The rise in the reputation of French history, not just in its own territory but throughout the Anglo-Saxon world as well, has been one of the most remarkable cultural developments since the Second World War. The reasons for its triumph are instructive, not least to historians of Britain, whose own discipline has so conspicuously declined in popularity over the same period of time. Some of the credit must go to a succession of scholars, Philippe Ariès, Fernand Braudel, Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie among them, who combined intellectual power with formidable originality and entrepreneurial verve. But it is the kind of history writers like these have publicised that has been the main cause of French history becoming so indisputably chic. In part because of the campaign against traditional historiography launched by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the 1920s, and partly too, I suspect, because the humiliations of the German Occupation encouraged alienation from the political, there has been a concentration instead on the private and on the popular. Not monarchs, or ministers, or diplomats, or generals, but demography, manners, sexuality, the family, the body, the senses, the symbols and language of everyday life and ordinary people: these have been the objects of desire for the most influential post-war historians of France.
LRB 16 August 1990 | PDF Download