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3Q: Jeffrey Ravel on the French past and our future

With MIT hosting a global French history conference, a look at the international growth of — and changes in — the field.
MIT professor of history Jeffrey Ravel
MIT professor of history Jeffrey Ravel
Photo: Donna Coveney

This weekend, MIT hosts the 59th meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies, the largest annual conference devoted to the history of France. The event, running through Sunday, April 7, will feature 110 panels and roughly 550 participants from around the world. While the conference’s theme is “Nature and Technology in French History,” the panels cover all periods of French life and a wide array of topics. MIT News spoke with professor of history Jeffrey Ravel, a specialist in France who has helped organize the event, about the state of the field.

Q. This conference covers a wide array of subjects ranging from medieval times through 2013. What are a few of the topics being discussed that help us understand France’s place in the contemporary world?

A. Most of the conference participants would tell you it is the very broad sweep of French history, from its beginnings a millennium ago to the election of François Hollande and the military intervention in Mali today, that means the subject speaks to the concerns of the contemporary world in so many ways: It helps us understand today’s politics, culture, and many other aspects of the world, such as globalization. A lot of places around the globe have histories that are a thousand years old or more, but few of them have been so richly preserved, or so amply debated, as France. 

Until recently, much of that argumentation has been conducted by the French themselves, in the service of creating the French national identity and determining who can claim membership in the state. In the last 10 to 20 years, however, historians both inside and outside the country have taken a closer look at France’s colonial and postcolonial history.

These investigations have placed the country in a global context, not only since the heyday of European imperialism at the end of the 19th century, but in earlier periods as well. In my own field of Old Regime and Revolutionary French history, we now look more carefully at France’s Mediterranean rivalries with the Ottomans and North Africans, or the kingdom’s colonial competition with Britain around the globe, when trying to understand the origins of Enlightenment and Revolution. The fact that so many panels at the conference are devoted to colonialism and globalism indicates the current vitality of these approaches.

Q. Given the event’s theme and MIT’s role as host, what are some of the important questions concerning technology and society in France that historians are most interested in — and why?

A. France has been a leader in technological innovation for a long time, beginning with engineering developments in the 12th century that led to the construction of soaring Gothic cathedrals, down to the Eiffel Tower, the Concorde supersonic jet, and current infrastructure such as nuclear power and high-speed rail. Panels during our conference will examine information technologies from the printing press to the Internet, and France’s changing transportation infrastructure over the last two centuries. 

While our conference theme of “Nature and Technology” highlights France’s technologically rich history, it also pairs this topic with the long interplay of humans and the natural environment on French soil. An influential mid-20th-century group of French historians called the Annalistes taught that history was driven by long-term changes between human populations and the natural environment, a remarkably prescient insight in a discipline previously characterized by the stories of great men and the formation of nation-states.

This newer tradition will continue in our conference, where a number of sessions will be devoted to the history of forests, water usage, Alpine recreational activity, and other environmental topics. In our Friday afternoon plenary session, three colleagues will consider how technological and environmental history alters the traditional narrative of the French past that centers on the radical political rupture of the 1789 Revolution.

Q. The study of history in any given area evolves over time. What kinds of changes in the field of French history have you observed during your time at MIT?

A. The biggest change has been the internationalization of French history. Even a quarter-century ago, when I began graduate school, the center of gravity in the field was Paris. The leading French scholars welcomed non-French historians of the country into their seminars, but they rarely read work in French history published outside France, or in languages other than French.

Paris is still important, and of course U.S. historians love going to France for conferences and research, but the dialogue between the French and others is much more vibrant today. In part, this is due to new academic exchanges and funding possibilities within the eurozone, which have encouraged French historians to learn other languages and team up with colleagues in other European countries. But it’s also due to the high quality of work being published by non-French scholars outside Europe, especially in North America.

Dozens of our French colleagues will be joining us in Cambridge this weekend for the conference, where papers will be presented in French and English. One of the sessions I most eagerly anticipate is a pair of videoconferenced panels on the theme of “Nature and Technology in the French Revolution,” which we have organized jointly with the Institute for the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne.  In the first half of the session, three U.S. scholars will give papers on this question, then respond to comments from Paris. In the second half, three Parisian scholars will present their work on this topic, then engage in discussion with the group here at MIT. These sessions illustrate perfectly the internationalization of French history, aided by technological advances.

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