1902 Encyclopedia > Jules Michelet

Jules Michelet
French historian

JULES MICHELET, (1798-1874), one of the most voluminous and remarkable writers of France, and one who only lacked a keener power of self-criticism to make him one of the greatest, was born at Paris, August 21, 1798. He belonged to a family which had Huguenot traditions, and which was latterly occupied in the art of printing. His father was a master printer, but seems not to have been very prosperous, and the son at an early age assisted him in the actual work of the press. A place was offered him in the imperial printing office, but his father was able to send him to the famous College or Lycée Charlemagne, where he distinguished himself. He passed the university examination in 1821, and was shortly after appointed to a professorship or rather mastership of history in the College Rollin. Soon after this, in 1824, he married. The period of the Restoration and the July monarchy was one of the most favourable to rising men of letters of a somewhat scholastic cast that has ever been known in France, and Michelet had powerful patrons in Villemain, Cousin, and others. But, though he was an ardent politician (having from his childhood embraced republicanism and a peculiar variety of romantic free-thought), he was first of all a man of letters and an inquirer into the history of the past. His earliest works were school books, and they were not written at a very early age. Between 1825 and 1827 he produced divers sketches, chronological tables, &c, of modern history. His Précis of the subject, published in the last-mentioned year, is a sound and careful book, far better than anything that had appeared before it, and written in a sober yet interesting style. In the same year he was appointed maître de conférences at the École Normale. Four years later, in 1831, the Introduction à l'Histoire Universelle showed a very different style, exhibit-ing no doubt the idiosyncrasy and literary power of the writer to greater advantage, but also displaying the peculiar visionary qualities which make Michelet the most stimulat-ing but the most untrustworthy (not in facts, which he never consciously falsifies, but in suggestion) of all historians. The events of 1830 had unmuzzled him, and had at the same time improved his prospects, and put him in a better position for study by obtaining for him a place in the Record Office, and a deputy-professorship under Guizot in the literary faculty of the university. Very soon afterwards he began his chief and monumental work, the Histoire de France, which occupied him for about forty years, and of which we shall speak presently. But he accompanied this with numerous other works, chiefly of erudition, such as the Œuvres Choisies de Vico, the Mémoires de Luther écrits par lui-même, the Origines du Droit Français, and somewhat later the Procès des Templiers. 1838 was a year of great importance in Michelet's life. He was in the fulness of his powers, his studies had fed his natural aversion to the principles of authority and ecclesiasticism, and at a moment when the revived activity of the Jesuits caused some real and more pretended alarm he was appointed to the chair of history at the College de France. Assisted by his friend Quinet, he began a violent polemic against the unpopular order and the principles which it represented, a polemic which made their lectures, and especially Michelet's, one of the most popular resorts of the day. He published, in 1839, a History of the Roman Republic, but this was in his graver and earlier manner. The results of his lectures appeared in the volumes Le Prêtre, la Femme, et la Famille and Le Peuple. These books do not display the apocalyptic style which, borrowed to a certain though no very great extent from Lamennais, characterizes Michelet's later works, but they contain in miniature almost the whole of his curious ethico-politico-theological creed—a mixture of sentimentalism, communism, and anti-sacerdotalism, supported by the most eccentric arguments, but urged with a great deal of eloquence. The principles of the outbreak of 1848 were in the air, and Michelet was not the least important of those who condensed and propagated them : indeed his original lectures were of so incendiary a kind that the course had to be interdicted. But when the actual revolu-tion broke out Michelet, unlike many other men of letters, did not attempt to enter on active political life, and merely devoted himself more strenuously to his literary work. Besides continuing the great history, he undertook and carried out, during the years between the downfall of Louis j Philippe and the final establishment of Napoleon III., an enthusiastic Histoire de la Révolution Française. Despite or because of its enthusiasm, this is by no means Michelet's best book. The events were too near and too well known, and hardly admitted the picturesque sallies into the blue distance which make the charm and the danger of his larger work. In actual picturesqueness as well as in general veracity of picture, the book cannot approach Carlyle's ; while as a mere chronicle of the events it is inferior to half a dozen prosaic histories older and younger than itself. The coup d'état lost Michelet his place in the Record Office, as, though not in any way identified with the republic administratively, he refused to take the oaths to the empire. But the new regime only kindled afresh his republican zeal, and his second marriage (with Mademoiselle Adèle Malairet, a lady of some literary capacity, and of republican belongings) seems to have further stimulated his powers. While the history steadily held its way, a crowd of extraordinary little books accompanied and diversified it. Sometimes they were expanded versions of its episodes, sometimes what may be called commentaries or companion volumes. In some of the best of them natural science, a new subject with Michelet, to which his wife is believed to have introduced him, supplies the text. The first of these (by no means the best) was Les Femmes de la Révolution (1854), in which Michelet's natural and inimitable faculty of dithyrambic too often gives way to tedious and not very conclusive argument and preaching. In the next, L'Oiseau (1856), a new and most successful vein was struck. The subject of natural history was treated, not from the point of view of mere science, nor from that of sentiment, nor of anecdote, nor of gossip, but from that of the author's fervent democratic pantheism, and the result, though, as was to be expected, unequal, was often excellent. L'Insecte, in the same key, but duller, followed. It was succeeded by L'Amour (1859), one of the author's most popular books, and not unworthy of its popularity, but perhaps hardly his best. These remarkable works, half pamphlets half moral treatises, succeeded each other as a rule at the twelve months' interval, and the succession was almost unbroken for five or six years. L'Amour was followed by La Femme (1860), a book on which a whole critique of French literature and French character might be founded. Then came La Mer (1861), a return to the natural history class, which, considering the powers of the writer and the attraction of the subject, is perhaps a little disappointing. The next year (1862) the most striking of all Michelet's minor works, La Sorcière, made its appearance. Developed out of an episode of the history, it has all its author's peculiarities in the strongest degree. It is a nightmare and nothing more, but a nightmare of the most extraordinary verisimilitude and poetical power.

This remarkable series, every volume of which was at once a work of imagination and of research, was not even yet finished, but the later volumes exhibit a certain fall-ing off. The ambitious Bible de l'Humanité (1864), an historical sketch of religions, has but little merit. In La Montagne (1868), the last of the natural history series, the tricks of staccato style are pushed even farther than by Victor Hugo in his less inspired moments, though—as is inevitable in the hands of such a master of language as Michelet—the effect is frequently grandiose if not grand. Nos Fils (1869), the last of the string of smaller books published during the author's life, is a tractate on educa-tion, written with ample knowledge of the facts and with all Michelet's usual sweep and range of view, but with visibly declining powers of expression. But in a book published posthumously, Le Banquet, these powers reappear at their fullest. The picture of the industrious and famishing populations of the Riviera is (whether true to fact or not) one of the best things that Michelet has done. To complete the list of his miscellaneous works, two collec-tions of pieces, written and partly published at different times, may be mentioned. These are Les Soldats de la Révolution and Légendes Démocratiques du Nord.

The publication of this series of books, and the comple-tion of his history, occupied Michelet during both decades of the empire. He lived partly in France, partly in Italy, and was accustomed to spend the winter on the Riviera, chiefly at Hyères. At last, in 1867, the great work of his life was finished. As it is now published it fills nineteen volumes. The first of these deals with the early history up to the death of Charlemagne, the second with the flourishing time of feudal France, the third with the 13th century, the fourth, fifth, and sixth with the Hundred Years' War, the seventh and eighth with the establishment of the royal power under Charles VII. and Louis XL The 16th and 17th centuries have four volumes apiece, much of which is very distantly connected with French history proper, especially in the two volumes entitled Renaissance and Réforme. The last three volumes carry on the history of the 18th century to the outbreak of the Revolution. The characteristics which this remarkable history shares with Michelet's other works will be noted presently. At present it may be remarked that, as the mere division of subjects and space would imply, it is planned on very original principles. Michelet was perhaps the first historian to devote himself to anything like a picturesque history of the Middle Ages, and his account is still the most vivid though far from the most trustworthy that exists. His inquiry into manuscript and printed authorities was most laborious, but his lively imagination, and his strong religious and political prejudices, made him regard all things from a singularly personal point of view. Circumstances which strike his fancy, or furnish convenient texts for his polemic, are handled at inordinate length, while others are rapidly dismissed or passed over altogether. Yet the book is undoubtedly the only history of France which bears the imprint of genius, and in this respect it is not soon likely to meet a rival.

Uncompromisingly hostile as Michelet was to the empire, its downfall and the accompanying disasters of the country once more stimulated him to activity. Not only did he write letters and pamphlets during the struggle, but when it was over he set himself to complete the vast task which his two great histories had almost covered by a History of the Nineteenth Century. He did not, however, live to carry it further than Waterloo, and the best criticism of it is perhaps contained in the opening words of the introduction to the last volume—" l'âge me presse." The new republic was not altogether a restoration for Michelet, and his professorship at the College de France, of which he con-tended that he had never been properly deprived, was not given back to him. He died at Hyères on the 9th of February 1874, and an unseemly legal strife between his representatives took place as to his funeral.
The literary characteristics of Michelet are among the most clearly marked and also among the most peculiar in French litera-ture. A certain resemblance to Lamennais has been already noted, and to this may be added an occasional reminiscence of the manner of Bossuet. But in the main Michelet, even in the minor details of style, is quite original and individual. His sentences and paragraphs are as different as possible in construction and rhythm from the orderly architecture of French classical prose. A very frequent device of his (somewhat abused latterly) is the omission of the verb, which gives the sentence the air of a continued interjection. Elsewhere he breaks his phrase, not finishing the regular clause at all. In these points and many others the resemblance to his contemporary Carlyle is very striking ; and, different as were their points of view, their manners of seeing were by no means unlike. History to Michelet is always picturesque; it is a series of tableaux. Allusion has been already made to the singular perspective in which these tableaux are drawn, a perspective so strange that a reader unacquainted with the actual size and relation of the objects represented is certain to be deceived. Nothing indeed is further from Michelet's purpose than deceit. Although a strong republican, an ardent anti-sacerdotalist, and a patriot of fanatical enthusiasm, he is always scrupulously fair as far as he understands what he is doing. For instance, his hatred for England and Englishmen is one of the most comically intense passions in litera-ture. He is never tired of exclaiming against their diabolical pride, their odious jealousy of France, their calculating covetousness, and so forth. In his excited imagination the long drama of European history is a kind of conflict of Ormuzd and Ahriman, in which France, it is needless to say, plays the first part and England the second. Yet he is never unfair to English fortitude and coolness, never (after the childish fashion of some of his countrymen) slurs over English victories, and often expresses genuine admiration (mixed, it is true, with a shudder or two of aversion) for the master-ful ways and constantly advancing prosperity of the English people. So, with all his dislike to the priesthood, he never is chary of praise to pope or monk whenever it can fairly be given, and, with all his republicanism, he is never weary of worshipping the heroism of a great king. But his poetical fashion of dealing with events, his exaggeration of trivial incidents into great facts of history, his fixed ideas, especially in reference to the intellectual and social condition of mediaeval times, the evils of which he enormously exaggerates, and his abiding prejudices of a general kind combine to distort his accounts in the strangest fashion. A laborious person might pick out of contemporary authors a notable collection of erroneous views of which Michelet is not so much the author as the suggester, for it is when his brilliant exaggerations are torn from their context and set down in some quite other context as sober gospel that they are most misleading to those who do not know the facts, and most grotesque to those who do. This is especially the case in regard to literature. Michelet began his great work too early to enjoy the benefit of the resurrection of old French literature which has since taken place; and though his view of that literature partakes of the amorous enthusiasm which colours his view of everything French, it is astoundingly incorrect in detail. The most remarkable passage of all perhaps is the passage in his Renaissance relating to Rabelais, Ronsard, and Du Bellay, a passage so widely inconsistent not only with sound criticism but with historic fact that the author(a very rare thing with him) makes a kind of half apology for it elsewhere. Of the work of the age of chivalry proper, the chansons de gestes, the Arthurian romances, the early lyrics and dramas, he evidently knew but little, and chose to subordinate wdiat he did know to his general theories of the time. Even much later his praise and blame, though transparently honest, are quite haphazard. Unless, therefore, the reader be gifted with a very rare faculty of applying the " grain of salt" to what he reads, or unless he be well acquainted with the actual facts before coming to Michelet's version of them, he will almost certainly be misled. But despite this grave drawback (which attends all picturesque history) the value of Michelet merely as an historian is immense. Not only are his separate tableaux, the wonderful geographical sketch of France in the beginning of the book, the sections devoted to the Templars, to Joan of Arc, to the Renaissance, to the Camisards, almost unequalled, but the in-spiriting and stimulating effect of his work is not to be surpassed. 1F his reconstruction is often hazardous and conjectural, sometimes definitely and demonstrably mistaken, and nearly always difficult to adjust entirely to the ascertained facts, it is always possible in itself, always instinct with genius, and always life-like. There are no dead bones in Michelet; they are if anything only too stirring and lively. These criticisms apply equally to the minor books, though these are necessarily fuller of the author's somewhat weari-some propaganda, and less full of brilliantly painted facts. The great fault of Michelet as of not a few other modern authors is the comparatively improvised and ephemeral character of too much of his work. His immense volume is, much of it, mere brilliant pamphleteering, much more mere description equally brilliant but equally liable to pass. Nevertheless he is (especially in French, the language par excellence of measured and academic perfection) so characteristic and singular a figure in his turbid eloquence and fitful flashing insight that he is never likely to lose a place, and a notable one, in literary history.

Almost all Michelet's works, the exceptions being his translations, compilations, &c, are published in uniform size and in about fifty volumes, partly by Marpon and Flammarion, partly by Calmann Levy. (G. SA.)

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