Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY XXII.: FIRST LETTER ON THE HISTORY OF FRANCE, ADDRESSED TO THE EDITOR OF THE COURRIER FRANCAIS. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
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ESSAY XXII.: FIRST LETTER ON THE HISTORY OF FRANCE, ADDRESSED TO THE EDITOR OF THE “COURRIER FRANCAIS.” - 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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FIRST LETTER ON THE HISTORY OF FRANCE, ADDRESSED TO THE EDITOR OF THE “COURRIER FRANCAIS.”
The title of French which your journal bears, imposes a kind of obligation on you to embrace every thing which concerns France; to follow its destiny in the past, as you follow it in the future, and sometimes to present in your pages, by the side of the energetic expression of the wants and desires of the present epoch, a lively and faithful picture of the times which have preceded and produced our own, and which have produced ourselves.
In difficult circumstances, a nation is always led to look back; it becomes more curious to learn what were the conduct and characters of the men who preceded it on the world’s scene, and have transmitted its name to it. It seems as if, like the Antæus of fable, it hoped to renew its vigour by touching the bosom whence it sprung. And, in truth, it is rare for the great memories of the past not to inspire at once more calmness and more strength to the generation which retraces them. It is not that there is nothing mysterious and inexplicable in this; it is because in recalling to our memory what former generations have done for us, we conceive the idea of an engagement which, so to speak, binds us to it: the interest of preserving our liberty, our welfare, our national honour, appears to us as a duty; the care of these things becomes more dear to us, when we feel before them as if in presence of a deposit which had been placed in our hands on the rigid condition of improving and increasing it.
Such are the sentiments which would produce a serious study of the history of France in the minds of the Frenchmen of the present day. It must be said for the honour of our name, the spirit of independence is impressed on this history as strongly as on that of any other people, ancient or modern. Our ancestors understood it; they willed it as we do; and if they did not bequeath it to us full and entire, it was the fault of circumstances and not theirs; for they surmounted more obstacles than we shall ever meet. If we have now some power to obtain respect for our just rights, it is to their courage that we owe it; and the accession of French liberty, pure and great as our desires anticipate, will one day be but the accomplishment of their ancient enterprise.
These assertions will appear strange, I know, to many persons. They will be astonished to hear me say, that strong and independent generations trod the soil of our country before we did, when the word liberty is so rarely met with in those of our histories which every body reads, and which pass for the most exact. This is, Monsieur, the misfortune of France; in the times of great patriotic efforts, literature was not born; and when literary talent came, patriotism slumbered, and historians sought inspirations for their narratives elsewhere. The history of France, such as the modern writers have made it, is not the real history of the country, the national, the popular history: this history is still buried in the dust of cotemporary chronicles, whence our elegant academicians have been careful not to fetch it. The best part of our annals, the most serious, the most instructive, still remain to be written; the history of the citizens, of the subjects, and of the people, is still missing. This history would present to us at the same time examples of conduct, and that feeling of sympathy which we vainly seek in the adventures of the small number of privileged persons who occupy alone the historical scene. Our minds would attach themselves to the destiny of the masses of men who have lived and felt like us, far better than to the fortune of the great and of princes, the only one which is related to us, and the only one in which there are no lessons for our use; the progress of the popular masses towards liberty and well-being would appear to us more imposing than the march of conquerors, and their misfortunes more touching than those of deposed kings. In this truly national history, if it found a pen worthy to write it, France would figure with its cities and various populations, which would present themselves before us as so many collective beings endowed with will and action. We should learn that our cities have something to be proud of besides the residence of some great noble, or the passage of some sovereign; and it is not true that during entire centuries, all their political life consisted in furnishing recruits for the company of free archers, and paying taxes twice a year.
But if the labour of collecting and bringing to light the scattered and unknown details of our real history would be useful and glorious, it would be difficult; it would require great strength, long researches, rare sagacity; and I hasten to tell you, Monsieur, that I have not the presumption to undertake it. Led to historical studies by an irresistible attraction, I should be careful not to mistake the ardour of my tastes for a sign of talent. I feel within me the profound conviction that we have not yet a history of France, and I aspire only to make the public share my conviction, persuaded that from that vast assembly of just and active minds, new candidates will soon start up for the high functions of the historian of French liberty. But whoever would pretend to it, must try himself previously; it will not be sufficient for him to be capable of that common admiration for what are called heroes; he would require a stronger mode of thinking and feeling; the love of men as men, abstractedly from their renown or social position; an intrepid judgment, which declares liberty, even when dejected and despised, to be greater and more holy than the powerful who cast it down; a sensibility expansive enough to attach itself to the destiny of an entire people as to the destiny of a single man, to follow it through centuries with as attentive an interest and as keen emotions as we follow the steps of a friend in a perilous course.
This sentiment, which is the soul of history, has been wanting in the writers who, up to the present time, have endeavoured to treat of ours. Not finding within themselves the principle which should concentrate round one sole interest the innumerable portions of the picture which they intended to present, they sought the link externally, in the apparent continuity of certain political existences, in the chimera of the non-interrupted transmission of a power which was always the same, to the descendants of one family. To sustain this scaffolding, and maintain the thread of their narratives, they have been compelled to falsify facts in a thousand ways; they have omitted certain authentic reigns, forged imaginary relationships, and kept in oblivion the acts and formulas of the ancient election of kings; they have pretended to see the legacy of France, body and goods, established as a right in wills which transmitted nothing but a purely private domain and possession; they have travestied the popular assemblies of the conquering nation of Gaul into high courts of aulic justice. When they saw the men of that free country assemble in arms on hills,* or in vast plains,† to vote their laws,‡ they represented them as the servile auditors of some imperial edict, like subjects before a master, who alone speaks, and whom nobody contradicts.
All the events are thus misconstrued by arbitrary interpretations; and owing to this method, after reading our history, it is difficult to remember any thing else in the way of institutions and manners, than a complete detail of an estate belonging to a royal house. How is it possible to pass without giddiness from these narratives, which embrace so many years, and in which the French nation figures only as a remembrance, to the history of the thirty years which we have just seen elapse? It seems as if we were suddenly transported to a new country, in the midst of a new people; and yet they are the same men. In the same way that we are able to trace ourselves back by name and descent to the Frenchmen who lived before the eighteenth century, we could equally trace ourselves back to them by our ideas, hopes and desires, if their thoughts and actions were faithfully reproduced to us.
No, it is not since yesterday that our France has seen men employing their courage, and all the faculties of their soul, to create for themselves and their children an existence at once free and inoffensive. Those serfs escaped from the soil, who raised up seven hundred years ago the walls and civilization of the ancient Gallic cities, have preceded us at a distance to open a wide path for us. We, who are their descendants, believe that they were worth something, and that the most numerous and most forgotten part of the nation deserves to live over again in history. If the nobility can claim high feats of arms, and military renown in the past, there is also a glory for the plebeians, that of industry and talent. Those were plebeians who reared the war horse of the noble, and joined the steel plates of his armour. Those who enlivened the festivities of the castles by poetry and music, were also plebeians; the very language we speak is that of the plebeians; they created it at a time when court and dungeons re-echoed with the harsh and guttural sounds of a Germanic dialect.
[* ] Montana colloquia, jus montanum, Malberg.
[† ] Campus Martius.
[‡ ] Lex fit consenvu populi. . . . . . (Edict. Pist.)