New Directions in French History?

Where is modern French history going?

This was the question we put to speakers at a one-day conference at the Institute of Historical Research in September. Over the next few months, we will be uploading regular posts from the participants, and responses from commentators.

These posts, like the conference itself, address the big question of where our field might be heading, and why. They also address a series of more specific prompts we sent to participants:

  • What do you think the key terms/ideas will be in your area in the next ten years?
  • What do you think the biggest challenge facing your sub-field is at the moment?
  • What is no-one talking about in your field that they should be?
  • Is French history unique? Should it be?

We heard a lot of different answers to our questions on the day. I don’t pretend to offer any definitive summary here. As the keynote speaker Colin Jones (QMUL) has pointed out before: ‘When it comes to crystal balls, historians do tend to talk balls’.¹

But if anything what was striking was how few prophecies were proffered.

There were no evangelists for the digital revolution, as Colin Jones noted in his closing words. Nor were there many disciples of what might be called the ‘new materialisms’ and the associated subfields of environmental or animal histories.

Even the rallying cries to ‘global’ or ‘transnational’ approaches seemed muted.

I think there are good reasons why.

Many historians are wary of manifestoes, and not simply because they don’t rate their own skills at fortune-telling. The debate over The History Manifesto often concerned whether Jo Guldi and David Armitage had even understood or been fair to the work they were criticising. If we can’t even work out what is going on in our fields now, how can we possibly tell where they are going?

Should we really be worried by this?

One of the things that impressed me the most on the day was how many people subtly integrated theoretical approaches. The importance of transnational connections, or emotional cultures, for instance, bubbled through several papers without requiring programmatic statement. Perhaps the digital research that Colin Jones asked after has sometimes suffered in its popularization: not so much tarnished by the hyperbole of its most ardent champions, but damned by the faint praise of generation Facebook?

There are more questions to ask, and a huge number of excellent answers on offer in the posts over the next few months, but we hope most of all that this conversation will be open. Join in the comments here, or find the hashtag on Twitter: #NDFHist

So: where do you think modern French history is going?



¹ Colin Jones, ‘Twenty Years After’, in French Historical Studies, 32-4, 2009, 686-7.


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