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On History

Jules Michelet

4. Opening Address at the Faculty of Letters, 9 January 1834

Jules Michelet
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

Fig. 3. ‘Ouverture des Cours au Collège de France et à la Sorbonne’, L’Illustration, 46/2, 13 January 1844


  • 2 Antoine Arnaud (1612-1694) was a French Jansenist theologian and mathematician, known for his pole (...)
  • 3 François Guizot (1787-1874), eminent French liberal statesman and historian. On his appointment as (...)
  • 4 Originally appointed to the chair of modern history in 1812, Guizot had been relieved of his funct (...)

2To speak of history in such a profoundly historic place is a weighty matter. Overwhelmed by the view of these walls, which call up so many memories, and of this audience, gathered together from every part of France, I have difficulty finding words. At this single moment and in this confined space history appears before me in all its immensity and variety, in all the complexity of its times and places. As early as the thirteenth century, as early as the reign of Saint Louis, the name of Sorbonne stood for the great school of France, indeed of the world. The most illustrious men of the Middle Ages sat on these benches. The Hibernian subtlety of Duns Scotus, the passion for Africa of Raymond Lull, the poetic idealism of Petrarch—everything came together here. Those who could find no resting place—the author of the Gerusalemme and the author of the Divine Comedy, the ʺFlorentine exile,ʺ the wandering observer of three worlds—stopped here for a moment. In the seventeenth century, this hall, rehabilitated by Richelieu, witnessed the first efforts of Malebranche, the Christian Plato, and the tough battles of Arnaud.2 Fénelon, Molière, and Voltaire were raised only steps away. Pascal and Rousseau did much of their writing in the shadow of the exterior walls of the chapel, in an obscure little street nearby. In this very place, a student, M. Turgot, then a young man of twenty-five, presented a dissertation in which he laid the true foundations of the philosophy of history. France, Gentlemen, will never forget how brilliantly history—the history of philosophy, the history of literature, political history—was taught only recently from this very chair. Who will revive for me the day when I saw my illustrious predecessor and friend3 step back up to the rostrum, when we heard him hold forth, for the second time,4 in those simple, strong, limpid and creative words, by which science was freed from every passing passion, from every partiality, from all falseness of fact or style, and history raised to the dignity of law.

3From the most distant past to our own time, such, Gentlemen, has been the noble perdurance of the traditions attached to the place where we are now. This house of Sorbonne is old; it knows a lot, cleaned and touched up to look new as it may be. Centuries have lived in it and each one has left something of itself. Whether you perceive it or not, the trace is there, do not doubt it for a moment, just as in a human heart! People and houses, we all bear the imprint of ages past. As young men, we carry within us countless ideas and ancient feelings of whose presence we are unaware. These traces of times long past are jumbled inside us, indistinct, often disturbing. We turn out to know things we never learned, to have memories of things we never witnessed; and we feel the dull reverberations of the emotions of people we never knew. Surprise is expressed at the seriousness in the faces of the young. Our fathers ask why in this age of strength we proceed bent and pensive. It is because history is in us, we feel the weight of the centuries, we are the bearers of the world.

4I would like, Gentlemen, to analyze with you those complex elements that are the more troublesome as they are barely distinguishable; I would like to grasp how much in what emerged only yesterday is very ancient; I would like to explain to myself, as a modern man, my own birth, to tell myself the story of the long trials I have endured over the last five centuries, and to explore the dark and painful passage by which, after so much weary struggling, I have come into the daylight of civilization and liberty.

5This is a grave, solemn, and immensely difficult topic. We have to explain how, sunk in the obscure impersonality of the Middle Ages, man came gradually to reveal himself to himself, how the individual came to count for something in the world and to acquire an existence in his own name. A slave no more, no more a serf. The slave, from now on, is the world of matter, subdued and made into a servant by human industry. Antiquity debased man to the level of a thing; the modern age is elevating material nature, ennobling it through art, humanizing it. A more just society now rests on a foundation of equality. Civil order has been established, liberty has been won... And let anyone dare to take it away from us! ...

6What a price our fathers paid to bring us to this point! No matter how hard history tries, we will never take the measure of it. So much struggle, so much bloodshed, so much destruction! The dramatic moments of combat and revolution have been recorded. But of the long centuries of suffering, the terrible misery of the people, the endless famines that ravaged it, the frightful torments it endured during the English wars, the wars of religion, the Hundred Years’ War, the wars of Louis XIV—of all that very little has been said. We, the latecomers, have the benefit of it all. All the centuries have worked for us. The fourteenth and the fifteenth gave us our country. To give us freedom of religion, the sixteenth had to undergo fifty years of horrible little wars, skirmishes, ambushes, assassinations—war waged by dagger blows and pistol shots. The eighteenth waged its war with lightning bolts, and yet it created the society in which we still live. It was a sudden creation. To bring it about, fathers begrudged nothing; if something was needed, they opened their veins and gave their blood without restraint... Thus every age made its contribution, all of them suffered and struggled, without considering whether they themselves would benefit. They died without foresight of the future... We who know, Gentlemen, we who have harvested the fruits of their labour, let us bless them, and let us work so that we in turn will be blessed ʺby those who will refer to this time as ancient times

7The year 1300 marks a solemn period in history. Boniface VIII proclaimed it his jubilee year, as if announcing by this pompous celebration the end of papal domination of Europe. Huge crowds gathered in Rome; pilgrims were counted by the hundreds of thousands until, soon, their numbers could no longer be counted and neither houses nor churches could accommodate them. They camped out in the streets and squares in hastily constructed shelters, under canvas, in tents, or under the canopy of heaven. It was as if at the end of time, the human race had appeared before its judge in the valley of Josaphat. Dante, the great poet of the Middle Ages, was then in Rome, and the spectacle was not lost on him. The Pope had summoned all the living to Rome. In his poem, the poet called upon all the dead; he reviewed the world that was gone, made order in it, and judged it. The Middle Ages appeared before him, as did Antiquity. Nothing remained hidden from him. The secret of the sanctuary was spoken and profaned. The seal was seized and broken; and it has not been found again since. The Middle Ages had had its time of life, for life is a mystery and it is spent once the mystery has been fully revealed. The revelation of the Middle Ages was the Divina Commedia, Cologne Cathedral, the frescoes of the Campo Santo in Pisa. Thus art comes to end and close a civilization, to crown it and lay it in glory in its grave.

8The life of the old world that died then had been sustained by two principles of order: the Holy Roman Pontificate and the Holy Roman Empire, two universal hierarchies, two orders, two absolutes, two infinites. Two infinites existing simultaneously are an absurdity. A dual order is disorder. How unstable in fact the two hierarchies were is well known. Still, this legal fiction simplified life to some extent. There was no question but that the baron was under the authority of the count, the count under that of the king, while the king himself did not fail to recognize the Emperor as the head of the feudal world. Everyone had his place and a predictable path that had been laid out in advance. One was born and one died according to a prescribed order. If life was sad and hard, at least death had a good pillow.

9Indeed, when all that began to shake and the edifice in which one’s place had been set for eternity started to totter, mankind was not at all inclined to rejoice. That development was not seen, as might have been expected, as a liberation. Instead, there was immense sadness. Everyone clasped his hands in prayer and said: “What is going to become of us?”

10It was, Gentlemen, as though, with a hostile planet approaching ours, our laws suspended and the harmony of things upset, you were to see this building of ours wobble, the ground under us shift, the mountains move, and Mont Blanc topple and start heading toward the Pyrenees.

  • 5 The treatise De tribus impostoribus (c. 1230) denied all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christ (...)

11First, the two colossal figures of the time, the Pope and the Emperor, clashed in face-to-face conflict. The world formed a circle around the duelling pair. Strange things began to happen. The head of the Holy Roman Empire called in the Saracens to fight against Christians, and settled them in Italy, facing Rome; he shook hands with the Sultan; he wrote—at least according to tradition—the book of The Three Impostors, Moses, Mahomet, and Jesus Christ.5 On the other side, the Pope, the priest, the man of peace, took up the sword, threw off the stole and turned his archbishop’s cross into a club; he sold his keys and his mitre, he sold himself to France, in order to kill the Emperor. He did kill him, but he himself died of it, leaving his goad and his life in the wound.

  • 6 Bartolus of Saxoferrato (1313-1357), a promiment Italian jurist and professor of law. [Ed.]
  • 7 Augustinus Triumphus or Augustinus de Ancona (1243-1328), a monk noted for his advocacy of papal s (...)

12The laborious care with which, at this time, the two adversaries endeavour to demonstrate that they are alive is a grave sign of death. Never before have they shouted so loudly or made such grandiose claims. From the depths of their sepulchres, they flail about, they declaim, they gesticulate wildly. Their supporters proudly repeat crazy statements, which at the time inspired terror—acts of bravado in the face of death, the insolence of the void. On one side, Bartolus of Saxoferrato6 announces that every soul owes obedience to the Emperor, that the spiritual world belongs to him no less than the temporal world, that he is “the living law.” “Not so,” retorts the Pope’s defender, Brother AugustinusTriumphus.7 “The Pope’s authority is infinite, immense. By immense I mean immeasurable, by weight or by number. The Pope is more than a man, more than an angel, since he represents God on earth.” And if Bartolus refuses to concede, the monks, provoked to the limit, will respond that “between the sun of the Papacy and the moon of the Empire there is this crucial difference, that the earth being seven times larger than the moon and the sun eight times larger than the earth, the Pope is exactly forty-seven times greater than the Emperor.”

  • 8 The Golden Bull was issued in 1356 by the Imperial Diet under Emperor Charles IV. [Ed.]

13Whatever one may think of this strange arithmetic, whatever the degree of difference between the two competitors, both are by then very diminished. For that is the moment when one of them, by his Golden Bull, gives up the chief rights of the Empire.8 In this final comic scene, the Electors respectfully relieve the Emperor of his power; they build him a table six feet high, they serve him at table, but on this table they have him sign his own demotion and their appropriation of power. The time is not far off when this master of the universe will have to use his horses as security to borrow from merchants no longer willing to give him credit and will flee for fear of being held captive by the butchers of the German city of Worms. A pathetic imperial dignity, dragging its prideful wretchedness along with it, will be a fugitive under Charles IV, a captive under Maximilian. The latter will serve the King of England for a hundred crowns a day until he manages to settle his affairs through a marriage and is kept going thanks to his wife.

14The Pope, on his side, is neither less proud nor less humiliated. Slapped in the person of Boniface VIII by his good friend, the King of France, he places himself under the King’s protection. In order to become Pope, as Clement V, the Gascon Bertrand de Got concludes a secret pact in the dark forest of Saint-Jean d’Angely: there, some say, he kisses the devil’s claw; according to others it is the hand of Philippe-le-Bel that he kisses. In accordance with this Satanic deal, the Templars will perish and with them the memory of the Crusades; Boniface VIII’s reputation will be stained; the Pope will declare that the Pope is fallible. In other words, the Papacy will destroy itself; the judge will condemn himself; the immovable will have retreated.

15What is also harsh in the Pope’s penitence is that he is forced by the King of France to continue damning the Emperor whom he no longer hates. “Alas,” Benedict XII tells followers of the Emperor who come to him seeking absolution, “the King of France will not have it. He has already threatened to treat me worse than Boniface VIII.” Philippe de Valois did indeed hold the Pope and the Papacy in the palm of his hand. Against the Papacy he had the support of his University, his Sorbonne. For a short time, he threatened John XXII with burning at the stake, as a heretic. “In matters of faith,” he wrote to him, “we have people here who are far more knowledgeable than your legists in Avignon.”

16There you see, Gentlemen, how low the two great powers that in the Middle Ages represented law—the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy—had sunk. Where will the idea of law, hitherto entrusted to these two representatives of the temporal and the spiritual power, find a new home? Man is now released from the age-old path; his pre-set track is vanishing before his eyes; he now has to see for himself and find his own direction. Thought, which until then had had support and was persuaded that it could not sustain itself on its own, finds that it has been left an orphan. Alone, timid and frail, it now has to find its own way in the vast empty spaces of the world.

17It keeps on going, with the new guides who aim to lead it walking by its side. These guides—Franciscans and Dominicans—still speak in the name of the Church. They are monks, but itinerant monks, mendicant monks. They have none of the sombre austerity of the Middle Ages. Humanity has nothing to fear. They create a little flower-strewn path for it; if there is a messy patch, they throw down their cloaks for it to walk on. Nimble and facetious preachers, they lighten the boredom of the spiritual journey. They have a repertoire of good stories, which they tell, sing, dramatise and enact. They have one for every rank and for every age. Faith, elastic in their hands, can be extended or shrunk at will. Everything has been made easy. After the Jewish law comes the Christian law; after Christ, Saint Francis. Saint Francis and the Virgin are quietly substituted for Jesus Christ. The boldest of them proclaim that the time of the Son is over; it is now the turn of the Holy Ghost. In this way Christianity serves as a form and vehicle for an anti-Christian philosophy. Authority is brought down by those it had designated to defend it.

  • 9 “This has nothing to do with the Praetor’s Edict.” On the Praetor’s Edict, a central element in Ro (...)

18While the monks lure the people into their roving mysticism, the jurists, immobile in their seats, are no less energetic in promoting movement. It might seem at first that these jurists, the damned souls of kings and the founders of monarchical despotism, cannot be counted among the liberators of thought. Enveloped in their robes of ermine, they speak only in the name of authority; they resuscitate the legal procedures of the Empire, as well as torture and secret sentencing. They summon the human spirit to walk straight, along the path laid out by Roman law. In the Pandects, they show it the road it has to follow. No more, no less. This is reason in writing. If humanity ventures to ask for something else, they do not hear, they do not understand, they shake their heads: Nihil hoc ad edictum praetoris.9 These men have lived all through the Middle Ages without taking any notice of them. The date, for them, has remained unchanged since Tribonian. They are the Seven Sleepers who lay down under Justinian and woke up in the eleventh century. When the pontifical and feudal world invokes the authority of time, the jurists smile, they ask “how old?”; that young antiquity of a few centuries seem pitiful to them. Rome is their religion too, but it is the Rome of Roman Law. And that Rome emboldens them in their opposition to the other one. It is one of their number who goes forth and coolly apprehends the successor of the Apostles. Politely, in the name of the “liberties of the Galllican Church,” they carry on this struggle, begun by a slap, for five hundred years. Applying their Roman law of succession, which requires that fiefs be divided up, they quietly dismantle the feudal system. They restore the monarchical regime of Justinian. With great learning they prove to kings that the king possesses all rights; they reduce everything to a single level under one master.

19In their demolition of the pontifical and feudal world, the jurists proceed methodically. They first defend the Emperor against the Pope; then they push the king of France into opposing the Pope and the Emperor. It is certainly no fault of theirs if the feudal world is not decapitated in the person of the latter. That world is crumbling. When France rises on the ruins of the Empire, which had claimed sovereignty over her; when the king of France, transformed from the representative of God into that of the devil, from Saint Louis into Philippe-le-Bel, begins under the guidance of the jurists to claim universal sovereignty, his vassal, the king of England responds on behalf of all with a brutal No; more yet, he has the impertinence to unseat his lord. “I,” he says, “am king of France.”

20A furious war breaks out. It begins as a war between two kings and continues as a war between two peoples. England, small but strong, comes to shake up a sleeping France. After the long enchantment of the Middle Ages it is a deep sleep. In order to reach the people, the English must pass by way of the nobility. The latter, beaten at Crécy, captured and held to ransom at Poitiers, shuts itself up in its castles. The English cannot draw it out of them. The most outrageous provocations are barely enough. Five or six times the nobility refuses battle with armies double and triple in size. The English then turn against the man of the people, the peasant. His trees and his vines are cut down, he is starved and beaten, his house is set on fire, his pig slaughtered, his wife seized, his future harvest becomes fodder for their horses... So much is done to him that Jacques le bonhomme wakes from his sleep, opens his eyes, feels his muscles, moves his arms. Made furious by his misery and having nothing to lose, he hurls himself at his lord, who has defended him so poorly, and breaks his clogs on his lord’s head. This is referred to as the Jacquerie. Jacques has discovered his strength. When the foreigners come back, he also has a sense of his rights. He gets the idea that God is on the side of the French. Even the women then become involved; they set aside their distaff and lead their men-folk to the enemy. This time Jacques’ name is Jeanne; Jeanne la Pucelle, Joan of Arc.

21France is much indebted to the English. It is England that teaches her to know herself. England is her pitiless guide in this painful initiation, the demon that tempts and tests her, that pricking her in the loins with its goad, pushes her round those circles of Dante’s Inferno—which we call the history of the fourteenth century. Those were hard times, Gentlemen. First a horrendous war between peoples, and, simultaneously, another war, the fiscal war between government and people, with the nascent government administration living from day to day on confiscations, counterfeit money, and bankruptcies, and the exchequer extorting from the starving population what was needed to pay the soldiers that were plundering it. Gold once again became, as in the heyday of Carthage, the god of the world, and in the condottieri of all nations the abominable impiousness of the ancient mercenaries was revived.

22Here and there the historians let fall a few words that give us a glimpse of a vast world of suffering. “At this time,” according to one of them, “from Laon to Germany, not a building outside of the fortified places was left standing.” “In the year 1348,” Froissart tells us casually, “there was a sickness, called an epidemic, from which a third of the population of the world died.”

  • 10 Giovanni Villani (c. 1276-1348), Florentine banker, official and diplomat, and author of the Nuova (...)

23Everything, indeed, seemed to be dying. The high inspiration of the great poems of chivalry was followed by the obscene mockery of the fabliaux. The world had no taste for anything but the licentious writings of Boccaccio. Poetry seemed to have been displaced by the short tale and by history; the ideal by reality. Between Joinville and Froissart Villani appears, cold and judicious.10

24This general triumph of prose over poetry—which, after all, was simply the intimation of a step forward in progress toward maturity, toward the virile age of the human race—was taken as a sign of death. As happened just before the year 1000, everyone imagined that the end of the world was imminent. Some went so far as to predict the exact time when this would happen. First it was to be in the year 1260; then a delay was obtained until 1303, then again until 1335. In 1360, however, the world was certain of its end. There would be no remission.

  • 11 Dolce color di orïental zaffiro/ che s’accoglieva nel sereno aspetto/ del mezzo, puro infino al pr (...)

25But nothing was coming to an end. Everything kept going on. Nevertheless, everything seemed to become shadowy and shrouded in darkness. People became frightened; they did not know that they were going through night towards a new day. Whence those vague expressions of a sadness that was always incomprehensible to itself; whence the dull sufferings of Petrarch and those endless tears that he watches, simple-mindedly, dropping into the fountain at Vaucluse. But it falls to the author of the Divine Comedy to gather up all the unease and turmoil that is felt at that time. Abandoned by the old world while the other one is not yet visible, making his descent into the pit of Hell and barely distinguishing the faint glimmerings of Purgatory, dangling between a vanishing Virgil and a Beatrice who has not appeared, he has the impression that everything he is leaving behind has been turned upside down, the wrong way round. The infernal pyramid seems to him to be standing on its apex. Yet through that apex the two worlds come into contact, the world of darkness and the world of daylight. One more effort, and light will return. Having made this difficult crossing, the poet can now cry out “Sweet hue of eastern sapphire, that was spread o’er the serene aspect of the pure air, high up as the first circle.”11

26Gentlemen, you must never despair. In our time, as in Dante’s, you will often hear sad and discouraging words. You will be told that the world is old, that it is fading away with each passing day, that down here the divine idea is being eclipsed. Do not believe a word of it. As for me, if I thought that it was so I would never have undertaken to tell you this sad story, I would never have accepted this chair. No, Gentlemen, in the midst of ever changing forms something immutable subsists. This world that we inhabit is still the city of God. The polity we created at such high cost is divine in justice and morality. The power of sacrifice has not been abolished. Our century is not more destitute of dedicated souls than any other. The eternal law has its devotees who will follow it unto death. In our own day we have known such dedicated individuals, whose pure lives were crowned by an heroic death. We did not know those who in ages long past gave their lives for their faith. But we too have seen and touched martyrs. Their relics are neither in Rome nor in Jerusalem; they are in our midst, in our streets, in our public squares; every day we remove our hats as we pass their tombs.

27Whatever doubts and uncertainties we may have in times of transition, let us have faith in progress, in science, in liberty. Let us tread boldly over this earth; it will not fail us. The hand of God does not fail itself. We are still—you must believe this—in the embrace of Providence and, as has been noted in the case of the solar system, Providence has placed in this world a curative and reparative power that compensates for seeming irregularities. What we often take to be a breakdown is in reality a necessary passage, a periodic crisis that is not without precedents and that returns in due course.

28It is to history that we must turn, it is facts that we must investigate when the idea falters and drifts away before our eyes. Let us look to centuries past; let us spell out and interpret those prophecies of old. It may be that we will discover in them an early ray of light coming from the future. Herodotus tells us that some Asian people or other having promised the crown to whoever would be the first to see the dawn of day, everyone looked to the East; one individual only, more shrewd than the others, turned to look in the opposite direction and indeed, while the Orient was still shrouded in darkness, perceived in the West the first glimmer of dawn already shedding a white light on the top of a tower.


2 Antoine Arnaud (1612-1694) was a French Jansenist theologian and mathematician, known for his polemics against the Jesuits and the philosopher Malebranche. [Ed.]

3 François Guizot (1787-1874), eminent French liberal statesman and historian. On his appointment as Minister of Education under Louis-Philippe in October 1832 he was temporarily replaced by Michelet in the chair of modern history at the Sorbonne. The author of many works of history, Guizot is best known for his Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe (1828) and his 4-volume Histoire de la civilisation en France (1830). [Ed.]

4 Originally appointed to the chair of modern history in 1812, Guizot had been relieved of his functions in 1822, but was reinstated in 1828. Michelet presumably heard him lecture before 1822 and again “for the second time” in 1828. [Ed.]

5 The treatise De tribus impostoribus (c. 1230) denied all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was attributed to a variety of authors. [Ed.]

6 Bartolus of Saxoferrato (1313-1357), a promiment Italian jurist and professor of law. [Ed.]

7 Augustinus Triumphus or Augustinus de Ancona (1243-1328), a monk noted for his advocacy of papal sovereignty, was the author of Summa de potestate ecclesiastica (completed in 1326). [Ed.]

8 The Golden Bull was issued in 1356 by the Imperial Diet under Emperor Charles IV. [Ed.]

9 “This has nothing to do with the Praetor’s Edict.” On the Praetor’s Edict, a central element in Roman Law, see the Wikipedia article or the article “Praetor” in Encyclopedia Britannica. [Ed.]

10 Giovanni Villani (c. 1276-1348), Florentine banker, official and diplomat, and author of the Nuova Cronica. See the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia [Ed.]

11 Dolce color di orïental zaffiro/ che s’accoglieva nel sereno aspetto/ del mezzo, puro infino al primo giro (Dante, Purgatorio, I, lines 13-15). [Ed., with thanks to the eminent Dante scholar, Robert Hollander, for locating this passage.]

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 3. ‘Ouverture des Cours au Collège de France et à la Sorbonne’, L’Illustration, 46/2, 13 January 1844
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