"And I, who have sprung from them, I, who have lived, toiled, and suffered with them—who, more than any other have purchased the right to say that I know them—I come to establish against all mankind the personality of the people."
Leopold von Ranke famously advised his students to write impartial histories. An account of the battle of Waterloo, he said, should be agreeable to the French, Germans, and Britons alike. Jules Michelet (1798–1874) would have none of it. There was one perspective on history that interested him: the French perspective.
In this, Michelet was very much a child of his times, for nationalism was not then the quaint and suspect doctrine it often appears today, but a new and fiery religion, capable of inspiring the most ardent devotion imaginable. It was not a doctrine for conservatives and solid citizens either, as it would later become, but of liberals, reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. In practice, nationalism almost always steamrolled aspirations for impartiality in historical study during the early nineteenth century—even Ranke, for all his prudent counsel, tended to write as if Prussia were the apex of civilization.
What Michelet wanted, above all else, was to speak a living past to living people—to make the French aware of their past, and of their identity as French—not Gascons or Normans or Burgundians, not Catholics and Protestants or rich and poor, but a family united by common feeling and necessity. “Frenchmen, of every condition, every class, every party,” he said, “remember well one thing! You have on earth but one sure friend, France!” To bring his countrymen to this awareness, Michelet wrote an immense History of France (1833–1843; 1855–1867), which explained the origins of the French nation in the Middle Ages and ended, in its first installment, with a moving portrait of Joan of Arc.
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History