Feature Archive: Archives départementales des Bouches du Rhône

In this month’s ‘Feature Archive’ section, Stewart McCain (St Mary’s University, Twickenham) talks us through the departmental archives of the Bouches du Rhône.

Like a number of other regional archives, the departmental holdings of the Bouches du Rhône now find themselves in swanky new surroundings. These new surroundings, however, continue to reflect the historical developments that have constituted the department’s holdings, which are split between two centres- one in Marseille and one in Aix-en-Provence.

The division of the department’s archives reflects the historic rivalries between these two cities. Marseille, the current departmental capital, is the third most populous city in France. Its position as a key maritime trading hub, linking metropolitan France with the Mediterranean world, French North Africa in particular, has ensured rapid growth and striking cultural diversity. Aix-en-Provence, while no rival for Marseille in terms of size or population, boasts a long history as an administrative centre. The city was the seat of the Parlement de Provence from the sixteenth century until its abolition by the National Assembly in 1790, and was also the Episcopal See for the archbishopric of Aix.

The organisation of the department of the Bouches du Rhône initially favoured Aix, and the city was granted the status of departmental chef lieu in recognition of its role as an administrative centre. The prefecture was subsequently transferred to Marseille in recognition of the substantial administrative demands generated by the much larger population there, but Aix retained the region’s main legal jurisdictions and the local académie, charged with overseeing education in the Bouches du Rhône and neighbouring departments. Aix also retained its archbishopric while the diocese of Marseille was dissolved in 1801, only re-appearing under the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1825.

Today, the main administrative archives of the department from the 1789 Revolution onwards (series ‘L’ to ‘X’ in the style of French departmental archives) are held in Marseilles, along with the majority of the fonds privées (series J). These materials document the administration of education, religion, police, elections and social security at a departmental level, and catalogues are available online at the website of the departmental archives (www.archives13.fr) and in the reading rooms. The official correspondence of the prefect Christophe de Villeneuve, as he compiled his four-volume ‘statistical description’ of the department, will be of particular interest to scholars of the administrative practices of the French state. This correspondence, carried out with the mayors of the department in the 1820s, demonstrates the practices that lay behind the production of administrative knowledge during the period, and provides an invaluable source for the history of the region. Some of the material is proto-ethnographical in nature, and a study of the correspondence on village festivals has been published by the departmental archives.[1]

In 2006 the department opened a new centre in Marseille for these archives, located just behind some of the larger city docks. The site is accessible from the city centre by tram, although there are few cafés or restaurants in the immediate area and those visiting the archives may wish to take a packed lunch.

The centre in Aix, also modern and a comfortable place to work for researchers, houses most of the administrative holdings from the Ancien régime, including the archives of the Parlement, the États and the Intendance of Provence and the archives of the Archbishopric of Aix. For the modern period, the judicial records of the appeal court of Aix, and those of the Académie d’Aix on education also remain in the city. There is no café within the archives, but the building is situated close to the city centre and within easy walking distance of a number of shops and restaurants.

Aix and Marseille are easily accessible for French historians based in Britain. Both are on the TGV rail network, and Eurostar now runs services direct to Marseille from London. Alternatively, cheap flights from the UK are available to Marseille-Provence airport. The division of the archives between two centres does present some inconvenience for historians of the region who may well wish to consult materials held in both cities. Aix and Marseille are linked by a reasonably priced local rail service, which does make it possible to explore both in a single trip. Travelling time between the cities is around 45 minutes.

[1] BERTRAND (R.), FOURNIER (L.S.), LAFFE (F.), SERENA-ALLIER (D.), Récits de fêtes en Provence au XIXe siècle. Le préfet statisticien et les maires ethnographes, édition critique des réponses des maires des Bouches-du-Rhône à l’enquête du préfet Villeneuve (Silvana Editore, Marseille, 2010)

Thanks Stewart!  Stewart is the author of ‘Speaking like a State? Cultural Imperialism and Linguistic Particularism and Local Officials in the Napoleonic Enquiry into the Patois, 1806-12’, French History vol.29, no.4 (2015).  For more on Stewart (and his teaching and research interests), see his departmental webpage. 


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