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On History

Jules Michelet

5. Preface to the History of France (1869)

Jules Michelet
Traduction de Edward K. Kaplan

Texte intégral

Fig. 4. Jules Michelet, Histoire de France (Paris: Hetzel, 1869), 5 vols.,vol. 1. frontispiece. Library of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.


1Jules Michelet faced impending death, and the completion of his life’s work, with a sweeping Preface to the 1869 edition of his History of France. (The final volume had gone to press in October 1867.) This Romantic declaration of faith, shadowed by the crumbling Second Empire, and barely preceding the disasters of Sedan and the Commune, bears witness to the fervent vision of universal freedom which sustained the historian during his “arduous labor of almost forty years.”

2Moved by his persistent need for self-examination—and self-justification—Michelet’s Preface to his completed History continues the autobiographical “Letter to Edgar Quinet” that introduces The People (1846), as Michelet surveys his vast ambitions while asserting how they were fulfilled.

3Michelet firmly asserts his uniqueness among other historians. He distinguishes himself from his most illustrious French predecessor, Augustin Thierry (1795-1856), whose Histoire de la Conquête de l’Angleterre par les Normands (The Norman Conquest of England) appeared in 1825. Michelet’s preoccupation with Thierry is perhaps due to the fact that their conceptions of historical writing—boldly original at the time—were strikingly similar. The narratives of both were admired for their lively style. Both attempted to reconcile art and science; and both were among the first to use original sources—such as manuscripts—to correct contemporary chronicles upon which most historical writing was then based. At the very least, Michelet is right to argue that he improved upon his elder’s excessive focus on the element of race.

  • 2 The People, translated by John P. McKay (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 19. The n (...)

4Michelet proudly proclaimed himself to be the first to perceive France “as a person and as a soul.” As he had written a quarter of a century earlier in The People: “Thierry called history narration, and Guizot called it analysis. I have named it resurrection, and this name will last.”2

5Michelet celebrates the decisive influence on his vocation of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). In 1827 he was the first to introduce Vico’s thought to the French public by his translation of Vico’s Scienza nuova, and he remained Vico’s enthusiastic disciple for his entire life.

6However, Michelet fails to mention another decisive model (also influenced by Vico), the German philosopher of history, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). In fact Herder’s Ideen was translated and published the same year by Michelet’s closest friend, Edgar Quinet (1803-1875). For Michelet, Herder is Vico’s invisible partner.

7Two themes dominate Michelet’s professional and spiritual manifesto: the artistic problem of historical recreation and Michelet’s changing attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church.

8As an “artist-historian,” Michelet repeatedly asserts his ambition to resurrect the integral life of the past. Armed with imaginative empathy, his task resembles the descent of Aeneas into the underworld. Like the historian, the Roman carried a golden bough which allowed him to enter and return unharmed from the realm of the dead. Michelet’s golden bough was his self-knowledge as a writer with the imaginative power to revive the silenced voices he studies.

9Resurrection of the past was an essentially prophetic task, a vision of universal justice. The dead would receive their reward of eternity by surviving in the consciousness of the present. The historian’s sacred duty was to restore the glories of the past to inspire readers to construct the image of an ideal future.

10In The People Michelet illustrates this grandiose aspiration as “Caesar’s dream,” an imperial image of the historian’s vocation:

It is said that when Caesar was coasting along the shores of Africa, he fell asleep and had a dream; he saw a vast army, weeping and stretching their hands toward him. After awakening, he wrote upon his tablets “Corinth” and “Carthage,” and he rebuilt those cities.
I am not Caesar, but how often have I dreamed Caesar’s dream! I saw them weeping, I understood their tears. “Urbem orant.” They want their city! And I, a poor solitary dreamer, what could I give to that great silent nation? All that I had—my voice. May it be their first admission into the City of Right, from which they have been excluded until now!

11The historian is a Promethean titan who initiates a rebirth of civilizations.

12Michelet had only one serious competitor—the Roman Catholic Church. Their common goal was to define humanity and to decipher the meaning of universal history. Michelet’s religious evolution reflects that of his nation, from medieval feudalism to the 1789 Revolution. His devotion to human freedom could not tolerate the Church’s reactionary politics or theology of passive grace. He thus rejected his spiritual mother while remaining fitfully ambivalent toward her noble ideals.

13As part of the generation that reached maturity during the Restoration, Michelet was nourished by his sympathy for the medieval Church. The six volumes of his History of the Middle Ages pulse with admiration for the artistic and intellectual triumphs of the Christian spirit. Because of the fervor expressed in these volumes, and because of the exhaustive documentation upon which they are based, most historians agree that they are Michelet’s most lasting historical masterpiece. Does their literary quality suffice to explain why the author of the 1869 Preface, despite his long-standing hostility toward the Church, persisted in recalling his youthful love?

14Political and personal circumstances had turned the historian into a rabid anticlerical. By 1843, the year of his public lessons attacking the Jesuits, his break with the Church was definitive. Yet, curiously, the Preface defends his youthful appreciation of the religion.

15His defensive fidelity to his volumes of medieval history can be explained in part by his fundamental attraction to all sorts of spirituality, be they natural, human, or even supernatural. Perhaps a clearer explanation of his compulsion to recall his love of Christianity is his absolute commitment to an organic conception of historical writing. For the author, esthetic integrity became more compelling than ideology or the rectification of details.

16Michelet’s foremost goal was to depict the enduring legend of the French people, starting with its appearance as the peasant Jacques, through Joan of Arc, and culminating in the French Revolution. The principle that “humanity is its own Prometheus” (derived from Vico) outweighs any discontinuity his own avowed changes of political opinion might betray. Michelet’s mission remained constant from the quasi-mystical illumination brought about by the July Revolution to his death in 1874: liberate human energy, celebrate the inherent powers of nature.

17Michelet draws his most intimate self-portrait as he evokes the creator’s love for his subjects. Writing, for the Romantic historian, resembles a woman’s gestation of a child. Michelet indeed possessed what he called the “two sexes of the mind,” the historian’s unique combination of “male” analysis and “female” compassion and empathy. He had absorbed ten centuries of struggle, “swallowed too many plagues, too many vipers, and too many kings.” He loved or detested his actors with deep passion.

18Jules Michelet, the person and the writer, lives still in these pages. His work recapitulates an entire nation and exemplifies the sublimity, and the frailty, of a great and tender heart.

Preface to the History of France (1869)

19This arduous labor of about forty years was conceived in an instant, in the lightning flash of the July Revolution. During those memorable days a great light appeared, and I perceived France.

20She possessed annals, but no history at all. Eminent men had studied her, especially from the political point of view. None of them entered into the infinite details of the diverse products of her activity (religious, economic, artistic, etc.). None of them had yet embraced the living unity of the innate and geographic elements which formed her. I was the first to perceive her as a soul and as a person.

21The renowned Sismondi, a persevering worker, honest and discerning, rarely elevates himself to comprehensive views in his political annals. Moreover, he scarcely undertakes scholarly research. He himself dutifully admits that, writing in Geneva, he had neither the records nor the manuscripts at hand.

22Besides, until 1830 (even until 1836), none of the remarkable historians of that period had yet felt the need to seek facts outside of printed books, from original sources—for the most part unpublished at the time—and from the manuscripts in our libraries, from documents in our archives.

23That noble historical constellation which, from 1820 to 1830, caused so great a stir—MM. de Barante, Guizot, Mignet, Thiers, AugustinThierry—considered history from specialized and differing points of view. One was preoccupied with the racial element, another with institutions, etc., perhaps not understanding adequately how difficult it is to isolate these things, how each of them works upon the others. Do races, for example, remain the same without being influenced by changing customs? Can institutions be sufficiently studied without taking into account the history of ideas and the multitude of social conditions from which they arise? There is always something artificial about these specializations, which claim to illuminate, but which nonetheless might give faulty profiles, deceiving us about the whole, concealing the greater harmony.

24Life has one supreme and very exacting condition. It is genuinely life only when complete. All its organs are interdependent and work only as a whole. Our vital functions are linked, presuppose one another. If one is missing, nothing will live any longer. In the past it was believed possible to isolate by the scalpel, to follow separately each of our systems; this cannot be, for everything influences everything.

25Thus, either all or nothing. To rediscover historical life, one must follow it patiently along its paths, in all its forms, all its components. But one must also, with a still greater passion, reconstruct and restore all its workings, the reciprocal action of these diverse forces in a powerful motion which would again become life itself.

26Géricault, a master with whom I shared, not genius no doubt, but a violent will, upon entering the Louvre (the Louvre of that time, where all Europe’s art was collected), did not seem troubled. He said: “Fine! I’ll do it all over again.” In rapid sketches which he never signed, he went about seizing and appropriating everything. And, were it not for 1815, he would have kept his word. Such are the passions, the madness of youth.

27Still more complicated, more terrifying, was the problem I had set for myself as an historian: the resurrection of life in its integrity, not superficially, but in its interior and organic depth. No prudent man would have dreamed of it. Fortunately, that I was not.

28In the blazing dawn of the July Revolution, in its vast hope, its powerful electricity, this superhuman undertaking did not frighten a young heart. At certain times there are no obstacles. Everything is simplified by the flame. In it a thousand confused things are clarified, rediscover their true connections, and (harmonizing themselves) are illuminated by each other. Many springs, inert and heavy when they lie apart, begin acting of their own accord if they are placed back into the whole.

29Such was my faith at least, and that act of faith, whatever my weaknesses, took effect. History’s immense movement started to heave before my eyes. All those various forces, both of nature and of art, sought each other out, took their places, at first awkwardly. The limbs of the great body, peoples, races, regions, assembled themselves from the sea to the Rhine, to the Rhône, to the Alps, and the centuries marched from Gaul to France.

30Everyone, friends and enemies, said “that it was alive.” But what are the true, unquestionable signs of life? With a certain dexterity, one can obtain animation, a kind of warmth. With their lurches, efforts, jarring contrasts, surprises, small miracles, electric charges sometimes seem to surpass the action of life itself. The sign of true life is completely different: continuity. Born in one gush, it lasts, and grows placidly, slowly, uno tenore. Life’s unity is not that of a little five-act play, but (in an often limitless development) the harmonic identity of soul.

31The harshest critics, if they consider the totality of my book, will not fail to recognize in it these lofty conditions of life. It has not at all been rushed, abrupt; it had, at the very least, the quality of slowness. From the first to the last volume, the method is the same; as it is, in short, in my Geography, so it is in my Louis XV, and in my Revolution. No less rare in a labor of so many years, the form and the color are sustained. The same qualities, the same flaws. If the flaws had disappeared, the work would be heterogeneous, motley, it would have lost its personality. Such as it is, it is better for it to remain harmonious and a living whole.

32When I began, a book of genius existed, Thierry’s. Shrewd and penetrating, he was a discerning interpreter, a great chiseler, an admirable worker, but too enslaved to one master. This master, this tyrant, is the exclusive, systematic postulate of the permanence of races. All things considered, what makes this great book beautiful is that, in spite of this system, which could easily be seen as deterministic, one senses at all times the respiration deep down of a heart powerfully moved by hostility to fatalistic forces, to invasion, a heart full of the national soul and the right to liberty.

33I greatly loved and admired him. However, shall I say it? Neither the material nor the spiritual approach was adequate for me in his book.

34The physical element, the race, the common people who continue it, I thought, needed a good solid base under them, the soil, to support and nourish them. Without a geographic foundation, the common people, the historic actor, seem to walk on air as in those Chinese paintings in which there is no ground. And note that this ground is not only the theater of action. By means of food, climate, etc., it exerts influence in a hundred ways. As the nest, so the bird. As the fatherland, so the man.

  • 3 This is the principal point on which I differ from my learned friend, M. Henri Martin. Moreover, t (...)

35Race, a strong and dominant factor in barbarian times, before the great childbirth of nations, becomes less tangible, weaker, and almost obliterated, in proportion as each nation fashions itself and becomes a person. The famous Mr. Mill says it very well: “It would be too easy to avoid the study of moral and social influences by attributing differences of character and of conduct, to innate, indestructible differences.”3

36Contrary to those who pursue this racial element and exaggerate its influence in modern times, I drew from history itself an enormous, and too little noticed, moral fact. It is the powerful labor of oneself on oneself, whereby France, by her own progress, transforms all her raw elements. From the Roman municipal element, from the Germanic tribes, from the Celtic clan—which have been annulled and have disappeared—we have produced in the course of time completely different results, results even contrary, to a great extent, to everything that preceded them.

37Life exerts upon itself an action of self-gestation, which, from preexisting materials, creates absolutely new things. From the bread, the fruits that I have eaten, I make red and salty blood which does not at all resemble the foods from which it is derived. So goes the historical life process, and so too goes each people fabricating itself, generating itself, grinding and amalgamating elements, which probably remain there as obscure and muddled ingredients, but which are relatively insignificant compared to the long, slow travail of the great soul.

38France itself has formed France, and the deterministic element of race in this process seems to me secondary. France is the daughter of her freedom. It is the life force, which we call mankind, that plays the essential role in human progress.

39To sum up, history, as I saw it represented by those eminent (in several cases admirable) men, still seemed unsubstantial in its two approaches:

40Not material enough, taking races into account, but not the soil, the climate, foods, and so many physical and physiological conditions.

41Not spiritual enough, speaking about laws, about political acts, but not about ideas, about customs, and not about the great progressive interior movement of the national soul.

42Above all, not very interested in minute details of erudition, where what is most valuable, perhaps, remained buried in unpublished sources.

43My life was in this book, it has been transformed into it. This book has been my life’s only outcome. But is this identity of the book with its author not dangerous? Is not the work colored with the feelings, the times, of the person who produced it?

44That is what always happens. No portrait is so exact, none so conforms to the model, that the artist has not added to it a little of himself. Our masters in history have not escaped from this law. Tacitus, in his Tiberius, also paints himself along with the suffocating atmosphere of his times, “the fifteen long years” of silence. Thierry, in recounting for us Klodowig, William and his conquest, reveals the inner breath, the excitement of a recently invaded France and his opposition to a regime he considered to be that of a foreigner.

45If this be a flaw, we must admit that it is a very useful one. The historian who does not have it, who aims to disappear while writing, to not exist, to follow contemporary reports from behind (as Barante did for Froissart) is not an historian at all. The old chronicler, although quite charming, is absolutely incapable of telling the poor valet following at his heels, what is the great, the somber, the frightful fourteenth century. In order to know it, we need all our forces of analysis and erudition; we need a great device to help us pierce mysteries inaccessible to the simple storyteller. What is this device, what instrument is needed? It is the modern personality, so powerful and enlarged. In penetrating an object more and more deeply, we come to love it, and henceforth we examine it with growing interest. The heart touched with emotion has second sight; it sees a multitude of things invisible to those who are indifferent. History and the historian merge in this view. Is this good? Is this bad? Something is operating here that has not been described and that it is our duty to reveal.

46It is a fact that history, in the progress of time, makes the historian much more than it is made by him. My book has created me. It is I who became its handiwork. The son has produced the father. If it first issued from me, from my storm of youth (which still rages), it has made me much stronger, more enlightened, even given me more fertile warmth, more actual power to resurrect the past. If my work resembles me, that is good. The traits which it shares with me are in a large part those which I owe to it, which I took from it.

47My destiny has favored me well. I possessed two things which are rather rare, and which have produced this work.

48First, freedom, which has been its soul.

49Then, some useful obligations which, by slowing down, delaying its completion, made it more thoughtful, stronger, gave it solidity, the sturdy foundation of time.

50I was free because of solitude, poverty and a simple life, and free through my teaching. Under the ministry of Martignac (a brief moment of generosity) it was decided to reconstitute the École Normale, and Monsieur Letronne, who was consulted, had the chair of philosophy and history given to me. My Précis of Modern History, my Vico, published in 1827, seemed to him sufficient qualifications. This dual teaching, which I carried on still later at the Collège de France, opened up a sphere of limitless freedom for me. My boundless domain included every fact, every idea.

51My only master was Vico. His principle of the living force, of a humanity that creates itself, made both my book and my teaching.

52I kept my distance from the majestic, sterile Doctrinaires, and from the great Romantic flood of “art for art’s sake.” I had my world within myself. I held my life within myself, as well as my renewals and my fecundity; but also my dangers. Which? My heart, my youth, my very method, and the new demand made of history: no longer just to recount or judge, but to summon, remake, revive the ages. To have enough passionate flame to reheat ashes long cold–that was the first point, and it was not without peril. But the second point, still more perilous perhaps, was to enter into an intimate relationship with the revived dead, and who knows? finally become one of them.

53My first pages after the July Revolution, written on the burning cobblestones, were a vision of the world, of Universal History, as freedom’s struggle, its ever-repeated victory over the world of determinism, in short, as an Eternal July.

54With incredible energy, that little book [Introduction to World History] was carried forward in rapid flight on two wings at once (as always with me): Nature and Spirit, two interpretations of the vast general movement. My method was already in it. I said there in 1830 what I said (in The Witch [1862]) about Satan, the weird name of still youthful freedom, combative at first, and negative, but later creative and increasingly fruitful.

55In 1829 Jouffroy had just uttered the keyword of the Restoration: “How dogmas come to an end.” In July, the Church was deserted. No independent thinker would have doubted at that moment that Montesquieu’s prophecy of the death of Catholicism was soon to be fulfilled.

56I was in this respect perhaps the freest man in the world, having had the rare advantage of not having endured the deadly education which catches immature young souls, and immediately chloroforms them. For me the Church was a foreign world, an object of pure curiosity, like the moon. What I knew best about that pale star was that its days were numbered, that it did not have long to live. But who would replace it? Such was the question. The Church was caught up in the moral cholera that so closely followed the July Revolution, the disillusionment, and the loss of high hopes. There was a rapid downward movement. The novel, the theater burst forth with daring ugliness. Talent was plentiful, but the brutality was crude; this was not the fecund orgy of the old cults of nature which had its grandeur, but rather a deliberate intoxication with sterile materialism. Much bombast, and little beneath.

57The founding text that preceded the July Revolution had been Honor to Industry, the new queen of the world, who overcomes, subjugates matter. After July, this was reversed: matter, in its turn, subjugated human energy.

  • 4 This has nothing to do with the honesty of the individuals. There were some admirable men, people (...)

58This last fact is not rare in history. Nothing is older than this idea of the right of matter which demands to have its turn. But what made it shocking in the case of the Saint Simonians was the ugliness of a Janus,4 retaining in its worship a servile imitation of the Catholic institution.

59At a solemn meeting to which we were invited, Quinet and I saw with astonishment, in this religion of the bank, a remarkable return of what was supposed to have been abolished. We saw a clergy and a pope; we saw the preacher receive the transmission of Grace from this pope by the laying on of hands. He said: “Down with the cross! ” But it was present in the sacerdotal authoritarian forms reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The old religion, which they claimed to combat, was being renewed at its worst; confession, spiritual direction, nothing was missing. The capuccini were restored: bankers, industrialists. The bland suavity of a new Molinos had the odor of sweet Jesus.

60Do away with the Middle Ages, fine. But they were plundering it. This was quite apparent to me. When I returned home, moved by a blind and generous impulse, I wrote forceful words in favor of that dying age which was being pillaged during its death agony. Those juvenile lines, foolish if you will, but doubtless excusable as a heartfelt emotion, hardly belonged in my little book inspired by the July Revolution and Freedom, by its victory over the clergy. They clashed strongly with Satan, whom this book introduces as a mythical figure of freedom. No matter. The lines are there, and they still make me laugh. Such apparent contradictions hardly bother a young artist of solid faith, but innocent, uncalculating, with little sense of the danger of being soft-hearted toward the enemy.

61At that time I was an artist and a writer, much more than an historian. So it appears in the first two volumes (France in the Middle Ages). The documents which have thrown light on these shadows, on the abyss of these endless miseries had not yet been published. The great synthetic effect produced by these documents was, for me, that of a dismal harmony, a colossal symphony, whose countless dissonances reached my ear but faintly. This is a very serious flaw. Abelard’s cry of Reason, the immense movement of 1200, so cruelly stifled, are not sufficiently present in these volumes; they have been sacrificed excessively to the artistic effect of the great unity.

62And yet, today, having passed through so many years, ages, different worlds, as I reread this book and see its failings quite clearly, I say:

63“It cannot be meddled with. ”

64It was written in a state of rare, truly uncommon solitude, freedom, purity, and high mental tension. Its candor, its passion, the enormous quantity of life which animates it, pleaded to me in its favor, defending it against my scrutiny. The rectitude of youth is felt in its very errors. Its broad general objectives were, on the whole, attained. For the first time France’s soul appears in its vivid personality, while no less the Church’s impotence is exposed in fullest light.

65A radical impotence, twice confirmed.

66In the first volume the Church, queen under Dagobert and under the Carlovingians, is seen to be incapable of doing anything for the world, for the social order.

67In the second volume, having produced a king-priest, a king-abbot, having made a canon of her eldest son, the king of France, the Church is seen crushing her enemies (1200), smothering the free Spirit, bringing about no moral reform. Finally, eclipsed, overtaken by Saint Louis, the Church is (before 1300) subordinated, dominated by the State.

68That is the portion of those two volumes that is unquestionably true to reality. But in the portion due to mirage, to poetic illusion, can it be said that all is false? No.

69That latter aspect expresses the idea that such an age had of itself, tells of what it dreamed and desired. It represents the age truthfully in its aspirations, in its deep sadness, in the reverie that kept it transfixed before the Church, weeping beneath its stone niches, sighing, waiting for what never comes.

70It was necessary to recover the idea that the Middle Ages had of itself, to reproduce its impulse, its desire, its soul, before judging it. Who was destined to rediscover its soul? Our great writers, evidently, for they all had a Catholic education. How then can it be that these geniuses, so well prepared for this, walked around the Church without entering, so to speak, without fathoming what was inside? Some seek the themes of their melodies in the echoes of church entrances or cloisters. Others, with great effort and a powerful chisel, excavate the ornaments, arm the towers, the roofs, with formidable masks, with gnomes and grimacing devils. But all that is not the Church herself. Let us first remake her.

71The odd thing is that the only person with enough love to recreate, to remake the Church’s inner world, is the one whom she did not raise at all, who never entered into communion with her, who had no faith other than in humanity itself, no imposed creed, nothing but a free mind.

72This mind approached the dead thing with a human sensitivity, with the great advantage of not having had to pass by way of the priests and the ponderous formulas that buried the Middle Ages. The incantation of an established ritual would have accomplished nothing. Everything would have remained as cold as ashes. And, moreover, if history had arrived with all its critical severity, imposing absolute justice, I do not know if those dead would have dared to come back to life. They would, rather, have remained hiding in their tombs.

73I had a fine disease which clouded my youth, but which was well suited to an historian. I loved death. I had lived for nine years at the gates of the Père-Lachaise cemetery, which was at that time the only place where I could take a walk. Then I lived near the Bièvre district of Paris, amidst large gardens adjoining convents, another kind of sepulcher. I led a life which the world could have described as a buried one, having no company other than the past, and for friends, entombed peoples. By recreating their legends, I awakened in them a multitude of vanished things. Certain nurses’ songs of which I held the secret had a sure effect. By my tone of voice they believed I was one of them. I was given the gift that Saint Louis requests and does not obtain: “The gift of tears.”

74A powerful, extremely fruitful gift. All those for whom I wept, peoples and gods, lived again. This naïve magic had an almost infallible power of evocation. Egypt, for example, had been spelled out, deciphered, all its tombs excavated, but its soul had not been rediscovered. For some the key lay in the climate, for others in certain symbols of vacuous subtlety. I myself found it in the heart of Isis, in the sufferings of the common people, the eternal mourning and the eternal wound of the fellah’s family, in his insecure life, in the captivities, the razzias of Africa, the great trade in men, from Nubia to Syria. Man seized and carried off far away, bound to hard labor, man made into a tree or tied to a tree, nailed, mutilated, dismembered, that is the universal Agony of so many gods (Osiris, Adonis, Iacchus, Athis, etc.). How many Christs, and how many Calvaries! How many funereal laments! How many tears all along the way! (See my little Bible [of Humanity], 1864).

75I had no other art in 1833. One teardrop, one only, cast onto the foundation of the gothic Church, sufficed to summon it forth. Something human surged from it, the blood of legend, and, borne up by that powerful spurt, everything rose to the sky. From inside to outside, everything sprang out in blossoms—of stone? No, blossoms of life.—Sculpt them? Approach them with iron and chisel? That would have horrified me, and I would have expected to see them bleed!

76Would you like to know why I was so sensitive to these gods? It is because they die. They all depart in their turn. Each one, just like us, having received a little holy water and tears, descends into the pyramids, the hypogeum, the catacombs, etc. Alas! What ever returns from there? I will not deny that “after three days” (each one three thousand years long), a slight breath might reappear. The Indian soul has not vanished from the earth; it returns in the love it had for all life. Egypt has always echoed in this world in the love of death and the hope of immortality. The delicate Christian soul, in its sweetness, can probably never expire without return. Its legend has perished, but that is not enough. It must cast off the terrifying injustice (Grace, Arbitrary Judgment) which is its vital center, its heart, the true basis of its dogma. It will be hard, but Christianity must die in those very principles, openly accept penitence, purification, and expiation by death.

77Wise men told me: “It is not safe to live to this extent in such intimacy with the other world. The dead are all so kind! All these creatures, which have become so peaceful and gentle, have strange powers of extravagant illusion. Among them you will be caught up in strange dreams, and, who knows? develop attachments. Whoever dwells there for too long becomes livid from it. You risk coming upon the white Fiancée, pale and charming, who drinks your heart’s blood! Follow at least the example of Aeneas, who did not venture among the dead without a sword in his hand in order to drive away these images and not get too close to them (Ferro diverberat umbras).”

78A sword! Dismal advice. What! When those beloved images approached me seeking to live, I should have harshly thrust them aside! What doleful wisdom! ... Oh! How completely ignorant philosophers are of the true essence of the artist, of the secret talisman that constitutes the power of history and enables the historian to pass time and again among the dead!

79I would have you know, then, ignorant ones, that, unarmed, without a sword, without arguing with those trustful souls who are begging for resurrection, art, while welcoming them and restoring their life’s breath, art nevertheless retains its full lucidity. I do not mean irony, in which many have placed the essence of art. Rather I am speaking of the mighty duality which permits one, while loving them, to see nonetheless what they are, “that they are the dead.”

80The world’s greatest artists, the geniuses who examine nature with such tender love, will allow me to make here a humble comparison. Have you sometimes seen the touching seriousness of a young girl, innocent, and yet deeply affected by her future motherhood, who cradles the work of her hands, animates it with her kisses, says to it from her heart: My daughter! ... If you touch her work roughly, she becomes upset and screams. But this does not prevent her from knowing deep down who this being is that she animates, enables to talk and to reason, vivifies with her soul.

81This is a small image of a great thing. It is precisely art at its moment of conception. Such is the essential condition of artistic creativity. It is love, but also a smile. It is this loving smile that creates.

82If the smile is left behind, if irony begins, along with harsh criticism and logic, then life becomes chilled, withdraws, contracts, and nothing is produced at all. Weak and sterile people who, even as they try to produce something, fill their wretched offspring with althoughs and nisis, these solemn idiots do not understand that no life emerges from a frigid environment; from their glacial nothingness will issue,,, nothingness.

83Death can appear at the moment of love, in the creative surge. But in that case let it be with infinite tenderness, with tears and pity (which still express love). In the intensely emotional moments when I incubated and reproduced the life of the Christian Church, I announced unequivocally the sentence of its impending death. I was also filled with pity for it. Recreating it through art, I told the invalid what Hezekiah asked of God. Nothing more. Conclude that I am Catholic! What could be more inane! The believer does not say the Office of the Dead for a person in the throes of death whom he believes to be eternal.

84These two volumes were successful and accepted by the public. I was the first to have established France as a person. Less exclusive than Thierry, and subordinating the element of race, I strongly underlined the geographic principle of local influences, and along with that, the shared labor of the entire nation in creating, fabricating itself. In my blind enthusiasm for the Gothic I had caused the stone to give forth blood, and the Church to flower, to rise up like the flower of legend. This pleased the public. It pleased me a good deal less. That work shone like a great flame. I found too much subtlety in it, too much wit, too much system.

85Four whole years went by before the third volume (which begins around 1300). In preparing it I tried to extend myself, to become deeper, to be more human, simpler. I sat for some time in Luther’s house, collecting his table talk, such strong, virile, and touching words, which slipped from this heroic fellow (1834). But nothing was more useful to me than Grimm’s colossal book, his Antiquities of German Law. A very difficult book which sets forth the symbols and the formulas—found in all the dialects and all the periods of that language—with which the various, so diverse Germanies have sanctified the great events of human life (birth, marriage, and death, testaments, sales, tributes, etc.). Some day I will describe the incredible passion with which I ventured to understand and translate this book. I didn’t shut myself up in it. From nation to nation, I went about collecting from everywhere, I went from the Indus to Ireland, from the Vedas and Zoroaster up to the present, amassing these primitive formulas in which humanity so naïvely reveals so many intimate and profound things (1837).

86This made another man of me. A strange inner transformation took place; it seemed to me that up until then, harsh and subtle, I was old, and that little by little, under the influence of that young humanity, I too became young. Refreshed by those living springs, my heart became a flower garden, as if touched by the morning dew. Oh! The dawn! Oh! Sweet childhood! Oh! Good and natural nature! What vigor this created within me, after the witherings of my mystic subtlety! How meager that Byzantine poetry now appeared to me, how sickly and barren, how emaciated! Yet I spared it still. But how shabby it appeared to me in the presence of humanity! This humanity I possessed, held firm, embraced in the very rich detail of its boundless variety (leafy as the forests of India, where each tree is a forest); and, looking down from above, I saw its sweet, mild harmony in which nothing is stifled; I seized the divine element in its worshipful unity.

87Being so richly nourished and watered by nature, my substance expanding, I experienced an immense increase of solidity in my art, and (shall I say it? But it is true) an increase of kindness, and a heedlessness, an absolute ignorance of rivalries,—consequently a vast sympathy for mankind (which I scarcely saw) and for society, the world (which I never frequented).

  • 5 As they sniff out death very well, those moments when the wounded soul might weaken, one of them, (...)

88I enjoyed the security of a body which had become firm and strong, in which good food changed and replaced—atom by atom, molecule by molecule—everything that had at first been weak. I was not the least bit affected by the malicious barbs of the Doctrinaires. I was no less indifferent to the ambushes of the Catholics. Everything I was collecting (involuntarily, without any thought of them), those unquestionable, countless facts, those mountains of truths which, in my persistent work, rose, pushed higher each day, all that was against them. None of them could have imagined the solid, deep foundation that I found there, so that I had neither the need nor the idea of polemics. My strength made my peace. It would have taken them ten thousand years to understand that what to them seemed weakness, the gentle, peaceful human sense, which was growing in me, was precisely my strength and what distanced me from them.5

89The mongrel, half-Catholic salons, in the insipid atmosphere of the friends of Chateaubriand, might have been a more dangerous trap for me. The benevolent and pleasant Ballanche, then Monsieur de Lamartine, wanted to escort me several times to L’Abbaye-aux-Bois. I was perfectly aware that such surroundings, where everything was circumspect and decorous, would have civilized me too much. I had but one single strength, my savage virginity of opinion, and the free manner of an art which was all my own and new. I would have had to adapt myself, become milder, better mannered than was suitable for me. From that period on the salons were very hostile toward me. In them, Doctrinaires and Catholics have steadfastly waged war on me, attacking me less in particulars, praising me in order to destroy me and to deprive me of any authority: “He is a writer, a poet, a man of imagination. ”

90This began at the time when I was the first to remove history from the vagueness which satisfied them; I established history from records, manuscripts, the enormous investigation of thousands of diverse documents.

91No historian that I know of, before the publication of my third volume (a simple thing to verify), had used unpublished items. This began with the use I made in my history of the mysterious register of the Interrogatory of the Temple, which had been locked up for four hundred years, hidden, walled up, prohibited under the severest penalties, in the Treasury of the Cathedral, whence it was taken by the Harlays, then came to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, then to the National Library. The Chronicles of Duguesclin, then unpublished, also helped me. The enormous repository in the Archives provided me with a multitude of records which confirmed these manuscripts, and which were relevant to many other topics. This was the first time history had so serious a foundation.

92What would have become of me, in studying the fourteenth century, if, clinging to the methods of my most illustrious predecessors, I had made myself the docile interpreter, the servile translator of the narratives of the time? Entering centuries rich in records and genuine documents, history came of age, acquired of the chronicles which it controlled, purified and judged. Armed with unassailable documents unknown to these chronicles, history, as it were, held them on its kness like a little child to whose prattle it listens willingly, but whom it must often admonish and contradict.

93One example, the one I suggested above, will suffice to make me understood. In the pleasant history in which Monsieur de Barante follows our story-tellers, Froissart, etc., so faithfully, step by step, it would seem that he cannot go too far wrong in clinging to these contemporaries. But then in examining the records, the various documents, so dispersed at the time though collected today, we recognize that the chronicler failed to appreciate, was unmindful of the broad features of the age. This is already a financial and juridical century in feudal form. It is often Pathelin masked as Arthur. The advent of gold, of the Jew, the weaving industry of Flanders, the dominant wool trade in England and Flanders—this is what allowed the English to prevail with regular troops, some of whom were hired and paid mercenaries. The economic revolution alone made the military revolution possible, which, through the punitive defeat of feudal knighthood, prepared, then brought about the political revolution. The tournaments of Froissart, Monstrelet, and the Golden Fleece have little influence in all this. They are completely incidental.

94From that time on (1837), from volume to volume, I provided references to, and often quoted, manuscripts whose importance I explained and which were later published.

95With such support, superior to all chronicles, history moves on, serious and strong, with authority. But independently of these specific instruments, acts and documents, immeasurable assistance arrives from everywhere. —Thousands of indirect revelations, whose outline illuminates the central narrative, come to it from literature and art, from commerce. —History becomes a reality guaranteed by the various verifications furnished by all the various forms of our activity.

96Here again I am compelled to state it: I was alone. There hardly existed anything other than political history, government decrees and records, to a slight extent those of institutions. No one took into account that which accompanies, explains, and in part establishes that political history—social, economic, industrial conditions, those of literature and of ideas.

97The third volume (1300-1400) examines all aspects of one century. It is not without weaknesses. It does not explain how 1300 was the atonement for 1200, how Boniface VIII paid for Innocent III. It is harsh, excessively so, toward the legists, toward the courageous men who slapped the face of the idol with the Albigensian hand of the valiant Nogaret. However, this volume is new and strong in deriving history principally from the economic Revolution, from the advent of gold, of the Jew and of Satan (the king of hidden treasures). It vigorously presents the very mercantile character of the times.

98How England and Flanders were married by wool and cloth, how England drank Flanders, became saturated with her, enticing at any price the weavers driven out by the brutalities of the house of Bourbon: this is the great fact. An enriched England defeats us at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, with well-regulated troops which bury chivalry. A great social revolution.

99The Black Plague, St. Vitus’ dance, the flagellants and the witches’ sabbath, those carnivals of despair impel the abandoned, leaderless people to act for themselves. The genius of France in her Danton of the time, Étienne Marcel, in her Paris, her Estates General, bursts forth unexpectedly in her constitution, admirable in its precocity, postponed, rubbed out by the petty, negative prudence of Charles V. Nothing has been cured. Aggravated, on the contrary, evil arrives at its culminating frenzy, the raging madness of Charles VI.

100I have defined history as Resurrection. If that was ever realized, it happened in volume four (Charles VI). Perhaps, in fact, that is saying too much. This volume was created in a spurt of agony, in an ecstasy of that soul of yore, savage, sensual, and violent, cruel and tender, raging. As in The Witch, it is diabolical in some places, the dead dance there—not to provoke laughter as in Holbein’s ironies, but in a painful frenzy in which one participates and gets caught up almost by merely observing it. It whirls with astonishing speed, a horrible rout. And we are breathless. No stopping, no distraction. Everywhere there is an emotional and deep basso continuo; beneath it all, there sounds a mysterious rolling, a muted thunder of the heart.

101In the midst of so many gloomy things, we fall upon a great light—death enthroned in the Louvre—in a deserted Paris, the real death of France in the shape of the Englishman, of Lancaster. Henry, the king of priests, the damned Pharisee, tells us: “that we have perished only for our sins.”

102I do not answer him; let the English answer him themselves.

103They say that before the battle of Agincourt, each Englishman looked to his salvation, made confession; the French embraced, forgave each other, and forgot their hatreds.

104They say that in Spain where the French and English were waging war, the latter dying of hunger, the French fed them. I will not go beyond that: it is God’s choice.

105The greatest legend of our time is soon to come. It is seen in a frightful seed sprouting around 1360, sublime, charming, touching, and which flourishes in 1430 (third and fifth volumes).

106France had glimpsed the town and its communes. But what about the countryside? Who knows about it before the fourteenth century? That vast world of shadows, those countless, ignored masses, break through one morning. In the third volume (mostly erudition), I was not on guard, expecting nothing, when the shape of Jacques, rising up on a furrow, blocked my path; a monstrous and frightful shape. I felt a convulsive contraction in my heart... Great God! Is this my father? The man of the Middle Ages?... “Yes,” he answered, “Look how I am made! Behold a thousand years of sorrows...” Those sorrows, I felt them immediately as they flowed up into me from the depths of time... It was he, it was I (same soul and same person) who had endured all this... From these thousand years, a tear came to me, burning, as heavy as a world, which pierced the page. No one (friend, enemy) passed through them without weeping.

107The form was dreadful, but the voice was tender. With this my pain increased. Beneath this frightening mask was a human soul. Deep, cruel mystery. It cannot be understood without going back a little.

108Saint Francis, a child who does not know what he says, and who speaks the better for it, tells those who ask who wrote The Imitation of Christ: “The author is the Holy Spirit.”

109“The Holy Spirit,” says Joachim de Flores, “is the spirit whose reign arrives after the reign of Jesus.

110It is the spirit of union, of love, finally emerging from the suffocation of legend. The free associations of fraternities and free towns were for the most part moved by this spirit. Such was, in 1200, in the time of the Albigensians, the religion both of the free towns and of the knights of southern France, a religion in a new spirit that the Church drowned in torrents of blood. And so the Spirit, frail dove, seems to perish, to disappear. From that moment on it becomes airborne, and will be breathed in everywhere.

111Even in that little book, The Imitation of Christ, so monastic and devout, you find passages of absolute solitude in which the Spirit strikingly replaces everything, in which nothing is seen any more, neither priest nor Church. If one hears its inward voices in the convents, how much more so in the forests, in the free boundless Church! It was the Spirit speaking, from deep within the oaks, when Joan of Arc heard it, shuddered, and said tenderly: “My voices!”

112Holy voices, voices of conscience, which Joan of Arc carries with her into battles, into prisons, against the English, against the Church. There the world is changed. The passive resignation of Christians (so useful to tyrants) is superseded by the heroic tenderness which takes our afflictions to heart, which wants to set God’s justice here below, a justice that acts, that fights, that saves and heals.

113Who worked that miracle, so contrary to the Gospels? A superior love, love in action, love unto death, “the pity which was in the kingdom of France.”

114How divine a spectacle when, on the scaffold, the girl, abandoned and alone, upholds her interior Church against the priest-king, against the murderous Church, in the midst of the flames, and takes flight saying: “My voices!”

115This point is one in which I should observe how much my history, so glibly accused of being “poetry,” of being “passion,” has on the contrary retained its solidity and lucidity, even in emotional areas where it might perhaps be excusable to shut one’s eyes. Everyone has hesitated at the Joan of Arc story, seeing through their tears the flames of the pyre. While I was assuredly moved, I still saw clearly, and I noticed two things:

  1. The innocent heroine, without being aware of it, did much more than liberate France, she liberated the future by establishing the new standard, the opposite of Christian passivity. The modern hero is the hero of action. The deadly doctrine, which our friend Renan still praises excessively, of passive, interior freedom, preoccupied with itself and its own salvation, preoccupied with protecting itself, and which hands the world over to Evil and, abandons it to Tyrants, that doctrine breathes its last on the pyre at Rouen, and in a mystic form foretells the French Revolution.
  2. In this grand narrative I have practiced and demonstrated something new, from which the young might benefit: it is the fact that the historical method is often the opposite of specifically literary art. The writer busied with trying to increase his effects, to make things stand out, almost always likes to surprise, to seize the reader, to make him exclaim: “Ah!” The writer is happy if the natural event appears miraculous. On the contrary, the historian’s special mission is to explain whatever appears miraculous, to surround it with the precedents and circumstances leading up to it, to bring it back to nature. Here, I should say, I deserved credit. In admiring, in loving this sublime personality, I have shown how natural she was.

116The sublime is not at all outside nature; it is, on the contrary, the moment at which nature is most itself, in its natural height and depth. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in their excessive miseries, in their horrible extremities, the heart grows larger. The crowd is a hero. There were in those times many Joans of Arc, at least as regards courage. I meet many of them along my way: example, the fourteenth-century peasant, the Grand Ferré; example, in the fifteenth century, Jeanne Hachette who defends and saves Beauvais. Such naïve heroes often appear to me in the histories of our free towns.

117I have told the facts quite plainly. From the time the English lost their mainstay, the Duke of Burgundy, they became quite weak. On the contrary, the French, rallying their armed forces of the South, became extremely strong. But this produced no harmony. The charming personality of this young peasant girl, with her tender, emotional, and joyous heart (heroic gaiety burst forth in all her answers), became a center and she united everything. She acted effectively because she had no art, no magic, no enchantments, no miracles. All her power is humanity. She has no wings, this poor angel; she is the common people, she is weak, she is us, she is everyone.

118In the lonely galleries of the Archives where I wandered for twenty years, in that deep silence, murmurs nevertheless would reach my ears. The distant sufferings of so many souls, stifled in those ancient times, would moan softly. Stern reality protested against art, and occasionally had bitter words for it: “What are you fooling around with? Are you another Walter Scott, recounting picturesque details at great length, the sumptuous meals of Philip the Good, the empty Oath of the Pheasant? Do you know that our martyrs have been expecting you for four hundred years? Do you know that the valiant men of Courtray, of Rosebecque, do not have the monument which history owed them? The salaried chroniclers, Froissart the chaplain, Monstrelet the chatterbox, do not suffice. It was with firm faith, with the hope of justice that they gave their lives. They would have the right to say, ‘History! Settle with us! Your creditors are summoning you! We accepted death for one line from you!’”

119What did I owe them? To tell the story of their battles, to enter their ranks, to go halves with them in victory or defeat? That was not enough. For my ten years of strenuous perseverance when I reproduced the struggle of the Northern Towns, I undertook much more. I redid everything from top to bottom so as to restore their life to them, their arts, especially their rights.

120First, the right which these cities had over their surrounding countryside; that was the most sacred of rights, for they had created the land itself, reclaimed it from the water, constructed the canals that are the life, the defense, and the communications system of the region. These cities produced and created. Their masters have destroyed. How pallid that world, so lively then, is today! What is the whole of Belgium compared with Ghent or Bruges, compared with that Liège of former days, from which each of them launched armies?

121I plunged into the common people. While Olivier de la Marche and Chastellain were lolling about at the meals of the Golden Fleece, I probed the wine cellars where Flanders was fermenting, with her masses of valiant workers and mystics. I devoutly restored everything, their powerful Friendships (as they called their communes), their Candid Truths (the name of their meetings), without neglecting their bells, and their brotherly chimes. I put the dreaded Roelandt back into his tower, my great bronze friend whose solemn voice, ringing out for ten leagues, made John the Fearless and Charles the Bold quake.

122One quite essential point, which contemporaries as well as our modern writers neglect, is to distinguish sharply, to characterize the particular personality of each city. Therein lies, however, the true reality, the charm of this so diversified country. I clung to that task; it was a religion for me to reconstruct the soul of each of those old and cherished cities, and that could be done only by showing clearly how each trade and each way of life created a race of workers. I set Ghent aside, that deep hive of battles, with its brave and devout weavers. I also set Bruges aside, so great and so appealing, with the seventeen nations of its merchants and the three hundred painters who made an Italy in one city. And Ypres, the Pompeii of Flanders, today deserted, which preserves its true monument, the prodigious market place of all trades, this cathedral of labor where every good worker should remove his hat.

123The conflagration of Dinant, the cruel end of Liège, close this history of the Free Towns with a heartbreaking tragedy. Myself a child of the Meuse on my mother’s side, I had a family involvement with it. Those poor French nations, lost in the Ardennes, between hostile peoples and competing languages, moved me greatly. I gave back to the people of Liège the great renovator, Van Eyck, who transformed painting. I discovered, I exhumed from the ashes of Dinant its lost arts, so dear to the Middle Ages—humble and deeply touching arts that were the loyal servants, the household friends of all Europe.

124How can I thank my friends, my avengers, the good Swiss chroniclers who luckily arrive with their hunting horns, and spears, at the great hunt of Morat, and who bring to bay the wild boar, that cruel beast, Charles the Bold? Their narratives are heroically cheerful songs. It is a pleasure to see this frightful swelling bombast punctured, suddenly flattened. One undeniably favors Louis XI in his tricky struggle against barbaric pride, feudal brutality. He is a fox who nets the fake lion. At least the spirit triumphs. The refined and firm prose of Commynes overcomes coarse rhetoric, counterfeit knighthood. An irony, still petty and malicious, worthy of the medieval fabliaux, appears here in history. Tomorrow, strong and powerful, history will become fruitful in the great days of the Renaissance.

125That good king, Louis XI, held me up for a very long time. My entire fifteenth century came forth from records and documents. The extremely vast work of Legrand nonetheless requires verification of his often very inexact transcriptions against the originals (Gaignières, etc.), a labor requiring great patience.

126Through Louis XI I entered the centuries of monarchy. I was about to undertake this study when an accident made me reflect deeply. One day, passing through Reims, I examined in great detail the magnificent cathedral, the splendid church of the Coronation.

127The interior cornice on which you can walk around the church at a height of eighty feet, makes it appear enchanting, of floral richness, a permanent hallelujah. In the hollow vastness, you still seem to hear the great official hubbub that was said to be the voice of the people. At the windows you seem to see the birds that were released when the clergy, anointing the king, made the pact between Throne and Altar. Returning outside over the arches in the immense panorama which embraces all of Champagne, I came to the last small steeple, exactly above the chancel. There a strange scene greatly amazed me. The round tower was wreathed with tortured criminals. One has a rope around his neck. Another has lost an ear. The injured are more wretched there than the dead. How right they are! What a frightful contrast! What! The church of festivals, this bride, has taken this gloomy ornament as a wedding necklace! This pillory of the common people is set above the altar. But could not their tears, through the arches, have fallen upon the heads of kings! Fearful anointing of the Revolution, of God’s anger! “I cannot understand the centuries of monarchy if first, above all, I do not establish within myself the soul and the faith of the common people.” That is what I said to myself, and, after Louis XI, I wrote The Revolution (1845-1853).

128Readers were taken aback, but nothing made more sense than that. After many ordeals which I have recounted elsewhere and through which I saw the other shore closely, having died and been reborn, with centupled strength I produced the Renaissance. When I returned, looked back and reexamined my Middle Ages, that splendid sea of folly, I was seized with a violent hilarity, and with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I had a terrific celebration. Rabelais and Voltaire laughed in their graves. The broken gods, the rotten kings, appeared without any covering. The insipid history of conventional clichés, that shameful prude with which people were content, disappeared. From the Medicis to Louis XIV a harsh autopsy set forth the character of this government of corpses (1855-1868).

129Such a history was certain of one success, offending every friend of falsehood. But that includes many people, particularly those in positions of authority. Priests and royalists howled. The Doctrinaires did their best to smile.

130These reactions made very little difference to that patient history. It is strong, solid, well founded, and it will wait for its time to come.

  • 6 I do not want to anticipate here. In only one or two words I can say: It is this book, “this book (...)

131In my series of Prefaces, and my Explanatory Notes, can be seen, from volume to volume, the foundation underneath, the enormous underpinning of documents and manuscripts, of rare publications, etc., which sustains it.6

132That is how forty years went by. I hardly suspected it when I began. I believed I was going to write an abridged history of a few volumes in perhaps four years, in six years. But one can abridge only what is well known. And neither I myself, nor anyone, knew that history.

133After just my first two volumes, I caught a glimpse of the immense perspectives of this terra incognita. I said: “It will take ten years... ” No, twenty; no, thirty... And the road ahead of me grew longer and longer. I did not complain. On exploratory voyages one’s heart enlarges, grows, no longer sees anything but the goal. One forgets oneself entirely. So it happened with me. My fervent pursuit constantly pushing me forward, I lost sight of myself, I withdrew from myself. I let the world pass me by, and I took history for life.

134And now it has slipped away. I regret nothing. I ask for nothing. Well, what would I ask for, beloved France, with whom I have lived, whom I leave with such deep regret! In what companionship I have spent forty years (ten centuries) with you! We shared so many impassioned, noble, arduous hours, often in winter too, before the dawn! So many days of hard work and studies in the depths of the Archives! I worked for you, I went, came, searched, wrote. Each day I gave everything of myself, perhaps even more. The next morning, finding you at my table, I believed myself identical with you, strong with your powerful life and your eternal youth.

135But how, having enjoyed the remarkable fortune of such companionship, having lived for long years through your great soul, how have I not benefited more within myself? Oh! The answer is that, in order to restore all this for you I have had to tread again that long path of misery, strewn with cruel adventures, hundreds of diseased and deadly things. I have drunk too much bitterness. I have swallowed too many plagues, too many vipers, and too many kings.

136Very well! My great France, if in order to retrieve your life, a man had to surrender himself, to cross again and again, so many times, the river of death, he does not regret it, he thanks you still. And his greatest sorrow is that he must leave you here.

137Paris, 1870.


2 The People, translated by John P. McKay (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 19. The next quotation from The People is from p. 152.

3 This is the principal point on which I differ from my learned friend, M. Henri Martin. Moreover, this disagreement does not at all diminish my sympathetic esteem for his great and very beautiful History of France, which is so instructive, so enriched by his research and so full of ideas. It would have been infinitely useful, in reviving the all too unrecorded national tradition, for these two histories, which help and compensate for one another, to have appeared simultaneously.

4 This has nothing to do with the honesty of the individuals. There were some admirable men, people like Bazart, Barrault, Carnot, Charton, D′Eichthal, Lemonnier, etc.

5 As they sniff out death very well, those moments when the wounded soul might weaken, one of them, seductive and shrewd, came to see me at a time when I had had a painful loss in the family, and sounded me out. I was surprised, disconcerted by the idea that he could believe he had some hold on me, that he could say that we might reach an understanding, the differences between us being slight, etc. I spoke to him in these very words: “Monsignor, have you ever been on the sea of ice?” “Yes,” he answered. “Have you ever seen a certain crack, over which, from one side to the other, one can speak, converse?” “Yes.” “But you have not seen that this crack is an abyss…,” I continued, “and so much so, Monsignor, so deep, that through the ice and the earth, it descends without anyone′s ever having discovered the bottom. It goes as far as the center of the globe, continues across the globe, and is lost in the infinite.”

6 I do not want to anticipate here. In only one or two words I can say: It is this book, “this book of a poet and a man of imagination,“ that, thanks to its telling documentation, has told everyone whatever was important to them:
To the Protestants, the essential fact of the Saint-Bartholomew′s Day Massacre toils fifteen days before in Brussels (Granvelle papers, 10 August). Then, so many facts about the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, on which they themselves had thrown very little light.
To the Royalists, a whole world of odd anecdotal facts; for example, the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask and the wisdom of their queen. Franklin′s letters (1863) revealed the secret, according to Richelieu, and have proven that I alone was right.
To the financiers, Law’s system (unexplained by M. Thiers in 1826) is finally elucidated, both by manuscripts and by the history of the Paris and London Stock Exchanges.
As for the Revolution, what can I say? Mine emerged entirely from the three great archive collections of our times which are in Paris. Could Louis Blanc (despite his merit and his talent, for which I have great respect) have perceived the nature of the Revolution? Could he have recreated it in London with the help of a few brochures? I cannot believe it. Read, moreover, and compare.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 4. Jules Michelet, Histoire de France (Paris: Hetzel, 1869), 5 vols.,vol. 1. frontispiece. Library of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.
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