Professeur à l’Université de Leeds
Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, born in 1830, has produced a major work on the (early) Middle Ages; but throughout the twentieth century, he was rarely quoted by the scholars of that period. What are the (real or perceived) problems of this work, and what can we still take out of it?
In the use of Fustel for the history of the Middle Ages, a first difficulty lies in the fact that it is difficult to classify him as a medievalist historian. Fustel studied at the École normale supérieure from 1850 to 1853 and then at the École française in Athens from 1853 to 1855. Initially he established himself as an ancient historian, defending theses on the cult of Vesta and on Polybius’ account of the Roman conquest of Greece in 1858. In 1860 he was appointed professor of history at the university of Strasbourg. There he published his first major work, on La cité antique, in 1864, in which he placed religion at the heart of Greek and Roman social history. His teaching obligations, which meant that he offered courses which extended from Antiquity to the Revolution, however, ensured that at already while in Strasbourg he began to consider the history of the Middle Ages. But in terms of his published work, however, he was still essentially an ancient historian when he moved to Paris in 1870, initially as maître des conférences at the École normale supérieure (from where he delivered a course of lectures to the empress Eugénie and her entourage), and subsequently at the Sorbonne, where he succeeded Geffroy as professor of ancient history in 1875, becoming professor of medieval history in 1878. Although Fustel had shown an interest in medieval and early modern history already during the time he spent in Strasbourg, his emergence as a medieval historian can be placed very firmly in the period following his move to Paris in 1870.
Another problem with this work is that it often responds to contemporary concerns of Fustel, especially related to the French-German context. Certainly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 impacted upon his thought. This can already be seen in his public exchange of letters with Theodor Mommsen, who called upon the Italians not to take sides in the conflict – though neither scholar resorted to history in their arguments over Alsace. Although Fustel had left Strasbourg before the outbreak of war, the German take over, he did endure the subsequent siege of Paris. Clearly the experience of 1870 impacted significantly on his work as a scholar.
This is perhaps most apparent in articles published in 1870, on Alsace (‘L’Alsace est-elle allemande ou française?’), on the invasion (‘La politique d’envahissement: Louvois et M. de Bismarck’), and, more importantly in terms of historical scholarship on German historiography (‘De la manière d’écrire l’histoire en France et en Allemagne’). In this last article published in 1872 he challenged the consensus, that German scholarship was superior to French. In many respects he had a strong case: although there was no French equivalent to the series of editions published by the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, founded by the Freiherr vom Stein in 1819, the early volumes of the Monumenta were no more scholarly than individual publications that had been produced in France: it would only be after Mommsen took over the editorship of the Auctores Antiquissimi in 1875 that the editions produced by the Monumenta became touchstones of historical scholarship. More significant was the German teaching method, dominated by the seminar system of Ranke, which had attracted a number of French scholars, including Gabriel Monod, who trained in Berlin with Georg Waitz. Fustel’s opposition to French scholars travelling to Germany for instruction was such that when his own pupil Camille Jullian undertook the journey he had to explain to his master that he was only going as a ‘boursier-espion’.
Fustel’s reaction to 1870 no doubt had a significant impact on his own scholarship. Hitherto primarily an ancient historian, after the Franco-Prussian war he would transform himself into a historian of the early Middle Ages, embarking on an Histoire des institutions politiques de l’ancienne France, which was intended to continue up to 1789, although in the event Fustel died before he had taken the story beyond the Carolingian period.
An additional difficulty is the complex structure of the work. The first volume of the Histoire des institutions politiques, dealing with ‘L’empire romain, les Germains, la royauté mérovingienne’ appeared in 1874 – it would subsequently be divided into three separate volumes published between 1888 and 1891. These would be followed by three other volumes, on ‘L’alleu et le domaine rural pendant l’époque mérovingienne’ (1889), ‘Les origines du système féodal, le bénéfice et le patronat’ (1890) and ‘Les transformations de la royauté pendant l’époque carolingienne’ (1892). Since Fustel himself died in 1889 these works had to be edited and seen through the press by Jullian.
The six volumes of Histoire des institutions politiques constitute a major, albeit flawed, analysis of the late and post-Roman period in France. Their scale alone makes them unwieldy and difficult to follow: the overall construction of the argument suffers both because the work was left unfinished, with the last two volumes having to be completed by Jullian from notes and previously published articles, but also because Fustel sometimes backtracks, and reconsiders issues with which he has already dealt.
He presents his work as being entirely based on the sources, though from the start he was criticised for his failure to distinguish between genuine and forged documents – a criticism which, while justified over certain points of detail, scarcely undermines Fustel’s overall case. In fact, although he claimed that his search for the truth had led him to concentrate only on the sources, he had, according to Jullian, read all the previous scholarship, and indeed was reacting against it, or at least against most of what had been written since the Revolution. In fact, the interpretation that he offered had much in common with what the abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos had proposed in 1735. According to Du Bos the incoming barbarians did not destroy the Roman empire: rather they were holders of Roman office in a world that was disintegrating. Like Du Bos Fustel denied that the barbarians (Goths, Franks and Burgundians) destroyed the Roman world. To assert as much in the aftermath of 1870 was, of course, to deny the significance of the Germanic peoples in the history of Europe; but it also contrasts with the destructive attitude attributed to the Germans by the French scholars during the same period. However much Fustel insisted that his reading was determined by a search for truth in the sources, it is difficult to deny that his argument had very specific implications following the Franco-Prussian war.
Yet, if Fustel’s reading of the rise of the Merovingians is essentially anti-Germanic, the sheer scale of the enterprise on which he embarked ensured that his argument was infinitely more subtle than a simple rejection of the significance of the Germanic peoples. Although the overall title of his six volumes is Histoire des institutions politiques, the political institutions that concerned him were as much social as they were political. A key theme throughout the work is the transformation of what had been in the classical period the ties of patronage into feudal relations, which he really understood as patronage transformed, thus, once again denying any significantly Germanic element in the emergence of feudalism. His sense of the workings of society takes us back to the interests he had originally displayed in La cité antique, although the Histoire des institutions politiques shows none of the interest in religion that had marked the earlier work. It is in his concern for how society worked that one can understand his significance for the development of the science of social anthropology, and indeed at the École normale supérieure he was one of the teachers of Emile Durkheim.
Fustel died in 1889, at the comparatively young age of 59. Although he had come into conflict with a number of scholars, his importance was noted even by such opponents as Gabriel Monod. The greatest champion of Fustel’s work, however, was Camille Jullian. Apart from seeing what was left of the Histoire des institutions politiques through the press, he also gathered together and revised a number of his articles together in a volume of Questions historiques published in 1893. In the decade following his death Fustel’s reputation was, thus, well established. It was, however, to come under threat for non-academic reasons in the early twentieth century. In 1905 Charles Maurras decided to organise a national celebration to mark what would have been Fustel’s seventy-fifth birthday. Although Fustel’s politics, which had become increasingly republican over time, were far from the reactionary monarchism of Maurras and the Action française, he had delivered a series of lectures to the empress Eugénie, and he could also be represented as a patriot, following his altercation with Mommsen and his attack on German scholarship. The effect was to transform Fustel into a right-wing historian, which he was not. As such while the great generation of left-wing scholars in France (including Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre) acknowledged the quality of Fustel’s work, they put less emphasis on it than they might otherwise have done. As a result one of the greatest scholarly achievements of the nineteenth century came to be severely undervalued.
Use of Fustel de Coulanges
P. GEARY, Historians as Public Intellectuals, Southampton, 2007.
A. GRACEFFA, [Les historiens et la question franque : le peuplement franc et les Mérovingiens dans l’historiographie française et allemande des XIXe-XXe siècles, Turnhout, 2010.
F. HARTOG, Le XIXe siècle et l’histoire. Le cas Fustel de Coulanges, Paris, 1988.
I.N. WOOD, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages, Oxford, 2013.