Lucien Febvre, Annales, Histoire de France, biography, history, Vico
[Jules Michelet, History of France]
Jakob Burckhardt, Renaissance, Le Peuple, historiography, historian

Home > History & Historians > Famous Historian index > Jules Michelet

  Site Map  |  * Popular Pages *  |  Download Wisdoms  

Jules Michelet
History of France

  "The historian's first duties are sacrilege and the mocking of false gods. They are his indispensable instruments for establishing the truth."
Jules Michelet

  Jules Michelet, who went on in life to become a famous French historian, was born in Paris in August 1798 into a family which had Huguenot traditions and where his father was precariously self-employed as a printer. As he grew to manhood Michelet was offered employment in the imperial printing office but his father, who had hopes for his evidently talented son, decided to keep him in school despite the relative poverty of his circumstances. The son fulfilled some of his father's expectations - he progressed from school to higher studies, in history. In 1821 he was appointed as a teacher of history. He married in 1824.

  Between 1825 and 1827 Michelet produced a number of sketches, chronological tables, etc., of modern history. His Introduction à l'histoire universelle, published in 1831, displayed the peculiar romantic and visionary qualities which make him one the most stimulating of all historians. It also featured his tendency to indulge in historical suggestions which, although associated with solid facts, are not always trustworthy. The Introduction à l'histoire universelle was in fact partly inspired by the anti-rationalist approach of the philosopher Vico who had proclaimed the triumph of the imagination over analysis.

  The events of 1830 which initiated the "liberal" monarchy of Louis Philippe unmuzzled Michelet as a liberal, anti-clerical and very patriotic historian and writer, and also put him in a better position for study by obtaining for him the position of head of the Historical Section of the National Archives and a deputy-professorship under Guizot in the literary faculty of the Sorbonne.
  Soon afterwards he began his chief and monumental work Histoire de France (History of France) in which he immersed himself in the narrative and stressed the development of France as a nation. It was in these years of his early thirties that Michelet seems to have begun to drift somewhat away from a previous acceptance of catholicism and royalism and towards more radical views.

  The completion of the Histoire de France was to involved intermittently sustained efforts over more than thirty years from 1833 but Michelet also produced other many works during these years. Some of the earlier of these other works included Oeuvres choisies de Vico, the Mémoires de Luther écrits par lui-même, and the Origines du droit française.
  In 1838 he was appointed professor at the Collège de France, where he held the chair of History and Ethics. He published, in 1839, his Histoire romaine. The results of his lectures appeared in the volumes Le Prêtre, la femme, et la famille (1843), and Le Peuple (1846).

  In his Le Peuple, Michelet describes the spirit and qualities of the French working class. It is widely considered to be his best single volume. On its initial day of publication it sold a thousand copies and was immediately translated into English. It discussed various economic and political transformations as France and Europe shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society and examined the condition of the social classes. According to Michelet, modernization and industrialization were heightening political and ideological conflict. He called for a love of one's country to solve many of France's problems and placed faith in the innate goodness of the masses, seeing "the people" as the source of progress in history. Le Peuple looks to the people to unify France and make her great. Michelet believed they were the true custodians of the spirit of Joan of Arc, and that their revolution had been a revelation of the inherent nobility of humankind.

  Michelet visualized himself throughout his life as a champion of the people and, as the principles, (associated with disenchantment with Louis Phillipe's bourgeoise monarchy), that precipitated the outbreak of revolution of 1848 became more distinct and widely shared he was one of those who condensed and propagated them. When the revolutionism of 1848 actually broke out he devoted himself even more strenuously to his literary work.
  One outcome of this period of unrest in France and Europe being the replacement of Louis Phillipe's monarchy by a republic headed by Louis Napoleon a putative nephew of Bonaparte.

  Before many months passed Louis Napoleon, leader of the Second French Republic was accepted as the Emperor Napoleon III of France.
  Given Michelet's sympathies for some radical aspects of the recent revolution, the government of Napoleon III suspended his popular lectures at the Collège de France in 1851. Michelet, though not in any way identified with the Second Republic administratively had refused to take the oaths of allegiance to the empire of Emperor Napoleon III, and lost his position at the National Archives.
  A period of relative poverty now began for Michelet and his second wife.

  The establishment of the new régime only kindled afresh his republican zeal. In the ensuing years until the fall of Napoleon III (1870), Michelet completed his enthusiastic Histoire de la révolution française.
  His entering into marriage for a second time seems to have stimulated his literary powers. While his history studies made steady progress, a crowd of extraordinary little books accompanied them as subjects of his creative efforts. Two of the most acclaimed of these, L'Oiseau (1856) and La Montagne (1868), being on an area of interest he began to share with his new wife - natural science.

  The authorship of these numerous titles, together with his major studies of French history took up a great deal of Michelet's time over the two decades after 1850. He lived partly in France and partly also in Italy and became habituated to the spending of the winter months at Hyères on the Riviera.

  The term renaissance, meaning literally "rebirth," was first employed around 1855-8 by Jules Michelet to refer to the "discovery of the world and of man" in the 16th century. The great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, in his classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), expanded on Michelet's conception. Defining the Renaissance as the period between the Italian painters Giotto and Michelangelo, Burckhardt characterized the epoch as nothing less than the birth of modern humanity and consciousness after a long period of decay.

  In 1867 Michelet's massive study Histoire de France was completed - its content now extending over some 19 volumes. Michelet was perhaps the first historian to devote himself to anything like a picturesque history of the middle ages, and his account is still the most vivid that exists. Its style, its emotional strength, and its powerful evocation make it a masterpiece of French literature. Michelet traced the biography of the nation as a whole, instead of concentrating on persons or groups of persons. His most convincing pages deal with the Middle Ages. Michelet had vast knowledge of factual detail and original documents - his inquiry into manuscript and printed authorities had been most laborious. This history, especially the latter part, views the past through Michelet's strong anti-clericalism and his leftist political prejudices, and is marred by emotional bias against the clergy, the nobility, and the monarchic institutions.
  Dramatic, and sometimes bloody, events associated with the French Revolution are presented as unfortunate, but perhaps understandable, episodes that were associated with a crucial French mission to secure the liberty of the people at home and abroad.

  Two chapters of the Histoire de France, present the most impressive of all romantic interpretations of Joan of Arc. Michelet dealt with Joan as an inspired girl from the people, as an incarnation of French patriotism. The chapters in question have been reprinted separately many times as a biography of the Maid of Orleans and such a separate presention have been referred to by some French people as "our national Bible".

  Uncompromisingly hostile as Michelet was to the empire of Napoleon III, its downfall in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, and the accompanying disasters of the country, once more stimulated him to activity. Not only did he write letters and pamphlets during the struggle, but when it was over he set himself to complete the vast task which his two great histories had almost covered by a Histoire du XIX siècle. He did not, however, live to carry it further than Waterloo.

  The new republic that followed the downfall of Napoleon III was not altogether a restorarion for Michelet. His professorship, at the Collège de France of which he contended that he had never properly been deprived, was not given back to him.
  He died at Hyères in February 1874.

  In many ways Michelet's Le Peuple and other historical works expressed the romanticism of his age and reflected the credo of the liberal petite bourgeoisie. He believed in the federation of the social classes and not their disappearance, in the nation state, in improved relations between capital and labour, in Deism, in anti-clericalism, and in the infallibility of the people.

  Although the Marxists criticized him because of his faith in the reconciliation of classes and the permanence of the nation state, the twentieth historian Lucien Febvre, a founder of the Annales school, viewed his work as an inspiration for a new variety of history because of Michelet's concern for "a total history" and "la longue durée" in history. Consequently, there has been a revival of interest in Michelet, an historian whose works reflect many of the changes, conflicts, trends, and hopes of the nineteenth century. Thus, he has had a significant impact on French historiography in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - an influence which continues to shape much popular historical thinking in France.
  Michelet is indeed regarded by many in France as the countries greatest 'national' historian.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
The wars of German unification
1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

2 The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
The Vienna Declaration
Framework Convention on National minorities

Return to start of
Jules Michelet
History of France