Jules Michelet

The French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874) wrote the "Histoire de France" and "Histoire de la Révolution française," which established him as one of France's greatest 19th-century historians.

Jules Michelet was born on Aug. 21, 1798, in Paris. His father was a printer by trade, and his mother's family was from peasant stock. The family was poor, especially after Napoleon ordered the closing of his father's press. This family background prompted Michelet's initial sympathy with the French Revolution.

In 1822 Michelet began his long and devoted career as a teacher, becoming professor of history and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in 1827. In one of his earliest works, a translation of Giovanni Battista Vico's Scienza nuova, Michelet introduced such ideas as the importance of myth and language in historical understanding and the ability of man to forge his own history. His first volumes of French history treated the Middle Ages; already he revealed a passionate adherence to the role of the common people in history.

When Michelet joined the faculty at the Collège de France in 1838, his writing became more liberal and more oriented toward contemporary issues. Collaboration with a colleague, Edgar Quinet, on a book against the Jesuits raised the Church's suspicions. In addition, Michelet was waking up to the esclavage (slavery) of classes in an industrial society, a concern he expressed in his moving book Le Peuple (1846). Thus Michelet and other writers of the period, encouraged by the revolutionary spirit growing since 1830, were attracted to the French Revolution. Michelet's seven-volume Histoire de la Révolution française illustrates his famous concept of history as a resurrection of the past in its spontaneous entirety. Although in this immense achievement the portraits of certain revolutionaries are masterfully drawn, Michelet is more sympathetic when narrating crowd scenes, for example, the fall of the Bastille.

The failure of the 1848 revolutions, Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat of 1851, and the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1852 profoundly disturbed Michelet. Although he was not exiled, he spent the following year in Italy.

Worn by arduous work and depressing historical events, Michelet discovered new life in his second marriage with 20-year-old Atanaïs Mialaret. Inspired by her love of nature, he wrote four poetical studies: The Bird (1856), The Insect (1857), The Sea (1861), and The Mountain (1867). These fecund later years saw two other outstanding books: one on the medieval witch (La Sorcière, 1862) and the other on world religions, including an attack on Christianity (La Bible de l'humanité, 1864). Michelet finally completed his history of France in 1867. Working continuously, he had written three volumes on 19th-century France up to the time of his death on Feb. 9, 1874, when he suffered a heart attack at Hyères.

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Further Reading on Jules Michelet

A study of Michelet's thought is Ann Reese Pugh, Michelet and His Ideas on Social Reform (1923). An excellent profile and analysis appears in Pieter Geyl, Debates with Historians (1955; rev. ed. 1958). Michelet is also considered at length in George Peabody Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; 2d ed. 1952; with new preface, 1959). See also Fritz Stern, ed., The Varieties of History (1956).

Additional Biography Sources

Haac, Oscar A., Jules Michelet, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Kippur, Stephen A., Jules Michelet, a study of mind and sensibility, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Orr, Linda, Jules Michelet: nature, history, and language, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.

Williams, John R. (John Raymond), Jules Michelet: historian as critic of French literature, Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 1987.