Feature Archive

Feature Archive: French Archives on Environmental and Animal History

by Chris Pearson (University of Liverpool)

My research on modern France lies in environmental and animal history. Both these approaches explore the changing relationships between humans and nonhumans, including shifting attitudes towards mountains, rivers, forests and other environments, human uses and abuses of animals, and the human causes and consequences of environmental modification, such as pollution and climate change. Environmental history emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, although it has obvious and acknowledged roots in the Annales School, particularly the work of Fernand Braudel. French environmental history is now being spearheaded by scholars such as Michael Bess, Sara Pritchard and Tamara Whited in the United States and Stéphane Frioux, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Fabien Locher, Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud and Grégory Quenet in France. Animal history, which is closely connected to environmental history, was pioneered amongst English-speaking scholars by Harriet Ritvo in her classic book The Animal Estate (1987) and furthered in such works as Kathleen Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir (1994) on pet-keeping, modernity and the bourgeoisie in nineteenth century Paris. In France, Robert Delort provided an early foundation, Les Animaux ont une histoire (1984), upon which scholars, such as Eric Baratay and Damien Baldin, are constructing French animal history.

Working on the environmental and animal histories of modern France has led me to a variety of different archives. The archival material on these subjects is considerable, yet disparate. State archives hold documents on agriculture, rivers and waterways, pollution, and tourism, which all have obvious environmental dimensions. In particular, documents from the Administration des Eaux et Forêts (which became the Office national de la forêt in 1966) contain a wealth of information on French forestry, including its policing and management. As foresters were also responsible for managing hunting, the Eaux et Forêts archives feature documentation on hunting regulations, changing game populations and the suppression of poaching. When conducting the research for my PhD and book Scarred Landscapes: War and Nature in Vichy France (2008), I accessed these documents at the Centre des archives contemporaines des Archives nationales, appropriately situated in Fontainebleau forest, as well as numerous Archives départementales. As with most research, an element of luck was needed: the Archives départementales des Alpes-Maritimes in Nice had only just made their forestry records accessible when I arrived there in January 2005.

Environmental history resources are available in less obvious places. For my book Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France (2012), I mined the military archives of the Service historique de la Défense at Château Vincennes. Fuelled by the excellent patisseries of the nearby Au Fournil du Château boulangerie, I discovered a wealth of material on the environmental dimensions of warfare and militarization in army reports on the creation and management of military bases. For postwar anti-military base campaigns, which contained a strong environmental flavour from the late 1960s onwards, the Archives départementales de l’Aveyron in Rodez holds a mass of information on the Larzac campaign (1971-1981) and the Archives départementales du Var had similar holdings on the campaigns against the creation of Canjuers camp in the 1950s and 1960s.

Feb Pearson sheep photo

State archives also offer rich pickings for animal historians. For my current project on the canine history of nineteenth and twentieth century Paris, I found a mass of information on the policing and regulation of Parisian dogs in the archives de la Préfecture de Police, including anti-rabies measures, the management of the dog pound and the creation of police dog units. Recently relocated to Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, the police archives also hold documents on numerous other animals and animal-related sites, such as markets and slaughterhouses.

Private archives similarly contain useful resources for environmental and animal history. Michael Bess drew extensively on the archives of environmental pressure groups in his 2003 book The Light-Green Society, whilst Sara Pritchard used the archives of the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône for her 2011 book Confluence. In my own work, I’ve used the archives of the Réserve naturelle de la Camargue and the Société nationale pour la protection de la nature to research the environmental history of the Second World War in France. More recently, the holdings of the Société Centrale Canine (the French version of the Kennel Club) have proved invaluable for my research on the history of dogs in modern Paris.

Overall, I’ve found that archival material on the environmental and animal histories of modern France can be hard to track down (I’ve lost count of the number of times archivists have looked at me blankly when I’ve explained my research project to them), but that once located the documentation is often extensive and underexplored.

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