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95.07.07, Duby, History Continues

95.07.07, Duby, History Continues

Having previously published an autobiographical essay and discussed his career as an historian of medieval Europe in several interviews,[[1]] Georges Duby (b. 1919) now uses this brief, newly translated intellectual autobiography to chart "a long journey that began with peasants and moved on to the nobility, that began with the tools of production and commerce and moved on to bonds of kinship, that began with ideologies and proceeded to dreams" (p. 127). As he describes it here, the journey began in 1942, when he started his thesis for the doctorat d'Etat, and continued down to the early 1990s, when, after retiring from the College de France, he was still at work on several projects.

Combining longer and shorter discussions of his writings with notes and comments on other aspects of his career, Duby first explains in great detail how he wrote his celebrated thesis on the eleventh- and twelfth-century Maconnais (published in 1953) and notes what he now considers to be its strengths and weaknesses (chaps. 2-7). He then shows more cursorily how he moved on to study other subjects that are briefly noted below. Besides citing the role of commissions in generating many of his writings, Duby briefly analyzes "the revival of interest in rural subjects in France around 1960" (p. 59) and the transformation of historical research in France in the late 1950s and early 1960s under the influence of structural anthropology and Marxism (p. 75). He also explains how, after choosing to remain at the University of Aix-en-Provence-Marseilles for almost twenty years, he finally moved to Paris in 1970 to take a chair at the College de France (chap. 11). After discussing the market for history books that developed in the 1960s (pp. 88-91) and describing his travels, honors, and work for television (chaps. 12-14), Duby concludes by noting his own ongoing projects and commenting on the state of medieval history and of French universities.

Often focusing narrowly on what he wrote, how he wrote it, and why he wrote it, Duby is more terse and circumspect in reviewing his own life and career than other recent practioners of this genre of academic writing have been. He carefully preserves his privacy and avoids clear references to such academic wrangles as he could hardly have escaped. Indeed he sometimes treats his career, French academia, and the people he has worked with so cryptically that only insiders (that is, French insiders) will know how to decode his remarks. Nevertheless, his book--which has been well translated, annotated, and indexed for English readers--well reveals enough of his career, work, and intellectual style to explain to a general readership why his voice is utterly distinctive in the field of medieval history, why his writings in French and in translation have attracted such a wide following, and why the work, though mystifying or even displeasing to some, has profoundly influenced many historians.

By rapidly surveying Duby's work in a mere 133 pages, History Continues highlights, on the one hand, the unusual breadth and variety of his substantive interests and, on the other, his ongoing efforts to formulate and reformulate a single, coherent vision of several centuries in French history. After initially constructing a "fairly simple" model of social, political, and economic change in the Maconnais from 980 to 1240, which has itself remained the model for almost all subsequent French regional monographs, Duby abandoned regional history, turning first to a kind of economic history that was increasingly influenced by anthropology (chap. 8) and then to studies of "mentalites" and ideology (chap 9 and pp. 93-96), art (chap. 10), warfare and knighthood (pp. 91-93, chap. 15), kinship, marriage, and now gender (chap. 16 and pp. 127-28). Many of these forays into new areas, however, involved efforts to expand the scope of his original model (which he still considers his best work [see p. 50]) by incorporating new elements such as ideology into it and by refining it theoretically. Although, as Duby recognizes, this way of working has left him open to the charge that he has repeated himself (p. 125), made mistakes in his research (see p. 41), and needs what he calls "sharp but useful admonitions" from critics (p. 103), it has enabled him to develop an unusually well integrated theory of social, economic, political, and cultural change in eleventh- and twelfth-century France and to formulate distinctive positions on a wider range of topics than most other medieval historians are willing or able to study. Less evident but no less important is the way in which Duby's manner of working has enabled him to introduce critiques of his older work into his newer work and to refine his thinking on such topics as kinship not only by carrying out additional research but also by rethinking fundamental categories of analysis.

As this memoir indicates, Duby's way of studying medieval history has led him to forego a monogamous relationship with professional academic medievalism and to find colleagues in other historical fields, in other human sciences, and even outside academia. Accepting commissions not only from academic series editors, but also from the art-book publisher and a minister of agriculture and involving himself in the production of television shows, Duby ventured far outside his original subfield, sometimes abandoning rhetorical conventions of academic history and adapting himself to new forms of literary and visual communication. Preferring collaborative work and discussion to solitary research (see p. 133), he clearly likes groups that include non-medievalists. To be sure, some of the relations he describes with professional academic medievalists in France and elsewhere are more than distant, perfunctory, or ambivalent. He expresses gratitude to his teacher at Lyons, Jean Deniau, and acknowledges a great intellectual debt to the work of Marc Bloch and a smaller one to the work of his patron Charles Edmond-Perrin, who directed his thesis mainly by telling him detailed stories about World War I. As a student, he was impressed, he says, by the work of such economic historians as Philippe Wolff and Michel Mollat (p. 2); and he still communicates enthusiasm for his early work in archives and praises the Ecole des Chartes (a "ferocious guardian of scholarly tradition" [p. 75]) for its excellence in "teaching the methods that confer upon history the appearance of an exact science" (p. 23). He mentions encounters at conferences with several well-known medievalists (p. 97); notes his intellectual debts to German medieval historians such as Karl Hauk and Gerd Tellenbach (pp. 104, 123-124); acknowledges the criticisms of unnamed Belgian, Dutch, and Swiss scholars; notes "the ironic gibes" of American medievalists against "French impressionism"; and praises unnamed British scholars for having achieved "the highest intellectual distinction" (p. 104).

Yet these connections, as Duby represents them, seem insubstantial when compared with his ties to others, almost all of them non-medievalists. "I feel I owe as much to Lucien Febvre as to Marc Bloch," Duby writes, noting how Febvre urged him "to shun picayune scholarship" (p. 69). Reading Althusser "assiduously" in the 1960s, Duby was struck "by the accuracy and corrosive power of his analyses" (p. 63). More than "personal sympathy," Duby declares, "drew me to Rodney Hilton and the historians of Past and Present" (p. 62). Duby also read "Africanists such as Meillassoux, Auge, and Althabe," as well as Foucault, Lacan, and Bachelard (p. 66; see also p. 120). He expresses admiration for the art-book editor Albert Skira (p. 76) and for Fernand Braudel (p. 85). He recalls "an evening session at the Centre d'Etudes Marxistes . . . where Ernest Labrousse honored me by . . . presiding over a profitable if heated evening of debate about my book [Les trois ordres]" (p. 94). He was "spurred" on by the work of Levi-Strauss, whose work "posed a challenge to historians" and who, along with others at the College de France, "intimidated" him (pp. 68, 65, 86).

Having been "trained by geographers before studying with historians" (p. 4), Duby retained a strong interest in this field, which also "led [him] naturally to anthropology, the discipline that took up where geography left off" (p. 65). He studied several forms of anthropology--a subject which encouraged him to incorporate notions of "reciprocity and redistribution" into medieval economic history (p. 66), to try out "a new approach to the history of mentalites" (p. 68), and to think of how medieval kinship ties could be considered as "relations of production" (p. 120). Even stronger than the influences of geography and anthropology on Duby was the influence of Marxism, to which his "debt," he now writes, is "immense": "I am pleased to acknowledge it, out of loyalty and not simply out of a desire to be mischievous, like the one to which I succumbed during a colloquium in Venice, when, in response to Raymond Aron's invitation to express my views on methodology in the history of value systems, I amused myself by invoking Gramsci, Labriola, and even Lenin as my sole authorities." (p. 65) In less mischievous moments, Duby sharply dissociates himself from certain Marxisms and says he is "suspicious of theories" (p. 64). But he insists that Marxism "added welcome sophistication" to an historical understanding previously based on his study of geography and his reading of Annales (p. 64). He later notes that in adding the subtitle, L'Imaginaire du feodalisme, to his book on Les trois ordres(The Three Orders) "I did not choose the word feodalisme solely to enrage my anti-Marxist friends. I was determined to situate the work in relation to a project of research in social history that began with a set of questions based on Marxian thought and by no means turned against Marxism as it progressed. Its natural development had carried it a little further than Marx and Engels had gone, but that was because in their day little was known about medieval society. . . . If I . . . refused to confine myself to materialism, I did not reject or denounce it as so many others did, noisily, as if ridding themselves of something stuck in their throats." (p. 94)

It should come as no surprise that Duby's voice sometimes has a political edge, that he shows no reluctance in acknowledging connections between his interests in history and contemporary concerns, or that he now surveys both academia and medieval history with a critical eye. Although he complains about what he sees as the hyper-politicization of historical studies in Italy, where "historians are absolutely required to declare themselves to be either of the right or the left" (p. 64), he states, when discussing his work during the 50s and 60s: "A glance at any of my published works is enough to show what my leanings were" (p. 62). Among the reasons he cites for the revival of interest in rural history is "the turmoil surrounding decolonization and France's bitter role in the Algerian tragedy, which drove us, as if to avenge a national honor tainted by torture and lies, to collect the debris of oppressed cultures and to ask whether the peasant cultures of medieval Europe, like those of the colonies, had been ground down by the pride and cruelty of the wealthy, educated, and powerful. Many French historians became caught up in this broad movement, and I was one of them." (p. 60)

When he returned in 1973 to the work on kinship he had begun at Aix in the mid-1950s, he chose this topic for his seminar "with the present in mind and as a result drew new members to share in the work" (p. 120); and "sometimes, way off in the back of the room, I saw Michel Foucault discreetly taking notes" (p. 120). In the 1980s, "concerns of the moment" (p. 120) led Duby to study women, as "the profound upheaval that is taking place before our eyes, the most significant change in male-female relations since history began" made the question of gender "urgent" (p. 127). Although he never explains why he is currently studying the religious life, it is hard to believe that in joining with others to take up a subject that he had "imprudently" and "mistakenly" excluded from his earlier work (see pp. 20, 54, 133), he is simply filling a gap in his empirical research.

Without using this memoir to pursue personal academic vendettas Duby freely voices criticisms of French academic life, historical study in France, and medieval scholarship in several countries. In France, he writes, "the academic environment" has "gone sour" (p. 128). "French higher education has withered and died owing to neglect, demagoguery, and lack of power" (pp. 128, 129). Pay for medieval historians is shockingly low (p. 130). Among French historians, "intellectual debate is . . . far less vigorous than it was thirty or forty years ago"; there has been "a slowing of progress" (p. 131). In French medieval history "vivacity remains" mainly in "those austere, auxiliary disciplines that have been reinvigorated by contact with the other human sciences and imbued at last with the `spirit of the Annales'" (p. 131). New ideas come mainly from "the margins of the profession"--from heraldry and codicology and from archeology and the history of history (p. 131). Acutely conscious of intellectual differences between French medieval scholarship and medieval scholarship elsewhere and aware of how those differences are determined partly by differences in the material support medievalists receive in different countries, Duby worries about how successful French medievalists will be in maintaining their standing in relation to those whom he sometimes sees as their competitors. Although German medieval scholarship, he says, is "too serious for my taste," he praises it for its seriousness and efficiency and finds working conditions for medievalists better in Germany than in France (p. 104). After noting that medieval studies in the U.S. occupy a marginal position comparable to that of Indian Studies in France, Duby praises scholars here for the "remarkable astuteness" with which they pursue "the history of culture in its literary, artistic, religious, philosophical and legal forms." But without dismissing American criticisms of "the way in which Annaleshistorians formulate their questions," he complains that "history as such, and social history in particular, is relegated to the background" and that "the Germanic tradition is still quite robust in the United States." In his view the virtues of American medievalism should not be exaggerated: "Aren't our American colleagues trapped in a careerist system even crueler than the one that young European medievalists must endure? Isn't their research frequently confined within programs too narrowly conceived? And are we sure that the costly modern equipment of which we are so envious wouldn't produce even more impressive results in the hands of researchers in Grenada [sic] or Prague?" (p. 104)Duby refuses to confine himself to materialism when evaluating "l'imaginaire" of modern-day medievalism. But he does not reject it either.

Although History Continues provides an inadequate basis for evaluating Duby's oeuvre, for discussing the significant and the trivial criticisms that have been made of it over the years, or for explaining fully why, for some of us, it has been a powerfully liberating force in medieval studies, the book has the virtue of presenting the rare exemplum of a medieval historian who has made his own history and seems to have made it more or less as he pleased.

NOTE [[1]] See Georges Duby, "Le plaisir de l'historien," in Essais d'ego-histoire edited by Pierre Nora (Gallimard: Paris, 1987), pp. 109-38; Georges Duby and Bronislaw Geremek, Passions communes: entretiens avec Philippe Sainteny (Editions du Seuil: Paris, 1992); Georges Duby and Guy Lardreau, Dialogues (Flammarion: Paris, 1980); "Le moyen Age: entretien avec Georges Duby, N[ouvelle] C[ritique] (1970), reprinted in Aujourd'hui l'histoire (Editions Sociales: Paris, 1974), pp. 202-17; "Table ronde," in L'Arc, no. 72, Georges Duby, pp. 73-89.