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97.06.05, Duby, History Continues

97.06.05, Duby, History Continues

On Tuesday, December 3, 1996, the world of medieval scholarship lost one of its leading lights to cancer when Georges Duby died at his home in Aix-en-Provence at the age of seventy-seven. The list of Duby's publications is astoundingly lengthy, and the range of his interests-- economic development, women, the architecture of Gothic cathedrals, the mores of chivalry, French noble families--was enormous. Born in Paris, Georges Michel Claude Duby received his first degree from Lyons in 1942 and his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1953. He taught for years at the University of Marsilles-Aix-en-Provence, and later took a post at the College de France in Paris from 1970 until his retirement in 1993. His obituary in the New York Times indicated that, at his death, twenty of his authored and edited volumes were still in print.

The Bryn Mawr Medieval Review commissioned this review of Duby's intellectual autobiography as a tribute to him. History Continues, as the blurb on the dust jacket proclaims, "beautifully evokes the vocation, craft, and career of one of this century's outstanding medievalists." Although by training I am perhaps a third-generation Annales historian, my familiarity with Duby's work is fairly minimal--the task will be left to others to assess his overall contributions to scholarship--and my familiarity with Duby the man limited to what I may have chosen to take with me from Norman Cantor's generally snarky comments on a number of French Annales historians, Duby included, in his Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: William Morrow, 1991), pp. 126, 144, 152- 54. In History Continues, Duby appears as a man passionately engaged in advancing scholarship and sharing that scholarship and the life of the Middle Ages with as many people as possible, as a thinker who perpetually looked more to future than to past approaches to scholarship, and as a person of considerable honesty and reserve and modesty. His election as one of the chosen forty to the Academie Francaise is mentioned, for example, in the foreword and on the dust jacket, but not in his memoir itself. His two-page chapter thirteen, "Honors," may play best because Duby himself was a French academic who received no shortage of honors; it also can be read as a validation of some of Cantor's assessments of how the French academic system functions, while at the same time standing as a rebuke to those who would judge the man solely by the system which produced him.

Duby explains in the Preface that his concern in the present volume is more to discuss the craft of history--what he labels as "our craft"--than it is to discuss the circumstances of his professional career. Chapter one discusses his choice to become a medieval historian and briefly introduces the approach of the Annales historians which shaped his entire career. Chapter two discusses why he and his initial mentor Jean Deniau chose Charles-Edmond Perrin as his thesis advisor; it also gives an interesting portrait of the sympathetic neglect which characterized Perrin's advising: I went to see him two or three times a year. We spent an hour to an hour and a half in conversation in the book-filled den in which he received me. We spoke, or rather he spoke, always about the same thing, his epic, the war of 1914. He recounted episodes of his wartime experience, inscribed down to the smallest detail in his extraordinary memory. At the end of the conversation, in a few sentences, I told him where things stood with my work. Accompanying me to the door, he wished me well in my endeavors. (p. 9)

Chapter three details his work, on the advice of Perrin, with the 5,500 documents contained in the Recueil des chartes de l'abbaye de Cluny, and his subsequent work with an equivalent number of documents contained in a variety of different cartularies from the Maconnais and its immediate surroundings. For his supplementary thesis Duby published the contents of one particular collection of twenty-six parchments; although this represents a minuscule portion of the materials Duby was to utilize in his thesis, he is certainly at his most poetic in describing his work in the archives:I was alone. I had finally managed to have a carton brought to the table. I opened it. What was this box going to turn up? I withdrew a first packet of documents. I untied it and slipped my hand between sheets of parchment. Taking one of them, I unfolded it, and already I felt a peculiar pleasure: these old skins are often exquisite to touch. Along with the palpable delight goes the sense of entering a secret preserve. When the sheets are opened up and flattened out, they seem to fill the silence of the archives with the fragrance of long-vanished lives .... Another pleasure, and an exciting one, is that of deciphering the text, which is in fact nothing more than a game of patience. At the end of the afternoon, you come away with a handful of facts, a small haul. But they are yours alone, for no one else knows how to ferret them out, and the hunt matters more than the quarry. Is the historian ever closer to concrete reality, to the always elusive truth for which he yearns, than when he holds in his hands, scrutinizing with his eyes, these fragments of texts from the depths of the ages, surviving, like flotsam from a shipwreck...? (pp. 17-18)

Chapter four details Duby's deciphering of the texts, mainly charters, at his disposal--because he had not attended the Ecole des Chartes, but rather a university Faculty of Letters Duby considered himself ill equipped for his task (do similar doubts surface among North American medievalists not trained at Toronto when they enter Europe's archives and libraries for the first time?)--and in Chapter five he engages in the illustrative close reading of merely one fairly unremarkable charter to show how with patience and imagination the historian reconstructs history. Chapter six describes how Duby turned his innumerable note cards into various files which formed the structure of his completed thesis, described in chapter seven, La Societe au XIe et au XIIe siecles dans la region maconnaise. From Duby's first visit to Perrin until the completion and publication of his thesis eleven years had elapsed. Some scholars consider this Duby's best work; clearly, given the space Duby devotes to the research and writing of this first book, he believes it to have been fundamental to his intellectual formation, even when he worked in quite different ways on numerous subsequent projects.

Chapter eight, "Matter and Spirit," covers the initial years of Duby's work after having obtained a university post in Aix-en-Provence. For six years Duby accumulated notes for his study of the rural economy in the medieval West, a book in which he cited "666 publications in the five languages available to me" (p. 57). The chapter describes Duby's suspiciousness of all theory, yet his debt to Marxism, and the enormous influence of social anthropology on his thinking. One cannot help but be challenged when Duby describes his intimate familiarity with and reading of African ethnographers such as Claude Meillassoux, Marc Auge, and Gerard Althabe. Where did he find the time? Chapter nine offers Duby's take on "Mentalites," and Chapter ten describes the rather surprising turn Duby's career took in pursuit of several projects, several avowedly for popular audiences, on art and architecture; his studies of mentalities and art each influenced the other, and both resulted in a complete shift in his approach to objectivity, narrative, and the nature of written sources. Duby himself does not address the question, but others have asked whether this turn in some French historiography represents a logical extension, or an abandonment and betrayal, of earlier Annales emphases on archival exploration for the social, economic, and demographic bases of history. Duby's own abandonment of the archives leads him to the surprising statement: "Unless the medievalist goes digging with archaeologists or is lucky enough to stumble on an unsuspected treasure trove, he is highly unlikely to find on the shelves of France's thoroughly scoured archives and libraries any document that no other scholar has ever seen" (p. 44). Some of us may read this and merely feel fortunate we chose Italian and Spanish history as our subjects, but unless Duby has chosen a provocatively early terminus ad quem for the end of the Middle Ages I suspect that there is quite a number of sources, especially in the rich notarial materials of Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence, still to be read for the first time.

Chapter eleven, one of the book's longest, describes Duby's decision to finally accept Braudel's offer to join the College de France, where the "very onerous burden of teaching could be concentrated into a few weeks each year"; it also discusses briefly his seminars over a period of twenty-one years, the student uprising in Paris in 1968, and most especially his work on Les Trois Ordres. Chapter twelve begins as a benign excursus on travel and the profound role it has played in Duby's education as a medievalist, but concludes with some rather sharp remarks--I quote here only his comments on the United States--on the study of medieval history in various places not France:In the United States, the study of the Middle Ages is for obvious reasons not of central importance, rather like Indian studies in France, and there are some benefits to this. Medieval history is pursued with remarkable astuteness, especially the history of culture in its literary, artistic, religious, philosophical, and legal forms, which at times means that history as such, and social history in particular, is relegated to the background. The Germanic tradition is still quite robust in the United States, and scholars influenced by it tend to look askance on the way in which Annales historians formulate their questions. We would be well advised not to take lightly the ironic jabs against 'French impressionism.' Still, we can console ourselves: 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 so 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's perhaps all too accurate assessment of medieval studies in the United States is certainly dubiously served by the translator's error which all editors apparently missed. The French "Grenade" to which Duby referred is not the Caribbean island noted in contemporary history for an American invasion, but, rather, what is known in Spanish and English as Granada, site of medieval Muslim glories, an expanding modern university, and an important and growing center of medieval studies. Goldhammer is an excellent translator, Baldwin has written an elegant introduction and provided notes where none exist in the original, typographical errors are few ("thinks" for "thanks" on the bottom of p. 6 is one of them), and it is unfortunate that, at the moment of one of Duby's strongest statements, the image which gathers in a reader's head is the often-replayed tape of the hapless and soon unemployed Russian newscaster, solemnly pointing while on the air to southern Spain as he announced the American invasion.

Chapter fourteen discusses the circumstances which led Duby to serve a stint as president of a public television agency, the Societe d'Edition de Programmes de Television. Chapter fifteen describes his efforts to write a biography of William the Marshall (and where he does defend himself against the accusation of "betraying 'the Annales spirit'"); and Chapter sixteen deals with his seminars and research on marriage and kinship among the French nobility, the work which has won him the largest audience here in the United States. A concluding Chapter seventeen, entitled "Projects," slips some rather sharp observations on the French academy--e.g., "French higher education has withered and died owing to neglect, demagoguery, and lack of power" and, after 1968, "Space should have been set aside for the best students to pursue their studies without being crowded out by hordes of less capable scholars" and, lastly, at the plight of two of his best doctoral students, forced to work as maitres de conference, unable to find professorial posts, "It is not right for the successors of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus to be treated in this way"--between a discussion of current work on the history of women, and final remarks on the recent contributions of archaeology and historiography to medieval studies.

Neither History Continues nor the French original published in 1991 have been widely reviewed or received much publicity in the Anglophone world. One notable exception is Lawrence Stone's article "Dry Heat, Cool Reason: Historians under siege in England and France," published in the Times Literary Supplement, January 31, 1992, pp. 3-5, which compares and contrasts Duby's work with G.R. Elton's Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Duby's History Continues can be read as a defense of his particular methodology, but it is more of an explanation of his own approaches than a particular manifesto. Its open-mindedness, its "cool reason," make it an inviting volume for the beginning historian, and a fitting testimonial to a life well spent. Because nearly half the volume is devoted to graduate education and the thesis process and the tools of research, I recommend it especially to all beginning graduate students and those who advise them.