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The Old New History

Among those gaps in knowledge to which Francis Bacon draws attention is the absence of any “just story of learning.” What are the antiquities and originals of knowledge? What have been the flourishings, oppositions, decays, depressions, oblivions, removes, “and all other events concerning learning throughout the ages of the world”? History, says Bacon, has not yet concerned itself with these matters, with the rise and fall of what we would call civilizations. Later he speaks of “imperfect” and “perfect” histories. Imperfect are memorials or “naked” accounts of events; imperfect, too, are antiquities, or monuments and other fragments of the past scrupulously collected. There could be, however, a “just and perfect” history, though in defining this he becomes unclear.

The Advancement of Learning was published at the beginning of a new century, in 1605; its author seems unaware that in France in the century just ended there had been a great historiographical movement profoundly concerned with the rise and fall of civilizations throughout the ages of the world, which sought to use every kind of historical discipline in the effort to evolve “l’idée d’une histoire accomplie,” or a new, universal, all-inclusive, “perfect” kind of history.

George Huppert’s book explores the writing of history in sixteenth-century France, a neglected field in the history of historiography. Huppert is not the first to point out this gap, as he acknowledges. There is a chapter on “The French Prelude to Modern Historiography” in J. G. A. Pocock’s book The Ancient Constitutions and the Feudal Law (recently reissued in paperback)* and George Nadel has pointed to the “untilled field” between the overcultivated areas represented by Machiavelli and Voltaire.

The French writers now brought to the notice of historians of history were largely trained jurists, drawn from the influential magistrate class. They represent in France the importance of the legal tradition in the development of interest in history; Andrea Alciati had carried to France from Italy the latest legal-historical techniques. The historians were monarchists, whether Catholic or Huguenot in their religious views; they were interested in theories of monarchy and largely belonged to the liberal, tolerant, “politique” group which sought to override religious differences through loyalty to a liberal conception of monarchy. Huppert argues that the recognition of their work has been delayed because it was suppressed and temporarily forgotten in the rigidity of the reaction against liberalism, called “disorder,” in the repressive and absolutist climate of seventeenth-century France. Yet their writings survived and surreptitiously fed the streams leading to Bayle, Voltaire, and the historiography of enlightenment.

This is a convincing thesis and fits in with what one knows of other aspects of the culture of sixteenth-century France and of other traditions stemming from that wonderful age that were broken and obscured by the religious wars in which the century finally went down in chaos, and still further forgotten in the determination of the new century to obliterate the confusions of the past by imposing a superficial order.

Outstanding among the representatives of the French historical school discussed by Huppert is Estienne Pasquier, whose Recherches de la France, which he began to publish in 1560, was not completed until many years later—a truly monumental life work of erudition. Pasquier insisted on quoting original documents and giving references for his statements; some of his friends felt this as a blemish on the literary elegance of a historical work. But Pasquier belonged to a new and coming school of history, which sought by antiquarian research to reach a more accurate idea of the past than that provided in the rhetorical tradition of history writing.

In his treatment of French history Pasquier made a surprising new departure. He did not begin it with the old legends about the descent of the French kings from the mythical Francus, a Trojan escaped from burning Troy to become the founder of the French royal line. The first in this line was supposed to be Pharamond, a personage as mythical as Francus.

The Recherches was the first treatise on French history which began without any mention of Francus, Pharamond, and their like, and the omission must have caused general astonishment. Pasquier began his history of France with the Gauls, who are not mentioned in the old legends. He went to what he took to be primary sources, the descriptions of the Gauls and their institutions given by Caesar and other classical historians. Caesar found the Gauls in Gaul (not Francus or Pharamond), whose manners and institutions he describes. Pasquier uses Caesar’s history as a primary source which can be relied upon as giving accurate information about the ancestors of the French people. And he rests his French patriotism, not on the legendary descent of French kings from Rome through a nonexistent Trojan ancestor, but on the character and intelligence of the Gauls and the excellence of their institutions as described in the classical sources.

Thus institutional history, the development of French customs or the French Parlement from Gallic roots, becomes important for Pasquier (parallels with later research in England into the Anglo-Saxon origins of Parliament of course come to mind). Pasquier sets the tone for what will be one of the most important aspects of the French school of history writing, its interest in the history of peoples, of cultures and civilizations, of the passage through time of national groups, each with a contribution to make to the history of civilization.

With the formidable figure of Jean Bodin we have a member of the French historical school who has already attracted much attention as an original historical thinker. Bodin’s Methodus, a method for studying history published in 1566, is probably the most important book on historiography of its century. Bodin divides history into three branches, divine, natural, and human, which correspond to three kinds of knowledge, faith, science, and prudence. In the realm of human history, prudence may be acquired by studying the history of different cultures, comparing them with one another in order to find rules of social behavior which are valid in recurring situations.

This may remind one of Machiavelli’s use of history for political guidance, but with the important difference that Bodin, like all this French group, concentrates on peoples, cultures, civilizations, as the stuff of history. He aimed at compiling a universal history with a view to eliciting general principles governing historical change. In his République he sought to establish by a comparative study of laws of all nations a law which should apply universally. He studies history as the behavior of men in groups, thus departing from the normal types of political history. He believed that his method would explain the rise and fall of states.

Louis Le Roy in his De la vicissitude des choses (1575) also treats history as group history and emphasizes the cultural rhythms in history. His De la vicissitude is a history of civilizations, of the rise and fall of learning and sciences, of arts and technologies, as different societies have risen to prominence and declined in the passing of the ages.

He begins his history with Egypt whence, so he believes, all learning, science, and skills had their origin. He then passes through other cultures, noting always the vicissitudes—that a period of advance in knowledge is always succeeded by a relapse into barbarism, light periods alternate with dark periods. Yet each wave of advance carries knowledge a little further and its gains are not entirely lost in the inevitable recession. The present, thinks Le Roy, is an age of advance in which the culture of the ancients has been recovered and technical inventions, printing and the mariner’s compass, have greatly enlarged man’s knowledge and power. Bodin, too, regards the sixteenth century in France as a period of great advance in the history of mankind.

Nicholas Vignier compiled a vast work which he called a Bibliothèque historiale (1588). It is a world history constructed on a rigid and doubtful chronological basis, but Vignier’s originality consists in his collections of references, the “libraries” of source material which he provides, grouped under the dates of his chronology. And he endeavors to assess the reliability of such sources, to provide something like a critically chosen bibliography for the historical student. Vignier was official historiographer to Henri III, and his work is a notable indication of the progress which interest in history and historical methods made toward the end of the century.

La Popelinière’s Histoire des histoires (1599) and its accompanying treatises on L’Idée de l’histoire accomplie and Dessin de l’histoire nouvelle des françois indicate to what extent these historical movements were felt, by those taking part in them, to be essentially new movements, attempting to approach history in new ways and to write history of a new kind, a search for an “Idea of Perfect History.” La Popelinière insists that history must be universal, that it must include all peoples and nations from the most ancient to modern times, and that it must cover not only political events but the history of the culture and learning of the peoples. Universal history may however be broken down into smaller parts which can be studied separately. For example, the history of the French people, their descent from thé Gauls, their culture and institutions are a part of universal history. La Popelinière’s demands for perfect history are so reminiscent of remarks in The Advancement of Learning that one wonders whether Francis Bacon had perhaps after all heard of how French historians were trying to fill the gaps in history which he deplored.

Huppert’s study of these and other works of the period fully justifies the claim that French historiography of the sixteenth century must henceforth have a place in the history of history writing. The large number of books on history published in the period testifies to the interest of the public. Even the disturbed nature of the times helped in allowing freedom of thought. There was no central authority firmly enough established to exercise a censorship on how history should be written, as there was in sixteenth-century England and would be later in France in the seventeenth century. The last Valois king, Henri III, was interested in the new history and encouraged it, according to La Popelinière.

From Huppert’s treatment of the historians as a group, certain general characteristics stand out. The criticism of the Trojan legend in the traditions of French monarchy seems common to all the group, not only those I have already mentioned. The celebrated Franco-Gallia by François Hotman, the Huguenot jurist, is also concerned with substituting critical history of the Gallic origins of the French people for the legendary tales of Francus. Earlier in the century the build-up of the French monarchy as a rising nationalist-imperialist power had laid a new stress on the Trojan descent which linked the French monarchy with imperial Rome and its symbolism. The story of Francus was proclaimed anew in uncritical histories in the time of Francis I, and was used throughout the century, at royal entries and other shows, as part of the normal propaganda for the French monarch.

There was a closely parallel situation in England, where Brut, the legendary Trojan ancestor of the British Tudor royal line, was prominent in the royalist propaganda. In England, too, a critical historian, Polydore Vergil, had undermined Geoffrey of Monmouth and his tale of the Trojan Brut. Yet in both England and France the Trojan legends continued to be used in the propaganda although educated people now knew that they were not literally true. Brut takes his place as an ancestor in Spenser’s glorification of Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene, and Francus is the hero of Ronsard’s La Franciade, an unfinished epic in honor of Charles IX. Ronsard’s preface to La Franciade (1572) explains how it was possible to know and accept the fact that modern criticism had unmasked Trojan ancestors as unsound history while at the same time continuing to use them as propaganda figures. The descent of the French kings from Francus is, says Ronsard, poetically and spiritually true, though it is clear that he does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the literal truth of the legend.

Such subtleties belong naturally to the Renaissance outlook, with its proclivity for seeing varying levels of interpretation in myth, and it is not so surprising as Huppert thinks that Vignier as historiographer to Henri III should criticize the Trojan legend. That subtle monarch would probably have shared the Ronsardian attitude toward Francus.

There was a mythic side to the critical historians’ build-up of the Gauls as the real historical ancestors of the French people, as against the unreality of the Trojan ancestors of French kings. The Cabalist, Guillaume Postel, had propagated, at about the time that the new historical school was growing up, mystical notions about French origins, in which a certain “Gomer Gaulois,” supposed grandson of Noah, was associated with the Gauls, and with the wisdom of the Druids, their religious teachers and the propagators of their excellent laws and institutions. Pasquier dwells at length on the wisdom and sanctity of the Druids in his treatment of Gallic origins in the Recherches; Bodin also has a profound respect for Druidic law, which he calls religious, and he seems more than half to believe in Gomer Gaulois.

Nevertheless, though it had its own mythic elements, the Gallic school of French history developed the view of history as the story of civilizations, their rises and falls, their changing courses. As the Gauls and their institutions developed into the modern French, as exact historical techniques were applied to the examination of this process, as sources were more and more carefully chosen and tested, a kind of French history emerged which La Popelinière at the end of the century rightly hailed as “new.”

The most striking characteristic of the French school is its concern with universal history, with the search for a history which should cover, not only the emergence of modern France from Gaul, but the rises and falls of all the cultures known in the history of man. Though Huppert is much concerned with the future of the French ideas, with their probable influence on later historical schools, he does not ask any question about their origins—why this interest in histories of civilizations throughout the ages of world history should have arisen in France in the sixteenth century.

Huppert has missed perhaps the most revealing and informative of the universal histories of the French historians, the one which can throw light on them all. I mean La Galliade ou la Revolution des Arts et Sciences by Guy Lefèvre de la Boderie, published in 1578. Perhaps Huppert missed this because it is in the form of a long epic poem and he may think that all history should be in prose. But La Galliade is absolutely central to his theme.

The hero of the epic is Gomer Gaulois, and La Boderie’s use of this hero takes the form of a universal history running through all civilizations. Art, letters, light, and learning, stemming originally from Gomer, the Gauls, and their teachers the Druids, take a course through world history, having manifestations in all the great civilizations, to return at last to France, their original Gallic home, in the great outburst of cultural splendor taking place in sixteenth-century France.

La Galliade is steeped in Cabalist and Hermetic mysticism, in that cult of ancient wisdoms or ancient theologies which underlies Renaissance Neo-platonism. La Boderie personifies the ancient wisdoms whose migrations he studies as “the sisters Poetry and Music.” The present reappearance of these sisters in France is the latest phase in their age-long travels in the course of which they have dwelt in ancient Gaul, Egypt, Judaea, Greece, Rome, Italy. As these various civilizations are visited by the sisters, long lists are given of the groups of learned men, artists, musicians, scientists, propagators of every aspect of culture and civilization who have lived in the various epochs. It is a technique very similar to that of Le Roy in De la vicissitude, where he gives long lists of celebrated individuals who have flourished in the various civilizations.

Yet with La Boderie the universal history of civilizations does not have at all that “secular” appearance which Huppert believed to be characteristic of the French school. It is immersed in the atmosphere of Renaissance Neo-platonism with its cult of prisci theologi, or ancient theologians. Druid, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Italian Renaissance cultures are seen by La Boderie as manifestations of ancient wisdom which shows itself in periodic cultural reappearances—the revolutions of the arts and sciences—as the sisters Poetry and Music travel through the ages.

It is clear that the inspiration here is in the concept of prisca theologia, propagated by Ficino in the Italian Renaissance, the concept of the wisdom of Egypt as connected with Hebrew wisdom, with Plato and Greek wisdom, and culminating in Christian wisdom. The prisca theologia was much studied in France in the sixteenth century in both philosophical and ecclesiastical circles, as D. P. Walker has shown. It was easy to assimilate other occult wisdoms to the tradition and the Druids are frequently mentioned as belonging to it. What seems to have happened in La Boderie’s poem is that the Druids, representing ancient Gallic wisdom, are put first in sequence, and also—and this is the important point—the wisdoms are interpreted in terms of civilizations, as the motive forces behind all the arts and sciences, laws and cultures which have periodically shown themselves in different national guises throughout the ages of world history.

La Boderie’s poem cannot be dismissed as the fantasy of an eccentric individual. It belongs to the atmosphere of the period for it seems to have been designed as a kind of prehistory of Baïf’s Academy of Poetry and Music, founded in 1570 under royal patronage and representative of all that was most advanced in contemporary French culture. All the poets and musicians of Baïf’s Academy are mentioned by La Boderie, and his poem is a major source for the Academy. Another major source for it is the section on French poetry in Estienne Pasquier’s Recherches de la France. The historian should not be studied in isolation from the poet; Pasquier and La Boderie may represent complementary aspects of the study of ancient Gaul by patriotic Frenchmen of the sixteenth century.

If we turn again to Le Roy’s De la vicissitude it becomes perfectly clear that his enthusiastic admiration for the religion and wisdom of Egypt, his studies of subsequent civilizations belong to the atmosphere of the history of ancient wisdom, now interpreted so as to include the history of civilizations.

Huppert regards Le Roy’s De la vicissitude as

…in reality a philosophic manifesto, the prototype of the encyclopaedic works of Bayle, Voltaire, Diderot. The break with theological history is complete. Embracing the whole world, delighting in non-Christian and exotic cultures, Le Roy ransacks the erudition of his time to provide illustrations for his philosophy of history.

He may be right about the forward-looking aspects of Le Roy’s work, but he certainly has no understanding of the mind of a Renaissance Neoplatonist in contact with the contemporary French forms of religious syncretism.

Histories of historiography and history writing are becoming fashionable as people ask what is the history of our present sense of history. The pre-occupation with history is as characteristic of our times as the pre-occupation with science and technology. Historians of history may be subject to the danger which has beset historians of science, I mean the danger of reading the history forward to some modern concept of history, or modern scientific position, extracting from the people of former times what seem to be the forward-looking elements in their thought and neglecting their context in the thought as a whole.

Huppert does not escape this danger. In his eagerness to prove a “secular” and therefore enlightened outlook on history in his French historians he ignores other sides of the writers’ minds. If the “French prelude to historiography” is of great importance as a hitherto neglected link with the historiography of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—and I have no doubt that it is—the importance of seeing it as a whole, of linking it with its past as well as its future, becomes all the more pressing. Huppert has made a beginning, but before we can fully understand this fascinating movement, we need other books on the thought of these sixteenth-century French historians which do not omit their roots in the French Renaissance.

  1. *

    Norton, $1.95.

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