At the time when Michelet’s Histoire de France is being re-edited, before Lavisse’s - predicted - one; at a time when the debate on national identity shakes the media landernau but also the university (see the criticisms against the Maison de l'Histoire de France), the Belin editions, renowned among others for their textbooks (secondary and higher), publish an impressive History of France, led by the great modernist historian Joel Cornette. What are the ambitions and characteristics of this collection? Is it likely to leave traces as indelible as its illustrious predecessors?
Joël Cornette's ambition
The idea of this History of France came from Joël Cornette, who matured his project for several years, struggling to find a publisher, most of them reluctant to the scale of the editorial project. Ultimately, it was the meeting with Marie-Claude Brossollet, from Belin editions, that was decisive. Joël Cornette then surrounded himself with renowned collaborators such as the medievalist Jean-Louis Biget and Henry Rousso, in order to concretely set up the project and recruit historians for each period. Historians all of reference and, equally interesting, from different generations.
The goal is to give a guideline to the collection, while leaving maximum freedom to the authors. Each work must therefore be divided into two parts: a first classic, with a story, a synthesis of political, economic, social and cultural events; a second, more innovative, and at the heart of the philosophy of this new collection: the historian's workshop.
In the end, no less than thirteen volumes and more than 8,000 pages sweep through the history of France from 481 to the present day!
Obviously, the first difficulty was: where does French history begin? Then, the question that arises more and more in a science always in motion, that of the division and respect - or not - of "classic" periods of university history.
The choice of Clovis to start this History of France All in all makes sense, even if we know all the more or less dubious debates to which this can lead. The directors of the collection and each author then discussed the chronological limits of each volume and, if we will always find dissatisfied, the choices are generally good compromises between the historiographical developments and the need to leave benchmarks for the general public, the main target. . Thus, we have four volumes devoted to the Middle Ages (from 481 to 1453), four also to the so-called modern period (from 1453 to 1789), four to contemporary history (1789-1945), and an ultimate aptly titled France of the present time (1945-2005).
The historian's workshop
As mentioned above, the main asset of this collection is its part called "the historian's workshop". If the first chapters of each book provide their share of relevant updates and insights, which should be detailed volume by volume, the historian's workshop plunges us into fascinating historiographical debates and thus shows us a more alive than ever, even in new fields of research. There are classic quarrels such as the mutation of the year 1000 or the recoveries of Joan of Arc, but also questions about the sources, or on themes such as food in the Middle Ages. Let's insist: for that alone, the Belin collection is worth a detour.
The content, but also the form
The other success of this History of France is to be sought in the form. Each book is a success from a layout point of view: it's clear and pleasant to read. Above all, the iconography is impressive (over 200 illustrations for each volume), of high quality, relevant and sometimes unpublished; the same goes for the very many texts. The maps are not to be outdone, all original, without forgetting the complete appendices: biographies, glossaries, family trees, chronologies, indexes,… And for those who would like to go even further, the bibliographies, classified by chapter (very good idea) . Finally, each iconography is referenced, each source also. Hard to beat.
Such a gigantic and ambitious project, despite its undeniable qualities, obviously cannot be perfect. There would seem to have been some caveats on the maps of some volumes, but it is above all the approach that can be criticized. Indeed, while history tends more and more to include France in the history of Europe (even in school textbooks), even tends to orient itself towards the study of world history or of global history, a "Franco-centered" vision might seem a little too out of place, even dated, even if some volumes have a somewhat broader vision. This is however the only real criticism one could make, and it does not detract from the overall quality of the collection.
A new benchmark
The ambition of this History of France is first of all to interest the general public and non-professional but informed enthusiasts, while updating both the narrative of each period and the historiographical debates. And the bet is very largely successful. First of all, we are far from the "national novel" history of Lavisse and Michelet. The collection then turns out to be more pleasant and less difficult to read than that of Jean Favier at Fayard, and the presence (and the quality) of the iconography also makes it more affordable than that of Points Seuil (the ideal being to have both…). Finally, it is less "media" than the admittedly sympathetic History of France and the French from Decaux and Castelot.
TheHistory of France Editions Belin is therefore undoubtedly a new benchmark in the field. Everyone should find their account in the period that interests them, including several volumes. It should also be noted that given the quality of form and substance of the works, the price is largely reasonable. For collectors, there is a prestige edition.
- Collection of the History of France, directed by Joël Cornette, Belin editions.
Joël Cornette is an associate of the University, a former student of the ENS de Saint-Cloud, professor at the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes-Saint-Denis.
Books already published (March 2011):
- France before France (481-888), Geneviève Bührer-Thierry, Charles Mériaux.
- Feudalism (888-1180), Florian Mazel.
- The time of the Hundred Years War (1328-1453), Boris Bove.
- The Renaissance (1453-1559), Philippe Hamon.
- The Wars of Religion (1559-1629), Nicolas Le Roux.
- Revolution Consulate Empire (1789-1815), Michel Biard, Philippe Bourdin, Silvia Marzagalli.
- The revolution unfinished (1815-1870), Sylvie Aprile.
- The Republic imagined (1870-1914), Vincent Duclert.
- France of the present time (1945-2005), Michelle Zancarini, Christian Delacroix.
Books to be published:
- The Absolute Kings (1630-1715), Hervé Drévillon.
- The Great Wars (1914-1945), Nicolas Beaupré.
- The Capetian Golden Age (1180-1328), Jean-Christophe Cassard.
- France of the Enlightenment (1715-1789), Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire.