In the second hors d’oeuvre post about our new June issue, we caught up with Vincent Guffroy to talk about his article about Guillaume Lambert and the Parlement de Paris.
Vincent Guffroy holds a doctorate in modern history and is a research associate at the Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (IRHIS) at the University of Lille. He is the author of a forthcoming biography of Lambert, the last comptroller-general of finance under the Ancien Régime.
Hi Vincent, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?
Many historians have examined the controversies that shook the Parlement de Paris in the eighteenth century (François Bluche, Olivier Chaline, John Rogister, Julian Swann or David Feutry). My article aims to reveal to readers the exchanges that took place within the secret council using the personal diary kept by one of its members between May 1749 and June 1751.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lambert presents the secret council not as a mere recording chamber but as a veritable political arena. Breaking the secrecy of the debates, the diary takes us right to the heart of the parliamentary negotiations. It introduces us to magistrates who show an attraction for political action. It also shows that Parliament rarely practises sterile opposition, but that it often works with the Government depending on the situation.
Do you have a favourite example you came across in this work?
In the course of my research, I came across a large number of personal letters exchanged between members of parliament in the Archives Nationales. One day, as I was unfolding a letter, some of the powder – made up of very fine sand and ashes – used to sprinkle the ink and speed up the drying process fell onto the table. I was probably the only person to read the contents of the letter from its eighteenth-century recipient. I felt quite emotional, and I understood what Arlette Farge calls the ‘taste of the archive’.
Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?
I first became interested in the diaries of magistrates at the Parlement de Paris as part of my thesis on Claude Guillaume Lambert. I consulted his diary – kept in the Senate library at the Palais du Luxembourg – and discovered that other members of parliament had also written in them. During a discussion with Julian Swann, we decided that we should start analysing them. So I started by studying the one I knew best.
Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?
I’m very tidy, to say the least, so I plan everything down to the last detail. But then I rework the whole thing, which ends up forcing me to change everything I’d planned.
Maybe I should try writing straight away and see what happens?
Whose writing do you most admire and why? (It doesn’t have to be a historian!)
I really enjoy reading Françoise Chandernagor. I particularly enjoy the subjects she deals with in her books. They allow me to escape and feed my passion for history.
What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?
The ideal is to have feedback from two people: a specialist and a layman.
The first will be able to say whether the text is worth publishing and how it could be improved. The other will be able to say whether they found the text interesting and whether they got the gist of it.
But, above all, these people need to be frank and direct, because that’s the only way we can really hope to make progress.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on an article about the shift in financial management under the National Convention. From July 1789 onwards, the whole of what came to be known as ‘public finance’ was reformed at breakneck speed. The general apparatus of the Contrôle général des finances and its machinery were destroyed to make way for a new, more modern, more efficient and more bureaucratic administrative hierarchy of State finances under the new regime.
In the space of a few years, illustrious offices that had stood the test of time disappeared. In this article, I propose to take us to the heart of the Contrôle général des finances to follow its gradual dissolution over the space of a few months. Far from being anecdotal, this disappearance provides an insight into the way the revolutionaries took control of public finances, depriving the constitutional monarch of his sovereign power over financial and fiscal matters.
Éclair or saucisson?
Saucisson, baguette and wine, I’m French!