Front Page Titles (by Subject) AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PREFACE.: HISTORY OF MY HISTORICAL WORKS AND THEORIES. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
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AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PREFACE.: HISTORY OF MY HISTORICAL WORKS AND THEORIES. - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
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HISTORY OF MY HISTORICAL WORKS AND THEORIES.
This volume contains almost every thing I have written on historical subjects, with the exception of my History of the Conquest of England by the Normans, and thus completes the labours of ten years,* during which period I have been enabled to pursue, without interruption, the course of my studies. In this series of essays, placed chronologically according to the order of their composition, the ideas which, when ripened and developed by assiduous labour, produced as their final expression, the “History of the Conquest of England by the Normans,” and the “Letters on the History of France,” may be in some measure traced step by step. These stumblings of a young man endeavouring to open a new path for himself—the disentangling of a theory at first daring and confused, but which, by a patient study of facts, gradually arrives at scientific precision,—these simple pages, the first sketch of what afterwards formed volumes,—these various tentatives afterwards abandoned for something more complete or more final; all these, if I am not mistaken, will not be uninteresting either to those persons who, approving the result of my labours, might be curious to know every step of the road I traveled, or to those who delight in observing the human mind in its individual developments.
One thing will, perhaps, be remarked, which is, that from the commencement of my attempts in history, my attention became fixed as if instinctively on the subject which I afterwards treated most extensively. In 1817, I contributed to the Censeur Européen, the most serious, and at the same time most speculatively daring of all the liberal publications of that period. To a hatred of military despotism, a fruit of the reaction of the general spirit against the imperial government, I joined a profound aversion for revolutionary tyranny, and without a preference for any form of government whatever, I felt a certain disgust at English institutions, of which we then possessed only an odious and ridiculous imitation. One day when, in order to found this opinion on an historical examination, I had attentively read over some chapters of Hume, I was struck with an idea which seemed to me a ray of light, and exclaimed as I closed the book, “All this dates from a conquest; there is a conquest underneath it.” I instantly conceived the plan of re-writing the history of the revolutions of England, considering it from this new point of view; and the first part of my historical sketch, the first essay of that kind I had ever attempted, soon appeared in the Censeur Européen.
This essay, which was extremely brief, brought the reader from the Norman invasion in the eleventh century down to the death of Charles I. The Revolution of 1640 was presented in it under the aspect of a great national reaction against the order of things established six centuries previously by foreign conquest. I ought to have stopped there; there was sufficient courage, or rather rashness in saying this: but my ardour in politics and inexperience in history, led me on further, and with the same formulas—conquest and subjection, masters and servants—I continued detailing minutely the political events to the end of the reign of Charles II. I saw in the elevation of Cromwell, and the triumph of the military party over the other parties of the Revolution, a new conquest traitorously brought about under the shadow of the national standard. The restoration of the Stuarts by Monk’s army appeared to me a treaty of alliance, for the general good, between the old and new conquerors.* After a great deal of time and labour lost in thus obtaining factitious results, I perceived that I was falsifying history.
I resolved to change my plan, and to leave every period its peculiar form and colouring; but I did not give up the idea of tracing all the history of England from the fact of the Norman conquest. This great event, followed by all its social consequences, had struck my imagination as an unsolved problem, full of mystery, and of great importance in its political and historical bearings.
About the same time I began to occupy myself with another historical theory, the influence of which was not of less importance on my latter works; that of the revolution of the Commons. On merely reading the modern writers on French history, it appeared to me that the enfranchisement of the Commons was a perfectly different thing from their account of it; that it was a real social revolution, a prelude to all those which gradually raised the condition of the third estate; that it was the cradle of our modern liberty, and that the plebeians, as well as the nobility of France, had a history and ancestors. I wrote in 1817, in an article on the correspondence of Benjamin Franklin: “We are always told to imitate our ancestors; why do we not follow this advice? Our ancestors were those artisans who founded the Commons; who conceived modern liberty. Our ancestors were not far removed from the present habits of America; they possessed its simplicity, good sense, and civil courage. It was not the fault of these energetic men that all Europe did not become free six centuries ago; if what they wanted was not accomplished, it was the fault of their time, not theirs: barbarism was too strong; its roots were everywhere. When it attributed to itself alone, by exclusive right, liberty, riches, honour, was it easy to raise up another liberty, other riches, another honour beyond its sphere, and antagonistic to it? A shriek was uttered by civilization, impatient at its shackles, and suddenly Europe was filled with new nations, strangers to all that surrounded them, and seeking to amalgamate with one another. But they could make no path for themselves through those masses of savages and warriors who surrounded them on all sides. They remained isolated; they perished. If, however, fortune was denied to our forefathers, they were not wanting in courage and virtue. . . . .”†
To colour this picture of the golden age of the liberty of the Commons, my imagination applied to the towns of France what I had read of the Italian republics of the middle ages: it seemed to me, that in searching carefully our history, in looking over chronicles and archives, we should find something analogous to what the historians of the thirteenth century tell us of the Commons of Milan, Pisa, or Florence. It was thus that there arose in me the first regrets that France was deficient in a truly national history, and the first desire to devote myself to studies by the help of which I should be enabled to recover some lost features of that history. In 1818, I wrote as follows: “Who has not heard of a class of men who, at the period when barbarians inundated Europe, preserved for humanity the arts and habits of industry? Daily outraged and despoiled by their conquerors and masters, they painfully existed, earning nothing by their labour but the consciousness of acting rightly, and keeping civilization as a trust for their children and the whole world. These saviours of our arts were our fathers; for we are the sons of those serfs, those tributaries, those citizens whom conquerors pillaged at pleasure: to them we owe all that we are. Virtue and glory are associated with their names; but these do not shine much; for history, which should have transmitted them was devoted to the service of the enemies of our forefathers. We should not find among them the frantic devotion of the savage warrior who sacrifices himself for his chief, and seeks death while dealing it, but the passion of personal independence, the courage of civilized man, who defends himself, but does not attack, and that perseverance in well-doing which triumphs over every thing. Such is our patrimony of national honour; such what our children ought to read of under our eyes. But, slaves only lately freed, our memory has for a long while carried us back only to the families and actions of our masters. Thirty years have not elapsed since we remembered that our fathers were the nation. We have admired every thing, have learned every thing, except what they were, and what they had done. We are patriots, and we leave in oblivion those who, during fourteen centuries, cultivated the soil of that country so often laid waste by other hands: the Gauls were before France. . . . .”*
As the last words and other passages of this fragment indicate, the problem of the Norman Conquest had led me, by the power of analogy, to occupy myself with the great problem of the Germanic invasions, and the dismemberment of the Roman empire. My attention, hitherto absorbed by theories of social order, by questions of government and political economy, was directed with great curiosity to the disorder which, in the sixth century, succeeded Roman civilization in a great portion of Europe. I thought I perceived in that remote subversion, the roots of some of the evil belonging to modern society; it appeared to me that, notwithstanding the distance of time, some remains of the barbarian conquest still weighed upon our country, and that the present sufferings might be traced back, step by step, to the intrusion of a foreign race into the centre of Gaul, and its violent dominion over the natives. In order to confirm myself in this opinion, which would open to me, as I thought, an arsenal of new arms for the battle I was engaged in against the principles and tendencies of the government, I commenced studying and extracting every thing which had been written, ex professo, on the ancient French monarchy, and the institutions of the middle ages, from the researches of Pasquier, Fauchet, and other learned men of the sixteenth century, down to the work of Mably, and that of M. de Montlosier, the most recent one, at that time, on the subject.† The whole of the year 1819 was spent in this employment; I forgot nothing, neither jurisconsults, feudists, nor the commentators on common law. This long and fatiguing review ended by a book which was a real relaxation to me, “Ducange’s Glossary.”‡ In this admirable book I studied thoroughly the political language of the middle ages; and to trace this semi-Roman, semi-barbarous language to its root, I studied the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian idioms, aided by my knowledge of German and modern English.
I had been the round of all the authorities at second-hand; I was on the track of the sources of modern history; but I had not yet a very clear notion of what I was to derive from them. Always pre-occupied with political ideas and the triumph of the cause to which I had devoted my pen, if I thought of becoming an historian, it was after the fashion of the writers of the philosophical school, to abstract from the narrative a body of proofs and systematic arguments, to demonstrate summarily, and not to narrate with detail. However, in grouping my thoughts so as to form more or less logical sequences, I imposed a scruple on my conscience which my predecessors had not thought of, and which was absent from my first essays on the History of England. I laid down the law to myself never to confuse colours and formulas, to leave to every epoch its originality; in one word, strictly to respect chronological order in the moral physiognomy of history, as well as in the succession of events. Under the influence of this disposition, I changed my style and manner; my former stiffness gave way, my narration became more continuous; it even occasionally became coloured with some local and individual tints. The signs of this change may be remarked in my articles of the year 1819, on the Restoration of 1660, and the Revolution of 1688. These essays, with the three which precede them, and the first six of the second part, bear the stamp of my new studies, and that of the political opinions which I then professed with all the conviction of my soul; these were, as I have already said, an aversion to a military government, coupled with a hatred of aristocratic pretensions and the hypocrisy of the Restoration, without any precisely revolutionary tendency. I aspired with enthusiasm to a future, I did not know of what kind,—to a liberty, which, if it had a formula, had this one: any government whatever, with the greatest possible amount of individual security, and the least possible administrative action. I fell passionately in love with a certain ideal of patriotic devotion, of incorruptible purity, of stoicism free from pride and roughness, which I saw represented in the past by Algernon Sidney, in the present by M. de Lafayette.
The first use I made of my studies of the ancient northern languages, and the institutions of the middle ages, was with their help to return to the History of England, and plunge more deeply into it. I had only glanced my eye, so to speak, over the events which succeeded the Norman Conquest: this time I went much further, and began studying the Anglo-Saxon period, an occupation wonderfully facilitated to me by the very erudite work of the learned Sharon Turner. The prodigious quantity of details which this work contains respecting the customs and social state of the German conquerors of Great Britain, and the indigenous Britons, the numerous quotations of original poems, either by Celtic bards or northern Scalds, attracted me by a species of interest which I had not yet felt in my researches. The order of general and purely political considerations to which I had hitherto confined myself appeared to me for the first time dry and circumscribed. I felt within myself a strong tendency to descend from the abstract to the concrete, to consider national life in all its phases, and to take the study of the primitive races in their original diversity as a starting point in the solution of the problem of the antagonism of different classes of men in midst of the same society. I therefore turned my attention to the special history of each of the Britannic isles.
I commenced by the History of Ireland, of which I then only knew what the historians of England say of it; that is, very little. As the peculiar events of this history gradually unfolded themselves before my eyes, an unexpected light came to illuminate the grand problem, the solution of which was the object of all my researches, the problem of the conquests of the middle ages, and their social results. In truth, the stamp of conquest is marked on every page of the annals of the Irish nation; all the consequences of that first event, so difficult to recognize and trace in other histories, stand out in this one with striking clearness and relief. What can only be guessed at elsewhere, here presents itself under the least doubtful aspect, and in the most palpable form: the long persistence of two inimical nations on the same soil, and the variety of political, social and religious struggles, which spring, as from an inexhaustible source, out of the original hostility; the antipathy of race surviving all the revolutions of manners, laws and language, perpetuating itself through centuries, sometimes smouldering, more frequently flaming, at intervals giving way to the sympathies caused by community of habitation, and an instinctive love of their native land, then suddenly starting up, and separating men once more into two hostile camps. The grand and sad spectacle of which Ireland had been the theatre for seven hundred years, placed before me in a somewhat dramatic manner, what I confusedly saw at the bottom of the history of all European monarchies. It was a living commentary, which placed reality face to face with my conjectures, and pointed out to me the road which I ought to follow if I wished, without endangering truth, to call imagination to the assistance of the reasoning faculties, and unite some little divination to the search after, and analysis of, events.
The History of Scotland, although less rich in views of this kind, likewise presented to me a solid basis for inductions and similarities, the eternal hostility between Highlanders and Lowlanders, an hostility which has been dramatized in so spirited and original a manner in several of the novels of Walter Scott. My admiration for this great writer was profound; it increased gradually as I confronted in my studies his prodigious understanding of the past, with the narrow and dry erudition of the most celebrated modern writers. It was with a transport of enthusiasm that I hailed the appearance of that master-piece “Ivanhoe.” Walter Scott had cast one of his eagle-glances at the historical period toward which for three years all the efforts of my mind had been directed. With that boldness of execution which distinguishes him, he had placed on the soil of England, Normans and Saxons, conquerors and conquered, still trembling before one another, a hundred and twenty years after the conquest. He had coloured like a poet one scene out of the long drama which I, with the patience of a historian, was labouring to construct. All the reality of his work, the general characteristics of the epoch in which the fictitious action was placed, and in which the personages of the novel figured, the political aspect of the country, the different manners and mutual relations of the various classes of men, all was in accordance with the outlines of the plan which I was then sketching. I confess, in the midst of the doubts which accompany all conscientious work, my ardour and confidence were redoubled by the species of indirect sanction which one of my favourite statements thus received from the man whom I consider the greatest master of historical divination that has ever existed.
Ever since the commencement of 1820, I had begun reading an immense collection of original historians of France and the Gauls. As I advanced in my studies, the lively impression of pleasure derived from the cotemporaneous painting of the men and things of our ancient history, was joined to a feeling of anger against modern historians, who, instead of reproducing this spectacle faithfully, had disguised facts, misconstrued characters, and given every thing a false or undecided character. My indignation increased at every comparison I made between the real history of France, such as I saw it in the original documents, and the flat compilations which had usurped that title, and propagated in the world and in the schools the most inconceivable blunders as articles of faith. Anxious to carry out the examination of this strange contrast, I no longer confined my researches as formerly to a series of determined facts, and the search after the elements of a single problem; I touched upon all questions, corrected all errors, and gave free course to my mind in the vast field of erudition and historical controversy.
From the calmness of mind with which I traversed this labyrinth of doubts and difficulties, it appeared to me that I had at last met with my true vocation. This vocation, which from that period I embraced with all the ardour of youth, was not only to bring a little truth into some obscure portion of the middle ages, but to plant for France in the nineteenth century the standard of historical reform. Reform in the study, reform in the manner of writing history; war against the writers without erudition, who were unable to see, and against the writers without imagination, who were unable to describe; war against Mézerai, against Velly, against their continuators and disciples;* war, in fact, against the most noted historians of the philosophic school, on account of their intentional dulness, and disdainful ignorance of national origin. I was about to give this rallying cry, and make an appeal in the columns of the “Censeur Européen” to all men disposed to hear and sympathize with me, when the tribune from which I spoke, or in less ambitious terms, when the politico-literary enterprise, which had been conducted during six years in spite of numerous persecutions, by my honourable friends Messrs. Comte and Dunoyer, fell under the censure which had just been re-established.
A month later, I sent to propose to the editors of the Courrier Français a series of letters on the history of France, and was accepted as a contributor. The first of these letters, which I might have called my manifesto, appeared the 13th of July, 1820. As it has almost entirely disappeared from the subsequent editions, I give, in the present volume, the primitive text, excepting a few corrections of style. The renovation of the history of France, of which I strongly pointed out the necessity, presented itself to me under two phases; the one scientific, the other political. I demanded a complete restoration at once of the altered or misconstrued truth, and a sort of restitution for the middle and lower classes, for the ancestors of the third estate, forgotten by our modern historians. Born a plebeian, I demanded that the common people should have their share of glory in our annals; that the memory of plebeian honour, of the energy and liberty of citizens, should be preserved with respectful care; in a word, that, by the help of science, joined to patriotism, narratives capable of moving the popular fibre should be made from our old chronicles. doubtless I exaggerated the possibility of placing on the scene the people at all periods of our history; but this very illusion gave my words more warmth and enthusiasm. Immediately on the appearance of my second letter, I was treated as an enemy by the journalists of the anti-liberal party. I was accused of wishing to bring about the dismemberment of France, and shaking the foundations of the French monarchy, by maliciously depriving it of five centuries of antiquity. The censure mutilated several of my pages, and erased with its red ink my dissertation on the real epoch of the establishment of monarchy.†
Notwithstanding these official attacks, I quietly pursued my road, when I was assailed by unexpected obstacles. As I gradually entered more deeply into the discussion either of the method followed by our historians, or of the very basis of our history, the political colouring disappeared, erudition showed itself more plainly; the interest of my articles became special, and restricted to the few minds curious in the science. At Paris I was always read with pleasure, but I raised up against me part of my connections in the provinces. Several letters, full of displeasure, arrived one after the other: I do not remember where they came from; but they spoke with so much bitterness about those long articles, fit only for the Journal des Savans, that the editors of the Courrier feared a loss of subscribers. I was begged to change my subject, mentioning very politely the variety of my publications in the Censeur Européen. I replied that I had made a vow to write only on historical matters; and in the month of January, 1821, I ceased to contribute to the Courrier Français.
It was not without regret that I saw myself compelled to interrupt my weekly publications. This sort of work, without continuity, without any precise order, suited perfectly the daring impetuosity of my criticism, and, I should add, the want of maturity, at that time, of my studies on the history of France. I was far from feeling sufficiently prepared to treat the same questions in a long work, conceived with calmness and executed with deliberation. But if I felt myself weak on that point, I already had confidence in my views on the history of England, and on the question of conquest which had never failed to extend itself in each new incursion I made in the field of the history of the middle ages. I therefore turned once more to my old subject of predilection, and approached it more boldly, with more knowledge of events, in a more elevated light, and with a firmer grasp. Every thing which I had read for the last four years, all that I knew, all that I felt, entered into the plan which I then conceived with firm and prompt decision. I resolved (let the expression be forgiven) to build my epic, to write the history of the conquest of England by the Normans, by going back to its first causes, and afterwards coming down to its last consequences; to paint this great event with the truest colours, and under the greatest possible number of aspects; not only to give England as the theatre of a variety of scenes, but all the countries which had more or less felt the influence of the Norman population, or the blow of his victory. In this extensive frame I gave a place to all the important questions which had successively pre-occupied me; that of the origin of modern aristocrats, that of the primitive races, their moral diversities and co-existence on the same soil; finally, the same question of historical method, of form and style, which I had recently attacked in my letters on the history of France. I wished to put in practice what I had been advising, and attempt, at my own risk and peril, the experience of my theory: in a word, I was ambitious to display art as well as science, to write dramatically with the aid of materials furnished by sincere and scrupulous erudition. I set to work with zeal proportioned to the difficulties of the enterprize.
The catalogue of books which I had to read and extract from was enormous; and as I could only have a very small number at my disposal, I was forced to seek the rest in the public libraries. In the depth of winter, I made long sittings in the icy galleries of the Rue de Richelieu; and later, under a summer sun, I ran in one day from Sainte Geneviève to the Arsenal, from the Arsenal to the Institute, the library of which, as an exceptional favour, remained open until nearly five o’clock. Weeks and months passed rapidly to me in the midst of these preparatory researches, in which neither the thorns nor discouragements of editorship are to be found; in which the mind, soaring freely above the materials it assembles, composes and recomposes at will, and constructs in a breath the ideal model of the edifice which must later be built piece by piece, slowly and laboriously. While exercising my mind amidst the thousands of facts scattered through hundreds of volumes, and which presented to me naked (so to speak) the times and men which I wished to paint, I felt some of the emotion which an eager traveler feels at the aspect of the country he has long wished to see, and his dreams have revealed to him.
By devouring the long folio pages to extract one phrase, and sometimes one word out of a thousand, my eyes acquired a facility which astounded me, and of which it is impossible for me to give an account, that of reading in some sort intuitively, and of finding almost immediately the passage which would interest me. The vital force seemed entirely directed to one object. In the species of ecstasy which absorbed me internally, whilst my hand turned over the leaves of a book, or took notes, I had no knowledge of what was passing around me. The table at which I sat was surrounded and abandoned by students; the clerks of the library or the visitors came and went from the room; I heard nothing, I saw nothing; I saw only the apparitions which my reading called up before me. This remembrance is still present to me; and since this period, I have never had so keen a perception of the personages of my drama, of those men of various races, manners, physiognomies, and destinies, which presented themselves successively to my mind; some singing to the Celtic harp the eternal expectation of the return of Arthur; others sailing through the tempest as regardless of themselves as the swan playing in a lake; some, in the intoxication of victory, heaping up the spoils of the conqueror, measuring by line the land to divide it, counting over the families by heads, like cattle; others, again, deprived by a single defeat of all that makes life valuable, resigning themselves to the sight of strangers sitting as masters at their own hearths, or, frantic with despair, rushing to the forest to live there like wolves on rapine, murder, and independence.
As it has often been observed, all real passion requires an intimate confidant: I had one to whom, almost every evening, I rendered an account of my acquisitions and discoveries of the day. In the always difficult choice of a literary friendship, my heart and reason had fortunately agreed to attach me to one of the most amiable of men, and one worthy of the highest esteem. He will, I trust, forgive my placing his name in these pages, and giving him, perhaps, indiscreetly, a token of strong and profound recollection: this friend, this sure and faithful counsellor, from whom I daily regret being separated by absence, was the wise, the ingenious M. Fauriel, in whom sagacity, justness of mind, and elegance of language, seemed united. His judgments, full of acuteness and circumspection, were my rule when in perplexity; and the sympathy with which he followed my labours stimulated me to go on. I rarely got up from one of our long conversations without my mind having made a step, without its having gained something in clearness and decision. At the end of thirteen years I still remember our evening walks, which in summer were extended over a great portion of the outer boulevards, and during which I told with unceasing abundance the minutest details of the chronicles and legends, all which brought the conquerors and conquered of the eleventh century living before me; all the national miseries, all the individual sufferings of the Anglo-Saxon population, and even the affronts experienced by men dead seven hundred years before, and whom I loved as if I had been one of them. Sometimes it was a Saxon bishop turned out of his see for not knowing French; sometimes monks whose charters were destroyed as of no value, because they were in Saxon; sometimes a prisoner whom the Norman judges condemned without a hearing, because he only spoke English; sometimes a family despoiled by the conquerors, and receiving from them as charity a small portion of its own inheritance: things of but little importance when considered in themselves only, but from which I drew the strong tinge of reality, which would, if the power of execution did not fail me, colour the whole of the picture.
Thus passed the year 1821, of which the least recollections have a charm for me, perhaps because in the mysterious union which is formed between the author and his work, this year answered to the honeymoon,—the sweetest month of marriage. In 1822, I commenced a period of harder and less attractive work; I began to edit. In truth, it is in that operation of the mind, in which no longer fancy but calculation predominates, by which you endeavour to render clearly to the eyes of others what you see clearly yourself; it is there the writer finds his fatigues and misreckonings. The difficulty of finding a form for the ideal work hatched in my brain was the greater, as I refused myself designedly the help which the imitation of a model generally affords. I chose to reproduce in history neither the manner of the philosophers of the last century, nor that of the chroniclers of the middle ages, nor even that of the narrators of antiquity, however great my admiration for them. I proposed to myself, if I had the strength to do it, to unite by a sort of mixed work, the grandly epic movement of the Greek and Roman historians with the naïve colouring of the writers of legends, and the grave reasoning of our modern writers. I aspired, perhaps rather ambitiously, to create for myself a style grave without oratorical emphasis, and simple without affectation of naïveté and archaism; to paint the men of the past with the physiognomy of their time, but speaking myself the language of my own; finally, to multiply details so as to exhaust the original texts, but without scattering the narrative, and interrupting the unity of the whole.
In this attempt to conciliate such different methods, I was incessantly buffeted about between two rocks; I journeyed between two dangers, that of giving up too much to classical regularity, and thus losing the strength of local colouring and picturesque truth, and the still greater one of burdening my narrative with a multitude of little facts, poetical, perhaps, but incoherent and wanting in seriousness, wanting in significance, even for a reader of the nineteenth century. One of my chapters had the first fault, another had the second, according to the nature of the materials, sometimes poor, sometimes superfluous, and which I had great trouble to reduce, to conquer, if I may express myself thus, in order to make them enter their moulds. Sometimes, after long efforts, and erasures without number, I had recourse to my last resource, striking the thing out altogether. I essayed, not without new troubles, fresh combinations; I did and undid incessantly: it was Penelope’s work; but thanks to an immovable will and ten hours of daily labour, this work did advance. I loved it with a truly passionate affection, and attached myself to it more and more, as much from the trouble it cost me, as from my hopes, and the dreams of remote success which cradled my hours of repose.
The years 1821 and 1822 were marked in politics by a violent agitation, from which I could not and would not escape. That stroke of policy, the double vote, prelude to that other blow directed against the Charter—executed and punished ten years later, had provoked the least fanatic to illegal resistance. A secret association, borrowed from Italy, united and organized under chiefs placed high in the esteem of the country, a great portion, and that the most enlightened portion of the youth of the middle classes. But we were not long in becoming convinced of the inutility of our efforts to bring about events which were not ripe, and all the affiliated, renouncing action, returned to their counters or their books. It was an act of good sense and civic resignation; and, what is remarkable, a period of serious study succeeded, almost without interval, to this revolutionary effervescence. Dating from the year 1823, a breath of renovation commenced, making itself felt, and reviving simultaneously all the branches of literature. The ambition to attain truth under all its forms, in art as in science, then was seen dawning in a crowd of young and distinguished minds; an ambition which for seven years has never ceased to show its fruitfulness, giving great and noble hopes for the future. I had the happiness to see, what I most desired, historical works taking a high place in popular favour, and writers of the first class devote themselves to them in preference. The number and importance of the publications which appeared successively from 1824 to the end of 1830; so many extensive works, each of which presented in a new light, and re-established in some sort, an epoch either ancient or recent of the past; such a concourse of efforts and talents gave rise to the opinion, then a probable, now unfortunately a very doubtful one, that history would be the stamp of the nineteenth century, and would give it its name, as philosophy had done for the eighteenth. Such a belief was well calculated to excite zeal into enthusiasm. I believed myself, according to the fine expression of M. de Chateaubriand, to be one of the first to run down the declivity of the century, and every step I took with this thought seemed to me firmer and more certain. I reached my aim in the spring of 1825, after four years and a half of unceasing toil. The success I obtained surpassed my hopes; but this joy, great as it was, had a sad compensation; my eyes had worn themselves in work; I had partly lost my sight. My task ended, I listened, but too late perhaps, to the advice of taking some repose; it was urgent, for I had become perfectly incapable of reading or writing. My eyesight continued to diminish notwithstanding the use of the strongest remedies; and as a last medical prescription, I was ordered to travel. I went to Switzerland, and thence to Provence, where M. Fauriel soon came to join me. He had a scientific end in view in this journey; it was the last complement of long and patient researches on the political and literary history of Southern France, a work worthy in my opinion of the most flourishing time of historical erudition. Condemned to idleness, I followed from city to city my laborious traveling companion, and not without envy saw him scrutinize all the relics of the past, searching archives and libraries, to put the finishing stroke to the work which was to fill up an immense vacuum in our national history.* Thus we traveled together for some months through Provence and Languedoc. Unable myself to read, not only manuscript, but the finest inscription engraved on stone, I endeavoured to derive some benefit from my travels by studying in the monuments the history of the architecture of the middle ages. I had just enough sight to guide me, but when in the presence of edifices or ruins, of which it was necessary to find out the epoch, and determine the style, I know not what inward sense came to the help of my eyes. Animated by what I would willingly call the historic passion, I saw farther and more clearly. None of the principal lines, no characteristic feature escaped me, and the promptness of my glance, so uncertain in ordinary circumstances, was a cause of surprise to the person who accompanied me. Such are the last ideas that the sense of sight procured me; a year afterwards this slight, although to me keen enjoyment, was no longer permitted me; the remains of vision had disappeared.
On my return to Paris in the first months of 1826, I again began to follow what I considered to be my destiny, and almost blind, found again all my zeal for new studies. The necessity of reading with the eyes of another, and dictating instead of writing, did not alarm me; I had been broken into this kind of work by the editing of the last chapters of my book. The always painful transition from one method to the other, was rendered less so to me by the eager attentions of a friendship which is very dear to me. It is to M. Armand Carrel, whose name is now celebrated, that I am indebted for having overcome without hesitation this difficult step. His firm character and judicious mind came to my assistance in the days of discouragement; and perhaps I returned service for service, in being the first to guess and reveal to himself the futurity awaiting his great talents. I first occupied myself with a project long before conceived and decided on; it was that of a great history, or rather of a great chronicle of France, uniting in the frame of a continuous narrative all the original documents of our history from the fifth to the seventeenth century. The almost universal favour which the collections of chronicles and memoirs then enjoyed, had seduced and somewhat misled me. I thought it would be possible to join together all the clashing materials by filling up gaps, suppressing repetitions, but preserving with care the cotemporaneous expression of facts. It seemed to me that from this work, in which, so to speak, each century would relate itself, and speak with its own voice, must result the true history of France; that which would never be altered, never would belong to any other writer, and which all would consult as the repertory of our national archives.
By a singular coincidence, the same idea presented itself at the same time to one of my friends, whose great understanding exercised the more power over me, because the character of his mind least resembled my own; this was M. Mignet, the idealist historian of the new school, gifted with a wonderful talent for the generalization of facts and historical induction. We associated together for the execution of our mutual thought. We both made for several months preparatory studies, he on the thirteenth and following centuries, I on the preceding period. Every thing went right as long as there was nothing to do but to notice and pass in review the large masses of narrative which were to unite in the composition of our work. There was apparently something imposing in it; but when it became necessary to set about the final editing, our illusions vanished, and we each on our side perceived that a labour, in which art did not enter, was repugnant to us. I for my share ended a volume, the one which was first to appear; fortunately the enterprise was abandoned before any thing had been published.
When it became necessary to choose another subject for a book, the propensity of my mind to look back and take former ideas and former sketches into my hands again, made me think of the ten letters on the history of France, published in 1820. Six years had elapsed since that period, and the reform of historical studies no longer needed preaching; it spoke for itself, and advanced with giant strides. However, if the revolution was accomplished for the select few, it was not yet so for the body of the public. If MM. Guizot, de Sismondi and de Barante found enthusiastic readers, Velly and Anquetil had still the advantage over them of far more numerous patrons. I therefore recommenced my polemic of 1820, not against those men, guilty only of having possessed the science of their time, but against that science itself, which, old and worn out for us, ought to make way for a new science. I corrected all that was doubtful in my first work; I widened the field of controversy, and stated the historical questions in a firmer and clearer manner; finally, I substituted a calm language for my youthful style, stamped with a certain febrile ardour, and a superabundance of will which often went beyond the mark. My recent studies were put to use; they helped me to complete the criticism of the fundamental bases of the history of the two Frankish dynasties, and to fix the precise point at which the history of France, properly so called, begins. When, after treating the question of the accession of the third race, I came to that of the enfranchisement of the Commons, this problem, which had occupied me ever since the opening of my historical career, detained me by an irresistible attraction: it was impossible for me to leave it before I had treated it under all its phases, by dissertation and by narrative; a subject in which, so to speak, were reflected all my plebeian sympathies. I seemed fulfilling a duty of filial piety, in relating the stormy life of the ancestors of French citizens; in reviving for my cotemporaries the obscure names of some outlaws of the twelfth century. It is thus that a point of discussion, touched upon in 1820, in a newspaper article, became this time the subject of half a volume. The first edition of the “Lettres sur l’Histoire de France” was published towards the end of 1827; the second edition appeared the year following. It was not a mere reprint, but a completely new arrangement, in which part of the work underwent such changes, that entire chapters, replaced by others, remained unemployed. During the course of the year 1828, I divided my time between this scrupulous revision and a project, the execution of which is still only prospective, but which will be, if it please God, the crown of my historical works. My brother Amédée Thierry was then finishing his history of the Gauls, one of those works of great and conscientious erudition, in which original documents are exhausted, and which remain the last result of science. He was going to give the public one half of the prolegomena of the history of France, the Celtic origin, the picture of Gallic migrations and that of Gaul under the Roman administration. I undertook for my share the other half, that is, the Germanic origin, and the picture of the great invasions which caused the downfall of the Roman empire in the west. I experienced heartfelt pleasure at the idea of this brotherly association, at the hope of attaching our two names to the double basis on which the edifice of our national history must repose. My brother’s work has seen the light, and has made great way in the literary world; mine remains incomplete. I had entered with ardour into a series of researches quite new to me: had sought in the collection of Byzantine historians for the history of the Goths, Huns, Vandals, and other nations that took part in the dismemberment of the empire, when I found myself stopped by an obstacle stronger than myself. However extended these labours, my complete blindness would not have prevented my going through them: I was resigned as much as a courageous man can be; I had made a friendship with darkness. But other trials came; acute sufferings and the decline of my strength, announced a nervous disease of the most serious kind. I was obliged to confess myself conquered, and to save, if it was still time, the last remains of my health. I gave up work, and left Paris in October, 1828.
Such is the history of the ten most active and laborious years of my literary life. I have never found similar ones since, and have only been able to glean a few hours of work here and there amid long days of suffering. The period of rest which opened for me the year 1829 marks the limit of these two epochs, so different from one another. There is the end of my youthful career, and the commencement of a new one, which I pursue with courage, but with slow steps, much slower than formerly, but perhaps more surely. I began it by the definitive revision of my principal work, “The History of the Conquest of England by the Normans.” I wished afterwards to resume and finish my history of “the Germanic invasions, and the dismemberment of the Roman empire.” I attempted it; I exhausted all the resources of a provincial library, and I stopped for want of books. Then, making choice of a book, the materials of which were within my reach, I undertook a new “Series of Letters on the History of France,” a work no longer of criticism, but of pure narrative, which should embrace in all its details of events, manners and characters, the dramatic period in which the names of Frédegonda and Brunehilda predominated.
If, as I delight in thinking, the interest of science is counted in the number of great national interests, I have given my country all that the soldier, mutilated on the field of battle, gives her. Whatever may be the fate of my labours, this example I hope will not be lost. I would wish it to serve to combat the species of moral weakness which is the disease of our present generation; to bring back into the straight road of life some of those enervated souls that complain of wanting faith, that know not what to do, and seek everywhere, without finding it, an object of worship and admiration. Why say, with so much bitterness, that in the world, constituted as it is, there is no air for all lungs, no employment for all minds? Is not calm and serious study there? and is not that a refuge, a hope, a field within the reach of all of us? With it, evil days are passed over without their weight being felt; every one can make his own destiny; every one employ his life nobly. This is what I have done, and would do again if I had to recommence my career; I would choose that which has brought me where I am. Blind, and suffering without hope, and almost without intermission, I may give this testimony, which from me will not appear suspicious: there is something in the world better than sensual enjoyments, better than fortune, better than health itself; it is devotion to science.
Nov. 10, 1834.
[* ] From 1817 to 1827.
[* ] This continuation was published in the fifth, eighth, and eleventh volumes of the Censeur Européen, which appeared between 1817 and 1819. I do not print it here, although its suppression leaves a gap of one year (1818) in the series of my historical works. It is well to leave something to oblivion.
[† ]Censeur Européen, tom. iv. p. 105.
[* ]Censeur Européen, tom. vii. p. 250.
[† ] The Essais sur l’Histoire de France, by M. Guizot, a work of such deep erudition, and of such superior generalization, appeared only in 1822.
[‡ ] Glossarium ad Script mediæ et infimæ Latinitatis. (6 vols. in fol.)
[* ] No portion of the Histoire des Français, by M. de Sismondi, had then appeared; the three first volumes of this great work were published in 1821.
[† ] Ninth Letter in the three last editions.
[* ] I cannot help keenly regretting, that other occupations—those of instruction—have interfered, to defer, for a long while, perhaps, a publication which science demands.