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An Anatomy of the Historical Revolution in Renaissance France*

  • Zachary Sayre Schiffman (a1)


In his Dessein de l'histoire nouvelle des françois, Lancelot Voisin de La Popelinière offered a blueprint for a French history of broader range and deeper reach than any previous effort. He divided his proposed work into three parts: pre-Roman Gaul, Roman Gaul, and the kingdom of France from the Merovingians to the present. Part one would concern “the form of government, public and private, of the Gauls living in liberty before the Romans had envied, undermined, and eventually seized their dominion.” It would detail their religion (its priests and rituals), their nobility (its composition, privileges, and lifestyle), the lesser social orders (merchants, artisans, and commoners), and their public institutions (laws, magistrates, and other officials) — “in brief, everything notable about so little-known a state.” Part two would follow the same pattern but in even greater detail, examining the changes introduced by the Romans in “religion, administration, justice, military discipline, finances, and business, ” as well as social changes.



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An early version of this essay was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Society for French History in Baltimore, Maryland, in November, 1986. I am very grateful to Professor Donald Kelley, who commented on both the paper and the subsequent essay, which has also benefited from a careful reading by Professor Donald Wilcox.



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1 Lancelot Voisin, Sieur de La Popelinière, L'Histoire des histoires, avec I'idéede Vhistoire accomplie. Plus le dessein de Vhistoire nouvelle des françois (Paris, 1599). Because the works in this volume are not paginated consecutively, I will refer to them by their separate titles, cited as Histoire des histoires, Idée, and Dessein. The blueprint for a new history of France is in the Dessein, 358-62. La Popelinière's “new history” was based on a notion of “perfect history,” which he described as “la representation de tout” in Idée, 85-86.

2 La Popelinière, Dessein, 362-64.

3 On lists in particular, see Goody, Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, 1977), chap. 5; and Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy (London, 1982), 123-30. On the broader classificatory impulse in the Early Modern period, see Slaughter, M. M., Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1982), especially 1-11 and 38-64. Also of general interest is Michel Foucault's discussion of classification in part one of Lei Mots et les choses (Paris, 1966). Although I am much at odds with the form and content of Foucault's work, I find that it nonetheless highlights the importance of the classificatory view of the world for the Early Modern mind. My essay will show that this view of the world extended to historical thought. By implication, however, I shall also be casting doubt on Foucault's distinction between the Renaissance and Classical “epistemes,'” both of which partake of the classificatory view; the transition from one so-called “archaeological stratum” to the other is characterized less by “rupture” than by “evolution.”

4 See Louis Le Roy, Proiect ou dessein du royautne de France … and his Les Monarchiques de Loys le Roy, ou de la monarchies et des chose reauises à son establissement et conservation … , both bound with and published under the title of Le Roy's Exhortation aux francois pour vivre en Concorde, etjouir du bien de la paix (Paris, 1570).

5 The French historical school of law has been most thoroughly analyzed by Pocock, j. G. A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957), chap. 1; Franklin, JulianM., Jean Bodin and the Sixteenth-Century Revolution in the Methodology of Law and History (New York, 1963); and Kelley, DonaldR., Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship (New York, 1970).

6 On the myth of the Trojan origins of France and its fate in the sixteenth century, see Huppert, George, The Idea of Perfect History (Urbana, 1970), especially chap. 4; and Dubois, Claude-Gilbert, Celtes etgaulois au XVIe siecle (Paris, 1972).

7 The above cited works of Pocock, Franklin, Kelley, and Huppert have demonstrated that there was a revolution in historical scholarship during the French Renaissance. I question, however, whether this revolution extended to historical consciousness; see Zachary Sayre Schiffman, “Renaissance Historicism Reconsidered,” History and Theory 24 (1985): 170-82, which provides the historiographical background for the present essay. On the issue of whether there was an historical revolution in this period, see Preston, Joseph H., “Was There an Historical Revolution?”, Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977): 353-64. Preston compares conflicting claims made for the importance of historiographical developments in Renaissance Italy, France, and England, and suggests that the notion of an historical “revolution” may be misleading. But I find it difficult to conceive of developments in sixteenth-century French historical scholarship— which within one generation led to the widespread rejection of the myth of Trojan origins and, instead, to a critical interest in the customs, laws, and institutions of the ancient Gauls and Franks —as being anything less than revolutionary.

8 y Gasset, Jose Ortega, The Idea of Principle in Leibnitz and the Evolution of Deductive Theory, trans. Mildred Adams (New York, 1970), passim. For the relation between taxonomy and the idea of substance, see Cassirer, Ernst, Substance and Function, and Einstein's Theory of Relativity, trans. William and Marie Swabey (New York, 1923), 3-9; Hobart, Michael E., Science and Religion in the Thought of Nicolas Malebranche (Chapel Hill, 1982), 9-13; and Edel, Abraham, Aristotle and his Philosophy (Chapel Hill, 1982), chap. 8.

9 For the general relation between logic and dialectic in the Renaissance and the rise of “place logic” in particular, see Ong, , Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), esp. chap. 5. On commonplaces and commonplace thought in the Renaissance, see Joachimsen, Paul, “Loci communes: eine Untersuchung zur Geistesgeschichte des Humanismus und der Reformation,” Luther-Jahrbuch 8 (1926): 27-97; Quirinus Breen, “The Terms loci communes and loci in Melanchthon,” in his Christianity andHumanism (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1968), 93-105; Buck, August, “Diestudiahumanitatis undihreMethode,” in his Die humanistiche Tradition in der Romania (Berlin, 1968), 133-50; Joan Marie Lechner, Renaissance Concepts of the Commonplaces (Westport, Conn., 1974); and Ong, “Commonplace Rapsody: Ravisius Textor, Zwinger, and Shakespeare,” in Classical Influences on European Culture, A.D. 1500-1700, ed. R. R. Bolgar (Cambridge, 1976), 91-126.

10 Hotman, François, Antitribonian (Paris, 1603); a facsimile of this edition is published in the series Images et temoins de l’age dassiaue, 9 (Saint-Etienne, 1980). The Antitribonian has been analyzed in the cited works of Pocock, Franklin, and Kelley (above, n. 5) as well as in Giesey, Ralph E., “When and Why Hotman Wrote the Francogallia,” Bibliothèque d'humanisme et renaissance 29 (1967): 581-611, esp. 596-604. Giesey's interpretation of the work is perhaps the most thorough, and his footnotes provide an extensive bibliography on Hotman. Also of interest is Kelley, Francois Hotman: A Revolutionary's Ordeal (Princeton, N.J., 1973), esp. 191-97.

11 Hotman, Antitribonian, chap. 8, esp. 153-55.

12 Giesey, “When and Why,” 599-604; and E. Fournol, “Sur quelques traites de droit publique du XVIe siècle,” Nouvelle revue de droit français et etranger, 3rd ser. 21 (1897): 298-325, esp. 319-20.

13 Giesey, “When and Why,” 604.

14 Hotman, Antitribonian, 28-29. Hotman devoted chaps. 4-9 to a detailed comparison of Roman and French private law that was very relativistic. At one point he even exclaimed that a jurist trained solely in Roman law would, upon finding himself in a French court, no doubt feel as if he had landed among the savages of the New World (Antitribonian, 36).

15 Hotman, Francogallia, ed. Ralph E. Giesey and J. H. M. Salmon (Cambridge, 1972). In addition to the editors’ excellent introduction to this work, see Giesey, , “When and Why”; Franklin, Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1969), 1930 ; Keohane, NannerlO., Philosophy and the State in France (Princeton, N.J., 1980), 4953 ; Dubois, Celtes etgaulois, 110-15; and Kelley, Hotman, 238-60.

16 Hotman, Francogallia, 287-331.

17 The single best source of information about La Popelinière's life remains George Wylie Sypher, “La Popelinière: Historian and Historiographer (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1961); see also his “La Popelinière's Histoire de France: A Case of Historical Objectivity and Religious Censorship, ”Journal of the History of Ideas 24 (1963): 41-54. In the Idée, 259, La Popelinière mentioned studying with Adrien Turnèbe, one of the great humanist scholars of the period. For a portrait of the law school at Toulouse around 1560, see Mesnard, Pierre, “Jean Bodin à Toulouse,” Bibliotheèque d'humanisme et renaissance 12 (1950): 31-59.

18 In Artisans of Glory (Chapel Hill, 1980), 90-91, Orest Ranum suggested that La Popelinière may have been motivated to write his historiographical treatises in part by a need for patronage. Indeed, Du Haillan had previously published a proposal for a new history of France in an effort to receive royal backing; see Bernard de Girard, seigneur de Haillan, De la fortune et vertu de la France, ensemble un sommaire discourse sur le desseing de I'histoire de France (Rouen, 1571). Aside from paying lip service to the myth of Trojan origins (even though admitting that he no longer believed in it), Du Haillan seems to have anticipated some of the scope of La Popelinière's Dessein.

19 For analyses of La Popelinière, in addition to the above cited works of Sypher (in n. 17) see Kelley, “History as a Calling: The Case of La Popelinière,” in Renaissance Studies in Honor of Hans Baron, Anthony Molho and John A. Tedeschi, eds. (DeKalb, 111., 1971), 771 -89; Huppert, Idea of Perfect History, chap. 8; Yardeni, Myriam, “La Conception de I'histoire dans l'oeuvres de La Popelinière,” Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 11 (1964): 109-26; Dubois, Claude-Gilbert, La Conception de I'histoire en France au XVIe siècle (Paris, 1977), 124-53; and Hassinger, Erich, Empirisch-rationaler Historismus (Bern, 1978), 110-19.

20 La Popelinière, Histoire des histoires, 21-48, 137-57, 158-59.

21 Ibid., 6, 8.

22 See Randall, John Herman, Jr., Aristotle (New York, 1960), chap. 6.

23 See La Popelinière, La Vraye et entiere histoire des troubles… depuis Van 1562 (Basel, 1572), “Epistre à la noblesse” (he later expanded this work into his Histoire de France); and Idée, 104. On the four causes in legal theory, see A. London Fell, Origins of Legislative Sovereignty and the Legislative State (Königstein, 1983), 2 vols.

24 La Popelinière, Idée, 85, my emphasis.

25 For La Popelinière's notion of historical relativity, one need only consult his blueprint for a new history of France in the Dessein, 358-62.

26 La Popelinière, Idée, 103. On Patrizzi's formulation of this notion and its status as a commonplace, see John Racin, Sir Walter Raleigh as Historian (Salzburg, 1974), 61.

27 Franklin, Jean Bodin, 116-19; Kelley, “Historia Integra: Baudouin, François and his Conception of History,” Journal ojthe History of Ideas 25 (1964): 35-57; and Adalbert Klempt, Die Säkularisierung der universalhistorischer Auffassung (Göttingen, i960), esp. 64-69.

28 The very terms with which Baudouin denoted universal history, such as historia integra and historia p erfecta, derived from the study of Roman law; see Michael Erbe, François Bauduin (1520-1573) (Gutersloh, 1978), III .

29 La Popelinière's proposal (Dessein, 354) begins by outlining the geography of Gaul and the customs of its inhabitants; it continues as follows: “En apres d'escrire la forme de l'estat, la police, religion, justice, finance, traffic, et autres façons de vivre. Soub l'entretien et continuë desquelles, les Romains et autres nations, vindrent pour telles occasions, par tels endroicts, tels moyens et succez renverser ce premiere estat Gaulois, et en son lieu y en establit un autre, auquel ils donnerent la forme qu'on representeroit par le menu et briefvement, jusques à ce que les Germains, et entre autres les Francs entrez és Gaules … essayerent à diverse fois, premierement de l'esbransler puis abattre, pour y planter une nouvelle forme de seigneurie.” Passages like this one —reiterating the need to study the successive forms of the state—abound throughout the Dessein.

30 For the text of this letter, see Huppert, Idea of Perfect History, 194-97.

31 This expression appears repeatedly throughout La Popelinière's writings on historical theory. In addition to the above quoted passage from the Dessein (354-55), see also the Idée, 30, 95, 104, 190. The notion of “origins and progress” figures prominently not only in La Popelinière's work but also in that of his contemporaries, especially in Estienne Pasquier's Recherches de la France.

32 The expression is Franklin's, injean Bodin, 118-19; here he also noted that, “This idea of the ‘indivisibility’ of history, together with the idea of continuity and the divorce of history and nature, is often uncannily suggestive of the historicism of the nineteenth century.”

33 La Popelinière, Idée, 114: “Les choses qu'on veut narrer trouvees, faudra faire comme le bon Architecte, qui suivant le dessein ja tracé de son ouvrage: jette les fondemens premieres, puis y bastit les murailles qu'il y esleve comme bon luy semble … . Ainsi l'Historien … preparera premierement les choses plus generales d'icelles. Puis disposera les particulieres, selon les temps et les lieux esquel elles sont advcnues… suyvant la forme Annalitique des anciens.” Other references to this architectural metaphor appear in Idée, 113, and Dessein, 357, 364.

34 Ong, Ramus, 262-63.

35 See La Popelinière, Dessein, 350-51.

36 Vignier, Nicolas, La Bibliothèque historiale (Paris, 1587), vol. 1, Preface; all subsequent references to the Bibliothèque are drawn from the unpaginated preface to vol. 1. A fourth, posthumous volume, including a biography of Vignier, was published in 1650. On Vignier, see Huppert, Idea of Perfect History, chap. 7. Also of interest is the preface to Vignier's Sommaire de I'histoire desfrancois (Paris, 1579), which contains some variations on the statements made in the later work.

37 On Eusebius and his chronology, see Foakes-Jackson, F.J., Eusebius Pamphili (Cambridge, 1933); Grant, RobertM., Eusebius as Church Historian (Oxford, 1980); and Eusebius, The Bodleian Manuscript of Jerome's Version of the Chronicle of Eusebius, intro. J. K. Fotheringham (Oxford, 1905).

38 Pasquier, Estienne, Les Recherches de la France (Paris, 1611), bk. 4, chap. 1, 421, hereafter cited as Recherches, 4:1, 421. Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the 1611 edition, which was the last edition published during Pasquier's lifetime. For the editions of the Recherches, see Thickett, D., Bibliographic des oeuvres d'Estienne Pasquier (Geneva, 1956).

39 The following analysis of the Recherches is based on the 1611 edition, consisting of seven books. Posthumous editions also contain a book on French learning, as well as two additional books on historical figures. In addition to bk. i on the ancient Gauls, I shall also analyze Pasquier's view of the “origins and progress” of Parlement in bk. 2, of the Gallican church in bk. 3, of French poetry in bk. 6, and the French language in bk. 7. Excluded from this inquiry will be the posthumous books, as well as bks. 4 and 5. The former group of books may well be incomplete; and the latter, concerning obscure customs and neglected historical figures, are collections of disparate research. When Pasquier set himself the task of depicting the principal features of the kingdom and culture of France, however, he framed his historical research with a view of the past that attributed the uniqueness of all things French to their Gallic origins. For a more detailed analysis of the “genealogical” aspects of the Recherches, see Schiffman, “Estienne Pasquier and the Problem of Historical Relativism,” Sixteenth-Century Journal 18 (1987): 505-17. Other analyses of the Recherches are in Kelley, Foundations of Modem Historical Scholarship, chap. 10; Huppert, Idea of Perfect History, chap. 3; P. Bouteiller, “Un Historien du XVIe siècle: Étienne Pasquier,” Bibliothèque d'humanisme et renaissance 6 (1945): 357-92; Yardeni, Myriam, La Conscience nationale en France pendant lesguerres de religion (Louvain, 1971), 64-66; Keohane, Philosophy and the State, 42-49; Thickett, D., Estienne Pasquier (1529-1615) (London, 1979), chap. 7: L. Keating, Clark, Étienne Pasquier (New York, 1972), 47-111; and Moore, MargaretJ., Éstienne Pasquier, historien de la poésieetdelalangue française (Poitiers, 1934).

40 In Pasquier's interpretation, the Franks contributed relatively little to the basic “stuff of France; they simply adopted the existing Gallic institutions after their conquest of the province. He was especially concerned to show that the Frankish conquest of Gaul was proof not of the superiority of the Franks but of the vicissitude of events, whereby the Franks revenged their previous defeat by the Gauls. Indeed, Fortune would come full circle when Clovis, the Frankish king who conquered Gaul, marched eastward to subdue Germany, “induit par une destinee Gauloise” (Recherches, 1:7, 27).

41 Pasquier, , Des Recherches de la France (Paris, 1560), 5r-v: “J'ay voué ce mein premier Livre en passant, pour quelques discours des Gaulois, et aussi de l'habitation des premiers François, ensemble de quelques autres peuples qui nous touchent, que nous ne recognoissons (par maniere de dire) qu'à tatons: mon second, à la deduction de la commune police, qui a esté diversement observée selon le temps, non seulement és choses prophanes, mais aussi Ecclesiastiques: le tiers, à quelques anciennetez, qui ne concernent tant l'estat public, que des personnes privees: Et le quatriesme, en la commemoration de quelques notables examples, que je voy ou n'estre deduites par le commun de noz Croniqueurs, ou passees si legerement qu'elles sont à plusieurs incognues: Et pour le regard du cinquiesme, je me le suis reservé à 1'explication de quelques proverbes antique, qui ont eu vogue jusques à nous: estendant quelquesfois mes propos, mesme à 1'origine et usage de quelque parole, de marque.”

42 This pattern of thinking is discussed throughout Ong's Ramus, as well as in McRae, Kenneth D., “Ramist Tendencies in the Thought of Jean Bodin,” Journal of the History of Ideas 16 (1955): 306-22; and Kelley, “The Development and Context of Bodin's Method, ”Jean Bodin, ed. Horst Denzer (Munich, 1973), 123-150. Kelley also demonstrates that the tendency toward bifurcating logic need not be attributed solely to the influence of Ramism.

* An early version of this essay was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Society for French History in Baltimore, Maryland, in November, 1986. I am very grateful to Professor Donald Kelley, who commented on both the paper and the subsequent essay, which has also benefited from a careful reading by Professor Donald Wilcox.


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