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Historians Reconsidered: Michelet

W.F. Knapp reappraises a great historian of nineteenth century France.

“Imagine then this period of 1848. Who were those who found themselves on opposite sides, that one can take as types of all the rest? Guizot, Minister of Louis Philippe, on the one hand, Michelet and Quinet, with the students on the other ... (and) I hold it for certain that if you and I had been alive then, you would have been on the side of Guizot, and I on the side of Michelet.”

Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, 1884.

The revolution of 1789 produced a complete break in the tradition of French scholarship; and not until forty years later did historical studies begin to revive. Napoleon had encouraged only such studies of the past as tended to enhance his own prestige; and the sole contribution of the Empire to history was the organization of the National Archives. During the Restoration, history was still largely ignored in schools, and at the University there was no training in the art of writing it. The most valuable historical work was that of Thiers and Mignet; but, since it formed part of the campaign against the Bourbon dynasty, it could hardly serve as a model in the schools and universities. The revolution of 1830 at length gave an impetus to historical research. Under the direction of Guizot, who became Minister of Public Instruction, the sporadic attempts that had been made to rescue papers and records from neglect and decay were co-ordinated and placed under Government supervision. He restored the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and founded the Society of the History of France. The teaching of history was greatly extended; documents and papers were published under Government auspices, and history became, in the words of Thierry, “a national institution.”

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