Finding global history in the Archives Nationales

Oliver Cussen

For anyone studying the ancien régime society of eighteenth-century France, the Archives Nationales in Paris provide an invaluable but not unproblematic perspective. Fastidiously classified and organised, the archives help the uninitiated to navigate and make sense of  foreign world. Yet they also impose a sense of order on to a society that was made up of a patchwork of corporations, customs and loyalties that were often resistant to the centralizing and rationalizing aspirations of reformist ministers in the service of the monarchy. How can you be sure your perspective on the past is not overly distorted by the logic of the state?

This was a question I was preoccupied with over the summer. I had travelled to Paris,
funded by a Division of the Social Sciences Summer Grant, to conduct preliminary research for my dissertation proposal. My work focuses on the political economy of colonialism in the eighteenth century, and in my dissertation I want to explore how France’s global civil society shaped the state’s imperial pursuits. Between the years of peace and prosperity in the 1730s and the increasingly global conflicts during the Age of Revolutions, French merchants and entrepreneurs speculated on commodities, moved their colonial sites of production from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, and secured access to profitable markets such as the Atlantic slave trade through capture of the textiles trade in the East Indies. Their activities help explain how resources, markets, ideas, and states became entangled—how an eighteenth-century European society became “global”. The globalization of old regime France can only be explained by taking into account not just the state and its privileged trading corporations, but also networks of entrepreneurial merchant oligarchs, colonial administrators, and natural scientists. It requires, in other words, consulting archives that have not been organized according to the logic of the state.

But the Musée des Archives Nationales, a scholarly oasis in the heart of the Marais, is as good a place as any to start pulling at the threads of this story. I spent the first three weeks of my trip immersing myself in inventories, where I became accustomed to what I could expect to find in certain series (the categories in which documents are classified), and started to understand where I should look for certain kinds of documents. I started to work out which other archives (departmental, municipal, private—even those outside of France) I would have to consult in order to complete the puzzles, and gradually the next 18 months of research began to take shape in my mind. More importantly, I became much more realistic about the kinds of arguments I might be able to make in my dissertation, and about the importance of having specific questions and objectives before I begin my research in earnest. Robert Darnton, the Harvard historian, has pointed out that the Archives Nationales contains 252 miles of documents, measured according to shelves of boxes loaded with documents. A further 1753 miles can be found in the provincial archives. A concise and considered dissertation proposal will be essential if I don’t want to get lost in the boxes!

Daunting though the prospect is of making sense out of this material—all of it inherently foreign, much of it forgotten—the possibilities archival research presents are also exciting. Before heading over to Paris I read the historian Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives—part memoir, part practical guide, part philosophical reflection on archival research. Farge does a beautiful job of capturing the obstacles (both psychological and bureaucratic) faced by the novice researcher who at first barely knows how to even get access to a document, let alone what to do with it once it’s been read. But there’s something empowering about the process of the historical imagination, when it works. As Farge puts it, “Archival research starts off slowly and steadily through banal tasks to which one rarely gives much thought. Nonetheless, in doing these tasks, a new object is created, a new form of knowledge takes shape, and a new ‘archive’ emerges. As you work, you are taking the preexisting forms and readjusting them in different ways to make possible a different narration of reality. This is not a question of repetition, but of beginning anew, of dealing the cards over again.”

Over the course of the summer I slowly created my own archive. Out of it I hope to be able to tell a new narrative of the past: about how capital was accumulated in the age of mercantilism and who it benefitted; how the retreat of absolutism and the concomitant rise of society related to dynamics at France’s global periphery; how a variety of actors, ideas, institutions, and natural resources determined the push and pull of France’s empire over the eighteenth century. Brief exposure to both the immense difficulties and endless possibilities of archival research in France has been indispensable in helping me work out how I might tell that story.

Oliver Cussen is a doctoral student in the Department of History.