Local History in France and Regional Publishing Houses
Not least among the paradoxes of French history is that this highly centralized country, which acquired very early the structures of a modern state, has a long and important tradition of regional, provincial, and local history. The geography of France, its exceptional network of waterways, the variety of its countryside, and the ease of communication have favored regional history from prehistoric times.
One cannot understand the history of France without a thorough knowledge of its Celtic origins: some 100 tribes or pagi spread out over the whole territory whose names and borders persist into current departments. Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (59 B.C.) is our first written document, Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks (c. 584 A.D.), our first national history. The romanization of the Gauls followed the same pattern as that of the Gallic tribes; similarly, the different waves of Germanic or Mongol invaders were all absorbed and assimilated.
The abbeys spread out over the country were the focal points for the first collections of documents: cartularies, the principal source for French historiography. From the birth of printing, customaries 142were issued from local presses. The religious wars promote the publication of accounts of local events. The 17th century sees the founding of regional societies and academies, such as the Société des Lanternistes in Toulouse and the Académie de Caen in Normandy, along with the Académie Française.
The 18th century was marked by the production by the Benedictines of Saint-Maur of monumental regional histories, for example: L’Histoire du Languedoc by Devic and Vaissette. This was also the era of the first demographic studies. After the revolutionary rupture, the 19th century saw the rebirth of provincial academies and societies; these continued to multiply from the Restoration to the July Monarchy, through the Second Empire and the Third Republic. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, each department could count within its territory more than one learned or academic society; each of these consecrated a more or less important part of its activities to local history. Certain of the auxiliary sciences of history, such as genealogy, heraldry, sigillography, and the publication of collections of charters were the province of local erudites, and printing was often done locally.
In the 20th century the movement has continued and currently is assuming new dimensions, becoming a sociological phenomenon. The secondary residences acquired by urban dwellers in their province of origin or another inspire a great desire to know the history of these vacation or retirement places. Monographs on local history going right down to the village level are multiplying. Finally the new French school of history founded by Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel has given local history its patents of academic nobility by encouraging brilliant researchers to consecrate their doctoral theses to exhaustive monographs on regional or local history. Some examples are: Michel Rouche’s L’Aquitaine, des Wisigoths aux arabes, 418–781: Naissance d’une région; Alain Molinier’s Stagnations et croissance, le Vivarais aux XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles; J.C. Perrot’s Genèse d’une ville moderne, Caen au XVIIIe siècle, and George Duby’s La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise.