosen for your Inaugural Lecture.

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