1902 Encyclopedia > History > French Revolution Reveals Underlying Social Forces. 19th Century French Historians.

(Part 13)

French Revolution Reveals Underlying Social Forces. 19th Century French Historians.

Both the moral and the intellectual tendencies at work to produce a new temper with regard to history received an incalculable impetus from the French Revolution.

That cataclysm revealed the deeper forces of society which had lain silent and unsuspected under the deceitful calm of the ancien régime in its latter days. It was very certainly a revelation, though light came from the flames of Tophet, in Mr Carlyle’s phrase.

Men saw the depth of the abyss over which they had lived in quiet ignorance, and their notions on man, society, and history underwent a great change. Passions undreamed of were let loose, and the passions of the present threw light on those of the past.

History was read with new eyes. "Whenever," says a man who lived through the tempest and profited as much as any one by it, -- "Whenever," says Niebuhr, "an historian is reviving past times, his interest in them and sympathy with them will be the deeper the greater the events he has witnessed with a bleeding or rejoicing heart" (Preface to Hist. of Rome).

Few generations have seen events which alternately made men’s hearts bleed and rejoice more passionately than Niebuhr’s own, and none have ever stimulated history so much.

With the peace of 1815 historical studies acquired an activity and scope they never had before. All history, it was perceived, needed rewriting from new points of view, with more knowledge, deeper insight, keener sympathy.

The French led the van of the new movement with their usual brilliancy and mastery of literary form. But it was their position as the nearest witnesses and the greatest sufferers and gainers by the Revolution which did most to open their eyes.

A truly illustrious band of scholars and writers under the Restoration, the Monarchy of July, raised history into a position of honour it had never enjoyed before. Michaud, the two Thierrys, Sismondi, Guizot, De Barante, Michelet, and many more rendered services to history which must not be forgotten because on many points their labours have been superseded. It is indeed a capital proof of the merit of their labours that they furnished the means and the incentive to their supersession, a proof that their studies were vital and progressive.

The Germans, with their solid erudition, were not slow in following the French. Between the two, the Middle Ages, Greek and Roman antiquity, and the history of the Christian Church were studied with a minuteness and breadth never known before. History had entered on its modern phase.

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