« History is not a school of fate »
Patrick Boucheron, historian, medievalist, professor at the College de France, is the author of numerous books, including the latest, « Quand l’histoire fait dates ». With this book, which is a selection of articles, almost short stories, from his eponymous program on Arte, he succeeds in “straightening the course of time”. Dates therefore, but no chronology, its ambition being to show in ten parts how the event is created. “World History of France”, this collective work under his direction which saw France on a large scale, had “made a date”. By resting the date as a starting point but without fetishism, on the contrary, Boucheron continues to offer us a History that is both prodigiously amusing but also « an art of thought » based on scientific rigor and historical method. An antidote to all those who sell us an identity story that smells of formaldehyde.
How to make, say, tell history today, when we realize that historical material has become for some a tool intended to produce a political and ideological discourse on the present from a fantasized story?
Telling, the word suits me well! To get Georges Duby to write « Le Dimanche de Bouvines », Pierre Nora, who was then in charge of this collection « The 30 days that made France », made him dangle the story of Jean Giono « The Disaster of Pavia ». But, behind the literary ambition of the story, there was a project. A civic project, a project towards the public space: producing new knowledge and making it socially accessible. This is also what I am trying to do in my own way with this new book. So why take the date as a narrative motif? Because it’s the simplest, it’s the most intimidating and it’s what we remember. This is what actually allows us to play, to straighten the course of time. Because if there are 30 dates it is not a question of a chronology, but of a kind of grammar of the event. The dates are indeed grouped into 10 ways to make an event.
And it’s also a certain way of responding to the misuses of history. Faced with those who articulate political discourse on the past, we must reaffirm what history can do. It is to reaffirm the regime of truth in the discourse that historians produce. Faced with the falsifiers of history, we must first say that it is a profession and that this profession is not based on a status or a privilege but simply on a method.
Which does not mean that there are no disagreements… Is there a subjectivity of the historian and how is it different from a simple opinion?
We must think of the historical discipline as knowledge, and work to wrest this knowledge from the reign of opinion. I was 20 years old when, in 1985, the historical discipline was completely swept away by an evil wind: that of the negationist ordeal. You remember in 1987, Jean-Marie Le Pen who asserts about the gas chambers that they are a « point of detail » and who specifies: « I don’t really know if they existed, myself I don’t I haven’t seen any, historians debate it. The most poisoned is « historians are debating it. » No, historians do not debate whether or not the Holocaust existed. They debate how it works, they debate its meaning, but they don’t debate the very existence of a policy of destruction of the Jews of Europe, and on the contrary they fight the assassins of memory. This clearly proves that, at bottom, the distinction is not simply between fact and interpretation. It would be too weak to say that the work of the historian is to establish facts and that the interpretation is free. The interpretation is not free either. It is subject to rules which are rules of method and which make it possible to outline the arena inside which the debate is legitimate and outside which it is no longer so.
One of the first to have attacked the « World History of France » was Éric Zemmour, who explained in substance that by not taking up the great dates and the great men you were on the side of the « foreign party ». . How to react to these barkers of a history of France frozen in its chronology and its immutable heroes, but which allow a heroic, powerful, catchy, identity historical narrative?
Zemmour, in « Le Figaro » in January 2017, is one of the very first to react to « World History of France ». For him, history is war, not only when it tells the story of wars. It is in itself a war. A war of interpretations and the one that dominates has no truth to assert, it is just the one that is defended by the academic doxa. That was the first paragraph and the last said that we were the party of the foreigner.
What was causing this aggression? The fact that at that time the readers were not mistaken. What they were looking for in this book was a reconciliation of global history and national history. 140 academics decided on their behalf to speak directly to a wider audience and to produce a populated story… Not necessarily a popular history but a populated and accessible history where there is always Napoleon, Louis XIV, but where there are others that we don’t usually talk about.
As far as I’m concerned, I alternate books for the general public with works that are more demanding and arid, like the one on Ambrose of Milan. If history is a profession, quite regularly we must remember that we practice it. With « Quand l’histoire fait dates », I tried to produce a book for the general public through its narrative aspect and ambitious through the idea that it deploys of the very notion of event.
Even in your most demanding works, you always put a dose of narrative. And this way of telling a story makes events, or their construction, resonate with the present. I am thinking in particular of “Averting fear” and your study of the so-called “good government” fresco, painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palace of the Republic of Siena.
With « Conjure Fear », we are in 1338 and we lock ourselves in a room which is painted on three sides for a great political program. A program that aims to see the time come. Lorenzetti lives in a moment of great political confusion. In 1338, he was a citizen of the municipality of Siena. In the 14th century, the municipality was the political body which, in the Italian space, organized the self-government of the citizens. When Lorenzetti paints, this system is seizing up perniciously. It is perverted by the seigniorial system which advances and even makes itself desired. This is what Lorenzetti shows, the temptation to overcome conflict through tyranny, even though tyranny is in no way the end of conflict. What interested me was trying to think about the desire for authoritarian power, that is to say what makes it so that at a given moment a society in full knowledge of its values and his principles renounces his freedom.
This means that if today we place ourselves, you and I, in this room of the municipal palace of Siena in 1338, we place ourselves together in the place of an ancient emergency. And yet it reactivates for us. That’s the story. History is a repertoire of existential political situations that can sometimes encourage us, sometimes alert us, sometimes worry us, but always put us in motion.
Since we are in the 14th century, let’s stay there. For three years, your course at the College de France has been around the Black Death. The connection with the Covid is immediate. Besides, what led you to work on this subject?
This is a course I started two years ago, but have been working on since before Covid. I hold a chair at the College de France called “History of powers in Western Europe”. With the plague, there is an enigma that has always troubled me: why a demographic catastrophe which is one of the deadliest in the history of humanity, since it can be estimated that between 1347 and 1352 more than half the population disappears in Europe, why does such a significant event have such tenuous political consequences? The world after resembled the world before, with the same laws, the same kings, the same beliefs… apparently. Ibn Khaldoun, a great 14th century philosopher and historian who views the plague from Islam, writes that the plague changed everything. It changed, he says, “the very form of things,” and yet nothing directly visible. Thereupon, the Covid arrived and as often the present has come to break into the past, which does not come out unscathed.
Like for the year 1000? Tell us a bit about this date.
Typically, what children are asked to do is learn their dates. Learning the date is: I’m talking to you about an event, you have to find the vintage. The tennis oath: June 20, 1789. But in the case of the year 1000, it’s the opposite. It is difficult to forget the 1000 vintage, you simply have to look for the event relating to it… And nothing! Well, nothing happened and no one expected anything to happen. And so, therefore, the question is to know when the date dates from. That is to say, when we date the moment when we believed that indeed the women and men of the Middle Ages were afraid of the passage from the first to the second millennium.
Anyway, as often with the Middle Ages, the postman always rings twice. Something happens in the Middle Ages and it’s reinvented in the 19th century, and we live in the shadow cast by the 19th century over the Middle Ages. What interests me in the exercise of history is to shuffle and reshuffle the cards of familiarity. You can do it geographically, you can do it thematically, you can do it chronologically. I find it fun to reshuffle the cards.
If we want to close the loop with your first question, namely how to fight against these fantasized narratives which are powerful narratives, I believe that we must bring these great reactionary narratives back to the reality of their sad passion. A story that never ceases to teach us about our continuities, our identities, that is heartbreaking. A story that closes societies in on themselves and that leads us to no longer be surprised by anything. The exercise of history is a way of creating surprises, of simply wanting, for me, in my practice, every morning to learn something, to read, to understand, to discover something something that will surprise me, that will move me, entertain me and allow me to escape the arrogance of the present. History is about remembering all that we are capable of, men and women in society, from the worst to the best. History is not a school of fate. In reality, the more we look at things as they were and as they could have been, the more we say to ourselves that there are potentialities, ways out, whether they have been taken or not.