The Good Way to Do History

The Allure of the Archives

by Arlette Farge, translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, with a foreword by Natalie Zemon Davis
Yale University Press, 131 pp., $25.00

Take the title as a provocation: The Allure of the Archives. What, you may ask, could be less alluring in the digital age than an apology for deciphering words scribbled on paper several centuries ago? Even more provocative, Arlette Farge’s book first appeared in French in 1989, two years before the creation of the Web, not to mention all the subsequent technology, from search engines to smartphones, that now might make archival research look outmoded.

Farge, one of France’s finest historians, could not see into the unfathomable future of electronic communication when she wrote her book. She was looking backward into the eighteenth century, and her view was inflected by the debate surrounding the bicentennial of the French Revolution, which was at its height in 1989. Yet her argument for understanding the human condition by studying the traces of it left in archives is now more pertinent than ever. If read from the perspective of twenty-first-century issues, it can be taken as a challenge to some currently accepted wisdom—for example, the following assertions, which appear on talk shows and Op-Ed pages every day:

1. We live in the information age. Misleading. Every age was an age of information, each in its own way. In The Allure of the Archives, as in several of her other books, Farge shows how information traveled through the media of eighteenth-century Paris. Primarily oral but intermixed with printed material such as chapbooks and popular engravings, the flow of talk and images (also, I would add, songs) shaped a collective consciousness that often erupted in violence. Public opinion, Farge argues, existed among the common people, not only at the level of the literate elite, as Jürgen Habermas and his followers maintain.

But it was not a discourse linked to the Enlightenment. It swept through the streets of Paris in waves of “popular emotions” (“émotions populaires,” or riots) more powerful than anything spread today by Twitter—or rather anything related to the ordinary course of events. Texting and smartphone photography inflamed millions from the moment when the self-immolation of the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, ignited the Arab Spring. July 14, 1789, expressed a similar “logic of the crowd,” as Farge put it in an earlier book. The Allure of the Archives teaches that information has always been flammable, even in societies where it operated by word of mouth.

2. All information is available online. False. We have digitized only a small portion of the books in our libraries. According to a well-known but unverifiable estimate by one of Google’s engineers, 129,864,880 different books exist, and Google has digitized over 20 million of them.1 Millions more cannot be located or have disappeared, and most information never made it into books, to say nothing of modern databases. Beyond the world of books is the larger world that Arlette Farge has inhabited for many decades, the world of archives. Her book conveys the sense of adventure produced by plunging into manuscript collections, vaster and deeper than everything available in print.

The French Archives Nationales contain 252 miles of documents, measured according to shelves loaded with boxes full of manuscripts, and they do not include material related to defense, foreign affairs, and overseas territories. France’s one hundred provincial archives contain far more—about 1,753 miles. Still more can be found in municipal archives, various university archives, and private collections. Most of it has never been read, much less scanned. The Allure of the Archives should give pause to anyone who thinks it possible to get an adequate picture of the past by looking at a computer screen.

3. The future is digital. True but trite and also misleading. Digital messages composed from combinations of microscopic ones and zeroes already surround us in the present, but they have not driven out texts made up of letters imprinted on paper. More books are produced in print each year than the year before—an increase of 6 percent in the United States in 2012. The production of e-books is also expanding, although less rapidly than in the recent past. To imagine a future in which the digital destroys the analog is to misunderstand current trajectories and the history of communication in general. New media do not extinguish old ones, at least not in the short run. Instead, they enlarge and enrich the information landscape. There is no denying the demise of vinyl records or the threat to daily newspapers, but it is wrong to imagine digital technology flattening out every other mode of communication.

The Allure of the Archives puts this common misconception in perspective. Although it is not a disquisition in media studies, which barely existed at the time it was written, it shows how old-fashioned research can produce new insights. By immersion in the archives, Farge has been able to capture the tone of life, the idiom of social interchange, the elements of idiosyncrasy and conformity, of deviance and resistance, that constituted the world of the common people in eighteenth-century Paris. This kind of history can speak to those who have no particular interest in the Parisian past. Its affinity with work in other disciplines—the sociology of Erving Goffman, for example, or the anthropology of the late Keith Basso2—will help shape the future of social science, irrespective of the balance between the digital and the analog.

Of course, archival immersion will not of itself produce good history. The Allure of the Archives is a reflection on the experience of long, hard research in manuscript sources and on the difficulties of working up the results into a persuasive interpretation. Farge devotes much of the book to the experience itself. Italicized chapters written from the viewpoint of a fictitious beginner inform the reader of the difficulties to be overcome—not just the obstacle course of getting certification for admission into the reading room, but the psychological and even the physical discomforts encountered along the way. This account is still valid for the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, where Farge can often be seen, pencil in hand, dossiers piled high, at seat number 1, her favorite, or number 37, her second choice, she says, which she takes if she has been delayed by a second cup of coffee and too much reading of the morning newspaper.

But her report on working in the Archives Nationales is out of date. The inventory room, which she describes, tongue in cheek, as a freezing torture chamber, no longer exists, nor does the old reading room, which was approached through the magnificent courtyard of the Hôtel de Soubise. Everything has been packed off to modern quarters far from Paris at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, which have excellent heating and room for two hundred miles of shelves.

No matter: Farge’s main point remains valid. Wherever they are, when first approached, archives are intimidating. Even if the setting does not unnerve you, you feel daunted at the enormity of the task: how to convert endless scribbles on paper into something that could pass for history. You must select a series—that is, one of the categories in which the documents are classified, usually according to the institution that originally produced them. But every series imprisons the researcher within boundaries that limit his or her perception of the subject. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest researchers in Farge’s field of study, exaggerated the centralizing tendency of the monarchy, because he worked within the C series, the correspondence between royal intendants and Versailles, which gives the illusion that the intendants had subjected everything within their territory to the long arm of the state.3

After you have committed yourself to a series and started ordering documents, the first box arrives. You undo a faded ribbon on one side, fold back the cover, and pull out the top dossier. You start reading, one document after another, one folder after another, one box after another. The sequence could go on forever. How to make sense of it all?

Farge gives advice, much of it surprising. Copy out excerpts, she says. Not one or two, but hundreds. By copying you will absorb a turn of language, some of it peculiar to individuals, but all of it imbued with the tone of another era, which sets the past off from the present. I believe that Farge is right. Like her, I always arrived in the archives armed with index cards and pencils. I summarized documents and copied excerpts from them onto the cards, stored the cards in shoe boxes, and worked through the boxes when I drafted books. It’s a kind of marinating, an absorption through the pores.

That, admittedly, sounds like hocus-pocus; and whatever its value as a method, it is certainly obsolete. When I last worked in the Archives Nationales, scribbling notes on index cards—difficult to find these days—and trying to shut out the tap-tap of the computers all around me, I felt hopelessly antiquated. At one point, I came upon a document so rich and lengthy that I asked the archivist on duty whether I could have it photocopied. She replied with a smile that the copying machines had gone the way of typewriters. I should buy a digital camera. She was right, of course. But digital cameras tempt the researcher to take endless pictures without actually reading the manuscripts. Although the reading can be done later, on a computer, I doubt that it will take place with the intensity of reading the originals, pencil in hand. It eliminates marinating.

Nor will it convey the full excitement of discovery. Farge describes the sensation of holding ancient documents in your hands. The texture of the paper feels somewhat like cloth, whether smooth or coarse. I have sometimes been able to pluck out threads from shirts that had not been adequately ground into pulp from the rags used to make a particular page. While rummaging through the papers of the Bastille, Farge came across an actual fragment of a shirt with a message written on it. A prisoner had included it in a batch of his laundry sent out to be washed, and the message included a request for the laundress to forward the shirt-letter to his wife; but the turnkeys confiscated it, and it ended up in the archives.

Farge pays special attention to handwriting, noting the different degrees of expertise in guiding the pen. She quotes letters from semiliterate writers, pleading for favors, often from cells in the Bastille. They can be so primitive—approximate spelling, words run together, incoherent grammar—that they have to be read aloud so that their meaning can be inferred by listening to the sounds. In deciphering them, one senses the effort to make the pen say what normally came out of the mouth. I once turned up a letter by a peddler who asked a publisher to send him a shipment of books, including:

4 an faires detrui [L’Enfer détruit ou examen raisonné du dogme de l’éternité des peines, i.e., four copies of Hell Destroyed or a reasoned examination of the dogma of the eternity of punishments, an atheistic treatise attributed to the Baron d’Holbach] and
2 heuvre de janjacle rousau [Oeuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two copies of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau]4

The letter shows that the works of the philosophes were diffused at the bottom level of the book trade, but it is the disparity between the content of the books and the peddler’s inability to spell their titles that I find especially moving. Writing, in all its physicality, serves as a measure of cultural distance.

Jean-Régis Roustan/Roger-Viollet/The Image Works
Arlette Farge, 1982

While deciphering writing, Farge struggles to reach into lives—carefully, cautiously, without going beyond the bounds of reasonable surmise. This effort characterizes all of her work, and nearly all of it is based on careful reading of judicial archives, notably the Y series in the papers of the court at what is now the Place du Châtelet in Paris; the archives contain a rich vein of information about minor crime, which she has mined for decades in order to understand patterns of everyday life. The patterns kept changing in kaleidoscopic fashion as she got deeper into the material, turning up new fragments and encountering surprises.

One of the most fascinating surprises concerned a traffic jam of the kind that often occurred in eighteenth-century Paris, because streets were narrow and there were no rules about keeping to one side. A passenger in a cabriolet lost his temper when a carriage blocked his way. After a furious argument with the coachman of the carriage, he drew his sword and ran it through the belly of the coachman’s horse. He was the Marquis de Sade.

Such nuggets turn up rarely, but long hauls in the archives always make it possible to find things you are not looking for. You can then change course and pursue another subject or work simultaneously on a whole series of related projects. Arlette Farge has perfected this strategy from her first book, Délinquance et criminalité: Le vol d’aliments à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (1974), a study of Parisians driven by hunger to steal food, to her latest, Un Ruban et des larmes: Un procès en adultère au XVIIIe siècle (2011), a fine-grained analysis of an adultery trial. Of course, subjects do not leap out of archive boxes by themselves. They must be construed by what, for lack of a better term, can be called historical imagination. It’s like a sense of smell.

Although Farge has studied some spectacular incidents, such the riots touched off by rumors that the police were kidnapping working-class children in 1750,5 she concentrates on the stuff of ordinary lives among the common people—gossip in marketplaces, the work of women, the struggle to get bread on the table, solidarities and fault lines within neighborhoods. Beware of making this material exotic, she warns in a discussion of “traps” to be avoided in the archives. You may feel sympathy for the obscure lives you encounter, she writes, but don’t identify with them or you will project your concerns on theirs. Keep a critical distance from the material. Remember the arbitrariness that went into the creation of the archives in the first place and the absence of everything they exclude. Above all, resist the temptation to add fictitious touches about what people might have thought and felt. That should be left to historical novels. (Jean-François Parot’s detective series about Nicolas Le Floch, an imaginary police inspector at the end of the ancien régime, is an example of what Farge distrusts: excellent historical detail combined with fabricated sentiments.)

By providing such advice, The Allure of the Archives can serve as a user’s manual for anyone who undertakes archival research, but it can be read most profitably by anyone who is curious about how history is concocted. Laymen tend to believe that historians have history figured out—not perfectly, perhaps, but in general. It has been captured by research and contained between the covers of books, thousands of them, lined up systematically on shelves. Farge shows that history is tentative. Just as archives provide evidence for arguments, they undo them; for as soon as a pattern seems to emerge from one set of boxes, it is displaced by a contradictory configuration drawn from the next set. The difficulty goes beyond subjectivity and the arbitrariness of constructing a narrative. It inheres in the exposure to endless fragments from countless lives: How to incorporate them all in an account of the human condition?

When Farge confronts this question at a theoretical level, she cites the usual suspects, such as E.H. Carr and Paul Ricoeur. She rejects both dogmatic Marxism and anti-Marxist revisionism. And she regrets the “slippage” of her fellow travelers in the Annales school, who failed to make sufficient allowance for conflict in their versions of newer subjects, including the history of private life. But she offers little guidance about the problems of how to assimilate archival research into a convincing historical argument. Her abstract formulations, such as “an ontology of the real,” don’t seem persuasive, perhaps because she is more at home poring over documents than philosophizing about conceptual issues.

Still, her vast experience of archival research led her to reflect on one issue that had not received adequate analysis: what she calls the “torrent of singularities.” Behind every case in the thousands of dossiers she consulted is a singular individual who cannot be assimilated in a general proposition, because there is always another individual whose experience will contradict it. Few historians have wrestled with this problem, because few have attempted to see patterns by examining all the lives exposed in vast stretches of documents.

Richard Cobb, the only recent historian who worked through a comparable quantity of archives, ultimately gave up: he rejected any notion of general trends, and he pictured history as the playing out of countless individual existences, each intent on making its own way through an endlessly varied landscape. Sir Lewis Namier combined exhaustive case studies into a general argument, but it was essentially negative: a challenge to the accepted view that British politics in the eighteenth century involved a contest between coherent parties. Farge does not refer to their work or to that of any other scholar who could provide a model for her variety of history—except one: Michel Foucault.

Foucault offered her a way of coping with the problem of endless singularity while respecting the peculiarity of each document and the integrity of the life that appeared, however fragmentarily, in the ink scratched on the paper. Instead of searching for lowest common denominators or higher covering laws, Foucault taught Farge to study criminal cases from a certain angle, the working out of conflict. Conflict can be creative, Farge maintains. It reveals “the sequence of strategies that each person uses to make his way in the world.” By their very nature, police records expose the way individuals coped with the antagonisms, tensions, and discord embedded in power relations. The challenge to the historian, as Farge formulates it, is not merely to uncover and describe those struggles but also to understand their underlying “grammar.”

Concepts such as grammar, discourse, and idiom can be found scattered through contemporary social science. Although she signals her debt to Foucault, Farge does not explain the ways by which she makes use of his ideas. To understand them, one should consult a book that she and Foucault wrote together: Le Désordre des familles: Lettres de cachet des Archives de la Bastille au XVIIIe siècle (1982). It intersperses lengthy excerpts from the papers of the police kept in the archives of the Bastille with reflections on how to interpret family life among the common people of Paris.

As in The Allure of the Archives, published seven years later, the book stresses the opacity of documents—the stylized quality and tendentious rhetoric used by the poor or the public letter-writer they hired when they solicited the lieutenant general of police to intervene in family conflicts. Intervention took place by means of lettres de cachet, orders issued in the name of the king to arrest a subject and confine him or her, without any judicial procedure, for an indefinite term in a prison, usually a cheap maison de force such as Bicêtre or the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière. Even among the very poor, families preferred to have recourse to the arbitrary power of the king rather than to civil or criminal courts, where they would have to cope with heavy expenses and delays as well as dishonorable publicity.

The cases cover all kinds of conflicts—husbands who squander dowries through drink, wives who abandon their children in order to live with lovers, sons who take up vagabondage rather than contributing to the rent, daughters who take to the streets. Through it all, Farge and Foucault detect a “moral economy” at work in the family and in the microcultures surrounding it. They read the endless accounts of “debauchery” as the negative counterpart to a shared sense of mutual obligations and honor. Women assert their dignity as actively as men, and children accept the constraints imposed by the collective struggle for a better life. Despite its fragility, Farge and Foucault argue, family life had reached an equilibrium that contrasted with the form it would take in the nineteenth century, when the husband-father would dominate the family and the wife-mother would be consigned to a private sphere of domesticity.

The book is built around an anthology of dossiers from the police archives, each one a testimony to the singularity of individual lives caught up in the tentacles of the state, yet it yields a general picture of social transformation from one power system to another. Foucault had described that transformation in earlier works, notably Discipline and Punish (the French original was published in 1975), where he had related the history of crime and punishment to a shift in the organization of knowledge and the institutions that embodied it. Under the ancien régime, he argued, the state inflicted punishment on the bodies of criminals in public displays of force. In the nineteenth century, it reached into their souls, sequestering them in prisons where it could correct their thoughts and feelings.

Foucault based that thesis on well-known sources such as the design for a model prison in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791). Farge and Foucault’s Le Désordre des familles extended the argument into fine-grained archival research. It showed Foucault succumbing to the allure of the archives, while Farge adapted her concern for singularity to a larger historical thesis. Theirs was a remarkable collaboration, although it did not lead to any surprising conclusions—except one. They detected in the dossiers a spiritual element, which bound the people to the king. When they pleaded for the king’s intervention in their affairs, bypassing the courts by means of lettres de cachet, families tapped a source of sacred power inherent in the monarchy. They did the same when they petitioned for the release of prisoners, invoking the experience of repentance. Despite the stylized character of their rhetoric, the dossiers situated such experience in a domain described by Foucault and Farge as that of the “soul.” Punishment touched souls in the eighteenth century as profoundly as it did a century later, though it did so in a different manner. It operated among the common people and outside the normal functioning of the judicial system.

By exposure to the archives, Foucault modified his overly schematic view of the advent of modern society. By exposure to Foucault, Farge enlarged a vision trapped within irreducibly peculiar cases. Their collaboration did not mark a conclusive phase in the development of historical knowledge, and it may look archaic when viewed from the perspective of research on the Internet. But it deserves pondering, if only for the possibility that traces of the soul can be found in boxes in the archives. Do they exist in cyberspace?

  1. 1

    See Leonid Taycher, “Books of the world, stand up and be counted! All 129,864,880 of you,” Google Book Search, August 5, 2010. 

  2. 2

    See Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Northeastern University Press, 1986), and Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (University of New Mexico Press, 1996). 

  3. 3

    I have discussed this point more extensively in “ Chasing Paper,” The New York Review, December 6, 2012. 

  4. 4

    Robert Darnton, Édition et sédition. L’univers de la littérature clandestine au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), p. 70. 

  5. 5

    Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics Before the French Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1991). See my review in these pages, “ Reading a Riot,” October 22, 1992.