Guy Thuillier: "Paris Will Save Nothing."

By Amato, Joseph | Journal of Social History, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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Guy Thuillier: "Paris Will Save Nothing."


Amato, Joseph, Journal of Social History


There is something out of the ordinary about this prodigiously energetic historian and French patriot who taunts Paris, where he lives and works, with the cry, "Paris will save nothing." At the core of Thuillier's great passion is the province of the Nivernais, his commitment to regional and local history, and his desire to take history back from the nation's professional historians. Although Thuillier is no separatist, he finds in the provinces the richness of France, a key to understanding the modern world and its dramatic transformation of societies and cultures, and a subject capable of leading historians to the writing of a less ideological and faddish history.

A conversation with Thuillier is marked by loquacity, energy, and imagination. Moment by moment he stands history on its head with a succession of new subjects and approaches to the past, while hesitating occasionally only to persist, "After all, monsieur, you must understand, I am not really a university historian. I am only an amateur historian who works as un petit fonctionnaire."

This humble functionary is anything but that. Born in 1932 in Vaucouleurs, in Jean d'Arc's Lorraine, he is a graduate of Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris, Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, and Ecole nationale d'administration. An officier de l'ordre national du Merite, he serves as a conseiller maitre in France's national accounting office the Cour des comptes, where he began his career in 1961. Explaining in large part Thuillier's remarkable capacity to point out and assimilate whole uncharted domains of history, his career has led him from the auditing of French prefecture in Saida, Algeria, to serving as an auditor, technical advisor and public auditor to the national offices of election, labor, education, public health, social security, the National Assembly, and the Cour itself.

While pursuing a successful administrative career, Thuillier has served as Director of Studies at Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes (IVe section) and, incredibly, has written 35 books and approximately 300 articles on French history, politics, and administration. His books, which only partially indicate the diversity of his interests and writing, range from the history of administrative training, bureaucracy, fiscal policy and money itself; the history of shipping, drugs, health, work, and women in administration; and the history of everyday life, local and regional history, and life in almost all aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Nivernais, where he still continues to do research. The worth of his contributions to history of administration, especially his unique quest to demonstrate the existence of administrative cultures, will have to be judged by others. I believe the value of his theoretical and applied contribution to the history of local and regional history is beyond question. It began in 1959 with his Georges Dufaud et les debuts du grand capitalisme dans la metallurgie en Nivernais au XIXe siecle (1959), and continues since his 1986 La vie quotidienne des ouvriers des forges en Nivernais au XIXe siecle. Eugen Weber, who acknowledges Thuillier's influence on him as being only second to that of Marc Bloch, believes that Thuillier is the most creative living practitioner of nineteenth- and twentieth-century regional history.

In the last two years Thuillier has continued to work with his long-term collaborator and colleague from the IVe, Jean Tulard. Also a prolific historian and one of the great masters of the Napoleonic period (on which he has written some thirty volumes) Tulard is a professor at the Universite de Paris-Sorbonne and a long-time member of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique. With Tulard, Thuillier has published three works for the popular French paperback Que sais-je series of the Presse Universitaires de France: Histoire local et regionale, (Fall, 1992), Le metier d'historien (1991), Les ecoles historiques (1990). These three works--preceded by an earlier volume in the series, La methode en histoire (1986)--serve well as introduction to the works of Thuillier, who unfortunately is almost unknown in England and the United States.

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