French history

Cogito ergo sumus

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

As insipid slogans of dubious provenance go, “be the change you wish to see in the world” is not so bad. On a bumper sticker or the signature line of a well-meaning colleague’s email, it is presumably meant to inspire. If it registers at all, it manages only to scold. The idea is not a new one, although it is also not ancient. In any case it is unsurprising that moral reform of the self should seem a good place to begin at a moment when many people who have not recently or perhaps ever thought about how to organize themselves politically are trying to figure out how to do so. With that complex of problems in mind, in this post I look back at a particular document, published in France in 1892, which served as a manifesto of sorts for a durable program of moral, and ultimately political, action. The Union for Moral Action, renamed the Union for Truth in 1904 and extant until 1940, engaged in we might now describe as advocacy and agitation, but was above all a venue for clarifying discussion. It was founded in the context of concern with the disintegration of social bonds—the social question—and emerged strengthened in unity and purpose from the great trial by fire that was the Dreyfus Affair. Paul Desjardins, a young literary-critic-turned-reformer, was the animating spirit of the Union, which in the end was a locus of progressive activity: Dreyfusard, solidariste, and concerned about the political status of women.

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris - Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris – Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

My object here appeared as an unsigned text in a summer number of the Revue bleue, with the unassuming title “Simple notes for a program of union and action.” Desjardins signed a brief paragraph introducing the manifesto, suggesting that he had solicited it and hoping that some people, at least, would find their own ideas reflected therein. In fact Jules Lagneau, Desjardin’s philosophy teacher, wrote the text and it would later be reproduced under his name in the Union’s Bulletin.

The first person plural rules the “Simples notes,” which are divided into three sections: our spirit, our rule, our action. “The weakening…of the social bond” is both a cognitive and a moral problem, and therefore the spirit of the Union is reason. This is not individuating reason, but rather, “a principle of order, union, and sacrifice…the ability to pass beyond one’s self while affirming a higher law, the idea of which man finds within himself and only the reflection outside himself.” The group is open to all who have “practical faith” but especially to those “without positive faith…who believe that in man, the spirit must command and not serve, because it alone has in itself its end and meaning, and that life has no value except where spirit has marked it.” The Union, then, welcomes all for whom truth and certitude are something one does not arrive at once and for all, but that are sought constantly.

The Union will not simply be one of good will, but rather one in which a certain minimal agreement of principle is constantly shaped and refined through action: “We are the beginning of a society that expects progress only through determination and the rigor of its principle: we tend to realize unanimity, we do not pretend to start from it.” Fanaticism will be avoided by constantly testing in life one’s ideas, which become mere words when they cease to be “the expression in action of interior freedom [l’expression en acte de la liberté intérieure].” If we act in everyday life in a way consistent with this principle, then “it matters little who brings truth to light, who brings salvation… What deserves to be will be.” This is not irenic faith in progress. There is no easy convergence of good intentions here, but rather a Pascalianism, perhaps of the left, which valorizes “discipline” and “renouncement” and wishes to teach “the unavoidable necessity of suffering… to combat false optimism… [and] the faith in salvation through science alone and through material civilization, lying mask of civilization, [a] precarious external arrangement that cannot replace intimate agreement.” Above all, the immoral idea that “the goal of life is to freely enjoy” must be met with the counter-example of the Union itself, which must model, as we might say now, good and social behavior: “For the people is what we make it: its vices are our vices, looked upon, envied, imitated, and it is right if they come back to us in all their weight.” The union must therefore offer “résistance réfléchie” to popular fashion, and rely on moral authority rather than popularity. “We forbid ourselves irony,” and prefer “un gaieté sérieuse.” We will be, the manifesto declares, simply as we are, without false modesty, pedantry, or pride.

Through a “pure and active charity” the Union will “save l’esprit publique.” And this is not a metaphorical charity, but rather one that, by setting aside the desire to save, hopes to create “the material conditions for morality.” The Union understands that impersonal charity corrupts, but individual and direct interpersonal charity “will be the vehicle of love, the spark that wakes the flame… In true charity, the one who receives merges with the one who gives.” True charity allows the spirit to rise above the immediate “sensible” good, and carries the spirit “infinitely higher through the contagion of love.” Acting first of all on those who are closest to us—and this is the most difficult—we make them happy by “unburdening them of their egoism and putting our love in its place. To make one’s self loved by loving with a male love that is absolute will, which is to say sacrifice, and in this way to learn to love—this is everything.” And the circle of love will expand—along the rails laid down by the division of labor: “the chain of necessary service is the link forged by nature between hearts and the divine path of charity through which we enter into to the soul of the people.” Thus we will create “progressively, naturally, an inner society founded on love, peace, and true justice, within an exterior society founded on interest, competition, and legal justice.” Such an operation requires, first of all, self-abnegation from those who wish to bring it about. In the end, the only model available is a monastic and revolutionary one: “an active Union, a militant laïque Order of private and social duty, living kernel of the future society.”

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Lagneau’s program is a remarkable one in several ways. It traces a circle from the idea of law as such to the instantiation of law in a quasi-monastic order that would effect change in society by disciplining itself—is this a pre- or an anti-sociological approach to social change? More, in as much as we have to do with a democratic movement here, it is a moral rather than a political one. François Chaubet, historian of the Union, identifies Lagneau’s frankly elitist position as spiritualist republicanism, although here it appears in idealist and not materialist form. Action and even articulation was indeed clarifying: Lagneau’s manifesto drove the future maréchal Lyautey out of the original group, but Lagneau would not follow Jean Jaurès to the workers at Carmaux, and so himself split from the Union when it resolved to support the strike there. Lagneau’s austere, aristocratic, and mystical project for moral action can speak directly to us only in fragments—reduced, that is, to decontextualized quotations like the one with which I began. It is certainly possible to read Lagneau’s manifesto as an example of intense desire—visible in so many places at that moment, and perhaps our own—to be a subject, rather than object of history. Yet I think we can better read it as a usefully wrong answer to questions that are still asked today. There is an unmistakable urgency in his prose, and the moral urgency of truth as an ongoing collective project, grounded in collective action, is surely one we still feel.

Revolution in the 21st Century: A Reflection on the Salon Sophie Charlotte at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities held its Salon Sophie Charlotte last weekend, an annual event during which the academy opens its doors to the public for an evening of guest discussions, presentations, and performances. This year’s theme, “Rebellion, Revolution, or Reform?” seemed especially prescient in our uncertain times and it did not fail to draw a crowd. (True to form, a spontaneous occupation of the stage by Berlin students defending the recently-terminated contract of a professor transpired, resulting in a shouting match between the occupiers and some tweed-clad members of the back row.) The mix of academic experts, artists, and the public made for a stimulating event, revealing perhaps the best of all possible worlds in which academics can engage the public with elements of conceptual history that have deep resonance today.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-9-52-01-amThe role of music in times of rapid change surfaced in several venues throughout the evening. The tone was set for the evening by actress and singer Hanna Schygulla, who performed songs of resistance (among them the song of Italian anti-fascists in the 1940s, “Bella Ciao,” and “Ein Pferd klagt an,” a Brecht/Eisler classic). A conversation between Nike Wagner and Gerhard Koch and moderated by Ernst Osterkamp explored the role of music in revolution. Koch asserted that the performance of Daniel Auber’s opera La muette de Protici catalyzed the revolution in Belgium in 1830, during which the audience members burst forth from the theater and into the streets. Wagner offered a more tempered view, claiming that music could never assume the role of a revolution, but that without music, no revolutions could take place. Music, she continued, was not inherently revolutionary in a political sense, but could always take on this quality. The side-by-side quality of Auber’s artistic production and the revolutionary actions opened up the questions of whether the opera was causal, or if it had tapped into the prevailing mood.

Another banner session, “Is Europe too old for revolutions?” featured a mix of political practitioners and historians. The provocative title referred to the demographic trend in western Europe, which is home to an ever-growing aging population, but also to the enshrined traditions, behaviors, and comforts that might make a revolution impossible, or at least highly undesirable. The panel, moderated by historian Etienne François, featured ‘68er and later German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer alongside activist Jutta Sundermann and political scientist Herfried Münkler. François led off by asking what it meant to have a revolution, and if it was still possible in Europe today.

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A packed room prevented a decent picture of the panel “Is Europe too old for revolution?” (photo C. Taratko)

The practitioners (that is, Sundermann and Fischer) were critical of the term. Sundermann claimed that she no longer used the word and suggested that it perhaps belonged to previous generations. This was by no means to say that she and her contemporaries were no longer engaged for change, but that “revolution” was too abstract and perhaps carried with it too much negative baggage. Fischer was also skeptical. He insisted that political will is a prerequisite for change, but that it was better focused on institutions and laws that might need improvement. In light of his own peregrination from the Frankfurt left scene of the ‘60s to the corridors of power as a member of the Green Party, his response came off as typically distanced from his youthful roots.

“Revolution,” wrote Reinhart Koselleck, ”is a term now in vogue, but it is perhaps more raddled than its users’ would like to believe.” Is it the case that revolution in Europe is a romantic notion kept alive by academics and the vestiges of the student movement that live on in German universities? François felt confident that revolution was no longer Marx’s “locomotive of history” but instead was a common term in conversation, somewhat banalized and used as a descriptor for incremental change.

While the panelists seemed to take for granted that revolution was essentially modern, Münkler provided a brief conceptual history of the term. For him, its history begins with the Dutch throwing off Spanish control. The Dutch may have been the first, but it was the the German peasants’ revolt counted as the first people’s revolution, an important development that has since become an intrinsic part of the idea. The idea that change could bubble up from below, was, according to Münkler, new. Social change and the empowerment of lower classes gradually crept into the concept and took up residence there.

Münkler offered a perspective from the longue durée, one that was less interested in the immediate circumstances and effects than the overall conceptual history of the term. Others, especially Fischer, highlighted the highly-specific conditions under which revolutions, such as those experienced in France or Russia, took place. These stories of increasing tension led to a breaking point. In this sense, he argued, there was no paradigmatic revolution. Fischer closed with a sort of plea: he insisted that large political shifts are now outdated; if one looks at the past century, one can see the price of the German social state and how valuable it is, and that it should not be dismantled but carefully adjusted. For him, the “revolutionary tasks” that remained were in technology and nature.

Predictably, the consensus here leaned towards the improbability of another revolution in Europe. The Salon Sophie Charlotte provided a forum for a discussion of revolution as a diachronic concept, but also as a practice. The possibility for further political and social revolution was dismissed. Instead stability, and a desire to institutionalize the hard-won principles of earlier revolutions, seemed to guide the speakers. I wonder if perhaps the concept, at least as the panelists (all roughly of the same generation and somewhere on the left of the political spectrum) had framed it, has lost its purchase on reality. The music, it must be said, had not.

Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

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Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

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Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

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Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.

Histories We Repeat

by guest contributor Timothy Scott Johnson

 You know, I’ve always been suspicious of analogies. But now I find myself at a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies, and I’m beginning to wonder if by any chance there isn’t a reason.

            Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (William Weaver, trans.)

Analogies abound in historical writing. Despite their near-ubiquity, however, I find historical analogies drastically under-examined in modern historical analysis. When examined, they usually emerge under the rubric of explaining why one historian’s analogical reasoning proves defective. But examining historical analogies used by our historical subjects can prompt us to ask larger, important questions.

The work done by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White on historical tropes and metaphor, Reinhart Koselleck on concepts, and Hans Blumenberg on myth and metaphor all importantly contributed to the study of historical representation. None directly address analogies as such, however. At best, they treat analogy as a subset of metaphor, one in which the connecting logics are perhaps more clearly (or crudely) asserted than in mythic or metaphoric representation. Whereas myth and metaphor tend to be impressionistic with underlying logics pushed to the background, process and structure are foregrounded in historical analogy. Processes, narratives, and historicities embed themselves in historical analogies.

Analogies themselves are one of the key ways of thinking difference and similarity. Accordingly, we should not be all that surprised that the likes of Kant, Humboldt, and Droysen foreground the analogy’s role in rational judgment. And insights on analogy litter the first and concluding chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Even thinkers further afield like Fourier and Swedenborg were captivated by analogical reasoning. Without planting flags in any particular philosophical camp, it is not, I think, too controversial to recognize the importance of analogical thought in epistemology and aesthetics in general. To push even further, we could speculate with the linguist George Lakoff that analogies are a universal anthropological fact to be dealt with and not simply an anti-rational demon to be exorcized.

If analogies prove part of our human understanding, what then of historical understanding? For historians, analogies provide something akin to the efforts at modeling the so-called hard sciences developed after the Renaissance, making past reflections a sort of historical laboratory for contemporary and future reflection. Luciano Canfora’s brief study Analogia e storia offers some provisional insights into how historians have thought analogically. Dating as far back as Thucydides’ introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War analogical thinking has been at the historian’s disposal for discerning shared processes and dynamics among different events. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are perhaps an even clearer exemplar. Canfora’s colleague Carlo Ginzburg has also made the case that Aristotle’s discussion of paradigms in the Rhetoric is essential for understanding his view of history. Yet, at the same time, Canfora observes that large-scale similarities brought about by analogy also tend to obfuscate small-scale differences and represent history as tautological and self-referential. Thus, for instance, by definition every revolution risks being interpreted according to the French or Russian Revolutions. The political as well as historical pitfalls of such heuristics are many. Often, Canfora claims, these analogical oversimplifications can be productive in their own right; they can also be political expedients with little concern for historical understanding.

If the particular analogy of a given event to the French Revolution seems familiar—even well-worn, thanks perhaps to the legacy of Theda Skocpol’s comparative revolutions approach—the French Revolution has had other, more surprising, analogical applications. Often, these applications occurred by historical subjects themselves as a way of grounding their own historical situation. Even before French historian Albert Mathiez claimed the Bolsheviks were neo-Jacobins, for instance, Lenin adopted the mantle for himself. When grasped from the subject’s perspective, examining the historical analogies subjects use to describe and understand their own historical moments, the analogy actually has the power of getting beyond the pitfalls of the historian’s macrohistorical determinations. Rather than foreclosing analysis, they can point to analytic surprises.

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Following De Gaulle’s return to government in May 1958, on the cover of the French magazine L’Express a Marianne, symbolic of the French Republic, is ready to guillotine herself.

Take, for instance, the French Revolution’s role in deciphering the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) and the fall of the fourth French Republic. Beyond an occasion to examine the important tensions between colonial difference, identity, and hybridity in postwar France and Algeria, the French Revolution analogy can also act as a diagnostic index uniting assumptions about French politics and history with assumptions about Algerian politics and history. That individuals on all sides of the war would refer to the French Revolution to mediate their own experience is both obvious—nationalism 101, so to speak—and illuminating. It highlights the various expectations actors had of the limits and possibilities of their moment. The historical analogy thus serves as a way into the microhistorical world. Taking subjects’ own large-scale assumptions about the unfolding of history as a starting point allows the historian to reconstruct their moment from within.

Let’s look at three specific instances of this analogy during the war. First is testimony from Jean-Claude Paupert, a veteran of the war in Algeria and subsequent member of pro-Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) support networks. Despite declaring years later that he was no “revolutionary hothead,” Paupert was tried and found guilty of providing material aid and support to the FLN in 1960. In his closing trial declaration, Paupert explained his actions were meant to defend French civilization and French values, particularly those tied to the Revolution:

I have not chosen to help the Algerians because of their mistreatment, but because the struggle of the Algerian people is a just struggle, and I have not chosen to aid Algerian militants in spite of their terrorism, but because terrorism is their destiny.… Being French is not a virtue stored in a refrigerator, it is a fidelity one invents. To be French today is to be Algerian … We know well, for both princes and for valets, that fraternity is a terrorist act.

The Revolution’s Jacobin ideals of terror and fraternity were applicable in 1960 since Algeria was going through its own revolutionary moment that obeyed the same dynamics as the French Revolution. In this way, examining statements like this one and the many others like it from the war, we can build an understanding of what a nascent metropolitan third worldist engagement meant.

Next is a completely different sentiment, a message from General Jacques Massu, a rightwing supporter of French Algeria. By the end of the war he would help direct the Secrete Army Organization (OAS), a rightwing terrorist group bent on keeping settler control over Algeria. In May of 1958, however, he proved instrumental in bringing down the Fourth Republic and returning Charles de Gaulle to power. In a letter addressed to “Mon Cher Camarade,” dated 13 May 1958, the day of the Algiers generals’ putsch that would bring down the Republic, Massu wrote, “I must ask the best of yourself in order to combat the enemy and make the great ideas of generous France triumph in Algeria, these ideas that, since 1789, have shaken the world” (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Fonds Daniel Guérin). Pro-colonial military action and the perpetuation of the civilizing mission were behind this instance of analogy to the French Revolution.

Lastly, analogy to the French Revolution emerged as popular among FLN supporters educated either in France or in state-run francophone North African schools. The poet, radio host, and FLN spokesman Jean El-Mouhoub Amrouche, criticized the ethnologist Germaine Tillion for failing to see Algerian nationalists as properly modern political subjects:

It is true that one can hardly recognize these hungry souls demanding the destiny of free men and being inhabited by spiritual needs. ‘Liberty or death’: it was good and true for the great ancestors of 1793 and the barefoot of Year II. Who could imagine the fellagha [rebels] of the Aurès, Oranie, Soummam, or the clandestine actors from the towns or villages of Algeria, have discovered in their desperation the only path towards the light by proclaiming themselves free and sovereign over the land of their forefathers?

Amrouche saw the legitimacy of the Algerian nationalist cause through the prism of the universal French ideals the civilizing mission encouraged him to embrace. Recognizing the FLN’s political legitimacy meant recognizing their affinities with Revolutionary actors.

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Jean-Claude Paupert, center, was part of support networks that sheltered Algerians and laundered money for the FLN. (Image from Mediapart)

Simply observing these three different analogies to the French Revolution does not automatically reveal any obvious conclusions, except perhaps about the sheer elasticity of what the French Revolution could mean to different hereditary claimants. And the variety of events within the Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1799 allowed for a large degree of adaptation, highlighting on the one hand citizen military defense or on the other radical Jacobin universalism. But the analogy also works like an index of the type described by Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory, pointing in various directions to further research questions. Why, for instance, would Paupert and Amrouche think that Algerian history was at a moment similar to the end of old regime France? North African history had been denied by historians throughout the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps something had changed in perceptions of North African history (and indeed, much had changed). After all, the analogy is not present in earlier moments of anticolonial violence in North Africa. Further, why would a rightwing military officer feel the need to call upon the principles of 1789 when planning a government coup? What conditions would drive Massu to connect French Republicanism with a rather Bonapartist move (another historical analogy ever present in 1958 France)? Insofar as analogies reveal a subject’s assessments of the logics at work in a given moment, they grant a uniquely valuable point of entry for intellectual historians.

 

Timothy Scott Johnson recently defended his dissertation on the use of the French Revolution in the French-Algerian War at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the intellectual history of postwar France.  

Paris’s New Musée de l’Homme: Then, Now, Tomorrow

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Autobiography is an art form that only few have mastered. The newly reopened permanent exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris does a remarkable job of writing the book on our entire species. The museum tells the tale of what makes humanity unique through universal themes such as reproduction, death, and language using its rich collections, which featured in both the storied, racist Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1882–1936) and the first iteration of the Musée de l’Homme opened in 1938. The curators are sensitive to equity among different cultural groups and the breadth of the human experience, although the interpretation suffers from a tinge of human exceptionalism.

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)

Alice L. Conklin deftly describes in her book In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Cornell, 2013) the role that the historic museum played in the establishment of traditional French colonial, racist anthropology. See Alice L. Conklin’s and Christine Laurière’s essays in the museum catalog for a more in-depth look at the historical context for the reimagined permanent exhibition. While the social missteps of the former institution are carefully avoided today, the message of the modern museum is strongly tied to its historical legacy. (Consider the repurposing of busts that once spread the edicts of phrenology: today curators use them to show that such methodology is not science.) This legacy is characterized by the words of Paul Rivet, the glorified father of the museum, that “Humanity is one and indivisible, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time.” The challenge to make culture timeless, but not frozen in time is one that all anthropological museums face. The museum in Paris tackles the additional challenge of showing that it is no longer frozen in time either.
Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

The curators structure our collective biography in the Galerie de l’Homme into three parts: “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” This chronological narrative leads visitors through displays featuring pieces from the historic collection, such as skeletons and ceremonial clothing, as well as model reconstructions of classic sites such as the footsteps at Laetoli. The strength of the exhibitry comes not from the well-done model of a half-eaten mammoth, but from the objects from the original collection. The historic medical moulages are a highlight, although the objects are placed in darkened kiosks (perhaps due to both preservation concerns and shock value). The real fossil skulls of our evolutionary ancestors excavated in the rich caves of France are breathtaking. The inclusion of animal specimens from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle gives context to the place of humans within the history of evolution. This 2015 renovation is part of a larger set of relatively recent overhauls of permanent exhibitions at the MNHN; the Musée de l’Homme has been associated with the MNHN since the early twentieth century. A feature on domestication and our bond with dogs is heartwarming, but the principal focus on hunting only elevates our position relative to the other creatures on display.

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)

Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

The museum embodies its commitment to include all peoples not only within its narrative but also in the experience of the exhibition. A visually arresting wall of tongues, which visitors can pull to hear snippets of little-spoken languages from across the globe, caters to auditory learners. This section on linguistics is well-conceived in its emphasis on diversity as well as the intersectionality of multiple cultural identities, such as being an American and a Yiddish speaker. Videos for visual learners feature experts discussing how terminology matters, especially with regard to vestiges of colonialism. Through this lens, it is interesting that the majority of interpretation is only available in French. The main signage, as well as some audio testimony, is trilingual—French, English, and Spanish—but that is not the majority.

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Touch screens with which visitors can call up a high-resolution photo as well as provenance information about any object in the richly filled cases are a victory for useful museum technology. The interactive label format is perfectly suited to the exhibitry. The options for English and Spanish are grayed out here, indicating the intention to add them, but for the moment they are noticeably lacking. The curators make a nod to accessibility by offering French Sign Language, but its purpose is unclear since all of the interpretation is communicated textually here.

The theme of intersectionality—critical to our modern understanding of culture—is happily at the forefront of the discussion upstairs of our future. Visitors play a globalization game on a touch table, matching photos of things like sushi to their place of origin (the California roll matches to the American West). Sensory learners can enjoy the scents of dishes of cuisines from the world over that all feature rice (but, in this visitor’s opinion, the synthetic smells weren’t all that appetizing).

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)

Our interconnectedness comes to the fore at the end of the exhibit hall, where curators urge us to save our common planet in light of ever-pressing natural resource conservation and biodiversity crises. The success of our future is not one devoid of technology, though. We evolve alongside medical technologies such as antibiotics and artificial limbs, which the museum frames as a positive outcome. In a final interactive feature, visitors are invited to imagine the future of the human race in a photo booth; their videos are added to an ever-changing smart wall. The new participatory museum model, the future of audience-curated content in museum education, is structurally a perfect way to show our future.

In Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction dystopian short film, La Jetée (The Jetty), the original Musée de l’Homme serves as the unchanging location to which Marker’s time traveler returns. The museum, filled with ageless specimens, is frozen and timeless. While the new Galerie de l’Homme honors this legacy, it stresses that time marches on and acknowledges that we are a living, breathing, changing species, much like the museum itself.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.

Threatened by Prejudices: French Revolutionary Textbooks

by guest contributor Hannah Malcolm

Most of these new textbooks were bound and were often tiny enough to fit in a child's pocket. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Most of these new textbooks were bound and were often tiny enough to fit in a child’s pocket. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

During the French Revolution, statesmen faced the task of altering society in order to preserve the new Republic, which entailed developing a politics of virtue and culture. In response to demands for public involvement in government, the revolutionary assemblies published all laws and speeches in newspapers. However, given the novelty of representative politics, the government felt that simply making the new legal system widely available was not enough to enlighten public opinion. Specifically, the revolutionaries feared that prejudices left from the ancien régime would taint public opinion and individual judgment.

This strong distrust of prejudices had notable philosophical roots. In his Encylopédie article on judgment, Louis de Jaucourt began by stating that judgment should not be confused with knowledge that is acquired solely through the senses. Instead, “judgment is […] an operation of the reasonable soul; it is an act of research.” Similarly, in Le dictionaire universel, Antoine Furetière defined judgment as a “power of the soul” which has the capacity to “discern the good from the bad, the true from the false.” However, Furetière differs from Jaucourt by extending his definition to include “opinions of wise people” as well. In this sense, judgment can be the result of a personal trait, rather than defined strictly as a process. Furetière also includes definitions of préjugés, prejudgments or prejudices, as a preoccupation with an opinion that one has conceived; Jaucourt defined them as “false judgments of the soul.” These imprecise conceptions illustrate the uncertain nature of morality and politics at the time. Despite these subjective definitions, the revolutionaries believed that incomplete processes of judgment could be identified through their propensity to mislead the public. Because of this risk, the revolutionaries needed to actively educate the population, and they explicitly spoke of this mission in terms of public safety. People argued that without an educational system, the new generation would either be unable to continue the republic or, at the very least, they would continue to endure crises. The Committee of Public Instruction intended to establish a national school system to enlighten the public on the benefits of the Republic and their new role as citizens.

On the last page of the announcement for the textbook competition, the Committee again emphasized the importance of education in defeating prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

On the last page of the announcement for the textbook competition, the Committee again emphasized the importance of education in defeating prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Therefore, in Year II of the revolutionary calendar, the Committee of Public Instruction announced a contest for new elementary textbooks. Among the many goals listed was encouraging students to abandon ignorance and prejudices. The procès-verbaux of the Committee indicate that many of the textbooks analyzed here were submitted to and reviewed by the Committee. These new textbooks consistently warned against the danger of prejudices. A book of weekly moral lessons declared that “prejudices are the tyrants of the soul.” Prejudices, under this understanding, encouraged one to act and think like a tyrant. This pithy phrase linked disavowal of prejudices to the commonly encouraged hatred of tyrants and suggested that that the latter would compel one to reject all influences of prejudices. In his textbook, François-Xavier Lanthenas argued that “The education which existed under the ancien régime […] was calculated […] to entrench prejudices.” They were clearly seen as corrupting vices which must be eradicated. Revolutionaries believed that this could best be accomplished through a national form of education and instruction, as summed up by Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière’s statement that “instruction is the friend and companion of liberty and the most formidable scourge of despotism,” whereas France’s “enemies count on the ignorance of the people.” By providing access to knowledge, education would give students resources to attempt to discover truth.
Warning about the danger of prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Warning about the danger of prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

By focusing their educational projects around the issue of judgment, the revolutionaries emphasized the centrality of rationality to their conception of society while also revealing their fears about the negative qualities of humanity. As Bourdon de la Crosnière phrased it in his pamphlet, the new education plans must “convert schools from prejudices, from ignorance, and from servitude into schools in which free, virtuous, and enlightened men are formed.” Yet the fear remained that individuals would not want to be educated. Lack of cooperation from the public could cripple the plans for public instruction, as education “depends a lot on the reciprocal will of the people who contribute to giving and receiving it.” Without this reciprocal desire for education, the moral faculties of the students will be destroyed. Revolutionaries saw the continuing prevalence of prejudices as evidence that people might not always be—or even want to be—rational. This voluntary irrationality exhibited itself in the various revolts throughout France, but particularly in the Vendée. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries maintained belief that education held the potential to perfect humanity. In his Manuel des Instituteurs, Pierre-Nicolas Chantreau emphasized that the primary goal of public instruction was to ensure that future generations would have neither the prejudices of the contemporary ones nor the inclination to form new ones. Destroying prejudices through education was seen as a way to guarantee the survival of the new Republic.

Textbooks meant for teachers, or pamphlets for the public, tended to be unbound folded sheets of paper tucked into one another. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Textbooks meant for teachers, or pamphlets for the public, tended to be unbound folded sheets of paper tucked into one another. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

However, the continued delay from the Committee of Public Instruction to establish a school system led to a flurry of pamphlets and letters suggesting new structures or ways to provide education in the interim. Some of these letters suggested that training for law should encourage judgment, but the authors also worried that most students would not continue their education that far; one catechism taught students that all people were judges for the government. The pamphlets identified prejudices as one of the main problems in education—second only to the aforementioned governmental delay. In a pamphlet entitled L’université à l’agonie, Desramser, a university student, emphasized the necessity of making sure teachers “will no longer prefer their personal interests, tyrannical prejudices, or dangerous vices.” Prejudices, it was argued, stopped people from considering other points of view and therefore made it more difficult to reach political compromises. Returning to the conception of judgment as a process, Jaucourt allowed for the possibility of two judging individuals to come to different conclusions. Likewise, Bourdon de la Crosnière argued that if students do not learn to reflect on ideas that they disagree with, then they will be unable to form judgments. It is this reflection on abstract and dissenting ideas that separates judgment from mere reason. However, other articles in the Encylopédie made it clear that tolerance of dissent was founded on the belief that with time and proper education, all rational beings would, through use of judgment, come to the correct consensus.

'The University in Agony' by Desrasmer, student at the University of Paris. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

‘The University in Agony’ by Desrasmer, student at the University of Paris. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

The revolutionaries’ full-frontal assault on prejudices was not condoned by the conservatives of the time, even aside from the implication that religion qualified as a complex of superstitious prejudices. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke alluded to the revolutionary project to remove all prejudices from society and stated that the revolutionaries were rashly constructing “a scheme of society on new principles” and disregarding “the judgment of the human race.” What the revolutionaries saw as prejudices, Burke saw as “common judgment,” and he warned that abandoning it would lead to social chaos, as he saw this common judgment to be the result of previous generations’ wise decisions and necessary to social stability. When the revolution labeled these beliefs as prejudices, they claimed that they were irrational and not even based on experience. Therefore, they were able to frame them as hindrances to true judgment and dangerous to society and the political process.

This hesitation towards accepting a multiplicity of accurate outcomes is likely due to the moral and social qualities of judgment. One textbook author, Nanydre, argued that the public could not blame people for their mistakes if they are only based on prejudices and not from malicious intent. Without access to education, people might be unable to ignore their prejudices. However, as time passes, people would have more evidence needed to abandon their mistaken prejudices. Only after they have ignored opportunities for reform could they be then faulted for failing to learn. Although the Revolution rejected traditional Christianity, it did not intend to abandon morality. Public instruction was not merely the transmission of knowledge but also the instilling of virtue into citizens. The moral guidelines transmitted through education would prepare students to make proper decisions as citizens. Jean Chevret argued that inculcating civic virtues was no different than lessons in honesty. The revolutionaries thus sidestepped the issue of whether morals should be considered prejudices and instead only focused on those prejudices which they deemed dangerous to the new society.

Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière's pamphlet on public instruction. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière’s pamphlet on public instruction. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Despite this public engagement, the threat of prejudices led the Committee on Public Instruction to devote most of its time to educating the public, rather than focusing solely on children. Therefore, instead of instituting a national system of public instruction, it organized festivals, commissioned artworks commemorating revolutionary martyrs, established a new calendar, and otherwise reorganized society to make it inhospitable to prejudices. This change of direction was crucial as few schools outside of Paris accepted the new textbooks. The Committee’s incomplete work is unsurprising, given not only the short life of the First Republic, but also virtually every education system’s inability to completely eradicate prejudices from society.

Hannah Malcolm is an undergraduate at Appalachian State University. She is writing an honors thesis on public instruction during the French Revolution.

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.

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Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.

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Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.

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Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?

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Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Unveiling evil: ‘Hitler’s furies’ and the dark side of women’s history

By guest contributor Benedetta Carnaghi

Two years ago I went to Ravensbrück. I went to Ravensbrück because I was shocked not to have been aware of its existence before reading the memoir of an ex-deportee. I went to Ravensbrück because I was appalled that, for no reason other than that it was the only Nazi concentration camp built especially for women, it is not as well known as other camps.

I was investigating Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born in 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, Virginia had married Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a Frenchman working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She then moved to France. At the outbreak of World War II, they both decided to become involved in the Comet escape line, which eventually led to Virginia’s arrest in June 1944 and deportation to Ravensbrück.

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From left to right: Virginia d’Albert-Lake after her liberation; back in health; when she received the French Légion d’honneur (Private archives of the D’Albert-Lake family, Paris)

Virginia survived deportation and died in 1997. I was fortunate enough to interview survivors, and they explained to me that female deportation remains a taboo. Women were obviously present in concentration camps, but they seem to be nearly invisible in the historiography. Research and recognition has only recently improved. Sarah Helm published a group portrait of prisoners in Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2015). On May 27, 2015, Ravensbrück survivors Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were interred in the French Panthéon alongside resisters Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay.

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Francois Hollande (centre) stands on the Panthéon steps between the flag-draped coffins of Jean Zay, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Pierre Brossolette and Germaine Tillion. Source: The Guardian

Margaret Collins Weitz’s conclusions as to why it took so long for these women’s stories to enter scholarship remain valuable, although her book Sisters in the Resistance (1995) was published two decades ago. It took a long time for women to “recount or write up recollections of their wartime experiences” (17). The rediscovery of their stories started with the French feminist movement of the 1970s and found a major touchstone in the first colloquium on “Women in the Resistance” organized by the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF, Union of French Women) in 1975 (Collins Weitz, ibid.). But women were generally less interested in receiving recognition for their actions—that is, in filling out the official papers to be decorated or commended by the state. For those who survived deportation, the issue with “telling their story” proved more complicated. Deportation deprived them of every aspect of their femininity, forced them to parade naked at a time when nudity was taboo, exposed them to the insinuation that they had prostituted themselves to survive. They came back to a society that did not understand what they had gone through, and trying to explain it would have meant reliving the horror. Collins Weitz focuses, in particular, on “the dilemma of those who were, or subsequently became, mothers” and “found it impossible to tell their children of the horrors they had seen—and sometimes experienced,” in part because they did not want them to be marked by their personal stories (18). It was only to fight revisionist claims that extermination camps had not existed that the women found the courage to speak.

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On the left: “Plus rien de personnel, plus rien d’intime” by ex-deportee Eliane Jeannin-Garreau ; on the right: Aufseherinnen greet Himmler during his visit of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in January 1941 (SS propaganda album – Archives of the Ravensbrück Memorial – Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück)

Nazis destroyed the barracks where the Ravensbrück deportees lived, but the houses of the SS guards still stand as a memorial and host various exhibitions. One explores the female SS guards, Aufseherinnen and Blockführerinnen, deployed there. I remember staring at their faces: their stories upset me. They were detrimental to my purpose of highlighting women’s heroism. At Ravensbrück I ignored them and kept my focus on the deportees.

But there they were, hundreds of them: on the walls of that house, in the back of my mind. I knew that the time would come when I would be forced to exhume the concerns I had buried and come to terms with the fact that there were women perpetrators among the Nazis. And that time came, indeed, when I read Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013).

Lower examines the women who were born in Germany in the wake of World War I, grew up in the Nazi regime, and worked for the Third Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, sharing responsibility for the massacres that were carried out there. Her research began in the town of Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Lower originally traveled there to find documentation of the Final Solution, a quite impossible task. The town is about a hundred miles west of Kiev, and under the Nazi occupation, it was Heinrich Himmler’s Ukrainian headquarters.

The Nazis arrived in Ukraine in 1941 and ravaged the territory. Lower stumbled upon certain documents that listed ordinary German women living and working in towns like Zhytomyr during the Nazi occupation. She was surprised that such women would be in these areas. When she went back to the Western archives, she looked at the postwar investigative records and found testimony from many German women detailing the killings. Prosecutors appeared more interested in the crimes of their male colleagues and husbands. So Lower started wondering why prosecutors did not question or follow up on these women’s testimonies.

The female camp guards who triggered my thoughts were the only ones about whom studies existed when Lower set out to write her book. Compared to other German women working under the Nazis, the Aufseherinnen were fairly well-known, but according to Lower they were presented as caricatures or pornographic distortions of the “evil woman.” While there was a lot of literature about the different male perpetrators in the Nazi system, there were no sophisticated studies of the female perpetrators. Hannah Arendt herself “neglected the role of female administrators” when she “fashioned her thesis on the banality of evil” (Lower, 265). Yet the Cold War temporarily buried the question of the Nazi perpetrators, since “the Red Army became the ultimate war criminal entrenched in German experience” (Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, 2000: 10) and the German focus was on the nation’s suffering and its own victims. As for women specifically, the figure of the Trümmerfrau—the designation given to those who helped reconstruct the German bombed cities—was so powerful that it effaced every other representation of German women. Historian Leonie Treber defined it as a “German legend” and set out to dismantle the myth in her dissertation, but the controversy her work raised denotes how established this heroic image of women in post-Nazi Germany still is in today’s Germany.

The number of women perpetrators is not negligible. An estimated 500,000 German women went to the Nazi East and formed an integral part of Hitler’s machinery of destruction. Lower tried to understand why they did so, by closely studying their biographies. Their lives showed her how human beings change and how these women ended up contributing to the violence of the Holocaust, from the idealists who were allied with the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as agents of a conservative revolution, to those who simply followed their husbands or lovers and sought material benefits.

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Erna Petri, before and after her arrest. Wife of SS Second Lieutenant Horst Petri, she shot six half-naked Jewish boys who had managed to escape from a boxcar bound for a gas chamber and were hiding on the Petris’ private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. She was barely 25 years old at the time. When pressed by the Stasi interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, she referred to her own desire to prove herself to the men (the SS). Erna Petri “embodied” the ideological indoctrination of the Nazi regime. Source: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (p.88 and 205)

Paradoxically, it took Lower’s book about gender to teach me that evil is not gendered. Genocide is a human problematic behavior that applies to both men and women. “Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust,” writes Lower (182). Women should be given back their agency, whether good or bad.

The idea of “evil” has significantly evolved from the way Hannah Arendt first conceptualized it. Corey Robin analyzed her position in “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” and in a recent lecture delivered at Cornell University titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem. Three Readings: Hobbesian, Kantian, Arendtian.” Arendt tried to distinguish “Eichmann’s murderous deeds from his state of mind.” Eichmann was not a “solitary actor,” but a “partner in a criminal joint enterprise.” Arendt “de-emphasized motive” to stress the “collaborative dimension of mass murder.” Robin cites one of her letters to Scholem, where she famously said that “evil is never ‘radical’” but “only extreme,” and “it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Robin argues that this is specifically “what Arendt’s critics detect and dislike in her thesis of the banality of evil: a denial of evil as the summum malum, of its capacity to serve as the basis of a political morality.” In such a quasi-Hobbesian interpretation of good and evil, there is no objective moral structure to the universe.

If for Arendt ideology played a lesser role in Eichmann’s decisions, it seems to me that Lower’s book resonates more with the way Timothy Snyder conceptualized evil. Nazism—just as Snyder framed it in his Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (2015)— supplied its perpetrators with a Weltanschauung and a rationale for their crimes, namely a fictitious life-and-death global struggle against an ultimate enemy, the Jew. Overall, a minority of women directly carried out the killings of Jews in the East, but many women participated in the administration, working to keep the wheels of the Nazi system turning, the deportation trains going and the documents moving. Their agency is visible in the goal they wanted to attain: to gain social mobility and be part of the new, selected “racial aristocracy” of the Third Reich.

Addition photos for the above piece can be seen here (courtesy of Benedetta Carnaghi)

Special thanks to John Raimo for his excellent suggestions on a previous draft of this piece!

Benedetta Carnaghi is a Ph.D. student in History at Cornell University. She studies modern European history with a particular focus on Italy, France, and Germany. Her current research focus is a comparison between the Fascist and Nazi secret police. Related interests include the history of Resistance, the Holocaust, gender studies, political violence, and terror.

Renovating the American Revolution: The Most Important Stories Aren’t on Broadway

by guest contributor Eric Herschthal

Timing is everything. Just when historians thought they were on the cusp of redefining the very meaning of the American Revolution—which is to say, now—along comes “Hamilton,” the musical. The general public, and not a few academics, have embraced the show, which reaffirms the old Whiggish narrative that the revolution set the foundation for liberal democracy. By casting Hamilton and the founders as mostly African Americans and Latinos, the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has breathed new life into the Whiggish view, one that a rising generation of historians (myself included) insists has passed its sell-by date. The irony is that Miranda re-appropriates the feel-good story for a group of Americans that scholars now generally agree the founders did little to embrace: minorities. Maybe there’s something of value in the Whiggish narrative after all?

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Perhaps nothing has done more to change perceptions about the American Revolution than bringing it into conversation with the Haitian Revolution. Image: 1802 engraving of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Courtesy of Wikicommons

Or maybe not. It may in fact be a good thing that scholarship doesn’t easily succumb to popular enthusiasms. Indeed, if we look beyond “Hamilton,” the recent renovations in the scholarship on the American Revolution, decades in the making, suggest that historians today very much have their finger on the pulse. Today’s world is more global, more black and brown, and the recent scholarship reflects that: it brings in their voices, yet not by continuing to heroize the founders and simply cast them as black and brown, but by taking seriously the negative consequences the revolution often had for marginalized groups.

Take just a small sample of books from the past year. In Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books; 2016), Nicholas Guyatt argues that even the most liberal-minded founders laid the foundation for segregation. Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolutions (Random House; 2015) focuses on the lives the War of Independence ruined when it breached the thirteen colonies and came to the Gulf Coast: Chickasaws and Creeks; African slaves; Cajuns; loyalists. Michael McDonnell, in Masters of Empire: Great Lake Indians and the Making of America (Hill and Wang, 2015), does something similar, showing how Native American groups in the Great Lakes region essentially called the shots. The revolution was perhaps sparked as much by European empires stumbling into internal Native American conflicts as it was by lofty ideas of liberty.

From some of these books, it might seem that ideas no longer matter, or at least not as much as they used to. Indeed, much of the recent scholarship serves at least as an implicit critique of the overweening emphasis on ideology that scholars like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn once highlighted. Their work relied almost exclusively on the pamphlets and private letters that revolutionary leaders left behind, which necessarily privileged elite white men. But in taking cues from social historians, the new generation of scholars have run up against an old set of challenges. Among the most obvious is that the precise thoughts—the precise ideas—of the “voiceless” do not come through as clearly, if at all. Perhaps as a result, much of the recent scholarship focuses less on the ideals people who lived through the era fought for, and instead underscores the local circumstances and shifting political dynamics that defined their choices, an approach the historian Sarah Knott has recently called “situational” as opposed to “ideological.”

But for other scholars, ideas still matter. Many historians of the revolution have grown adept at piecing together plausible narratives about the general ideas that inspired the people the Whiggish narrative left behind.. A little more than a decade ago, T.H. Breen, in The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004) provided a road-map, showing how consumer culture–objects like teacups, pins, boots and buckles—created a shared language for Americans of many different ethnicities, classes and genders. Not everyone may have read the same books, if they could read at all, but a vast number bought the same stuff. Boycotts worked—the revolution happened—because many people understood the language of consumption.

A thriving scholarship on print culture has opened up another new vein. Almost twenty years ago (!), David Waldstreicher lead the charge, showing how print sources, from newspapers to under-utilized sources like almanacs, could be read for what they revealed about popular political culture. Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (UNC, 1997) gave ample evidence of broad political participation expressed not through the means we typically associate it with—voting, jury duty, taxes—but parades, national holidays, and street protests. Yet if these political festivities helped create a national identity rooted in revolution, they also served as a kind of social control—one where political elites, almost always white men, tried to manage the revolution’s meaning.

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Simon Bolivar, an early leader of the Latin American Revolutions, made ending slavery a critical part of his revolution’s mission after the black Haitian government sheltered him. Image: Portrait of Simon Bolivar (1895), by Arturo Michelena (1863-1898) – Galería de Arte Nacional. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

More recently, Janet Polansky has also used print culture to ground the American Revolution more firmly in a global context. In Revolution without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale, 2015) she follows revolutionary-era pamphlets, letters and novels as they made their way to and from Haiti, Sierra Leone, Poland, the U.S., Russia and France (to name a few). Peoples of many different cultures, classes and genders, she argues, embraced and often transformed the meaning of “revolution” to fit their individual circumstances. But all of them shared a sense that the “age of Revolutions,” as Thomas Paine famously dubbed it, would usher in a more egalitarian world. What emerges is in some ways a retooling of the ideological approach—but one that is more sharply attuned to the revolution’s failures. When the dust settled, a new age of nations, of empires, emerged in the revolutions’ collective wake, leaving only the promise of freedom, not its realization.

The shifts in scholarship on the American Revolution—the turn to the social and the global—have, unsurprisingly, shown up in the closely-allied field of Age of Revolution scholarship. In fact, Polansky’s work fits more neatly within this tradition than the work on the American Revolution. Yet if her book emphasizes transnational connections, others have highlighted the divergent paths each revolution took. When all the age’s revolutions are placed side-by-side what emerges is less a revolution fought in the name of liberal democracy than a revolution fought for a myriad of distinct causes. The term “Age of Revolution” still has value, but we might need to divorce for it from the particular Whiggish, “liberal democratic” inflection, a point recently made by the Cindy Ermus and Bryan Banks, co-editors of an excellent new blog Age of Revolutions. “Revolutions are no longer synonymous with a set of ideological concepts like, say, democracy,” they said recently, adding that the use of the term today is “multivalent.”

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George Washington and his slave, Billy Lee. Image: George Washington and Billy Lee (1780), by John Trumbull. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Perhaps nothing has done more to change our assessment of the American Revolution’s shortcomings than bringing it into conversation with the linked revolutions in Haiti and Latin America. The recent surge in scholarship on the Haitian Revolution—undoubtedly the most significant revolution that R.R. Palmer left virtually unmentioned in his otherwise magisterial Age of Democratic Revolution (1959-64)—has forced U.S. scholars to appreciate anew how limited the founders’ vision of liberty was when it came to slavery. Haitian slaves and free blacks, along with their white Jacobin allies, imbued the revolutionary era with a strong antislavery program, something that Haitian historian Laurent Dubois said amounts to an “enslaved Enlightenment” (cf. Robin Blackburn as well as David P. Geggus and Norman Fiering). The United States’ compromises over slavery can only be seen as tame by comparison.

Similarly, the wave of emancipation decrees that came along with the Latin American revolutions in the 1820s and ‘30s—themselves directly inspired by Haiti’s example—only drives the point home. Caitlin Fitz’s forthcoming Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (W.W. Norton, 2017) makes the point clear. Though America’s founders largely embraced the Latin American revolutions at their start, as antislavery became an increasingly prominent part of their revolutions, Americans began to renege their support.

Academic interest in the American Revolution and its broader age shows no signs of waning. But might what we now know about these revolutions make them less inspiring with the broader public? The historian David Bell recently took on that question in his new book, Shadows of the Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present (Oxford, 2016), coming at it from the perspective of the French Revolution. In one essay, he argues that the French Revolution no longer provides an inspiring model for change in our times because, as scholars, we have become too aware of the high cost in human life. The French Revolution today evokes as much the guillotine as it does the Girondists. Even if it was indeed fought for worthy ideals—liberté, égalité, fraternité—we cannot forget that many heads rolled, and many wrongs turns were taken, along the way.

In that sense, the new scholarship on the revolutionary era may not provide so much inspiration as caution. If the latest histories expose how much blood was spilled, how many promises were left unrealized, then the Arab Spring’s violent aftermath might strike us as less surprising, our hunger for a political revolution—whether called for by Bernie or Trump—a little less pronounced. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the kind message that makes for a hit Broadway musical.

 

Eric Herschthal studies history at Columbia University, where he is writing his dissertation on the role science played in the early antislavery movement. His interests include early American history, the Atlantic World, science and slavery. Eric’s writing has also appeared in general interest publications, including The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic and The New Republic. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricHerschthal.

Sensual Charters

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

I share with JHI Blog editor John Raimo a buzzing affection for philology. On the one hand, it’s a tool I feel I need desperately, helping me to tease out how such fickle things as words might be clumped together into sentences. But philology is also a joy: Thinking philologically lets the historian play with words, and to watch others at play.

But it can be challenging, as a historian of institutions, to find ways also of being a philologist. For one, I feel my amateurism very keenly. I have read articles on the different sounds that people alive in Merovingian Gaul (France-ish, c. 450-751) might have meant when they wrote the letter “a;” I have learned my morphological and syntactical shifts from Late to Medieval Latin; I have devoured everything I can find by Roberta Frank; but is it ever enough? Lest reading continue to serve as a substitute for action, I want to strain some of these underdeveloped muscles of philological practice by looking for some of the sensuality in the medieval legal documents that I work with. In particular, what can focusing on the sensuous reveal about evidence, proof, and facts—about how governments sort information into units that are judged to be “false,” and so ineffectual, or “true,” and so actionable?

The sensual philology that I mean is Martin Foys‘, born of the now-expanding list of things that philology can do. Sensual philology sidles up next to New Philology’s earlier interest in the materiality of the text and urges a more ecumenical attention to the relationship between media, words, and bodies, and also the physical world of senses and silences beyond the visual, including non-linguistic systems of communication. Foys’ insights and methodologies don’t seem unique to the relationship between words and sensation, but the stakes of this intersection are uniquely high. Susan Kus, an archaeologist of Madagascar, has pointed out that semiotics is insufficient for understanding things like proverbs, which rely on routine physical experiences for context. The sensory is given meaning beyond the physical experience of the body, and words are embodied with content that is not just intellectual, but physical and affective.

It is easy to see how a reading attentive to the affective and sensory (especially non-visual senses) tenor of a text can be rewarding in passages like this one, from the medieval Welsh tales collectively called The Mabinogion:

His arms were round her neck, and they were sitting cheek to cheek, but what with the hounds straining at their leashes, and the edges of the shields banging together and the spear shafts rubbing together and the stamping and whinnying of the horses the emperor woke up.

Constellations of love-inflected sensory experiences, indeed. Outside of dreams, historians have found plenty of bodily and sensual experiences within and adjacent to medieval institutions. But in the legal documents that I work with on a daily basis? What is their sensuality?

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document's relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery's preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Copyright Genevra Kornbluth. This charter, Archives National K 3 No. 18, is near-contemporaneous with the placitum I discuss. It was written for another Merovingian king, King Chilperic II, on or around March 5, 716. There are at least two things that are remarkable about this particular text. One is that its royal seal is still attached, after 1300 years. Another is that it is written on parchment, a sign of the document’s relative youth. Papyrus, not parchment, was probably the Merovingian chancery’s preferred substrate for legal documents until the end of the seventh century.

Here is a near-translation of most of a Merovingian placitum (a formula-based, post facto record of a dispute resolution adjudication, but also the word refers to the adjudication process itself and also means pleasing or agreeable):

Theuderic, king of the Franks, to the noble men.

One day, we, in the name of God, were seated at our palace at Ponthion along with our retainers so that we could hear everyone’s cases and judge lawful legal proceedings. Representatives of the church of our special protector the blessed martyr Dionysus (where he rests bodily and where the saintly man Abbot Godobald is seen to preside) came to us here and spoke out against the noble man Ermente. They said against him that he had given some of his land called Boran- sur-Oise on the river Isère in the region around Chambli, which he came by for himself legally through his father Nordbert and his brother Gunthechar, both dead. to the venerable man the abbot Godobald for the church of the lord Dionysisus. He had given and confirmed the gift through a deed of sale, and he showed the document to those assembled for reading. When it was read, and while that Ermente was among those present, it was asked of him by our nobles if he had sold that land Boran-sur-Oise of his to that Abbot Godobald for the church of St. Denis, and if he had taken the purchase price for it. Ermente said to those present that he sold to the Abbot Gondobald for the church of his lord St. Denis that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois and asked it to be confirmed and received the purchase price according to his satisfaction, and had asked to confirm the sale. For that reason we together with our nobles agreed to decide that, as the noble man Cumrodobald, our count of the palace, testified how the case had been investigated and completed, we ordered that the aforementioned representatives of the venerable man the Abbot Godobald and of the church of his lord Dionysius for their part hold for all time, inviolably and with all rights that same property of Boran-sur-Oise in the abovewritten Chabliois…, with their charters having been looked over…

Many things are confusing about this document: Where is the conflict? Why is text that is standard for a deed of gift spliced onto the end of a judgment formula? I want to leave those aside to point out that, as a group, the Merovingian placita are very loud. People are always speaking, interrupting, claiming, stating, responding, agreeing, promising, asking, asserting, contradicting, professing, testifying, relating, determining, swearing, reading aloud, requesting, interrogating, ordering, declaring, and pledging. Because of all this noise, or maybe in spite of it, people were also doing a lot of hearing; the placita are peppered with curious assurances that this was the case, or that there were people around to hear all this noise.

The impulse to explain in detail seeing and hearing is symptomatic of a larger epistemological habit of Merovingian diplomas: their effort to convey precisely how information was sent and received, especially information related to critical pieces of evidence. Medieval legal writing loved rhetorical specificity (“that land of his in the aforesaid place Boran-sur-Oise in the recently mentioned Chabliois”), and that specificity could manifest itself at different levels, including over the course of the whole placitum. Someone claims that a charter exists, it is made to appear physically for the purpose of reading aloud, it has been read aloud, it contained such and such information. The information is heard, it is confirmed by an official, taken to another official, written in the document, then confirmed again. (This last part, of the process, notably absent from the placitum above, is often described in others, and also frequently confirmed by notes in a Merovingian shorthand made on the documents.)

Getting information from one charter to another apparently required an odd alchemy, one that created a tangible link between the ink of the words on the page of the charter mentioned in the placitum, the ears of the king and court who made and recorded the decision, and the ink of this new placitum itself. Knowledge here is embedded in sensory experiences as a kind of physical movement. Seeing, hearing, and reading drag pieces of data from out of the secret interiors of people and documents into the open (Merovingian law always happens publice), where their truth can be verified or denied. But the careful nestling of source of information against source of information doesn’t stop here, at the decision; it extends all the way to the scribe, who is, after all, the one to record it. The carefully described passing of information from document to group to official to scribe to confirmer glues all of this information together into a coherent, sure narrative.

So, what does this shifting of perspective do for the legal or institutional historian? Most pressingly, it shows that Merovingian legal writers had assumptions that were different from those of the modern legal tradition about how writing worked as a technology, about what the law could do, and about how legal institutions made and preserved facts. The Merovingian placita offer a good opportunity to think about these issues: The placitum is probably a Merovingian genre. developed and use by Merovingian legal writers to meet the needs of Merovingian institutions. The documents are not transcripts, but recollections structured by formulas designed to elicit specific kinds of information.

A more traditional approach to this essay would have asked about categories of and rules for evidence – the relative efficacy of testimony versus written documents, or the place of oath-taking and the ordeal. Looking at the physical world of the placita shows how unsatisfying a Merovingian scribe might have found those sharply drawn categories. Facts were facts not because they could be isolated and examined individually, but because they could maneuver so lithely among texts and between text and speech, they could be read, spoken, and heard.