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The final chapter considers the impact of the writings of Thierry on the ongoing debate on the origins of France. In particular it analyses the way in which these are reinterpreted by François Guizot, François Mignet and other historians to reshape and give a new meaning to the complex of myths, memories, and symbols of the members of the Third Estate. Here, it is argued, are the roots of what will become the official narrative of the Third Republic, a narrative based on an ethic of work and sacrifice that will contribute to the ‘triumph’ of the Gauls. The chapter shows, in particular, that the narrative to which these authors contributed was set within the boundaries of an ethnic paradigm shaped through centuries of legal and political divisions.
Starting with a brief examination of Nicolas Fréret’s essay L’origine des Français et de leur établissement dans les Gaules, the third chapter looks at the onset of the eighteenth-century debate on the nation’s origins. The classic opposition between the Gallic and the Frankish theses is reassessed. In particular, the latter is considered in relation to the shift from the dominant legalist and royalist paradigm to the cultural and ethnic one. It will be argued that both Germanists and Romanists, by discussing the origins of France in ethnic terms, fuelled, independently of their immediate aims, a discourse that was subversive for it inevitably undermined the royalist national narrative and, therefore, monarchical authority as such. The chapter examines the writings of authors such as Fréret, the Père Daniel, René-Joseph de Tournemine, Joseph Vaissètte, the abbé de Trianon, Étienne Lauréault de Foncemagne, and Jean Baptiste Dubos.
The conclusion briefly considers some aspects of the current debates on French national identity with particular reference to notions of liberalism and of republicanism. It does by taking, as point of departure, the works and ideas of Ernest Renan.
Chapter 6 investigates the changes in the notion of national character within the debate on the origins of France between the mid-eighteenth century and the Restoration. Analysing the texts of authors such as the abbé Mably, the abbé Velly, Gabriel Brizard, and Mme. de Lézardière and showing the influence of Montesquieu’s own writings, the argument is made that discussions about national and class character became fundamental in justifying political authority. In particular the chapter shows that an important assumption influencing the arguments of these and other authors was that an ‘ethnic’ group could claim to represent the entire nation only by proving that it had always embodied the true French character – be it the bravery of the nobles, the alleged descendants of the Franks, or the industriousness of the bourgeois, the supposed offspring of the Gauls.
Chapter 5 examines the crucial role played by Montesquieu in defining national character as a narrative frame. The first section of the chapter focusses on his historical thought and the fundamental role he played in shaping the histoire philosophique – as Hugh Trevor-Roper and, more recently, J.A.G. Pocock have argued. The emphasis is on the importance that Montesquieu attributed to the social and anthropological reasons underlying legal and political changes. In the next part of the chapter the relationship between moral and physical causes in shaping a nation’s character, so central to many of his writings, is investigated. Building on and going beyond the interpretations of Georges Benrekassa and Jean Erhard, the chapter argues that moral and physical causes were both understood by the baron as historical processes – even though of a different nature. National character was at once a result of history and the thread with which the nation’s history could be woven. Through it, moreover, the legitimacy of political institutions could be assessed and their ‘rationality’, as Montesquieu would have said, verified. The final section considers the crucial role played by Montesquieu in the debate opposing the Germanists and the Romanists in the debate over the origins of the French nation.
Chapter 7 analyses in depth the notion of class, with a particular emphasis on its relationship with the understanding of the past. After a short semantic analysis of the term, the chapter examines the role of the physiocrats, A.R.J. Turgot, the abbé de Sieyès, and the Duke de Saint-Simon in shaping its modern meaning. In particular, the chapter considers the growing politicization of the term, arguing that, from the 1770s onwards, it was increasingly used to define historical actors endowed with their own, specific complex of memories, myths, and values. The chapter especially considers the role of the author of Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat in identifying a specific class – the Third Estate – with the whole of society, thus rejecting the hierarchical opposition mode of representation and arguing for a perfect identification between the ruling elite and the entire nation – almost prefiguring the Marxian ‘total class’. Examining the works of Saint-Simon, the chapter stresses the latter’s role in theorizing ‘class struggle’ as the real engine of history. As is shown, this led many authors of the Restoration period to consider classes as ethnic groups with a history and a memory of their own which historians had to ‘re-discover’.
The second chapter studies the writings of the Comte de Boulainvilliers. The first part of the chapter concentrates on his historical thought. Using Lévi-Strauss’s notion of ‘anti-history’, it analyses Boulainvilliers’s published works and private correspondence and attempts to show that one of his basic intellectual concerns was the rejection of the royalist national narrative which equated the history of the royal families with that of the nation. The chapter goes on to examine the ways in which the count conceived of his new historical actor, the race of the nobles, as embodying the history of France. Criticizing the views expounded by Michel Foucault and by André Devyver, it highlights the difficulty of drawing a straight line from Boulainvilliers to modern racialism. Moreover, it contests the idea that his système was constructed entirely on the initial conquest of the Gauls by the Franks. The chapter argues that the identification of the nobles with the nation was made on a twofold principle. On the one hand they alone had sacrificed themselves for France, confirming, through their self-abnegation, that their interest was at one with the nation’s. On the other, and as a consequence, they alone had a history worth telling and recording, one identical to the nation’s.
The Shaping of French National Identity casts new light on the intellectual origins of the dominant and 'official' French nineteenth-century national narrative. Focussing on the historical debates taking place throughout the eighteenth century and during the Restoration, Matthew D'Auria evokes a time when the nation's origins were being questioned and discussed and when they acquired the meaning later enshrined in the official rhetoric of the Third Republic. He examines how French writers and scholars reshaped the myths, symbols, and memories of pre-modern communities. Engaging with the myth of 'our ancestors the Gauls' and its ideological triumph over the competing myth of 'our ancestors the Franks', this study explores the ways in which the struggle developed, and the values that the two discourses enshrined, the collective actors they portrayed, and the memories they evoked. D'Auria draws attention to the continuity between ethnic discourses and national narratives and to the competition between various groups in their claims to represent the nation and to define their past as the 'true' history of France.
It must have been with a mixture of pride and awe that in the latter years of the nineteenth century French children learned from their textbooks about the Battle of Tolbiac; of how Clovis lifted his hands to Heaven, promising God that if he were granted victory he would accept baptism, and how, the divine pact having worked, the Alamanni fled. Had those children delved deeper into their Première année d’histoire de France, their delight would certainly have been compounded when they read about King Pepin and his beheading of a lion and a bull with a single blow of his sword – a deed that, it is easy to suppose, many of those eight- and nine-year-olds mimicked, impersonating their king. No doubt they would have been equally impressed to learn from their textbook that, as her body was burned at the stake, the soul of Joan of Arc was miraculously borne up to Heaven by a white dove – the just reward for the sacrifices she had made for France and the Church.
The chapter begins by considering the historical thought of Augustin Thierry. Focussing on his rejection of the royalist paradigm and on his call for a shift to what might be seen as an ethnic understanding of history, the first part of the chapter takes into consideration his histoire critique. In particular, attention is paid to the technical narratives he employed for depicting a ‘faithful’ history of France – although, following Roland Barthes, the chapter highlights the contradictions of the ‘reality effect’ pursued by Thierry. More specifically, attention is drawn to the ambiguity of his substitution of the ‘monarchical myth’ with the ‘ethnic myth’. The second part of the chapter analyses in depth his writings on French history. Arguing against the views set forth by Marcel Gauchet on this point, it takes into account Thierry’s constant attempts to create an emphatic bond between his readers and the Gauls/bourgeois as the true and only ancestors of the modern French. In particular, the chapter emphasizes the importance of the rhetoric of sacrifice and highlights differences and analogies between Thierry’s and the nobles’ nationalist discourse.
The chapter examines the history of the notion of national character in eighteenth-century France. Used initially in novels and plays to define an actor whose conduct could be predicted thanks to his ‘inner nature’, the concept was later used in historical writings to explain and understand, and even predict, the way entire nations acted. The main argument of this chapter is that, rather than being conceived as an unchanging and natural phenomenon, national character was increasingly understood as gradually changing throughout the ages, mainly thanks to education. Remarkably, many related the inclinations of individuals to those of the nation, a point that raised the issue of the individual’s freedom and his relationship with the community he was part of. Consequently, and especially from the 1730s onwards, the perceived decadence of France was related to the alleged debasing of the nation’s character, a fact that gave the notion a central place in all debates on political legitimacy. The chapter stresses that the national character was understood as a cultural frame within which the nation’s history deployed itself and which, albeit slowly, was also changing.