Artisans of Glory: Writers and Historical Thought in Seventeenth-Century France

By Orest A. Ranum | Go to book overview

Glancing Backward and Forward

I T is time to look over our shoulders and take stock of what we have seen. The journey has seemed long because we found no signposts to point out the new from the old, or the influential from the significant, as we crossed a century of French historical thought. It is sobering to discover how difficult it is for both writers and readers of history to travel without these signposts. No preconception focused our gaze one way or the other along the journey. We were not deliberately searching for origins, revivals, innovations, or continuities.

From the panoramic perspective that we now have, all those writers at work on the same subject while pursuing the same pensions and honors are a pitiful sight to behold. Their lives seem to have been excessively confining and their works scarcely worth the attention we gave them. So entrapped in the labyrinths of royal service as a result of the powerful myths about honor and immortality that they themselves had raised into a cult, these writers repudiated the sources of individual vitality in their lives and conformed to the styles of life and thought necessary if they were to hold royal office as men of letters. Though all received bits of income from other sources and possible alternative employment, they nonetheless pursued the career of royal service. Such powerfully individualizing traditions as Protestantism, libertinism, and Jansenism were either abandoned or so subsumed in their histories that it is possible to say that the monolithic quality that French political culture assumed under Louis XIV rested on the most fundamental social and psychological determinants at work in the age. No single king, no matter how powerful, could have brought about these shifts of allegiances and interests. Like the historiographers, Louis XIV was the product of these shifts, rather than the perpetrator of them. The gloire associated with writing about the kings of France was an enormously powerful acculturating force, and the results in books of history seem devoid of humane and individualizing qualifies. To depend on the king or in some way to belong to him remained a powerful bond affecting writers' lives and thought throughout the seventeenth century.

Did the dependencies of writers never break down? Their history

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