Archaeological Arguments in National Debates in Late 19th-Century France: Gabriel De Mortillet's la Formation De la Nation Francaise (1897)

By Richard, Nathalie | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Archaeological Arguments in National Debates in Late 19th-Century France: Gabriel De Mortillet's la Formation De la Nation Francaise (1897)


Richard, Nathalie, Antiquity


Chauvinist reactions were rife in late 19th-century France, following the 1870 defeat to Prussia, the unification of Germany and the annexation of Alsace and part of Lorraine to the new empire. Besides their political manifestations, as in the creation of the Ligue des patriotes in 1882, these reactions also received intellectual expression. For most of the cultivated elites, the revelation of Prussian militarism came to negate the prevailing image of Germany as the cosmopolitan heartland of philosophy and of a model university system. The French military defeat was interpreted as a sign of the political and moral weakness of the regime of Napoleon III (Renan 1871), but also as a wider symptom of intellectual inferiority, itself due to the inadequacies of the French educational and university structure. There ensued in intellectual circles a veritable `German crisis of French thought' (Digeon 1959).

Historians were among the leading protagonists in this crisis, as illustrated by Ernest Renan and his famous lecture on `What is a nation?' (Renan 1882). But many other scientists also joined efforts at the service of the national cause. This is notably attested by the creation in 1872 of the Association francaise pour l'avancement des sciences (AFAS). Under the eloquent banner of `Par la science, pour la pattie', this association undertook to disseminate scientific knowledge throughout the nation, and thus to furnish it with better trained administrators, workers and soldiers (Quatrefage 1872; Gispert in press). Within the AFAS, prehistorians were a particularly active group; they considered this new learned body to be a means of national redress, but also, crucially, they saw it as a strategic site for promoting their institutionally still fragile prehistoric discipline (Blanckaert 1998).

Gabriel de Mortillet was a leading figure of the AFAS: as such, he provides us a with good example of the engagements of French prehistorians in debates over the nation. In fact, he dedicated a whole book to this issue, La Formation de la nation francaise (1897). The interest of this text for the historian of archaeology is double. Just as it illustrates the ways by which archaeological arguments are mobilized for political ends, it also clearly highlights how nationalist themes can be enlisted for the goals of disciplinary promotion. In other words, de Mortillet's book conveys a dual intention: the instrumentalization of science at the service of a national cause, and the instrumentalization of nationalism at the service of scientific advancement.

Gabriel de Mortillet: a politically engaged Politician

La Formation de la nation francaise is de Mortillet's last book. It was published in 1897, a year before the author's death, but also at a time when France was tom by the Dreyfuss affair, with its accompanying upsurge of nationalism and extremism in right-wing circles. Appearing the same year as Maurice Barres' Les deracines, de Mortillet's book thus rejoined ongoing fin-de-siecle nationalist controversies, where it represented the more moderate republican point of view.

In actual fact, this book had been written long before it appeared in print: it represents the lecture course delivered by de Mortillet at the Ecole d'anthropologie de Paris in 1889-90. That year the Ecole d'anthropologie (established by Paul Broca in 1875) had finally been awarded its status as an `institution of public utility', an official recognition that encompassed anthropology as a whole. In turn, it was explicitly out of gratitude to the state that de Mortillet chose this `national' theme for his lecture course (de Mortillet 1897: 1). More broadly, 1889 also saw the rise and fall of the plotter General Boulanger. Just like 1897, then, 1889 was a critical year for the republic: it saw a first differentiation between a form of nationalism which puts to the forefront the cult of national unity, and one whose orientation is primarily bellicose (Boudon 1995). …

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