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