The French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889) made a leading contribution to the study of ancient France and to the debate concerning Roman versus German influence on French institutions and society.
Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges was born in Paris on March 18, 1830. He was admitted into the École Normale Supérieure in 1850, in the oppressive days preceding the collapse of the Second Republic. In 1853 Fustel was appointed a member of the French School in Athens and then spent 2 years in Chio, an opportunity which provided him with material for a contribution to the history of the island. He then returned to France to become a teacher in Amiens and Paris while taking his final degrees in 1857 and 1858. He was appointed professor of history in the University of Strasbourg in 1860. There he wrote and published at his own expense his first masterpiece, La Cité antique (1864), opening a fruitful line of research when he showed Greek and Roman city organization to have rested on kinship and the cult of the family hearth and ancestors.
But Fustel was to be lastingly diverted to another problem, the birth of his own country. In February 1870 Fustel came back to Paris as a professor of ancient history in the École Normale. The Sorbonne welcomed him in 1875, and in 1879 a professorship for the history of medieval France was created for him, thus acknowledging his achievements in this field. The German victory over France in 1870 had but given particular acumen to a problem whose political implications made it a passionate subject for historical controversy all over Europe: was Europe an issue of its Roman conquerors, or had it been broken and cast by the German invaders into a different mold, which had been the Middle Ages? Fustel pointed out the living continuity of history, the blending of old and new into its flow, particularly stressing the facts about landed property. He argued his point in volume 1 of his Histoire des institutions politiques de l'Ancienne France (1874). His health, however, was now failing. In 1883 he had to resign the directorship of the École Normale, to which he had been appointed in 1880. His last years were spent in gathering new material and publishing some of it in Recherches sur quelques problèmes d'histoire (1885), La Monarchie franque (1888), and L'Alleu et le domaine rural pendant la période mérovingienne (1889). Fustel de Coulanges died near Paris in 1889.
A full-length study of Fustel is Jane Herrick, The Historical Thought of Fustel de Coulanges (1954). General works include George Peabody Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; 2d ed. 1952), and Robert Latouche, The Birth of Western Economy: Economic Aspects of the Dark Ages (1956; trans. 1961).