Article abstract: Michelet was France’s greatest national historian and one of the guiding forces of modern historical writing.
Jules Michelet was the only child of a poor Parisian printer. His early life was one of material privation but deep familial love. Forced to work in his father’s establishment from an early age, the youth lived a solitary life and experienced few of the common joys of childhood. His only pleasure came from his long walks after hours in the famous cemetery, Père Lachaise, and his occasional visits to Lenoir’s Museum. It was from the latter that he first experienced a vivid realization of history and a fascination with the past.
Michelet’s antagonism toward the Church and toward monarchy, which would loom so large in his later writings, stemmed, in part, from his youth. The family of the future historian, already in dire poverty, was reduced to absolute destitution during the Reign of Terror as Robespierre’s henchmen combed the streets of Paris, jailing and executing men whose manuscripts his father had published. Fearing for his life, the elder Michelet first curtailed his printing projects and was finally forced to terminate his business by the government. Unemployment led to debts for which his father was arrested in 1808 and incarcerated for nearly a year. The collapse of his father’s occupation and his ensuing imprisonment engendered in Jules a hatred of Napoleon I, clerics, and the empire that endured to his death. In his last work, Histoire du XIXe siècle (1872-1875; history of the nineteenth century), he continued to spew forth the vitriolic opinions inculcated during his childhood.
Although financial problems led to marital strife, both parents agreed on one thing; Jules should be formally educated whatever the cost. After being tutored in Latin by a family friend, Michelet entered Lycée Charlemagne in 1812, which proved to be socially disastrous. His life of solitude had not prepared him for the competitive academic world, and the small, sensitive, shy lad became the object of endless verbal and physical abuse. The owl in daylight, as one source described him, endured the abuse and, capitalizing on his native intelligence, innate writing skills, and untiring work habits, became the top student in his class.
His brilliant academic career won for him a teaching position at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in 1822. In 1827, he published a translation of Giambattista Vico’s Principi di scienza nuova d’intorno alla comune natura delle nazione (1744; The New Science, 1948) that brought him both public acclaim and an appointment to teach history and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, a position he held until 1838, when he accepted a chair at the Collège de France. In addition to his academic positions, he served as head of the history section of the National Archives from 1830 to 1852.
The philosophical foundation for Michelet’s seventeen-volume Histoire de France (1833-1867; partial translation as The History of France, 1844-1846) and the seven-volume Histoire de la Révolution française (1847-1853; History of the French Revolution, 1972), his life’s work, slowly evolved in 1827 as he came under the influence of German Romanticism. Vico, the little-known Neapolitan philosopher, taught Michelet that all history was universal, constantly in motion, and that humanity was the common element unifying all ages. Men die, but humanity, the receptacle for human wisdom, lives on. The still-embryonic scholar first expressed his historical philosophy in Introduction à l’histoire universelle (1831; introduction to universal history), maintaining that history was nothing more than the story of liberty: man’s ongoing struggle to free himself from nature and fatality. As history was constantly in motion, he likened it to the movement of the sun. It rose in the east, in India, moved westward to Persia, Greece, Rome, and culminated in...
(The entire section is 1669 words.)