Paris Notes, Fall, 1999

French Academia’s Fear of the Year 1000: Letter from a Spurned Lover

If French academics appear to be defensive and even somewhat insular in their approach to scholarship, it may reflect a larger dissatisfaction with the way history has “turned out.” France dominated European culture on and off for almost the entire last millennium, and although they consider their revolutionary ideals as the cutting-edge of mankind’s evolution, the French have seen their position of cultural dominance fade in the last two centuries. English has become the lingua franca of global culture.

A certain amount of bitterness and spite is, therefore, not a surprising ingredient of current French cultural expressions, notable in everything from their refusal to be in England’s time zone, to their Gauling foreign policy, to their complaints about Coca Cola and McDonald’s chokehold on the world, to their protectionist exception culturelle. Indeed, one might even detect in the current emphasis in France on mondialisation over globalisation (multicultural over homogenous global culture) a distinct whiff of sour grapes emanating from one of the most homogenizing cultures of the last 500 years: if Paris is not to be the center of world civilization, then let a thousand cultures bloom.

Given this underlying sense of unrecognized glory, I find myself as an American medievalist, in a strange situation. I think I have found the key to that long French cultural dominance back in the early 11th century, where I locate the first expression of certain cultural and social forces that made the region today called France the powerhouse of European culture for centuries to come. Indeed, on the basis of what first began then, I argue that the 11th century marks the birth of a European culture that created the global community which, even today, mutates before our very eyes. In many medievalist circles – especially Anglophone (the Germans are too polite) – colleagues take the mickey out of me for the emphasis I put on the centrality of France in medieval culture. As Rob Bartlett once put it, with gentle mockery of me and of the grandiose French: “France… Europe… Monde.”

Nor do I deny the characterization. I think that is precisely how it happened (even if, in the latter Monde stage, France was fading fast. So if I could expect any place to view my work positively, it would be in France and among Francophone medievalists. And yet no scholarship has shown itself more openly hostile to my work than there. In the past few years, I have been the object of a long article and two books designed to utterly refute my theses and banish them to the world of “popular lore.” Indeed one book was initially to have my name in the subtitle: Les fausses terreurs de l’an mil: De Raoul Glaber à Richard Landes.

Although the author clearly intended it the way a comparison to Bill Clinton would operate in current Republican discourse, I find the apposition quite flattering: especially when I find myself on the same hit-list with Rodulfus Glaber, Jules Michelet, and Georges Duby. What puzzles me the most, though is the nature of the argument. I am trying to tell a story of a period that, in my opinion, was among the most exciting and mouvementé in history, a generation of people whose collective behavior and interactions marked a fundamental turning point in western culture (both Christian and Jewish) – it is the birth moment and site of European Christian and Ashkenazic Jewish cultures. The response of some French medievalists? – Ridiculous. There is no such revolution going on at this time. To the contrary, it was a time of slow, gradual change – not a mutation but an adjustment – and one so slow that contemporaries did not even know it was happening. Above all, in a phrase he uses with the ease of a campaign slogan, Dominique Barthélemy argues that “il faut dédramatiser” the story in order to arrive at “une histoire plus authentique.”

Thus, the most visible Francophone response to my work is a great No! And this in turn permits other medievalists to reconstruct events (narrowly or largely defined) without dealing with the issues that I – and other medievalists – have put forth. Trying not to read this as a personal affront, I am left with the strange phenomenon of people who, in their insular resentment, seem to bite the very hand that offers them some interesting historical, sociological, and methodological nourishment. Why would this be?

France has had a Y1K problem for a long time. Depending on whom you consult, it either goes back to Michelet in the mid-19th century, or to the late Renaissance, or to the year 1000 itself, or, if you follow my argument, back to the 5th century, and the work of the great Latin theologian, Augustine. In any case, the Y1K problem is well over a century old. And it runs thus: at the approach of the year 1000, there were widespread apocalyptic expectations in Europe associated with the end of the first millennium Anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. According to the most common version, panic stricken people gathered in churches on New Year’s eve and, on the morrow, heaved a collective sigh of relief. Indeed, some historians used these terreurs de l’an mil to explain the exceptional vigor of 11th century society – at this moment of prophecy failed, people went from anticipatory paralysis to a new optimism. They thus began the exceptional growth process of the dawning new age, a process that has not only not abated but accelerated over the course of the last millennium.

In particular, Michelet’s depiction of 1000 (Histoire de France, 1833), one of the earliest and most popular, held that the advent of 1000 was a moment of crisis, a moral epiphany where the long-suffering moan of the oppressed became the “terrible laugh” of liberation, that escaped the lips of “the monk in the abstinences of the cloister, the prisoner from the dungeon, the peasant in the furrow beneath the shadow of the odious tower.” Amidst an atrocious social breakdown into violence, plague and famine, the warriors of the society, those responsible for the paroxysm of violence and oppression, now standing in the shadow of God’s justice, “sheathed their swords” and did penance at vast open-air assemblies held by the church. Here they promised before huge crowds – young, old, men, women, lay, clerical – not to use violence against those not armed. These Peace of God assemblies, which spread through France like waves, gave birth, in Michelet’s mind, to le peuple and to France.

The problem was that if this actually happened on a massive scale, the only one to speak of it explicitly was Rodulfus Glaber (a.k.a. Raoul le Glabre, Ralph the Bald). In a sense, one might even say that Michelet’s reconstruction was an exegesis of Glaber’s work. To read the other historians of the period, and the other major texts, may uncover elements of Glaber’s grand narrative, but no other contemporary source linked these matters so explicitly and so comprehensively as did Glaber and none even approach his apocalyptic “explanation.” Very few even mention the year 1000, much less speak of it as apocalyptic, and none show the acutely self-conscious awareness of living in a time of dramatic transformation as does Glaber. Furthermore, in the generations after Glaber, few if any of the sources spoke much of either of the two key elements in both his and Michelet’s vision of the moment – the apocalyptic expectations of 1000 or the Peace of God movement. It would not be until ca. 1600 that the apocalyptic year 1000 would emerge as an historical narrative, and not until the social historians of the later 20th century, especially Georges Duby, that the Peace of God would find any significant place in the grand narratives of the period.

Thus, lively and plausible as it might seem, the historiographical vision of an apocalyptic year 1000 was apparently built more on imagination than on sources. Perhaps such a story can work for a popular audience, but the true historian had to ask the question – how much of this harrowing portrait of an apocalyptic age was projected? In the late 19th century historiography became a profession, with its practitioners trained to work in the archives with precise tools (paleography, codicology, diplomatics, chronology). As part of a larger modern triumphalism known in some circles as “Positivism,” History became a “scientific” field, committed to tell the story of the past as it accurately as possible – wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, as Ranke’s famous phrase goes.

These “new, improved” historians, re-examining the dossier, found that Michelet and his colleagues had based their dramatic reconstruction on a very thin base of real documentation. Indeed they found that virtually nothing supported the apocalyptic thesis: a) there was no biblical support for expecting the Apocalypse in 1000; b) very few people even knew the date, and certainly not the illiterate peasantry; c) two texts aside, the entire documentary corpus from the period breathed not a word about this so-called apocalyptic millennium. The year 1000 was, by this school’s reading, “a year like any other” – no more nor less exciting than any other.

Starting with an article by a Benedictine monk, Dom François Plaine in 1872, this total reversal of our image of what occurred around 1000 rapidly spread among medieval historians, forging a professional consensus that united even religious and secular scholars. The “Terrors of 1000” was thus “banished from serious historical writing.” The few efforts to argue against this consensus since the 1950s by historians looking more closely at the documentation, have failed to carry any weight. Most medievalists continue to assert a position first articulated in the later 19th century. Who would argue with a conclusion so tried and true?

Then, from an entirely different direction, the winds of change began to blow. Due to the growing interest in social history – the famous Annales school – French historians began to look below the level of the “history of events,” below the narrative of the great deeds of the elites and pay attention to things like “mentalités.” Some French historians in the postwar period, most notably Georges Duby, began to identify the turn of the millennium as a vast and profound cultural mutation, one that affected, indeed transformed the society at every level from the highest aristocrats the lowliest peasants. The breakdown of Carolingian political structures in the late 10th century had produced a “castellan revolution” where a middling aristocracy built independent power bases from behind the walls of castles and, like mafioso dons surrounded with their wise-guy “knights” in armor, had created local protection rackets. From the ethos of “plunder and distribute” of the tribal warrior they had shifted to the “exploit and spend” of the seigneurial lord. This shift had an immense impact on everyone from the commoners who became the object of systematic exploitation, to the great aristocrats whose power (especially judicial) was usurped, to the very castellans who had to dispossess their younger sons so they could hand this new unit of power over to one son intact.

Of all the responses, Duby considered the Peace of God the most potent and penetrating. He depicted it as a veritable “social contract” that delineated the reciprocal relations between the “Three Orders” – workers, fighters, and prayers. For Duby, as for Michelet, the French Revolution and the victory of the “Third Estate” was a climactic chapter in a tale begun at the turn of the millennium.

All this was music to my ears. As a graduate student in the late 1970s with a minor in anthropology, all this fit beautifully into a model of millennial movements are agents of cultural change – movements of revitalization and acculturation. Indeed, the turn of the millennium could be one of the most powerful illustrations of that thesis on the historical record. To have medievalists bemoan the lack of any good explanation for this dramatic transformation seemed like an invitation to answer, to reintroduce – but at a much more sophisticated level – the apocalyptic year 1000.

In fact, all this fit perfectly into my larger historical agenda, one inherited from my father David Landes, to explain whence the originality and dynamism of the modern West. For me, those peace councils were the first appearance of civil society in the West, an opening round of a process that would empower commoners over the coming millennium and culminate first in the creation of a formal “civil society” at the end of the 18th, and second in the spread of that model around the world at the end of the 20th.

The moment seemed particularly opportune for my work. Duby and his colleagues had set me up, for me to spike the ball. And spike I would since I had discovered a wonderful trove of documents that made mincemeat of the positivist nonsense about 1000 as “a year like any other.” The documentation was rich in apocalyptic material and evidence for a specific fascination with 1000. In working on the two great historians of this age (Glaber, 985-1044; and Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034) for my dissertation, I had stumbled across the key to understanding the apocalyptic importance of the year 1000. From the first century of Christianity, we find the idea of the sabbatical millennium, the notion that at the end of 6000 years of travail, the millennial kingdom of peace, plenty and rejoicing would arrive.

In case after case for the entire first millennium of Christian history, clerics invoked this belief as a way of calming apocalyptic fears in the present – “do not run after this or that prophet of Doom, false-Christ or pseudo-prophetess, for we still have hundreds of years to wait.” Understanding how the sabbatical millennium “operated” made clear that Europe had a an immense Y1K problem created by precisely the same instincts that produced our Y2K problem – the procrastination of the specialists who preferred to pass their problems, greatly aggravated by the delay on to their descendants – an intergenerational balloon mortgage timed for the end of the millennium. This perspective provided a devastating point-by-point critique of the “anti-terrors” arguments that had been presented and repeated with such complacent superficiality since the 1870s.

1. Christian theologians had, from the second century onwards, explicitly promised the messianic kingdom at the end of the current millennium. Latin Christianity in particular shows a greater obsession with chronology and with calculating the years remaining in the current millennium than any other religion in world history. 1000 AD, it turns out, was the third such millennial date the chronographers had promised (the first two being 6000 Annus Mundi I in 500 CE and 6000 AM II in 800).

2. At the advent of 1000, every cleric in England, France, Germany, and Northern Italy knew the date Anno Domini. Bede’s Pascal Tables, which told the clergy when to celebrate Easter each year, could not be used unless one knew the date AD and any church with more than five books had these Easter Tables. As for peasants, they had every reason to want to know what the date was since from the earliest missionaries on, Christian teachings promised them that when the Day of the Lord came, they would get the reward of their long-suffering patience. “Then will end the tyranny of kings and the injustice and rapine of reeves and their cunning and unjust judgments and wiles. Then shall those who rejoiced and were glad in this life groan and lament. Then shall their mead, wine and beer be turned into thirst for them. In every century of the early middle ages, we have charismatic apocalyptic prophets and messiahs with huge crowds of commoners who flock to them. Indeed the central function of the sabbatical millennium was to say, “Not now, wait till the end of the millennium.” Compared to the Y1K problem, our Y2K problem was a drop in the bucket.

3. Finally – and this is the most interesting aspect of the argument – the documents do not reflect the pervasiveness of apocalyptic beliefs because the conviction that the world is about to end was, is, and always will be, one of the most spectacular mistakes people can ever make. The history of apocalyptic beliefs in every culture indicates that people, especially those who compose texts retrospectively, write about these things with great reluctance and rarely explicitly. Already when the year 6000 had occurred in 801, and Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome in the first day of 801, no contemporary text dwelt on the rather embarrassing fact that this was the promised year of the millennium since Augustine’s day in the early 5th century. To expect an explicit account of the advent of a millennial date in the documents of a culture with a clerical monopoly on literacy – both the composition and the preservation of texts – is like going to the emperor’s court after his naked procession and expecting to find out what “really happened” from the official court record. For the real story, you need to go to the taverns.

Here we touch on a key problem, a methodological problem. For positivist, empiric historians, the texts are roughly transparent on reality. Few and scattered texts about an apocalyptic year 1000, means few and scattered beliefs, the flotsam and jetsam of a ship Augustine had sunk back in the 5th century. For them the silence of the texts indicates the indifference of those who lived at the time; they can sail their ships of historiographical analysis through these waters without giving apocalyptic expectations a second thought. For them, Glaber is the anomaly, easily dismissed as a psychopath, a wandering, undisciplined gossip with bad Latin, haunted by visions of the devil. For the millennial historian, aware of the delicacy of the topic – millennialism is subversive, apocalyptic expectation always proves wrong – the explicit record is a most unreliable resource. The presence of a historian like Rodulfus Glaber is a precious glimpse of what is being said in the taverns and his gossipy wanderlust is the best guarantee that we are not dealing with a tight-lipped courtier.

He, then, and all the other clues to an apocalyptic year 1000, are the tip of an iceberg of oral discourse that differs radically from the surface meaning of all those literary products of that tiny majority of clerics trained in the formal practice of apocalyptic denial. Glaber’s text gives us a perspective as different from the more guarded theological and historical compositions of his contemporaries as the child’s view of the naked emperor differed from the rhetorically sophisticated praise of the courtiers and the crowd. Of course the nice thing about analyzing the past is that your ship of historical analysis may have sunk before you even get to the open seas and, especially if your colleagues cheer you on, you won’t even notice.

All this struck me, in the 1980s, as not too problematic. France with its Annales school and the brilliant work done in mentalités by their most prominent medievalists like Duby, Le Goff and Dupront, as well as the daring methodological innovations of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault offered promising terrain for such innovations. Surely I would have less trouble discussing such matters with them than with the empirically-minded Anglophone scholars who had trained me. And my model’s ability to “explain” the cultural mutation – to this day, all explanations of the “takeoff” of the 11th century are really just descriptions – seemed capable of convincing even the more staid historians.

Little did I know that a reaction in French medieval circles against la mutation de l’an mil was about to set in. All of a sudden, in a challenge to the prevailing perception of rapid cultural change around 1000, a number of historians, most prominently Dominique Barthélemy, one of Duby’s favorite students, began an all-out assault on the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, they argued, nothing dramatic had happened, the castles did not spring up overnight but rather over a long, slow process, and the changes, whatever they might have been, came not suddenly and brilliantly, but quietly, unnoticed, like a thief in the night, an ajustement not a mutation.

The debate over this has been quite vocal, although almost entirely centered on social and political issues with virtually no attention to religious matters. But the overall impact has been to leave everything indecisive, uncertain, confused, encouraging medieval historians to mumble about nuances and to avoid imprudent generalizations at all costs. Even when Duby’s greatest works were republished posthumously in a wonderful collection in 1996, pressures from the “cautious” school of historians changed the original title that Duby himself would have approved of – La révolution féodale – into a title that could as easily have been given to the works of a pedestrian political historian of the early 20th century – Féodalité. The lid was back on. So just as I brought my apocalyptic surfboard to the beach to catch the wave of la mutation, it vanished before me.

I remained, however, the anomalous detail that needed to be cleaned up. Foreign, hence unresponsive to the kinds of political pressures that can be brought to bear on French academics, fluent in French, hence capable of defending myself orally and in writing, and far more knowledgeable about both millennialism and the history of chronology in the West than my French colleagues, I posed a distinct problem to the ajustationistes. On the one hand, I was a hold-out of the mutation school, on the other, I was looking at new areas of data – chronology, computus, hagiography, sermons – that supported and clarified the dramatic picture, painstakingly extracted from the charters and the archeological material that the social historians, the annalistes had constructed.

Worse, my book, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034 had taken a look at the single richest documentary trove of the period – over 2000 pages of autograph manuscript from the monk-historian Ademar, the earliest collection of personal papers in the history of writing – and shown that far from contradicting Glaber’s depiction of a millennial generation driven by the hopes and fears of the millennium, Ademar’s corpus confirms it in spectacular ways. The anti-terrors historians had always compared Ademar, the reliable and sober historian who didn’t mention the year 1000, to Glaber, the unreliable psychopath who couldn’t stop talking about the year 1000. Instead, I found an Ademar who literally went mad in his final years, obsessed with the apocalyptic wave that swept his world at the approach of the millennium of the Passion (1033).

Unlike the vague generalizations of the Romantics which could be swept aside with an affirmation that the texts, regrettably spare, offered no purchase for so extravagant a picture, I had imbedded the apocalyptic year 1000 in a complex and detailed reading of not merely the texts, but the smallest details of codicology, paleography and computus. And my picture of Ademar and his times was full of implications for everything from the startlingly new directions of Christian religiosity (apostolic heresy, veneration of the suffering crucified Christ, monastic and canonical reform) to the first appearance of the persecuting mentality (church-sponsored violence against the Jews, the first executions of “heretics” in the Latin West). So extensive, so firmly imbedded in the documents the positivists themselves prize so, my argument could not be brushed aside.

So Barthélemy and his school attacked me with the curious results I described at the beginning of this article – with arguments that seem determined to dédramatiser l’histoire at all costs, a kind of reductio ad banalem. This has produced some rather extraordinary works of historical argumentation, like Sylvain Gougenheim’s Les fausses terreurs de l’an mil. Attente de la fin des temps ou approfondissement de la foi ? which I think, in coming years will serve as models of how not to analyze the past. (Just take for example the subtitle: why the mutual exclusion? Fears of imminent judgment invariably cause a deepening of the faith.) For the moment, however, they seem to have won over the majority of French medievalists. I will not bore the reader with the details of how superficial the attack on my work has been so far. What I would like to conclude with is a reflection on why so superficial an attack seems, at least for the moment, to have created a new and comfortable consensus.

First, I think there is a problem, shared by medieval historians in general, of a split between social historians and religious historians. Some of the people whom I would have expected to welcome my arguments because of their awareness of the social issues, are in fact trained in a radically secular mode, in which religious beliefs, even subversive ones the clerics attack, are not to be understood qua religious phenomena. On the other side, the historians who take religion seriously seem to be so much in thrall to the bias of their ecclesiastical sources that they cannot imagine something that the composers of texts condemned, as surviving despite them. Both Guggenheim and Barthélemy seem to assume the overwhelming domination (écrasante) of Augustinian anti-apocalyptic, anti-millennialist teachings in the year 1000 – not only among the composers of texts, but among the commoners as well. This, mind you, is an assumption they feel comfortable with even when the same texts tell us of dissenting religious thinking so radical that the ecclesiastical authorities find it necessary, for the first time in the history of the Latin church, to execute those who propound them. Why these people would reject everything about the Church – eucharist, baptism, relics, crucifixes – and stay loyal to Augustinian eschatology is beyond me. They seem to think that is perfectly normal.

So on the one hand, the social historians have difficulty thinking in a religious idiom, and the religious historians can’t think outside of an orthodox idiom. No wonder millennialism is a twice untold tale. It is too strange to make it on to most of our “modern” analytic radar screens. It is as if, because we know that the world didn’t end, somehow it’s an insult to think of people at the time as not sharing in that knowledge. The true Augustinians turn out to be modern historians, lay and secular, who, in some cases are involved in an act of performative utterance: if they say people weren’t afraid of 1000, then we won’t be of 2000. In articles with variants on the title “Faut-il avoir peur de l’an 2000?”, Le Goff and Delumeau both had repeated interviews with the popular press over the last decade insisting that nothing happened in 1000, and at the approach of Y2K, this kind of perfomative utterance filled the airwaves in France.

Second, there is an important methodological issue at stake. Barthélemy is openly admiring of Ferdinand Lot and the “positivism” of the Third Republic. He and many of his medieval colleagues take a very “document”-based approach to the issue, and they have a natural hostility to an historiographical approach that seeks to conjecture about matters the texts treat laconically and most often indirectly – apocalyptic expectations, popular beliefs and attitudes.

This approach, like its admired and distant ancestor in the 19th century reminds me of the drunk looking under the lamppost among the cobblestones for the keys he lost in the bushes because “this is where the light is.” The result is scientistic history, a brand of guaranteed boredom where valuable issues are sacrificed to accuracy, where we get ever-more detailed accounts of ever-less important details (documentary cobblestones), and remain ignorant of the crucial issues of human experience and deed (the lived experience in the bushes). I’d have less problem with it if it were at least honest enough to say: we don’t know what’s in the bushes. But instead it says: if it’s not clearly visible among the cobblestones – say popular millennial movements – then it doesn’t exist in the bushes. Says Barthélemy in his book on the year 1o00 and the Peace of God: “[The elites] speak of the people, the poor, but they do not speak.”

One of the interesting “benefits” of positivist history is that the illusion of objective reality gives its practitioners the sense that they have “solved” an historical problem, the way a mathematician solves an equation. In 1997 I invited Dominique Barthélemy to attend the seminar I was giving in Paris, where I would respond to his first printed attack on my thesis. He declined, stating that nothing could come of such a discussion. So far as he was concerned the case was closed. The literary version of this approach just appeared in a short book on L’Europe de l’an Mil, published in 1999. In the final pages, the authors airily dismiss any possibility of an apocalyptic year 1000 and cite only Guggenheim’s polemical Les fausses terreurs de l’an mil in the bibliography – not my work (even the French articles), nor the work of a dozen other scholars working on this topic. Their conclusion? “An ordinary period that some would like to be extraordinary.” Extraordinary historiography! A will to boredom most strange in a culture that sometimes divides the whole universe into ennuyeux (bad) and amusant (good).

Sticking to the lamplight, at least in this case, seems less a matter of methodological caution than denial. The messy allusions to popular and apocalyptic activity that we find even under the brightest lamplight must be discounted. Thus the early anti-terrors historians, including Lot, made the outrageously sloppy and unprofessional claim that an explicitly apocalyptic and anti-Augustinian passage in Glaber – the heresies of the day were the unleashing of Antichrist after the 1000 years! – was an invention of Michelet and his ilk. Now, Guggenheim claims that Glaber can’t possibly have meant it literally because if he had, he would have failed to understand Augustine’s teachings.

Nor is this kind of denial limited to French medieval scholarship. A senior German scholar recommended against publishing a 200 page monograph on the significance of Charlemagne’s coronation taking place in the year 6000 Annus Mundi with the comment: “I cannot believe that Charles the Great had anything (irgend etwas) to do with eschatological matters.” This is not an analytic remark, this is a statement of faith. It is also an act of denial unworthy of a true “scientist,” and to deny publication is an act of credal censorship. These scholars are not examining evidence, they are bulldozing it.

Finally, I see a politico-cultural dimension to this. Positivism never was the neutral, objective ideology it pretended to be. It was part of a conservative movement that, at the same time as it sought to replace a previous elite ideology, tried to assure its own dominance (the fancy word is “hegemony”). Its moment of victory came in France right after the Paris Commune, at a time when popular movements were not only disliked, but feared and despised. Whereas Michelet’s apocalyptic year 1000 was inspired by the revolutionary uprising of 1830, and was meant to inspire his fellow Frenchmen to finish the Revolution they had started in 1789, the non-apocalyptic year 1000 of the Third Republic was inspired by the Paris Commune and meant to banish both the commoners and revolutionary enthusiasm from the stage of history.

Indeed Barthélemy openly suspects me of being marxisant because I spend so much bootless time empathizing with the peasantry. His turn of the millennium, even his Peace of God, is essentially an elite affair. The peasants are never players of significance. After reading Barthélemy’s article, I asked an ex(?)-Trotskyite friend if I were Marxist: “Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied, “You think peasants think.”

Whether the mutation féodale is favored more by leftists (soixante-huitards) and the ajustement favored by rightwingers is not clear (it may be true of French medievalists, but does not work for English ones). I do think, though, that the methodological debate has this political element. In a sense the late 20th century positivists dislike Foucault and deconstruction as much as the 19th century positivists disliked Michelet and Romanticism.

And hence, from the brilliant insights of French medieval historiography that marked the generation of Duby, Le Goff, and Dupront, we have a generation of cautious historians whose most vocal proponents are dedicated to arriving at “authentic history” by making it all calm and orderly. Reductio ad banalem. As for the medievalists still enough in touch with their own feelings and the passions of the texts they read, they seem afraid to speak, afraid to publish openly critical work for fear of the trouble it would cause their careers. Caution, prudence… no wonder French medievalists prefer as their source a monk-historian who rarely left the cloister, to an undisciplined gyrovague.

This brings us back to the dilemma I described at the beginning. Why are the French hostile to the tale I bring? I think the point is that it is not the French who are hostile, but the academic and cultural elite. The sociology of knowledge in Paris is extremely hierarchical. Success is not only a function of merit. At the beginning of The Magic Flute Tamino says to Papageno: “Whose man are you?” Ironically, academic Paris, birthplace of the revolution that inspired both Mozart and Michelet, is still a place where a crucial question in determining how seriously I take you is: “Who’s your patron?” It is still a place where a grimace on a powerful face is can be a devastating refutation of a serious argument.

Mozart’s revolutionary masons point out that Tamino may be a prince, but he is more than that, “er ist ein Mensch.” In Parisian academic circles the intellectual princes and the disciples strut and the Menschen keep a low profile.

A similar atmosphere pervades the world of French religious discourse. The seculars are contemptuous of the religious, and the old religious (Catholic and Protestant) are contemptuous of new age and new religious movements. Indeed, French legislators have developed one of the most hostile and repressive policies towards cults among democratic nations — obviously not as bad as that of Communist China with their hysterical denunciations of the Falun Gong, but a recognizable if milder variant of the same phenomenon. (The French have been criticized both by the International Helsinki Foundation and the US Department of State.) At the advent of 2000, France is hardly a place that encourages religious and spiritual experimentation, except along well-worn, established paths.

Which brings us back to the relationship of the year 1000 to the year 2000. Part of the novelty of Michelet’s history of France was that the nation began not with French kings, but with the French people, not Clovis, nor Charlemagne, nor even the “Capetians” but with the people on the fields of the Peace of God in 1000. And this is exactly where Glaber locates them in his most memorable passage on the millennial wave of 1033 that swept from the south up through Burgundy to the “farthest reaches of Francia.” “The assembled raised their palms skyward and shouted Peace, Peace, Peace! They believed that they were making an eternal covenant between them and God.” Not the height, but the nadir of royal power marked the birth of France, marked the big bang of French cultural creativity.

And for the first two centuries of the new millennium France had weak kings and virtually no centralization, and yet it teemed with cultural creativity and social vigor – the “first” Crusade, Romanesque cathedrals, the greatest liberal arts university in the world, the new religious orders, urban communes, the great Fairs of Champagne, troubador poetry, the Rashi school of Jewish biblical commentators… Only late in this process did the Capetian monarchy become a player, gaining what strength it could muster at first from its unprecedented willingness to acknowledge and affirm the rights and initiatives of commoners, whether the merchants of other towns or the scholars of Paris. The great Taoist irony of French history is that its first two dynasties, the Merovingian and Carolingian, started out powerful and triumphant and both failed, whereas the Capetian started out weak and humiliated, and became the longest-lived and most powerful dynasty in the history of Europe.

But once the process of centralization began, it became inexorable. From Philippe Auguste in the early 13th to Louis XIV in the early 18th, France homogenized, bureaucratized, and hierarchized, channeling this creative genius into its dazzling center, Paris. In the process, the Peace of God became the king’s peace, the communes became the royal cities, religious diversity turned into an inquisitorially created Catholicism, regional languages ground into French, and millennial dreams found “fulfillment” in the Sun King and the Napoleonic Empire. And Paris, monarchical or revolutionary, has never been willing to let go, not even in the cultural imagination of its historians.

Is it possible that what holds the French back on the global stage is not an American conspiracy, a cultural stranglehold, but their own aristocratic heritage, their own haute bourgeoisie which is so afraid of both other cultures and their own commoners? And is there a possible link between the fear that a positivistic historiography feels about the role of the commoners in 1000 and the fear that conservative legislators feels about the presence of new religious movements in their midst? I’m not sure. But it certainly helps me understand why perfectly good historians, whose Latin is impeccable, can read texts about the extraordinary and unprecedented activity of commoners in this period, and deny that they have any significance.

Performative exegetical utterances. If we say it’s not, then it isn’t. But beware! One may get what one wishes for… in this case, a banal and boring year 2000, a France incapable of tapping its potential reserves of social energy and cultural creativity because it is too busy protecting its elitist privileges and its tense, nervous, highly intelligent “order.” Paris will always be beautiful. But then, beauty is for beginners, and France is a bit old as a culture to prefer face-lifts and heavy make-up at this stage of the game.

Richard Landes
Fall 1999

8 Responses to Paris Notes, Fall, 1999

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  4. […] of the metaphors I used to make when arguing with my historian colleagues was that the ship of historical analysis can break apart on the icebergs of unseen (largely […]

  5. […] 3.Augean Stables » Paris Notes, Fall, 1999 Indeed, one might even detect in the current emphasis in France on mondialisation over globalisation (multicultural over homogenous global culture) a distinct whiff of sour grapes emanating from one of the most homogenizing cultures of the last 500 years: if Paris is not to be the center of world civilization, […]

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  7. […] phenomenon in working on apocalyptic prophecies, which always fail. To claim, for example, that the generation of 1000 thought it was the end of the world, is  “unjust, indeed an outrage to human dignity.” (Plaine, “Les prétendues terreurs de […]

  8. […] towards “modernity,” with a religious phase and a secular phase. But few, even the French, who are the hero of that tale of millennium’s turn, seemed interested. (Ironically, they may […]

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