Where is French history going?

In the final blog post in a series on the ‘New Directions in French History’ conference held at the Institute of Historical Research in September, Ludivine Broch reflects on how students and researchers approach French history today.


In Aug-Sept 2010, as I frantically tried to finish my thesis for submission, I was also designing and preparing the course on Vichy France I was about to start teaching at Birkbeck that autumn. Preparing this course raised the question of ‘why study French history in the UK’?

On a personal level, I had always wondered this myself: as a French national, why had I chosen to research French history in a British university, rather than a French one? Over time I got accustomed to answering this question with a reflection on how the British university system is more thriving, open-minded and flexible than the French; I was avoiding the intense academic politics for which French universities are so well-known.

On a professional level, the question of ‘why study French history in the UK?’ also has real resonance. Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson edited a volume Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination (Cornell University Press, 2007) asking about the political but also personal entanglements between American scholars, France and French history. When one wants to teach a French history course to non-French speaking undergraduates, the problem of interest and materials really hits home: why and how should students in the UK study French history? Why should students sign up to my course, and how can they engage with primary sources if they cannot read French?

One reason to study French history in the UK is because it is important to look outward. Undergraduates everywhere should be encouraged to broaden their horizons, and to realise how deeply nations, peoples and ideas are interconnected. How small towns connect to global issues, how individual behaviour is linked to big ideas and societal shifts. This is all the more important at a time when Historians for Britain are pushing a nation-centric view of history, a view which risks limiting our understanding of the complex entanglements of peoples and ideas.[1] The students in the Vichy France class I taught at Birkbeck and Bristol became more and more engaged each week, discovering how the complexities of French history were speaking to their own questions and concerns about both the past and the present. And after I hunted down sources translated/published in English, I became convinced that students did not need to speak French to understand its relevance.

This reflects tendencies amongst historians of France who are looking beyond the hexagon to understand France’s place in relation to other countries and communities around the globe. Of course, French historians are not forgetting the importance of local issues – far from it.[2] Nicolas Moriot and Claire Zalc’s recent study of 1000 Jews in Lens during the Second World War is a prime example of how microhistories of France have a big impact on historiography.[3] But at the risk of using buzzwords, I would like to underline the transnational and international aspect of French history, both theoretically and physically. Some, like Alison Carrol (Brunel), Charlotte Faucher (QMUL), and Laure Humbert (Manchester), have adopted clear transnational topics on borderlands, international diplomacy and humanitarian policies respectively. Daniel Lee (Sheffield) has found extremely useful documents in the American archives to shed light on French history.[4] Thus methods and approaches to French history are very international. But as we start to wonder about the future of the European Union, I believe that this trend to connect French history to people and ideas beyond the hexagon might become more and more pertinent. Actually, it might be a responsibility of the French historian to underline these international ties.

The second reason I believe students study French history is emotional – an appreciation for French language, wine, food, cinema, art, literature, and holiday homes can help bridge that gap between the student and the topic. Historians who remember being drawn to a specific country or topic regularly mention the emotional ties they have with it – Robert Gildea recalled his boyhood trips to a French family home at a conference on ego-histories in Belfast in 2015, and Alice Kaplan wrote a memoir explaining this emotional connection with French which combined a fascination for language and the journey to deal with her father’s death.[5]

A recent book by Mary Fulbrook; the eruption of the history of emotions; Matt Houlbrook’s blog post on emotions in the archives – all are proof that the emotional link between historians and their topics is becoming more and more explicit.[6]

During the New Directions in French History workshop we actually discussed the importance of being emotionally tied to our topics. Most of us agreed that some level of emotional engagement was what allowed us to successfully carry on with our topics. But it is hard to show this emotional connection in a doctoral thesis – in fact, there is a risk of being too heavily involved and hence lacking a certain distance and objectivity. But the doctoral thesis is a training process – as we move on to the second, third, fourth projects, I believe we get more the freedom to engage with the emotional dimensions of our research.

As a social historian of 20th-century France, the trajectory of my own research reveals the strong influences of transnational history and emotional lives. My doctoral thesis on railwaymen in the Second World War was an important training process, but the absence of a real bond with the cheminot community means it took me a bit longer to get into the full swing on my topic.

My new project on the Friendship Train in 1947-49 explores international diplomacy through the lens of food and goods exchanged between America and Europe in the dawn of the Cold War. Here, my desire to do more cultural history but also to explore international and transnational histories is at the forefront of this project. Down the line I really hope to complete a research project on adoption processes in France and Europe, for this would be a personal journey as much as a professional one.

To summarise my points, I believe that there is no obvious ‘direction’ for French history studies – as Will Pooley has said, historians know far too well that they cannot predict the future.[7] This is largely because I believe research projects are as much the result of collective influences, current events and shared memories as they are of personal lives and emotions. This does not mean that French history is directionless – the fact that French history is relevant to the young people I teach in Britain encourages me to think that there is certainly a promising future for those young researchers who are hoping to discover, research and write French history.

But there are hopefully many directions that French history and French historians can take – and I hope that French history continues to have the flexibility and open-mindedness it showed at the workshop in September.



[1] ‘Britain: apart from or a part of Europe?’, History Today, 11 May 2015. http://www.historytoday.com/david-abulafia/britain-apart-or-part-europe.

[2] Andrew Smith, ‘“La Corrèze avant le Zambèze”: Futures, Presents and Directions in French History’, French History Network Blog, 3 Dec. 2015. https://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=758#_ftn4.

[3] Nicolas Mariot and Claire Zalc, Face à la persécution: 991 Juifs dans la guerre (Paris: Odile Jacob, Fondacion pour Mémoire de la Shoah, 2010).

[4] Daniel Lee, ‘USHMM’, French History Network Blog, 8 Jun. 2015. https://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=503.

[5] Robert Gildea spoke at ‘France, Vichy and Me’, Queen’s University Belfast, 20-21 January 2015; Alice Kaplan, French Lessons: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[6] Mary Fulbrook, A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (New York: OUP, 2012); ‘Forum: History of Emotions’, German History, vol. 28, n.1 (2010) 67-80; Matt Houlbrook, ‘To Witness the end of a life’, The Trickster Prince, 26 Jun. 2012. https://tricksterprince.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/time-history-and-death/.

[7] Will Pooley, ‘New Directions in French History?’, French History Network Blog, 22 Oct. 2015. https://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=653.


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