Rebecca Spang @ IHR: ‘From the Deputies’ Library to the Floor of the National Assembly : Life and Labors of Jérôme Mavidal and Emile Laurent, Editors’

Paper: Professor Rebecca Spang (Indiana) ‘From the Deputies’ Library to the Floor of the National Assembly : Life and Labors of Jérôme Mavidal and Emile Laurent, Editors’.

Date: Monday 8 October 2018

Chair: Dr Rob Priest (RHUL)


We teach our students to constantly second guess their sources. When was it published? By whom? Whose voices can we hear, and whose are silenced? How is this perspective gendered, or Euro-centric? Tread carefully, wesay. Be cautious.

And yet, our most basic archival sources are not always second guessed. The thought has generally crossed our minds at one point: who has organised these boxes, these files? Who has put this material together? Labelled it so that we can then find the sources? Who has transcribed these letters, these minutes? Whose handwriting is that? And at what stage were these changes made? The editorial process which goes behind closed doors re-shapes the sources in so many ways, and yet it is often steeped in mystery.

In a wonderfully engaging paper, Professor Rebecca Spang drew us into the underbelly of our own sources, exposing the creative and subjective processes at the heart of the archival sources of the French Revolution. In the late 19th century, two editors, Jérôme Mavidal and Emile Laurent, undertook the gargantuan task of writing the Archives Parlementaires. These archives appear to record verbatim procedures within the National Assembly, and historians have read and re-read them so much over the decades that they are no strictly off-bounds in the Archives Nationales and only accessible via microfilm (ugh). In truth though, they were created almost a century after the events themselves: how can this ever be considered verbatim? How did Laurent and Mavidal go about this? Both of these editors had very different trajectories: whilst Laurent stayed in literary circles, Mavidal would go on to have a political career. But in the late 19th century both men met and brought together a variety of sources – from procès verbaux to popular newspaper editorials – in order to create the Archives Parlemantaires which were to document the birth of democracy. Amidst this ‘patchwork of material’, there are no footnotes allowing us to trace these discussions. Not only that, but the speed and tone of the text itself casts serious doubt about its ‘verabtim’ qualities. Rather, Spang explained,  Laurent and Mavidal were encouraged to liven the debates of the National Assembly, making them readable and energetic (and English!) to draw in the reader.

The editorial process around the Archives Parlementaires raises important questions about the role of history in politics and in the professionalisation of the historical profession in the 19th century. If colonial and imperial historians have long been challenging the origins of their sources, this was an excellent reminder of the ongoing need for historians to investigate – or at least question – the widely-read archives they may use. After all, the Archives Parlementaires are the most widely-read source on this period, and yet here we discovered their highly problematic origins, casting a shadow of mystery over so much material.

We were delighted to start off this year with Rebecca Spang. She introduced us to some wonderful historical characters and procedures–not least procedures of verbatim recording by ‘garçons’ sat in a circle and each writing down 8 words before nudging the other to start up. Overall, we had a delicious evening.


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