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History as a Kind of WritingTextual Strategies in Contemporary French Historiography$

Philippe Carrard

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226427966

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226428017.001.0001

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(p.15) Chapter 1 Dispositions
History as a Kind of Writing

Philippe Carrard

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how French historians “dispose” their texts, that is, how they organize them as coherent wholes. Contrary to prevailing opinions, these texts do not always take the form of a narrative. Some are mapped out as synchronic cross-sections (“tableaux”), as dissections of problems (“analyses”), or as polemical discussions of existing studies (“metahistories”). Accounts of single events, in particular, rarely have a narrative structure. After briefly recounting the facts, the historian devotes most of the study to explaining their significance—what they reveal about the conflicts and attitudes that characterized the period. This chapter also surveys the debates historians have conducted about issues of “disposition,” assaying the meaning that well-established historians like Veyne, Chartier, and Hartog may confer to “narrative” when they claim that histories necessarily fall under this mode, while they themselves do not resort to storytelling in their works.

Keywords:   disposition, narrative, tableau, analysis, metahistory, storytelling, Paul Veyne, Roger Chartier, François Hartog

The first questions about writing I want to ask of contemporary French historiography pertain to “disposition,” in the sense this term enjoyed in ancient rhetoric. Since historiographic texts are composed of different units, according to what principles are these units organized? How are they connected with each other? Specifically, are these connections always temporal? Before taking on the texts themselves, I will briefly review the theoretical statements that historians, philosophers, and theorists have made on this subject, whether in essays, lectures, or programmatic articles.

Squabbles about Narrative

The issue of textual arrangement in historiographic texts has often been reduced to their membership in the narrative genre, and for some time it was formulated in normative terms. Taking for granted that historians do use narrative, participants in the debate have asked whether that form was suited for serious scientific discourse, leading to the “squabbles” surveyed by François Hartog (2005a), from whom I borrow the title of this section. In English-speaking countries, discussions first opposed supporters and critics of narrative within the framework of analytical philosophy and philosophy of science. Assuming that historians necessarily rely on narrative, philosophers such as Carl Hempel (1942, 1962) and Karl Popper (1957) argued that history, measured by the standards of physics, is an imperfect science, which at best can offer “explanation sketches” (Hempel 1962, 15). True scientific knowledge, they held, is provided by laws that “cover” the phenomena to be described, (p.16) making it possible to predict the way they would unfold in the future. History for them is devoid of this faculty, because explanation sketches—while providing some form of clarification—do not allow for predictions.

Starting in the 1960s and still within the analytical tradition, philosophers like William Dray, Morton White, Arthur Danto, and Louis Mink attacked the concept of “the unity of science”: the idea that the only correct model of explanation is the covering law, and that history therefore cannot be regarded as a truly scientific discipline. Other models, according to them, produce perfectly admissible explanations, narrative supplying, for the type of understanding needed in history, a well-suited “cognitive instrument” (Mink 1987, 182, first published in 1978). The function of that instrument, they argued, is to place an action on a temporal continuum, relating it to previous actions as well as to future scenarios, and so rendering possible an account of how certain events occurred when the covering law model would not. While these philosophers acknowledged that history does not have laws comparable to those of physics, they also maintained that it is not bereft of regularities, since it frequently relies on “lawlike statements.” Michael Scriven (1959, 458), for instance, defended the thesis that perfectly valid historical explanations are based on “truisms”: statements that say “nothing new but something true,” like “power corrupts,” “proportional representation tends to give minorities excessive influence,” and “other things being equal, a greater number of troops is an advantage in a battle” (465). These generalizations, Scriven specified, obviously do not always apply, and they frequently come with an adverb that modalizes them, like “doubtless,” “probably,” and “habitually.” Addressing the same issue, philosopher of science Avezier Tucker (2004, 160) has called statements of this type “middle-range theories,” that is, theories that are “not universal” and may have “exceptions,” sometimes “many exceptions.”

Debates about the existence and role of laws in historiography are no longer current in English-speaking countries. Discussions concerning the nature and function of narrative in the historical discipline have of course continued, conspicuously in journals such as History and Theory, Past and Present, and Rethinking History. Yet those discussions have taken place within the framework of what has been called narrativism: the assumption that historians, when they organize their data, inescapably give them a narrative structure. Thus a self-professed postmodern theorist like Alun Munslow has written a book revealingly titled Narrative and History (2007). From page 1 of his introduction, he states that his objective is to analyze the “rules,” “procedures,” and “compositional techniques” historians employ when they “turn the ‘past’ into that narrative about it we choose to call history.” Similarly, historians (p.17) Elizabeth Clark (2004), Robert Berkhofer (1995), and Herman Paul (2015) reduce historiographic writing to a narrative when they give the chapters of the studies they devote to textual arrangement the titles “Narrative and History,” “Narrative and Historicization,” and “The Aesthetic Relation: Historical Narratives.” Theorists who still dispute the value of narrative as a mode of knowledge no longer pit that mode against the laws of physics; their objections bear on the coherence of historiographic narratives, a coherence they hold to be repressive. This position is represented in the United States by Sande Cohen, in the United Kingdom by Keith Jenkins. In History Out of Joint and other essays, Cohen (2006, 246–47) has excoriated what he holds to be the artificial homogeneity of historiographic narratives. Such narratives, according to him, render “continuity out of discontinuity,” thus concealing the “cognitive dissonance” between the different moments of the past as well as between the past and the present. Extending Cohen’s argument, Jenkins (2009, 283) has added that the arbitrary order historians impose on their data has ideological implications: by legitimizing “strong, contentious, present interests,” that order obliterates injustice and prevents any kind of social change.

While in English-speaking countries controversies about the relation between narrative and history mostly involved philosophers and theorists, in France they first implicated trade historians. Starting in the 1930s, scholars who were to become members of the Annales school attacked what they condescendingly called “narrative history” (histoire récit) and “event history” (histoire événementielle): studies published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by historians who mainly focused on the political, military, and diplomatic past of nation-states. Lucien Febvre derided this type of research in his reviews. Fernand Braudel dismissed it in the preface to his study of the Mediterranean. And François Furet (1982, 76, first published in 1975) celebrated what he deemed to be the definitive shift from a history made of “narrations” and “compilations” to a history “scientifically conducted,” whose purpose was to “pose problems” and “formulate hypotheses.” Furet did not indicate which textual form(s) “problem history” was supposed to take, and he did not seem to notice the irony inherent in presenting his thesis as a narrative—in this instance, as a success story in which the “good” way of doing things had eventually triumphed over the “bad” one.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, the antinarrativist position of the Annales dominated the discussions by French historians of the relations between their discipline and storytelling. Besides Febvre, Braudel, and Furet, other members of the Annales such as Jacques Le Goff and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie also condemned narrative, either in accounts of their intellectual journey (e.g., Le Goff 1987), (p.18) or in reviews of books that did not conform to the Annales’ standards (e.g., Le Roy Ladurie 1983). Obviously not all French historians belonged to the Annales school or to that school’s successor in the 1970s, New History (Nouvelle Histoire). But if they wrote studies that still fell under the heading of narrative or event history, they did not theorize their position. A notable exception, in 1971, was Paul Veyne’s Comment on écrit l’histoire: Essai d’épistémologie (Writing History: Essay in Epistemology). Using provocative language, Veyne (1971, 10, 13) had the boldness to state that history is “nothing but a true novel,” “nothing but a truthful story.” Relying on German, British, and American philosophers and sociologists, he also argued that in history explanations are provided not by laws, but by the comprehensive plots that historians devise when they textualize their data. Veyne’s intervention was so unexpected that the editors of the journal Annales had to farm out the reviews of Comment on écrit l’histoire to scholars more attuned to issues of writing and epistemology: in this instance Raymond Aron (1971) and Michel de Certeau (1972). Aron, for that matter, was to give in 1972 at the Collège de France a course in which he introduced Anglo-American analytical philosophy of history, but neither this course nor Veyne’s book had much resonance at the time. Tellingly, the encyclopedia La Nouvelle Histoire, published in 1978, had no entry for “narrative,” and entries like the one devoted to “event” (written by Jacques Revel, one of the editors) only restated the Annales’ party line.

Things in France hardly changed before the early 1980s and the publication of Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit (Time and Narrative). Ricoeur’s theses have been exhaustively discussed, notably by Dominick LaCapra (1985) and Hayden White (2010), and this is not the place to rehearse them. For my purpose, the most important issue concerns what Ricoeur (1983, 133) calls the “fundamentally narrative character of history”: that even “the study the most remote from narrative form continues to be related to narrative understanding by way of a derivation, which can be reconstructed step by step, degree by degree, using the appropriate method.” Applying this “method” to productions of the Annales school that were meant to be non- and even antinarrative, Ricoeur argues that such studies as Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, Le Goff’s Pour un autre Moyen-Âge, and Duby’s Les trois ordres, ou L’imaginaire du féodalisme (Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined), in fact fall under storytelling. Of course, these works do not constitute a return to the “kings and battle” history that the Annales had indicted. But the Mediterranean and even abstract entities like feudalism can be regarded as “quasi characters,” playing different roles in “quasi plots.” For Ricoeur (1983, 303), Braudel relies on one of these quasi (p.19) plots, specifically on the narrative topos of “decline,” to tell the story of the Mediterranean’s “withdrawal from major history” and the sea’s “slow deterioration” as an important place of exchange.

Although French historians had not been convinced by Veyne’s conception of history as a “true novel,” in contrast they have adopted Ricoeur’s views with surprising unanimity. Roger Chartier, for example, long associated with the New History, has now become a major spokesperson for narrativism. In the entry “Récit et histoire” (Narrative and history) that he wrote for the Dictionnaire des sciences humaines (2006, 969–70), he speaks of the “unanimous opinion that holds history as a narrative,” of the “acknowledgment that history is narrative,” and of the “membership, long ignored, of history in the category ‘narrative.’” Unanimous opinion, acknowledgment, membership: these terms show that for Chartier the problem is solved—that history, whatever its practitioners might have contended at a certain point, inescapably belongs to storytelling. François Hartog (2005a, 173), who, like Chartier, adopts Ricoeur’s theses, has argued that from antiquity to the contemporary period, history, however it is configured, has always relied on narrative: it has consistently “recounted the doings of men, told not the same story, but stories of diverse types.” When the Annalistes rejected event history, Hartog concludes, they did not abandon “narrative” altogether; they dismissed “a specific form of narrative” but invented new ones, the Braudelian model constituting in this respect an innovation not just at the level of content, but at that of emplotment. Discussing the rehabilitation of storytelling in the entry that a post-Annales encyclopedia, Historiographies, now devotes to the genre, François Dosse (2010c, 871) argues along the same lines. He confidently asserts that historians, even when they are no longer concerned with “recounting political, military, or diplomatic events,” always “emplot” the data they have gathered. Narrative, in this respect, constitutes the “indispensable mediation” that links “historical work” with one of the basic human “experiences,” the unfolding of time.

Ricoeur’s take on the necessarily narrative character of historical endeavors has hardly been questioned. One of the few (and timid) challenges was issued by Bernard Lepetit in an essay in his Carnet de croquis (Handbook of sketches). Discussing studies that fall under microhistory, like Giovanni Levi’s Le pouvoir au village (Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist), Simona Cerutti’s La ville et les métiers (Town and trades), and his own Les villes dans la France moderne (The Pre-industrial Urban System: France, 1740–1840), Lepetit (1999, 85–86) writes: “None of these works juxtaposes temporal cross sections to account for processes. But none of them is structured as (p.20) a chronicle, either: their goal is to provide neither an exhaustive description nor a linear narrative. It is not the succession of episodes but that of analytical viewpoints and modes of observation (choice of ‘local’ interpretation grids, selection of sources, ways of processing the evidence) that shapes the development—I was about to say the plot.” Showing that he has read Ricoeur, Lepetit here poses a crucial question: whether “development,” in historiographic studies, is necessarily synonymous with “plot”; in brief, whether such studies, to count as historiographic, must take the form of a story and organize their data on the model of narrative.

Before addressing this question, it is indispensable to define what is meant by “narrative”—something the texts I have just analyzed often fail to do. As the German historian Johannes Süssmann (2002, 86) has stressed in the entry he devotes to Erzählung in the Lexicon Geschichtswissenschaft, on points like this one, literary theory can contribute to the analysis of historiographic discourse. Narratology in particular can offer clarifications, since one of its aims is to characterize narrative by distinguishing it from other modes of textual organization. Turning to narrative theorists, I will here, with Gerald Prince (2012, 25), define narrative as “the logically consistent representation of a least two asynchronous events, or a state and an event, that do not presuppose or imply each other”; and with James Phelan (2007, 203), as “somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened.” Whether they treat narrative as an object or as a transaction, these definitions say basically the same thing: to count as a narrative, a text must include at least two units located on a temporal axis, even if the first may remain implicit. Thus the minitext “France was a monarchy” is not a narrative, because it does not involve the representation of an event; but the subsequent minitext “France’s monarchy fell on August 10, 1792” is, because it represents a change with respect to a state and could be parsed into “there was a monarchy in France” and “that monarchy fell on August 10, 1792.

If we use Prince’s and Phelan’s definitions to ask whether contemporary French historians rely on narrative, we cannot help noting that a large part of their production does not fall under storytelling. Some of the works they have published develop a plot, but others do not, resulting in three main categories of textual disposition.

Linear Narratives

Furet’s 1975 pronouncement about the disappearance of a narrative history focused on political, military, and diplomatic events was clearly premature. (p.21) Gérard Noiriel (1998, 31–64) has shown that this type of history had flourished in spite of the Annales’ hegemonic ambitions, producing several important works. Noiriel singles out the multivolume Histoire des relations internationales edited in the 1950s by Pierre Renouvin, as well as René Rémond’s Les États-Unis devant l’opinion publique française, 1815–1852, published in 1962. These studies, according to Noiriel, show the continuing production of “event history,” a term of discredit that Noiriel borrows from the Annales only to use it in a positive way: the “event,” whether it takes the form of a sudden political turn or arises from the actions of Renouvin’s “deep forces,” is a historical entity that deserves study. For that matter it has been studied, provided we consider all the historiographic writing in France in the twentieth century and not just the part the Annales deemed worthy of interest when they granted themselves the right to sort the wheat from the chaff.

From a formalist perspective, the event history that Noiriel rehabilitates attests to the durability of another genre: chronological narrative as it was practiced, for example, by Ernest Lavisse and his team in the Histoire de la France published from 1911 to 1922. This type of narrative may be defined as “linear,” since it proceeds from sequence to sequence on a temporal axis, the order of events in the discourse agreeing by and large with the order of events in the past as documents have made it possible to reconstruct it. Several multi volume “histories of …” are organized according to this pattern, for example, the Nouvelle histoire de la France contemporaine launched in 1972, published by Le Seuil in the series Points histoire. Major contributions to political and diplomatic history, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle’s La décadence (1979) and L’abîme (The abyss) (1983) constitute other typical instances of linear narrative. Of the fifteen chapters in La décadence, seven include a date that establishes the order in which the events unfolded, from “June-December 1932” (“Edouard Herriot’s Return”) to “22 August-3 September 1939” (“Toward the Inescapable”). Some chapters have section titles that also include a date, “The Year of Munich” (chapter 11) thus proceeding from “The Crisis of March 1938” to “The False Crisis of May 1938” and finally to “The Great Crisis and Munich (23–30 September).” Whether at the level of the period regarded as a whole (the 1930s) or at specific moments (the Munich Conference), Duroselle’s study is thus marked out by a system of chronological landmarks that helps readers follow the story, in this case, to keep their bearings in the highly detailed account of the events the historian provides.

Works dealing with political, military, and diplomatic events are not the only ones that fall under the heading of linear narrative. As an empty form, this kind of narrative may accommodate the most diverse content, beginning (p.22) with cultural occurrences. Jean-François Sirinelli’s Intellectuels et passions françaises, for example, treats not “politics” in Duroselle’s sense but “political culture,” namely, “participation in the life of the city” (Sirinelli 1996, 17–18). The activities Sirinelli studies are those of a small group, and they take two main forms: the “petition” and the “manifesto.” Like Duroselle, Sirinelli proceeds chronologically from period to period, in this instance from the “curtain raiser” of the Dreyfus Affair to the campaigns sparked off by the Liberation, the 1956 revolt in Hungary, the Vietnam war, the Algerian war, and the supposed “silence” of the intellectuals during the 1980s. Within each temporal unit, Sirinelli then proceeds from case to case. He thus treats the Algerian war as a “war of writing” (guerre de l’écrit) (366), a war he covers without concealing that he had been obliged to make choices because so many proclamations were made during this period on subjects such as torture and the right to disobedience.

Linear narrative is also the preferred mode of textual organization in one of the genres the Annales had most severely stigmatized: biography. This genre, which had remained popular with the general public, gained a new legitimacy with what Christian Delacroix (2007b, 491) calls the “return to favor” of the individual in scholarly history in the late 1970s. There are in fact many ways of organizing the study of a life, and linear narrative is only one of them. This mode is used by specialists in political history like Jean-Paul Brunet and Serge Berstein, whose biographies of Doriot, Herriot, and Blum follow strict chronological order. Berstein’s Edouard Herriot, ou La République en personne (1985) and his Léon Blum (2006) both include three parts that correspond to the main phases of the politician’s career. Within each part, duly dated chapters and sections enable readers to follow that career from year to year, month to month, and even day to day in moments of crisis. Political history, however, is not the only field to have experienced the rebirth of biography in its traditional form. Intellectual history has seen a similar return as professional historians have retraced the itinerary of philosophers, novelists, and even other historians. The author of an essay on biography as a “wager” (Le pari biographique) (2005), Dosse has published comprehensive studies of major French intellectual figures such as Pierre Nora, Paul Ricoeur, Michel de Certeau, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose shared journey is recounted in a “dual biography” (biographie croisée). Dosse, like Berstein, divides the careers of these intellectuals into phases, with “event” referring in his biographies to a new publication or to the move from one institution to another rather than to adhesion to a party, victory in an election, or membership in a government.1

(p.23) The persistence in French historiography of a type of narrative that the Annales had regarded as obsolete calls for a few remarks. One must first note that the only stories that report events in the exact order of their occurrence are those made up by narratologists who want to illustrate the genre “chronological narrative.” While it is impossible to arrange data in strictly chronological order at the microlevel of the paragraph—it would involve never using the past perfect tense—it is equally difficult to do so at the macrolevel of the whole text. Duroselle, as we have seen, recounts in linear fashion the events that marked France’s “decadence” in the 1930s. But he stops at times for descriptive pauses, needed to account for such things as the state of the French economy, security, and diplomacy (chapters 6–9). Dosse is faced with a different problem. Because Deleuze and Guattari did not always work together, he must begin (chapters 1–8) by recounting what he calls the “parallel lives” of the two men before moving on to their common undertakings. Thus he must report one after the other events that in fact occurred during the same time frame, if not literally at the same time. Taken as a whole, Dosse’s book, like Duroselle’s, nevertheless remains organized according to the conventions of linear narrative—a narrative in which events are related as closely as possible in the order of occurrence, to the extent that the historian has been able to reconstruct that order from the evidence.

One must stress, moreover, that if linear narratives report events in the order of their occurrence, they do not constitute mere chronicles. Ever since E. M. Forster in 1927, Anglo-American poetics has distinguished between “story” and “plot,” that is, between narratives in which events are simply juxtaposed (“the king died and then the queen died”) and narratives in which events succeed each other in accordance with some causality principle (“the king died and then the queen died of grief”). Revisited from this perspective, linear narratives such as La décadence and Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari clearly fall under “plot,” in the sense Ricoeur (1983, 11) has given to this term: a “synthesis of heterogeneous elements” that combines “goals, causes, and accidents” in the “temporal unity of a total and complete action.” In this respect, titles such as La décadence are already telling, because they point to a change in the initial situation, more precisely, to a move from good to bad whose specific aspects (e.g., political instability) will be examined during the course of the narrative. Similarly, the subtitle of Brunet’s biography of Jacques Doriot, Du communisme au fascisme, traces a political and intellectual journey, providing readers with a script whose points of departure and arrival are given from the outset.

Let us note, finally, that looking more closely at the category “plot” can (p.24) help clarify the distinction between fictional and factual narratives. Hayden White, among others, has argued that the two modes cannot be distinguished, because they both “emplot” their materials in the same way, along the lines of comedy, tragedy, romance, or satire. Whether or not we share White’s views about the similarity of fiction and historiography, his application of the term emplotment to both discourses is clearly inaccurate. Using the dichotomy between “to plot” and “to emplot,” literary theorist Dorrit Cohn (1999) has shown that only historiographic texts are “emplotted” properly speaking. Indeed, historians work with a database from which they select the data that will serve their research, data that they then “emplot” and that they frequently refer to in order to guarantee the validity of their endeavor. Fictional texts, on the other hand, can only be “plotted.” Their authors invent the stories they tell, and even when they rely on sources, the sources do not have to become part of the text itself. For Cohn (1999, 109–31), in other words, “emplotment” is specific to historiography. It is one of the areas in which “historical narrative adds something to the discursive virtualities of fiction,” showing that factual discourse cannot be described—as it often is—in terms of what it is missing with respect to fictional narrative used as an implicit point of reference.

Writing the Event

Whether they treat France or an individual, the narratives I have discussed so far all bear on series of events. Yet one of the main characteristics of current French historiography lies in the interest it shows for the event; that is, not for a string of occurrences, but for one particular occurrence whose unfolding, reception, and memory the historian aims to examine. Dosse (2010b) has devoted a whole book to this rebirth, and “event,” still scorned in 1978 in the encyclopedia La Nouvelle Histoire, is now defined more positively in anthologies and dictionaries such as Historiographies (2010), Les mots de l’historien (2009), and Dictionnaire de l’historien (2015). The launching of the series Les journées qui ont fait la France (a successor to the more restricted Trente journées qui ont fait la France) testifies to this recovery, as does the publication of a reader such as 1515 et les grandes dates de l’histoire de France (2005a), edited by a scholar as little concerned with political and military history as Alain Corbin.

From a formal perspective, one must first emphasize that there is no necessary relation between “event” and “narrative.” “Narrative,” as we have seen, is an empty form that may be filled with diverse contents, cultural and economic as well as political and military. In like fashion, “event” is what might be (p.25) called an “empty content”: a content that may be represented under different forms, from narrative to description to quantitative analysis. Annales historians like Braudel (1966, 13–14) had confused form and content when they attacked “narrative history” and “event history” as if the two were synonyms, and Lawrence Stone’s often-quoted article “The Revival of Narrative” (1979) had fed the same misunderstanding. Observing that French historians in the 1970s had moved away from large regional studies to focus on, among other things, “single events,” he linked this shift to a change in the textual domain: their interest in events had “inevitably” led scholars to use narrative, the only mode suited for relating single occurrences like a battle or a coup d’état.

That studying an event does not “necessarily” involve relying on narrative is illustrated by one of the books Stone uses to support his thesis: Georges Duby’s Le dimanche de Bouvines (The Legend of Bouvines) (1973). Indeed, viewed as a whole, Duby’s text does not meet the minimal conditions that could make it into a narrative: the units it comprises are ordered not temporally but rather analytically, constituting an interesting kind of collage. The first part (“The Event”) consists of stage directions given by the historian, then the testimony of the main witness, the chronicler Guillaume le Breton; the narrative is thus less Duby’s than his source’s, and it takes up only fifty of the book’s three hundred pages. The second part (“Commentary”) alternates between a report of what happened at Bouvines on July 12, 1214, and a description of attitudes at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Duby accounts for the peace, the battle, and the victory as single developments, but he also treats peace, battle, and victory as aspects of medieval culture, asking questions such as “What was the nature of war” in the thirteenth century? and “What did it mean then to win a battle?” It is the third part (“Legends”) that comes closest to a linear narrative, though not of the battle. Duby tells the story of the memory of the event, showing, among other things, how the enemy France defeated would change depending on the political circumstances: how it was England, then Germany, then, in some conciliatory “European” versions, the Count of Boulogne alone. As for the last part (“Documents”), it brings together all kinds of materials related to the battle, from chroniclers’ accounts to Jules Michelet’s brief report in his Histoire de France to excerpts of R. F. Longhaye’s Bouvines, a trilogy “in verse with choir” that apparently has not found a place in the musical canon.

Steering away from treating events in narrative form, however, is not reserved for historians operating under the umbrella of the Annales and its legacy. A scholar of the Old Regime who is portrayed in manuals (e.g., Bizière and Vayssière 1995, 208) as being “outside the Annales,” Roland Mousnier (p.26) does not chart his L’assassinat d’Henri IV as a linear narrative. Initially published like Le dimanche de Bouvines in the series Trente journées qui ont fait la France and then reissued in Les journées qui ont fait la France, Mousnier’s book includes three parts and an appendix. The first part is about the “event,” but the assassination itself is reported in 6 pages and the execution of the king’s murderer in 3, the rest of this brief (40 pages) first part being devoted to the causes of the regicide. The second part, by far the most developed (190 pages), treats the concept of “tyrant,” addressing the questions of knowing exactly what a tyrant is, whether it is permissible to kill him, and what role Jesuits played in the debates about tyranny. The third part examines the consequences of the regicide for the nature of the regime, and appendixes furnish documents such as the papal bull that excommunicated Henri IV. Considered as a whole, Mousnier’s work, like Duby’s, thus cannot be viewed as a narrative, because the units that make it up are not arranged on a temporal axis but are organized analytically. In other words, Mousnier does not emplot the materials he has gathered; he studies them from different angles, showing—even though it was obviously not his intention—that the “event history” he defends in his prologue (2008, 9) is in fact closer to the “problem history” advocated by his opponents in the academic community than it is to narrative history.

Whether their authors are situated outside the Annales, in their orbit, or in one of the “new” cultural, political, and economic histories that anthologies have identified (e.g., Poirrier 2009, 60–81), most studies from the 1970s devoted to the event fall under Duby’s and Mousnier’s analytical model. Le Roy Ladurie’s Le Carnaval de Romans, for example, which Stone holds, like Le dimanche de Bouvines, as representative of the “revival” of storytelling, has only one narrative component: chapters 5 to 9, which recount the skirmishes between upper and lower classes that took place in Romans during the carnivals of 1579 and 1580. But chapters 1 to 4 describe the setting and the circumstances, stressing the social and economic aspects of Dauphiné in the late sixteenth century. As for chapters 10 to 14, they interpret the incidents in light of a theoretical apparatus borrowed from various disciplines and theories, such as anthropology, Marxism, semiology, and psychoanalysis. Le Roy Ladurie’s book, therefore, like Duby’s and Mousnier’s, cannot be regarded as a narrative; it is basically a case study, proceeding from issue to issue rather than from moment to moment.

The same could be said about other works focused on a single event, for instance, Raphaëlle Branche’s L’embuscade de Palestro: Algérie 1956 (The ambush in Palestro: Algeria 1956} (2010a). As its subtitle indicates, this book does not deal with one of the days “that made France” but rather addresses an (p.27) early episode in the Algerian war: the ambush that the Army of National Liberation laid for a French army unit in Kabilia’s mountains on May 18, 1956, an ambush that left only one survivor among the twenty-three members of that unit. As Duby and Mousnier do, Branche reports briefly what is known about the ambush, then goes on to analyze the significance of this incident with respect to the conflict as a whole. Her goal, as she states it (2010a, 9), is to identify “other histories” that might be present “under the surface of the event,” to give readers, through this “high-angle shot at a small and local occurrence … a keener understanding of what happened in Algeria during the one hundred years that separate the arrival of the colons from their hurried departure” (11). In brief, Branche does not intend to tell a story, however interesting that story might be. She wants not to recount the event but to discuss it, in a text whose structure will therefore be not a plot that unfolds in time, but an analysis that progresses from point to point in a thematic frame.

From Corbin’s Le village des cannibales (1990) to Olivier Chaline’s La bataille de la Montagne blanche (1999), several studies focused on one event have a structure similar to that of the works I have just examined: they are concerned less with recounting that event than with using it to scrutinize certain aspects of the period during which it occurred. Although this type of textual arrangement is the most frequently employed in current French historiography, two alternative models also need to be considered. The first model consists of spotlighting not one but a series of events and having them briefly discussed by specialists of the period. Edited by Alain Corbin, 1515 et les grandes dates de l’histoire de France revisits the events that the textbook L’histoire de France à l’école, used in primary schools in the 1920s to 1930s, held to be worth studying and remembering. Made up of seventy-four entries, this work covers occurrences regarded as important at the time, from the founding of Marseille in 600 BC to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Each entry first reproduces the image and the “story to tell” as they appear in L’histoire de France à l’école, then adds a reading of the event made in light of recent research. Starting from a dusty manual and an obsolete conception of the event, this book offers a quasi-postmodern history made up of discrete moments that have in common only the presumption of their significance—a presumption the “revisionist” authors of the anthology frequently question. True, the history that 1515 et les grandes dates de l’histoire de France proposes is linear and devoted to a single subject: France. But the episodes that compose it, unlike those in most national histories, are not emplotted, as the coauthors seek neither to reconstruct France’s supposed “destiny” nor even to link the entry they must write to the preceding or subsequent entries.

(p.28) The second alternative to the Duby-Mousnier model consists of providing an exhaustive account of one event that is regarded as worth investigating, and whose detailed study is made possible by a large supply of documentary evidence. In Charonne 8 février 1962 (2006), Alain Dewerpe dissects with extreme thoroughness the demonstration that thousands of Parisians led toward the end of the Algerian war, protesting the activities of the terrorist, pro-“French Algeria” Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), a demonstration during which nine people were killed by the police. The first part of Dewerpe’s book deals with the demonstration itself, the second with its immediate aftermath, and the third with the lack of legal follow-up to the crimes committed by the police and with the public memory of the event. Though this summary outline does not do justice to a book that is 669 pages long (plus 197 pages of notes), it should suffice to show how Charonne differs from Le dimanche de Bouvines and L’embuscade de Palestro in the way it treats the event. To begin with, Dewerpe organizes his data on a temporal axis, turning to a double plot that goes from the crime to its lack of punishment and from the memorable event to the event that is almost forgotten. Further, he does not mine his findings to make the demonstration of February 8 into the prototype of the many demonstrations the Algerian war had brought about. His generalizations take the form of what Bernard Lepetit (1999, 90), in his reflections on “scales in history,” calls the move “from the singular object to the concept.” In this instance the “move” leads Dewerpe from a most meticulous examination of the evidence to the coining of abstractions that account for the idea of “responsibility in the highest places,” such as “state violence” (2006, 86), “state lie” (393), “state censorship” (588), and even “state massacre” (21). To “think by case,” for Dewerpe (19), enables scholars to devise useful concepts—concepts that originate in the detailed investigation of the “case” but then allow accounting for “very general phenomena” that exceed the case itself. Penser par cas (To think by case], for that matter, is the title of an anthology published one year before Charonne, in which contributors show how productive it might be, as editors Jean-Claude Passeron and Jacques Revel put it in their introduction (2005), to “think from singularities [raisonner à partir de singularités].”

While the studies centered on one event do not have to be organized along narrative lines, those dealing with one individual’s life do not, or do not only, have to recount the story of that life either. In this respect Le Goff’s Saint Louis plays for the genre “biography” the same role Duby’s Le dimanche de Bouvines plays for the genre “event history”: it aims at what Le Goff (1996a, 224) calls “total history,” that is, at a history that both relates the deeds of a major personage and poses problems: in this instance those of monarchy in (p.29) the Middle Ages. The book is divided into three parts. The first part constitutes the biography properly speaking, the second investigates contemporary documents about the king, and the third describes the figure of the “king-saint” that Saint Louis supposedly embodied. Le Goff’s book traces the life of a prominent individual, but it also discusses the issue of evidence in research bearing on the Middle Ages and draws on the biography of the king to offer an anthropological description of monarchy in the thirteenth century. Though substantial (279 pages), the text’s narrative component tends to fade behind the analytical component (570 pages), and the work taken as a whole cannot be viewed as a narrative because the units it comprises are not disposed on a temporal axis.

The trend toward eliminating all narrative elements from the study of a personality is radicalized in Olivier Dumoulin’s Marc Bloch. Published in the series Références/Facettes of the Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, the book plays the game proposed by that series, which consists of breaking with biographies that “recount historical characters according to a linear trajectory, always looking for coherence” (Dumoulin 2000, 2). The first part of the book is made up of portraits of Bloch coming from contemporaries like Febvre, from Bloch himself, and from scholars writing after the historian’s death. Just as disjointed, the second part offers a reinterpretation of Bloch’s “epistemology” as well as of his “scholarly and civic behavior,” based on some “symptoms” originating in his “language” (187): for instance, his predilection for the “originality” (191) of the works he reads and the documents he consults, or his choice of the trio “soldier, Frenchman, historian” to introduce himself to readers. If Dumoulin rejects the convention of linear narrative associated with biography, he also refuses to turn his book into a hagiography. Opposing the posthumous sanctification of Bloch, he does not hesitate to bring to light aspects of the historian’s personality that for him have not been sufficiently addressed, beginning with his careerism.

The historians’ interest in the event and their parallel interest in the individual do not date, as Stone would have it, from the late 1970s. In 1972, for example, the journal Communications devoted a whole issue to l’événement, in which scholars coming from different disciplines tackled issues then related to structuralism, beginning with the relations between “system” and “event.” Commenting on these essays, editor Edgar Morin (1972, 3) pointed out that one of their common features was to identify two types of events and, correspondingly, two types of connections between event and system: the “nonreproducible event,” which modifies the system by bringing about a disturbance that leads to a reorganization, and the “reproducible event,” which is (p.30) an element in a system whose mechanisms it reveals without altering them. Modern science, according to Morin, was now trying to integrate the nonreproducible events, that is, to account for breakdowns and discontinuities. Le Roy Ladurie (1972, 83) argued along the same lines in his contribution to that same issue of Communications, arguing that the New History, after focusing for years on repeated events, was now ready to deal with singular, nonreproducible occurrences. He saw an early realization of this trend in Paul Bois’s Paysans de l’ouest (Peasants from western France) (1960), where the major characteristics of the culture of western France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were traced back to a decisive moment: the Revolution and the trauma it caused in that region.

The pattern Le Roy Ladurie identified in 1972 has never really materialized. Deciding whether an event should be viewed as reproducible or nonreproducible is a matter of perspective: depending on the vantage point, the same event can be counted as an element in a system or as a disturbance leading to that system’s restructuring. French historians have generally chosen to make the events they treat members of the first category. True, they do not deny that these events might be unusual and even disturbing. The battle of Bouvines took place—against the religious interdictions in force at the time—on a Sunday, and Duby acknowledges that it can be regarded as one of the first manifestations of “France” as a nation. Similarly, Branche does not dispute that the ambush in Palestro might have functioned as a foundational event, since it made France aware of the war and then became a symbol of it. Still, Duby and Branche choose to consider these events “reproducible,” that is, to hold them as representative rather than as system changing. Le Goff’s Saint Louis displays similar choices in the area of biography. Without questioning the importance of Saint Louis as a historical figure, Le Goff chiefly looks at the king’s reign as a component in a system: monarchy in the France of the Middle Ages. Dumoulin’s Marc Bloch falls under a different logic. The point of his book is no longer to ask whether the central figure is unique or exemplary, but to question the assumption of homogeneity that underlies that very distinction as well as biography as a discursive genre. The stake here is no longer, as it was for Le Goff, to adjust biography to the Annales’ standards, but to practice it while taking into account the critiques it has undergone: for instance, Pierre Bourdieu’s (1994, 81–82) rejection of the “presuppositions” according to which a life forms a “coherent and positioned whole” that unfolds “like a story, in a chronological order that is also a logical order, from its beginning … to its end, which is also a goal, an achievement (telos).” Bloch, for Dumoulin, is therefore neither a unique individual whose professional (p.31) journey could be traced as Berstein traces Blum’s and Herriot’s, nor a prototypical character who stands for “historian in the twentieth century,” as Saint Louis stands for “monarch in the Middle Ages.” Dumoulin, as well as the authors who have published in the series Références/Facettes, denies that an individual could illustrate either model in a consistent manner. This leads them, in order to depict the person they are studying, to adopt the scattered, nonnarrative type of organization I have analyzed above.

Synchronic Cross Sections

If linear narrative has not disappeared from contemporary French historiography, contrary to what was for a time the Annales’ wish, it nevertheless must compete today with several other models of textual organization. These models can be distributed into four main categories.

Anthropological Descriptions

Manuals such as La Nouvelle Histoire, Dictionnaire des sciences historiques, and Les mots de l’historien usually define “historical anthropology” in terms of content as the study of “human groups in the past,” whether small communities (Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou), specific estates (Odile Arnold’s Le corps et l’âme [Body and soul], an examination of nuns’ lives in the nineteenth century), or whole social classes (Goubert’s La vie quotidienne des paysans français au XVIIe siècle [French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century]). Yet these manuals do not ask how the works that fall under the label historical anthropology are organized, and thus they fail to note that most are not narratives but descriptions: if they proceed, like all texts, from point A to point Z, the successive stations are not temporal but spatial or thematic. In other words, to return to Phelan’s definition of narrative, they do not “tell someone that something happened”; they depict “what things were like” for a specific group during a specific period.

Linguists Charlotte Linde and William Labov (1975), in their analysis of the way tenants describe their apartments in New York City, distinguish between the “map” and the “tour.” To draw a map, tenants would explain, “Next to the living room there is the bedroom.” To chart a tour, they would say, “To go to the bedroom, you cross the living room and then make a right.” Linde and Labov seek to account for the operations of ordinary spoken language. Still, their distinction matches one often made in poetics, notably by Philippe Hamon (1981, 186–87), between descriptions that are not focalized with (p.32) precision and remain static (e.g., the family boardinghouse in Balzac’s Le père Goriot) and those that are focalized through a character whose line of vision they follow in approximate manner (Rouen in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). The informants in Linde and Labov’s study favor the tour over the map, and novelists rely on both models depending on their needs or their membership in a particular literary school. In the human sciences, however, the rule is to use the map, seemingly because it looks more scientific, less dependent on the researcher as a subject with biases and prejudices. Anthropologists, for example, rarely report their observations in the order they made them while exploring an exotic territory. As Mondher Kilani (1995, 76) has shown, they write up their materials in accordance with a grid that has become standardized, at least in monographs: they go “from the periphery to the center, from the visual to the less visual, from the objective to the subjective, from the material conditions of a culture to its expressions of meaning.”

Historians proceed along similar lines when they study a group, although—since this group can no longer be observed directly—they rely on documents they have studied rather than on information gathered in the field. Thus Le Roy Ladurie’s celebrated Montaillou is organized not on the model of narrative, as critics like Stone (1979) and even Chartier (1998, 246) think, but on that of classic anthropological studies like Edward Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (1968; originally published in 1940). To be sure, the outlines of the two works are not exactly the same, and Le Roy Ladurie’s conceptual apparatus is that of a researcher in the late twentieth century. Whereas Evans-Pritchard divides his book into six chapters of roughly even length, Le Roy Ladurie groups his twenty-eight chapters into two asymmetrical sections, which he labels “Ecology” (in the literal meaning that is also Evans-Pritchard’s) and “Archaeology” (in the metaphorical meaning of an inquiry that peels off the successive layers of a culture). Still, the order in which domains are taken up is about the same in both studies: “Ecology,” in Montaillou, covers relations to the environment, work, and modes of livelihood (as do chapters 1–2 in The Nuer), while “Archaeology” deals with gestures, marriage, sex life, and beliefs (as do chapters 3–6 in Evans-Pritchard). Another example of historical anthropology organized as a “map” is Michel Vovelle’s De la cave au grenier (From the cellar to the attic) (1980). Looking at people in Provence in the eighteenth century, Vovelle goes metaphorically from the cellar to the attic. That is, he examines successively those people’s relations to the environment, social life, culture, and behaviors. As Le Roy Ladurie does, Vovelle thus moves from the outside to the inside. Only the evidence and the (p.33) methods he uses are different, since he does not rely on a single document as Le Roy Ladurie does but draws on several sources and employs quantitative procedures to account for how the inhabitants of Provence “thought” at the time about subjects such as food, family, and death.

Though not used as frequently as maps, tours are not absent from contemporary French historiography. Here one must account for an well-known precedent: the “tableau” that opens book 3 in Michelet’s Histoire de France (1833-67), which he draws by taking fellow travelers with him on a journey through the country, first climbing one of the eastern mountains to take an overview, then moving from north to west to south to observe different regions, and finally ending the trip at the country’s “true center”: Paris and its surroundings.2 The first chapter in Pierre Goubert’s La vie quotidienne des paysans français au XVIIe siècle constitutes an interesting variation on Mic helet’s “tableau.” Like his predecessor, Goubert (1982, 19) begins with an aerial view of France, which he updates by placing a “rural historian” and his companions in an aircraft that can go up and down, providing both crane shots and close-ups. Goubert’s path is also Michelet’s, except that it ends not in Paris but in the south, a destination that conforms with the Annales’ agenda, here with the decision to move the spotlight away from the capital to the rural provinces that constituted most of France’s territory at the time. After their initial flight, Goubert and his fellow travelers take a few more trips to “go see,” for instance, “extended families” (104), farmers “with large properties” (153), and “ménagers,” the wealthy bourgeois who own land but do not work on it (160). These journeys, however, are not frequent enough to make the text into a tour. The overall design of Goubert’s account remains that of an anthropological description going from the outside to the inside, following the familiar route “environment-housing-family-food-work-political life.” Unlike Le Roy Ladurie and Vovelle, however, Goubert does move from the “cellar” to the “attic,” from the examination of material life to that of ways of thinking. Scorning the concern that some of his colleagues in the 1970s were showing for “attitudes” and “mentalities,” he argues that the evidence available does not allow for reconstructing how peasants in the seventeenth century “felt” about subjects such as death, festivals, and premarital sex. Parish registers, according to him, provide statistical information about “naked and dirty death” (1982, 311), but they do not tell whether locating the cemetery in the middle of the village should be interpreted as a sign of “human warmth” or of “indifference” (313): those are “customs we no longer understand” and about which “the disarmed historian must remain silent” (313). Goubert ends his book with this barb, probably directed at fellow historians who were (p.34) investigating death at the time, beginning of course with Ariès (1975, 1977) and Vovelle (1973). But the remark is emblematic of the polemics that in the 1970s opposed the Annalistes (e.g., Goubert, Braudel), for whom inquiries should remain restricted to ecology, demography, and economics, to those (e.g., Duby, Le Goff, Vovelle, Le Roy Ladurie) who deemed it legitimate to investigate the mental attitudes that underlay past behaviors.


Borrowed from Antoine Prost (2010, 41), “tableau” designates a comprehensive account of the social, economic, and political structures of a specific area during a specific period. Tableaux are close to anthropological descriptions because they are synchronic, but they do not dispose their data from the periphery to the center as Le Roy Ladurie and Vovelle do in their studies of Montaillou and Provence. The Annales school produced several tableaux in the 1960s, following two models that differ both in their scope and in the way they organize their materials.

The first one is the Braudelian model. The theory of the three time spans that Braudel expounded in the preface to La Méditerranée received an immediate application: the book is divided into three parts, devoted to the very long term (“The Role of the Environment”), the long term (“Collective Destinies and General Trends”), and finally to the short term (“Events, Politics, and People”). Yet these successive approaches concern the same period: the sixteenth century, which Braudel proposes to rebaptize “the time of Philippe II.” Taken as a whole, therefore, La Méditerranée is not a narrative, even though Ricoeur (1983, 300), as we have seen, contends that the work includes a “virtual quasi-plot,” that of the Mediterranean’s decline as an actor on the world’s economic stage. Ricoeur, for that matter, acknowledges in the same passage that Braudel “proceeds analytically” and that the “quasi-plot” he has identified is an underlying one.

Braudel’s project of undertaking a long-term history on a global scale has hardly been pursued by other historians, and his ternary model of textual organization has hardly been adopted either. The lengthy dissertations in social and economic history undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s, often under the direction of Ernest Labrousse, are focused on the more confined space of the province or the region, and they generally include two main parts rather than three.3 The first part is devoted to analysis of the “structures,” of the elements that remain constant throughout the period the historian has elected to investigate; the second examines the “conjunctures,” the variables that characterize (p.35) that same period. Using the vocabulary of poetics, one could define this new model as including a description, which accounts for the structures, and then a series of parallel narratives, which account for the conjunctures. Goubert’s Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730 (1982) offers a scrupulous illustration of this type of disposition, being divided into two parts titled precisely “structures” and “conjunctures.” The first one depicts the main features of the area: the setting, the demography, the rural culture of the Beauvaisis, and the urban culture of Beauvais. As for the second part, it tells stories whose actors are not people but rather Ricoeur’s “quasi-characters”: prices, incomes, salaries, and industrial production, whose “movements” and “fluctuations” constitute what literary theorists (e.g., Cohn 1999, 96) call simultaneous narrative.” Le Roy Ladurie’s Les paysans de Languedoc is more complex, including not two but five parts and devoting some space to Braudel’s “very long time.” Still, the basic design of the work is the binary model: part 1 describes the structures of Languedoc (climate, resources, demography), while parts 2–4 treat conjunctures, in this instance the social struggles and the economic changes the province underwent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This second subdivision also reports events that occurred in Braudel’s “short time,” beginning with the uprising in Romans to which Le Roy Ladurie would later devote a whole book.

The ternary and binary models of the tableau were generally abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s, together with the comprehensive studies bearing on the demography, economy, and social structures of a specific area like Beauvais or Languedoc. The tableau, however, has not completely disappeared from French historiography. Its format seems to suit some new endeavors, in particular the works that, while questioning Western chronologies and geographic divisions, seek to do a “global” or “connected” history (Bertrand 2010). An anthology edited by Patrick Boucheron, Histoire du monde au XVe siècle, is thus divided into four parts. The first one, “The Territories of the World,” draws the political map of the period, decentering Europe in order to take stock of the regimes that were in place in Central and Southeast Asia, Africa, China, India, Japan, and pre-Columbian America. The second, “The Time of the Worlds,” offers a “chronicle” of the fifteenth century, listing events in the West from the great religious schism to the crowning of Charles V, Tumu’s defeat in China, and the death of the Sultan Mehmed II. The third, “The Writings of the World,” describes the “library” of the fifteenth century, whether the Mexican codices burned by Itzalcoatl, Afanasij Nikitine’s Voyage au-delà des trois mers (Travel beyond the three seas), or Christopher Columbus’s Diary. As for the fourth, “The Turns of the World,” it takes up the “workshops” (p.36) of the fifteenth century, such subjects as the revolution of linguistic cultures, court society, and Roman universalism. Boucheron’s anthology thus constitutes a synchronic overview of the “world” at a specific time, an overview that includes “structures” and “conjunctures,” even though the order of their presentation is no longer the one found in the works of Ernest Labrousse’s students. As for the fact that Boucheron’s survey is global rather than regional and covers parts of the world often neglected in French historiography, it pertains to the constitution of this particular tableau, that is, to the choice of its components, not to its textual organization.4


“Tableau” provides an appropriate metaphor for the way data are arranged in studies bearing on entities such as “the Mediterranean,” “the Beauvaisis,” and “the world” considered at a specific moment in history. That same term, however, is unsuitable when those entities are abstract, or at least no longer have a spatial component. For such cases I use “analysis” in the etymological sense: a “carving up” of the diverse elements that make up a whole, a separation that is conceptual, and not temporal as it is in a narrative, or spatial as it is in a tableau. Analysis is frequently used in contemporary French historiography, even in domains that are generally associated with narrative, like military history and political history. A specialist in World War I, Annette Becker shows in Les oubliés de la Grande Guerre (The forgotten ones of the Great War) (2003 [1998]) that a study of this period does not necessarily involve a review of military operations or the use of narrative. Divided into three parts, Becker’s book deals first with the hardships of civilians and prisoners, then with the interventions of organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and finally with the limits and failures of humanitarian work. As this outline attests, Becker does not dispose the facts she has selected according to the order of their occurrence. She treats them by category, going, for instance, from the civilians to the soldiers when she takes up the subject of hardship but from the soldiers to the civilians when she examines the measures taken by the Red Cross. Becker therefore does not draw a tableau; singling out the entity “the forgotten ones of World War I,” she identifies the different groups that make it up, then endeavors to describe them in their specificity. Gérard Noiriel proceeds the same way in a book of political history, Les origines républicaines de Vichy (1999). Turning to Bloch’s “regressive method,” he starts with a review of the discriminatory measures Vichy took in 1940 and 1941, then goes back to the discussions about “nationality” that took (p.37) place under the Third Republic, to the “files” that same republic had constituted, and finally to the debates about “race,” “ethnicity,” and “national character” that had divided scholars and legal experts well before the “statutes on the Jews” were elaborated. Put back-to-back, however, the questions Noiriel addresses do not constitute a narrative that would move backward in linear fashion as some experimental novels and films do. The book’s structure remains an analysis, in which units are connected not temporally, but topically.

Used in political and military history, analysis is also frequently employed in cultural history, that is, to provide a basic definition of this fast-expanding field in the study of both upper-class and lower-class practices and representations. From Le miasme et la jonquille (The Foul and the Fragrant) (1986) to L’harmonie des plaisirs (The harmony of pleasures) (2008), Alain Corbin’s work on “sensitiveness” is typical of the way cultural historians organize their materials along thematic lines, marking out a period, selecting a topic, and distinguishing diverse aspects of it. L’harmonie des plaisirs, for example, deals with treatises about “ways of coming to orgasm” published from the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, before the invention of “sexuality.” Corbin divides these texts into three categories, depending on whether they were written by physicians, theologians, or pornographers. Sylvie Lindeperg disposes her data in similar fashion in Clio de 5 à 7 (2000), her study of the newsreels shown in French movie theaters immediately after World War II. In the first part of her work, she examines the role of the press groups that produced these newsreels, as well as the way the “Liberation” event was depicted. In the second part she treats successively the way General de Gaulle’s various appearances were staged, the return of the people who had been deported, and the trials of the “Epuration”—the “cleansing” of the politicians, journalists, and soldiers who had collaborated with the Germans. Though decidedly distinct in their subjects and the evidence they draw on, these two studies have in common tackling issues of representation in a way that is nonnarrative. Indeed, they do not arrange their data on a diachronic axis but make them into elements of a whole whose structure they set out to describe.

Next to the tableau, analysis is also one of the preferred modes of organization in “global” and “connected” histories. Centered not on a period but on a social, economic, and demographic phenomenon, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau’s Les traites négrières: Essai d’histoire globale (The slave trade: An essay in global history) (2004) treats the slave trade as a topic whose different aspects must be broken down. True, in the first part of his book Pétré-Grenouilleau describes the “growth and evolution” of the trade, then in the second part he takes up the “process of abolition.” Yet the arrangement of the (p.38) data in these two parts is comparative rather than narrative, the historian distinguishing between “Western” and “Eastern” ways of acquiring slaves, then between different “models” of abolition. Devoted to the demographic and economic aspects of the trade, the third part similarly eliminates narrative in favor of a thematic approach that considers the “profitability” of the trade and then its role in the history of Africa and the Muslim world. Romain Bertrand’s L’histoire à parts égales (History in equal shares) (2011), the study not of a worldwide phenomenon but of an encounter between European and Javanese cultures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, also falls under the heading of analysis. As its title indicates, Bertrand’s work does not, or does not only, trace a specific aspect of European expansion. Seeking to account for the nature of the “connections” that got established at the time between the newcomers and native cultures, Bertrand handles “in equal shares” Western archives and vernacular documents. He alternates points of view, asking, among other things, how “connected” cultures weighed merchandise, what money they used to buy products, how they evaluated distances and located countries, the nature of their commercial ethics, whether their encounter had a religious character, and what conception they had of the state. Insofar as he attempts to do a “symmetrical” history, Bertrand also “crosses” value judgments, showing how the Javanese elite, in love with decorum, looked at the Europeans they had met not as explorers worthy of admiration, but as ill-mannered merchants.

Finally, analysis is often used in microhistories, histories whose scale is not the world but a small community and a few individuals. A work often given as an example of an investigation conducted “at ground level,” Paul-André Rosental’s Les sentiers invisibles (The invisible paths) (1999) is characterized both by its use of various scales and by the way it is organized according to the logic of an argument. Striving to reassess on one hand the assumption of an “immemorial entrenchment of the countryside” and on the other the thesis of a “massive rural exodus” in the nineteenth century, Rosental organizes his demonstration in three parts. First he contrasts the “territory” with the “residence,” describing a “local mobility” that differed from sedentary living as well as from far-off migration. Within the spatial frame of the territory, he then defines a “migratory project,” by which he means the opportunity to move that members of a rural community may have had at some point. Finally, he appraises the ways those diverse projects were actualized: how some “family dynamics” triggered the migrations and the itineraries those migrations took at the time. Thus Rosental does not arrange his data in a temporal sequence. The descriptions he supplies of the “territory,” the “migratory project,” and (p.39) the “migratory models” are synchronic, since they refer not to changes in France’s rural society in the nineteenth century, but to some of its lasting features, as a specialist in historical demography was able to reconstruct them based on several samples.


Next to anthropological descriptions, tableaux, and analyses, contemporary French historiography admits a fourth category of nonnarrative texts: metahistories. Under “metahistories,” I count the studies that seek neither to explore new subjects nor to revisit subjects that have already been treated, but to discuss earlier works. Several historiographic studies include a metahistorical component: of the eighteen chapters in Goubert’s La vie quotidienne des paysans français au XVIIe siècle, seven begin with a “wrong” description, which Goubert disqualifies before continuing with the “correct” account. Yet these polemical passages constitute enclaves whose function is to contribute factual data, in this case new information that will replace the information Goubert considers unsound. The studies I call “metahistories,” on the other hand, are entirely devoted to discussions not of the facts properly speaking, but of their interpretations. Their purpose is either to comment on these existing interpretations or to propose new ones, often combining these aims.

Among the numerous works devoted to the French Revolution of 1789, François Furet’s Penser la Révolution française (Interpreting the French Revolution) (1978) stands out as an archetype of metahistory. A specialist of the period, Furet had already dealt with it in La Révolution française (1973), written with Denis Richet, and he was to return to it in the volume La Révolution (1988) of the Histoire de France published by Hachette on the occasion of the Bicentennial. However, whereas these two works take the form of a linear narrative, Penser la Révolution française is an essay that focuses on problems of conceptualization. Part 1 offers a diagnosis: the French Revolution is “over,” by which Furet means it can no longer be taken as a radical break or an absolute beginning. It must be problematized and reconceptualized; that is, theories must be found to situate the event in the long term, account for its heterogeneity (there are an urban revolution and a rural revolution), and explain its singularity (with respect, for instance, to England’s “evolution”). Reviewing some of the existing theories in part 2, Furet proceeds in two steps. First he rejects what he calls the “revolutionary catechism”: the Marxist version of the Revolution as class struggle and bourgeois takeover (Mazauric, Soboul), a version he finds too schematic and reductionist. He then goes on (p.40) to praise the versions of Tocqueville (the Revolution as a continuation of the centralizing tendencies of the monarchy) and Cochin (Jacobinism as the conversion of intellectual power into political power), because they make it possible to “think” the two main aspects of the period: the place of the Revolution in the long time span and the drift toward extremism during the Jacobin episode. The way Furet arranges his data is thus not chronological (he begins with the most recent studies) but rhetorical: as in Goubert, the “wrong” versions must be disposed of before the “correct” ones can be introduced and commented on. That Marxist theories should be the ones occupying the “to be refuted” slot is not irrelevant. It points to the difficult relations between the Annales and Marxism as well as to the personal trajectory of several historians who, like Furet and Le Roy Ladurie, once belonged to the Communist Party but left it to endorse centrist and even rightist positions. The issue of the relations between scholars’ political itinerary and their scientific production is certainly important, and I will return to it when examining the way ideological positions are inscribed not at the macrotextual level of the organization of the argument, but at the microtextual level of enunciation and perspective.

As Furet discusses not the Revolution itself but its interpretations, Pierre Laborie, in Le chagrin et le venin (The sorrow and the venom) (2011), does not investigate the Occupation properly speaking (he did so in L’opinion française sous Vichy [1990] and Les Français des années troubles [The Frenchmen of the years of trouble] [2001]) but addresses cultural productions that deal with the period. By referring in his title to Ophüls and Harris’s documentary film Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), Laborie designates his first target. Indeed, he holds this film responsible for what he calls—turning to more puns—the “ready to think” and the “memorially correct” (11) about the Occupation, especially for the idea that 80 percent of the population had remained indifferent, with 10 percent joining the Resistance and 10 percent becoming collaborators. These figures, according to Laborie, do not account for the diversity of regional situations or for the great number of microevents that shaped people’s attitudes from day to day. Next to Le chagrin et la pitié, Laborie also discusses some of the best-known theses about the Occupation, notably Henry Rousso’s (1990), Robert Paxton’s (1972), and Philippe Burrin’s (1993). Challenging Rousso’s periodization, he argues that at the time of the “consensus” supposedly imposed by Charles de Gaulle, right-wing magazines, novelists opposed to Sartre’s call for engagement, and former collaborators offered an alternative view of Vichy that did not agree with that of de Gaulle and his government. Similarly, debating Paxton, he maintains that the theories of the American historian apply to “state collaboration,” but not to (p.41) the whole nation: the French who did not actively resist were not necessarily Vichy’s supporters. The concepts of “accommodation” and “wait and see” used by Burrin, finally, seem too broad to Laborie: while some Frenchmen were opportunists, others, following orders coming from the Free French government in London, were sincerely waiting for D-Day to take action. As this brief outline shows, Laborie here does not tell a story: he organizes his text according to the logic of an argument, discarding the “wrong” views before introducing the views he thinks better account for the complexity of the Occupation, specifically for the diversity of the acts of both collaboration and resistance that took place during this period.

The works in which historians take up problems of epistemology may also be counted as belonging to the category of metahistories. True, these works are very few. While historians have frequently treated issues of methodology, it is certainly premature to claim, as Noiriel (2005, 127) does, that starting in the 1970s they have taken an “epistemological turn.” When they have debated the cognitive status of their discipline, they have mostly done so with two objectives: first, to defend—against Hayden White—the idea that history is different from fiction and can offer verifiable knowledge, then to support—against some of the advocates of the linguistic turn—the thesis that representations have a referent and do not constitute an autonomous world. Yet these interventions have mostly taken the form of articles in journals or texts written for anthologies. Furet, Sirinelli, Prost, Chartier, Ozouf, Corbin, and Boucheron have contributed to the issues the journal Le Débat has devoted to such subjects as “Inquiétudes et certitudes de l’histoire” (1999) and “Histoire et littérature” (2011), and Jacques Revel has written the chapter “Les sciences historiques” in Épistémologies des sciences sociales, edited in 2001 by Jean-Michel Berthelot. While historians have sometimes published collections of essays and articles (e.g., Pomian 1999; Chartier 1998, 2009; Lepetit 1999; Hartog 2003, 2005), nevertheless they have not written whole studies that would explore the nature of their discipline, leaving this task to philosophers like Aron, Ricoeur, and Rancière.

Besides Henri-Irénée Marrou, De la connaissance historique (Historical knowledge) (1975 [1954]), Paul Veyne’s Comment on écrit l’histoire (1971) etLes Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? (Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?) (1983) are among the few comprehensive studies that French historians have devoted to problems of epistemology. I pointed earlier to the originality of the theses Veyne puts forth in Comment on écrit l’histoire, specifically, to the provocative definition of history (“nothing but a true story”) advanced at a time when the Annales’ antinarrativist position was hardly questioned. Published (p.42) twelve years later, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? constitutes an equally significant addition to the theory of history. Veyne probes various aspects of the Greeks’ system of beliefs, such as the social distribution of those beliefs, the meaning attributed to myths by historians and philosophers, and the use of myths by people in power. His point, however, is not to establish whether the Greeks “really” believed in their myths, since, he snaps, anybody “with the slightest historical education” knows they did (138). By reconstructing the Greeks’ “truth program,” Veyne shows how “discussions about facts” are always held within sets of assumptions that determine what can count as true at a specific time and place. For epistemology, therefore, the importance of Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? lies in the fact that Veyne does not answer yes or no to the question he asks but historicizes and theorizes it. This historicizing, however, does not take the form of a narrative. Even though Veyne (118, 130, and passim) refers several times to his “plot,” he actually organizes his data along topical lines, not temporal ones. His use of “plot,” then, is probably polemical and self-conscious, a continuation of the challenge issued to the Annales in Comment on écrit l’histoire.

Synchronic Cross Sections and Narrative Recuperation

While the texts I have labeled synchronic cross sections do not take the form of a narrative, this does not mean they are devoid of a narrative dimension. Rosental, for example, illustrates his analysis of migrations with brief stories that trace the spatial and professional journeys of people who are explicitly named, if only by pseudonyms. Similarly, Becker reports several anecdotes about the deportations, the situation in prisoner of war camps, the bombing of hospitals, and other topics related to the fate of the “forgotten” of World War I. In both Rosental’s and Becker’s work, however, these narratives remain subordinated to the analysis that frames them. They mostly serve as examples, pointing to events that are not unique but representative, in this instance, of what typically happened during the period the historian is considering. Similarly, the actors in these narratives are often given names because they constitute “cases of,” not because their identity is in itself worth investigating.

Synchronic cross sections also have a narrative dimension in that they could be extended upstream as well as downstream. All the studies I have discussed are carefully situated in time, and their authors frequently characterize the period they are considering in terms of what it modified from the preceding period and what changes the following period would bring. As Prost (2010, 254) has argued, historians can assay the “specificity” of the moment (p.43) they are investigating only with regard to other moments, using explicit or implicit comparisons of a temporal nature. To better explain, in L’harmonie des plaisirs, the singularity of theories about sexual pleasure in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Corbin frequently contrasts them with theories elaborated in the late nineteenth century by sexologists such as Albert Moll, Friedrich Otto Westphal, and Richard von Kraftt-Ebbing. Similarly, Le Roy Ladurie (1975, 467, 574) at times evokes what remains today of Montaillou’s “folklore,” whether it is the “priest’s magical function” or the “praise of poverty,” relying either on the inquiries he himself conducted in the village in 1974 or on other scholars’ work, like Pierre Bourdieu’s study on marriage rules in Béarn. One could thus imagine that Corbin’s and Le Roy Ladurie’s inquiries have sequels, as one could imagine that Goubert’s tableau of Beauvais and Vovelle’s of Provence might well be extended to account for “what things were like” later in these areas. One could also, in the field of cultural history, envisage that Lindeperg’s study of newsreels at the time of the Liberation might be complemented by a study of those same newsreels under the Fourth Republic—up to the moment when the task of delivering this type of report was taken over by television.

Finally, synchronic cross sections may include “quasi plots” similar to the one that Ricoeur (1983, 303) sees as underlying Braudel’s La Méditerranée. Revisited from Ricoeur’s perspective, several of the texts I have characterized as nonnarrative might indeed be viewed as including a virtual plot, a plot that proceeds, following Propp’s model of storytelling (1968) as modified by Greimas and Landowski (1979, 12), from an “initial state of lack” to the “elimination of that lack” performed by a “subject” endowed with special powers. Taken as a narrative, Becker’s study of the Great War would move from a “state of hardship” to a “reduction (if not elimination) of that hardship,” organizations such as the Red Cross playing the part of the “subject” that performs the change. Similarly, Pétré-Grenouilleau’s (2004) work on the slave trade would trace a journey from a state of cruelty and injustice to the modification of that state, in this instance, to the abolition of slavery through a long series of campaigns and interventions. In that they are situated in time, even metahistories could eventually be regarded as involving a narrative dimension. Penser la Révolution française could thus be made into the story of the interpretations of the event Furet considers most significant. To do that, it would suffice to restore the chronological order of the versions of the Revolution the historian analyzes (Tocqueville-Cochin-Soboul-Mazauric), then to review the text on this rebuilt temporal axis, as competent readers do with works of fiction in which the textual and the chronological orders do not coincide. The same operation (p.44) could be performed on Le chagrin et le venin, as the interpretations of the Occupation that Laborie discusses by moving synchronically from topic to topic could be reordered according to their chronology. As for Les Grecs ontils cru à leurs mythes?, it could be regarded as describing one stage in a more comprehensive study that would examine the different “truth programs” that have preceded and followed those of the Greeks.

Are all historiographic texts susceptible to this kind of narrative recuperation? Can they all be either continued or taken as including a virtual, underlying plot? The answer probably resides less in the texts themselves than in readers’ assumptions about the nature of narrative. If we follow Greimas and Landowski (1979, 12), all texts fall under narrative in their “deep structure,” since they remap an itinerary that goes from a “before” to an “after,” even when this itinerary is cognitive and leads from “lack of knowledge” to “knowledge.” For a literary theorist like Thomas Pavel (1986, 5), on the other hand, Greimas and Landowski’s thesis is too “powerful”: in emptying the concept of narrative of any significance as an analytical tool, it generates so many narratives that it becomes “trivial.” From the perspective of poetics, and without endorsing Pavel’s judgment, it is certainly more productive to distinguish the texts that situate their data in time (as do Montaillou, Les sentiers invisibles, and Penser la Révolution française), from the ones that organize those data on a temporal axis (as do La décadence, Intellectuels et passions françaises, and Léon Blum). Only the texts in the second category fall under “narrative,” at least for the poeticians (e.g., Genette, Prince, Phelan) who give an intentionally narrow definition to the term and do not assume, as Greimas and Landowski do, that all texts are in fact narratives in their deep structure.

Stage Narratives

Cross sections, as we have seen that Prost argues, may often be conceived as parts of plots, since they explicitly or implicitly refer to a preceding or subsequent state of the period they treat, with which they could combine to form a complete story. In fact, several classics of contemporary French historiography are made up of precisely such combinations: they slice time up into a certain number of phases, which they successively characterize and piece together to make up a narrative. This narrative is constituted not of events, however, but of situations or stages. I therefore propose to call this type of textual disposition “stage narrative.”

Just like cross section, stage narrative is suited for most domains of historical research. It is one of the preferred modes in cultural history, where (p.45) it serves to show how practices and representations have changed over time spans of diverse lengths. Philippe Ariès’s L’homme devant la mort (The Hour of Our Death) (1977) is a plausible prototype of this kind of narrative for the long time span. The book unfolds in five stages, with each describing a moment in the evolution of attitudes toward death: the “tame death” of antiquity and the High Middle Ages, accepted as a step in a collective destiny; the “death of the self” of the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, conceived as the completion of an individual biography; the “remote and imminent death” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, felt as savage and threatening; the “death of the other” of the nineteenth century, seen as the loss of a beloved one in a family-oriented culture; and the “invisible death” of the late twentieth century, regarded as a repulsive episode that must be concealed and sanitized. In the related area of the history of the body, health, and hygiene, Georges Vigarello’s studies likewise unfold as a series of phases. Le propre et le sale (Concepts of Cleanliness) (1985), for example, distinguishes four moments in the development of techniques of hygiene and the corresponding mental images of water: the “festive water” of the Middle Ages, linked to play and erotic pleasure; the “disquieting water” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which penetrates and weakens; the “strengthening water” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, held as a source of energy; and the “protective water” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose regular use prevents filth and infection. Vigarello turns to a slightly different periodization in Les métamorphoses du gras (Metamorphoses of the Fat) (2010), where he depicts five successive moments corresponding to changing attitudes toward weight: the “medieval glutton,” the “modern fathead,” “the Enlightenment and sensitivity,” the “bourgeois belly,” and “on the way to martyrdom,” the title of this last section probably referring to Henri Béraud’s Le martyre de l’obèse, an elegiac description of overweight people after what Vigarello calls “the revolution of the thin.”

While stage narrative is appropriate for cultural history understood as the account of practices and attitudes whose meanings largely elude the members of the group under consideration, it also suits political and intellectual history, that is, the examination of what Marcel Gauchet (1999, 134) calls “the self-conscious part of the actors’ behavior, the ideas they form about this behavior, and the translations of them that they supply.” Illustrating Gauchet’s program, Pierre Rosanvallon’s trilogy Le sacre du citoyen (The coronation of the citizen), Le peuple introuvable (The people nowhere to be found), and La démocratie inachevée (The uncompleted democracy) dissects the theories that, from the Revolution to the present time, have sought to define more (p.46) precisely concepts such as “citizenship,” “equality,” and “democracy,” as well as the controversies those concepts have brought about and the ways they have been applied. Le sacre du citoyen, for example, is organized into three parts, leading from the “revolutionary moment” (1789–92) to the “repertory of experiments” (1793–1848) to the “time of consolidation” (1848 to today). Adopting a two-step periodization (1789–1871, 1871 to today), Le peuple introuvable and La démocratie inachevée lead respectively from “difficult representation” to “balanced democracy” and from “democracy’s edges” to “average democracy.” Rosanvallon’s divisions are of course more complex, but it would be irrelevant to examine them in detail. From the perspective of the text’s overall disposition, it suffices to observe that Rosanvallon organizes his material by distinguishing a few major phases in the theorizing and then the establishing in France of “democracy,” even though the latter is still “uncompleted.”

A recent domain that stage narrative has provided with a convenient model of textual arrangement is the history of memory. By “memory,” I mean with Philippe Joutard (2010, 783) the “remembrance of events lived by oneself, one’s ancestors, or people in one’s group”; and by “history of memory,” I mean the “study of the evolution of the different social practices … whose purpose is to represent the past and maintain its recollection, either within a specific group or within society as a whole.” I am borrowing this definition from Henry Rousso (1990, 11), whose Le syndrome de Vichy de 1944 à nos jours supplies both a representative example of history of memory and an illustration of the way stage narrative may be used in this area of research. Studying the “expressions” of collective memory (18), Rousso traces the evolution of the memory of Vichy over four phases: the “uncompleted mourning” (1944–54, the aftermath of the civil war and the “purge” of the collaborators); the “repression” (1954–71, Vichy’s marginalization and the imposition of the myth of a “unanimously resisting France”); the “broken mirror” (1971–74, the collapse of the myth and the return of the repressed); and the “obsession” (1974 to today, the awakening of Jewish memory and the increasingly exclusive focus on the reminiscence of the Occupation). Bearing on a similar topic, Laurent Douzou’s La Résistance française: Une histoire périlleuse (2005) researches not the Resistance itself but, as its second subtitle (Essai d’historiographie) indicates, the works that have been dedicated to it. Douzou divides his study into six parts: a “history that cares about its history” (1940–44); a “history that is precociously, actively, and officially under construction” (1944–59); “witnesses [who] speak up and start writing” (1944–74); “Clio at work” (1944–78); “a challenged and renewed historiography” (1978–2002); and “the end of (p.47) heroes?,” this last chapter showing how the renewal described in the preceding chapter coincides with an erosion of the memory of the Resistance. The originality of Douzou’s narrative resides in its decoupling the time of historiographic research from the time of memory, a decoupling that is important from an epistemological standpoint. Indeed, it allows the study to escape a criticism often leveled at cultural history but that could also be leveled at stage narrative: that of considering the periods under consideration to be homogeneous, more precisely, as Chartier (2000a, 884) has it, of “locking in an artificial coherence the plurality of the systems of belief and modes of reasoning that in fact coincide within the same culture, the same community, the same individual.”5

Stage narrative, finally, is a model frequently used in women’s history, where it depicts the roles women have played and the activities they have carried out in the successive states of a given society, as well as that society’s stand toward them. Yvonne Knibielher and Catherine Fouquet’s Histoire des mères du Moyen-Âge à nos jours (1982) thus distributes attitudes toward motherhood into three main phases: the “time of silence” (Middle Ages to eighteenth century), when motherhood was seldom written about; the “time of exaltation” (eighteenth to late nineteenth century), when it was celebrated; and the “time of questions” (late nineteenth century to today), when several of its aspects (e.g., maternal instinct, freedom of choice) have become subjects of debate. Christine Bard’s Une histoire politique du pantalon (A political history of trousers) (2010) marks the shift from women’s history to gender history, that is, in Delacroix’s (2007b, 613) definition, to a study of the “relations between the sexes that articulates practices and representations and raises the issue of power.” Starting from men’s adoption of trousers in the years that followed the Revolution, Bard distinguishes four steps in this garment’s “politics,” that is, in the legal and aesthetic conflicts related to knowing who can wear what, and when: the “trousers’ utopia” in the nineteenth century, after a decree from 1800 prohibited women from dressing like men; the relaxing of this measure and the “reform of clothing” around 1900; the “resistible ascension” of trousers from 1914 to 1960; and the “recognition of women’s trousers” in the 1960s. Like Douzou’s, the originality of Bard’s work lies in the fact that she does not take her categories to be stable and unified: in the nineteenth century, strong personalities like George Sand and Rosa Bonheur defied the interdiction; in the 1900s, Colette and the multiple sports champion Violette Morris went even further than permitted by the relaxing of the rules; and in the 1970s, the political milieu still had trouble admitting women’s trousers. (p.48) Alice Saunier-Séïté, the first woman minister to wear this garment, raised Jacques Chirac’s wrath, the president making it known to the “rebel” that she degraded “the function and the image of France” (Bard 2010a, 364).

Although stage narratives differ widely in their topics, they also have several features in common. For one thing, they faithfully observe chronology, at least in presenting the main phases. If we designate textual order with A, B, C … Z and chronological order with 1, 2, 3 … n, the basic model of stage narrative comes in the form A1, B2, C3 … Zn. For all its simplicity, this model is no more “normal” or “natural” than the patterns outside-inside and structures-conjunctures that govern anthropological descriptions and tableaux. Its conventional nature is especially obvious in studies whose last stage is “today,” since such studies clearly invert the order of the historian’s investigation. Ariès analyzes this phenomenon lucidly in his preface to Essais sur l’histoire de la mort en Occident du Moyen-Âge à nos jours (1975). Acknowledging that his inquiry was triggered by some observations of current attitudes toward death, he explains that he moved backward until he hit a “cultural border” (15). Ariès’s text, however, does not follow these “backward” motions. It begins with an analysis of the “border period” of antiquity and ends with an account of recent views of death, restoring chronological order, as do most of the stage narratives I have considered.

Aside from raising the issue of the relations between textual and chronological progressions, stage narratives also have in common posing several problems that are of interest to both poetics and epistemology. Dividing time into phases, to begin with, is subject to rhetorical exigencies of size and proportion. Data, however numerous and diverse, must fit into a number of categories that is neither too high nor too low for prevailing discursive standards. Too low: there is no such thing as a one-stage narrative, although, as we have seen, tableaux and anthropological descriptions may be regarded as forming one phase in a virtual plot. Too high: the nine-stage narrative that Laurent Avezou proposes in Raconter la France (To recount France) (2008), a study of histories of France from “the invention of Gaul” to the current “collision of memories,” probably constitutes a ceiling from a rhetorical standpoint. Aware of the unusual character of this segmentation, Avezou explains why he refused to “reduce these nine sequences to three” (9). Such a simplification, he argues, would have been convenient, since it would have offered “the illusory comfort of the three-part development.” But one of the book’s purposes was to move away from accepted periodizations, a move that allowed Avezou to make up divisions that were not chronologically homogeneous, including at times “temporal exchanges.” Joan of Arc, for example, appears not in the (p.49) section on the fifteenth century but in those devoted to the two periods that were especially concerned with this personage—the seventeenth century and the Third Republic. Most of Avezou’s colleagues, however, have no scruples about organizing their narratives in three or four stages, a formula that seems to satisfy the sometimes conflicting demands of completeness and readability. It would be pointless to assign a specific meaning to this type of disposition, using, for example, one of the many “numbers keys.” Yet one might ask whether division into three or four parts, in addition to bringing the “illusory comfort” denounced by Avezou, also has ideological implications. In his extended review of La Méditerranée, Jack Hexter (1979, 137) has contended that Braudel’s ternary partition of time might be the “residue” of a “mentalité once Christian,” and this point is important for contemporary history in general and women’s history in particular. Deconstructionist critics have sometimes argued that the theses expounded in a text and the rhetoric used to convey them are necessarily in conflict, the latter eroding the former to an extent that it is precisely criticism’s task to determine. Without endorsing deconstructionist assumptions, it would certainly be useful to establish whether the number three is always as inexorably linked with patriarchal order as it is in Christian and feudal doctrines. If it is, one could then wonder about the ideological status of works such as Knibielher and Fouquet’s Histoire des mères, which show the negative effects those doctrines had at some point on a part of society, while themselves relying on ternary models to organize their data.

Similar issues arise when we consider the periodizations involved in stage narratives. Most often, historians adopt well-acknowledged temporal divisions: the century, to be sure, but also such preset compartments as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and romanticism, compartments that turn up in several multivolume “histories of …,” like Histoire de la France rurale, Histoire de la vie privée, Histoire du corps, and Histoire de la virilité. The same remark applies to the Histoire des femmes en Occident edited by Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, whose contributors supply new, thought-provoking information but then distribute it into categories whose legitimacy they do not seem to question. True, specialists in women’s history are keenly aware of the problems involved in periodization, for instance, of the possibility of separate masculine and feminine chronologies. Knibielher (1984, 53) addresses this issue directly in her essay “Chronologie et histoire des femmes” (Chronology and women’s history) (1984), stressing that throughout Western history women have been “late” when it comes to emancipation, “early” when it comes to repression. While this distinction is occasionally taken up in Histoire des mères and Histoire des femmes en Occident, the analyses conducted (p.50) in those studies lead neither to new periodizations nor to the identification of phases that would be different from those in “men’s history.” The ideological consequences of this respect for established temporal divisions are far from obvious. Yet it is certainly fair to ask, as Joan Wallach Scott (1988, 19) does, whether the adoption of “received historical categories” has implications for women’s and gender history; specifically, whether to speak, say, of a “Renaissance” places women’s time under men’s time (Was there a Renaissance for women?), and whether it is possible to draw women’s chronologies that do something more than differ from men’s chronologies taken implicitly as points of reference.6

So far I have used poetics to install and then further describe the category “stage narrative,” but stage narrative can also contribute to poetics. For one thing it enables poeticians to answer a question often asked in narrative theory: Must a story necessarily include events, or can it be made of successive situations? Testifying to these hesitations, Prince (1982, 4) first defined narrative as the “representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence,” then (2003, 58) called it the “representation of one or several real or imaginary events,” and most recently (2012, 24–25)—the definition I have adopted—described it as the “logically consistent representation of at least two asynchronous events, or of a state and an event, that do not presuppose or imply each other.”7 Offering an implicit rejoinder to this problem in narrative theory, such works as Le propre et le sale, Le sacre du citoyen, and Histoire politique du pantalon show that texts made up of situations (or “states”) may in fact be regarded as narratives. Indeed, the relations they establish between the successive situations they describe are temporal, not spatial or thematic. As for the relations between situations and events, stage narratives show that changes do not necessarily originate in single, easily identifiable events. They may also arise from sets of events, grouped in such categories as “trend,” “slowdown,” “takeoff,” and “disappearance.” One consequence of this grouping is that stage narratives often lack “narrativity” (Prince 2003, 65) and what Monika Fludernik (2013, 133) calls “experientiality”: they do not offer intense conflicts, sudden turns, or unexpected endings, and they rarely evoke the real-life experiences of individual human beings. But they still must be regarded as narratives, since they include what narratologists hold to be the most distinctive feature of the genre: the modification, on a temporal axis, of a state A into a state Z.

Stage narratives make another contribution to poetics in that they sharpen the distinction between fictional and historiographic discourses. Just as the two genres differ at the paratextual and emplotment levels, they also stand (p.51) apart at the macrotextual level of “disposition.” Whereas fictional texts are closed, historiographic texts, as we have seen Prost argue, are open and may in most cases be continued. Of course fictional narratives may be continued too: Genette (1982) provides in Palimpsestes several examples of sequels authors have written for their own works (e.g., Dumas’s Vingt ans après) or for someone else’s works (e.g., Virgil’s Aeneid). Yet these continuations originate only in their authors’ imaginations; they do not exist because the characters staged in these texts have lived a life independent of the authors’ or because the world has evolved. The epistemological status of historiographic discourse is clearly different, since any change in the world may require a parallel change in the text itself. This situation is especially obvious in the stage narratives whose last stage is “today.” In the preface to the new edition of La gangrène et l’oubli (Gangrene and forgetfulness) (1998), Benjamin Stora acknowledges that the last part of his book: “1982–1991: Imaginary Revenges,” should be supplemented because of changes that occurred between 1991 and 1998, especially because of the internal conflicts that took place in Algeria during this period and the increase in scholarly works about the war. It would be conceivable, therefore, that Stora add a chapter to the next edition of La gangrène et l’oubli, as it would be conceivable that Rousso, in a new edition of Le syndrome de Vichy, add to his analyses a stage that accounts for France’s current concern with the period of the Occupation.8

Theory of a Practice

As the preceding inventory should attest, the textual models that contemporary French historians prefer are tableau, analysis, and stage narrative. Since two of these models are nonnarrative, we cannot but observe that in this respect the historians’ practice does not agree with their theories, at least in the organization of the data. When the Annales were prevailing, this contradiction resided in the fact that people in power, such as Braudel and Furet, condemned narrative while at times resorting to it. Today’s historians display the same inconsistency, but the pattern is inverted. Endorsing Ricoeur’s views, they tend to claim that all historiographic texts fall under narrative, whereas they themselves hardly turn to storytelling in their studies.

This discrepancy between theory and practice is particularly noticeable in the works of historians who, like Chartier and Hartog, have actively participated in the “squabbles” I described earlier. Chartier’s Les origines culturelles de la Révolution française (2000b), for example, does not trace the itinerary that would lead from specific cultural facts to the explosion of 1789. Organized (p.52) as an analysis, the book examines on a thematic axis the “conditions” that made the Revolution possible, even though those conditions do not fully explain the “emergence” or the “dynamics” of the event (2000b, 291). The studies Chartier has devoted to reading are arranged in the same way. Admittedly, he states in the prologue to Lectures et lecteurs dans la France d’Ancien Régime (1987, 7) that the book has become progressively more “coherent,” each new study “making it necessary to better define the concepts used earlier, to rethink what had wrongly been regarded as final, to launch new research.” Chartier, however, accounts here for his intellectual journey but not for the structure of Lectures et lecteurs, whose successive chapters do not develop a plot, even a virtual one. The only book by Chartier that includes a narrative component is Cardenio entre Cervantès et Shakespeare: Histoire d’une pièce perdue (Cardenio between Cervantes and Shakespeare: The Story of a Lost Play) (2011). Indeed, Chartier here tells a story: that of the disappearance and then reissue of a play first staged at the British court in the winter of 1612–13, inspired by a few episodes in Don Quixote that Shakespeare might have written, at least in part. Chartier recounts the performances that took place in England, Spain, and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then moves quickly to the “Cardenio fever” that swept through England and the United States in the 2000s, leading to several “reconstructions” of the play of 1613.

Le XIXe siècle et l’histoire: Le cas Fustel de Coulanges (2001a) plays the same role in Hartog’s production as Cardenio entre Cervantès et Shakespeare plays in Chartier’s. An intellectual biography of Fustel, the first part of this book is in fact the only text in which Hartog tells a story, that of Fustel’s career (the second part offers a selection of Fustel’s writings). The other books by Hartog that are not collections of articles—Le miroir d’Hérodote (2001b) and Mémoire d’Ulysse—must be viewed as analyses. Le miroir d’Hérodote first considers the way “the other,” namely the Scythians, are represented in the Histories, then looks closely at the textual strategies the historian uses in his descriptions. Made up of seven chapters, Mémoire d’Ulysse inventories the narratives the Greeks have written about their travels, the historian’s aims being the same as in Le miroir d’Hérodote. The point, for Hartog (1996, 21) is consistently to “provide a meaning” to the journeys the Greeks had taken, to explore the ways the “border men” whose treks he reports assign a place to the “other,” “even when they speak [Greek] on their behalf.”

Similar remarks can be made about Veyne, who, as we have seen, had dared to write in Comment on écrit l’histoire (1971, 16) that history was “nothing but a truthful story.” Anticipating Ricoeur, he had also stressed the importance of (p.53) the plot, which he defined as a “very human and hardly scientific mixture of material causes, goals, and accidents” (46). Veyne’s properly historiographic works, however, are at odds with his epistemological essays, since they do not deploy any plot. Le pain et le cirque (Bread and Circuses) (1976), for example, follows the model of the analysis. Veyne discusses evergetism—the donations the ruling classes made to the community—a gesture that played an important part in the classical period. He identifies different types of evergetism in Greece and Rome, though without tracing the route from one type to the other; the structure of Le pain et le cirque is a taxonomy. Similarly, Veyne does not, in L’élégie érotique romaine (2003), remap the evolution of this poetic form; he describes its stylistic features and investigates its social origins. As for Sénèque: Une introduction (2007), it is not a biography that would cover the career of this politician, writer, and philosopher. Veyne gives some brief biographical information in a prologue and an epilogue, but most of the book is devoted to Seneca as a stoic, accounting for philosophical positions that do not have a narrative component. Rather than speaking of a biography, one should speak here of a portrait, a “flat,” synchronic description of a character, not of the story of that character’s life.

To blame Chartier, Hartog, and Veyne for the occasional discrepancies between their theory and their practice is of course inappropriate. To begin with, these contradictions could be identified only by using a specific definition of “narrative,” a definition that is formalist and comes from narratologists like Prince and Phelan. Chartier and Hartog do not propose any definition of this term, and Veyne’s definition of plot as a “mixture of material causes, goals, and accidents” refers to content, not to formal features. How, then, could these historians state that historiographic discourse always falls under storytelling? Taking “narrative” for granted, do they think it would be useless to specify the term’s meaning? And in this case, what implicit definitions do they employ when they claim that histories inescapably belong to storytelling?

At least two explanations may account for this incongruity. The first is that Chartier, Hartog, and Veyne buy into Ricoeur’s thesis that histories, even when they do not explicitly take the form of narratives, nevertheless are part of an underlying plot. On this point they would join with Prost’s view of tableaux as installments in a virtual narrative, a view that, as I argued earlier, can be extended to other synchronic cross sections. But Chartier, Hartog, and Veyne, together with several of their French colleagues, would also join with the British and American theorists who hold that histories always come as stories; for instance with Hayden White (2010, 118), (p.54) for whom Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of Renaissance in Italy, obviously a tableau, is in fact a narrative, although one that is “all middle.”

Another way of making sense of classifying all historiography as “storytelling” is to see in this assignment a consequence of the “narrative turn.” As Martin Kreiswirth (2000, 2005) has shown in the articles he has devoted to this trend, one of the consequences of narrative’s “migration” from literary criticism and the humanities to the social and even the theoretical sciences has been a widening of the term’s definition. Commenting on this phenomenon, Prince (2012, 23) has pointed out that “narrative” may now be substituted for such words as explanation, argumentation, hypothesis, ideology, and message. Kreiswirth and Prince weigh the impact of the narrative turn in English-speaking countries, but a similar development has taken place in France. Some of the contributions to a seminar held in the late 1990s at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, whose proceedings were published as Le modèle et le récit (Grenier, Grignon, and Menger 2001), show that the semantic extension of the term in France has been even more radical. Some of the contributors, beginning with the archaeologist and epistemologist Jean-Claude Gardin (407–8), argue that in the human and the social sciences “narrative” now refers to texts or parts of texts that use “natural language and natural logic.” “Narrative,” then, would not contrast with anthropological description and analysis, as I suggested earlier; it would depart from “model,” that is, from texts or parts of texts that rely on “mathematical language and formal logic.” Although the French historians who now endorse narrativism do not mention this seminar, they may implicitly agree with the all-embracing definition of narrative as “any text or part of a text using natural language and natural logic” that was offered there. This definition is indeed broad, and one might ask whether it is too inclusive. More specifically, one might ask, as we have seen that Pavel does, whether it would be more productive to maintain the distinction between the mythos and the logos, that is, between texts that tell a story and texts that develop a topic or argue a point. The two modes, of course, are in fact often (always?) combined, as titles such as La décadence and Histoire politique du pantalon make plain. Furthermore, as Allan Megill (2007, 97) has shown, historians’ task is not just to find a suitable arrangement for the data they have gathered and to describe “what was the case”; it is also to explain “why it was the case” and to “interpret” that past from a certain perspective and for a certain audience. It is to the close examination of these additional tasks that I will devote my next chapter.


(1.) Besides political history, cultural history, and biography, other domains may of course be treated in the form of a linear narrative. In the field of economic history, Michel Margairaz’s study L’état, les finances et l’économie: Histoire d’une conversion, 1932–1952, which I will return to in chapter 3, constitutes an exemplary realization of this form, the historian using a most (p.198) detailed narrative to trace the evolution of France’s economic policies through three successive regimes.

(2.) For a detailed analysis of this piece, see Kellner 1989.

(3.) “Dissertation” refers here to the thèse d’état that French students had to write at the time in order to receive their doctorates. These thèses had unwritten requirements for length and completeness, resulting in works that had to be published in two or more volumes by specialized presses.

(4.) I won’t take up here the question of knowing to what extent French historians have contributed to “global history.” On this subject see Boucheron (2013, 5), which argues that French historians have not “missed the global turn boosted by American pioneers in the early 1980s”; since the foundation of the Cahiers d’Histoire Mondiale by Lucien Febvre in 1953, they have never “ceased to take into account the world, whether as a scale of understanding or an object of investigation” (7–8). The same topic is covered in the first part of Sirinelli, Cauchy, and Gauvard, Les historiens français à l’oeuvre (2010, 287-300), programmatically titled “French Historians to the Test of Globalization.” I will later discuss other French contributions to global history, such as Romain Bertrand’s L’histoire à parts égales, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau’s Les traites négrières, and (in chapter 3) Serge Gruzinski’s La pensée métisse.

(5.) For critiques of that “coherence” in Vigarello’s work, see for instance Christopher Forth’s (2014, 1341) and Mark Jenner’s (1990, 152) reviews of the English-language versions of Les métamorphoses du gras and Le propre et le sale. Forth blames Vigarello for his “broad generalizations about specific time periods,” and Jenner blames him for his inability to convey “the sense that there may be a variety of competing body images within a particular social system.”

(6.) Issues related to the role of women during the Renaissance were first taken up by Joan Kelly (1984) in her essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”

(7.) Philosopher Michael Lemon (1995, 60) proposes a similar definition when he states that a narrative can be made up of separate “events, states of affairs, or happenings.”

(8.) In his review of Rousso’s book, Vichy specialist Richard Golsan (1993, 370) noted that the work enjoyed “the curious distinction of being both the current definitive work on the ‘after life’ of the Vichy regime in French public life and of already being outdated.” Developments that altered perspectives on events in the 1990s, such as the Touvier, Papon, and Bousquet affairs, showed that the syndrome continued unabated, making it necessary to add a phase, which Golsan (374) names “desperation,” to Rousso’s narrative. Making a different comment on Rousso’s stages, Eugen Weber (1992, 312) observes that “although it helps to divide the story into distinctive parts, the division does not always fit,” the first two phases, for example, being “a bit hard to tell apart.”