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François-Joseph Ruggiu




The French research on Egodocuments

1. Historiographical context

 French historians use egodocuments for a long time. The first surge of interest about this kind of sources occurred during the second half of the nineteenth-century. In every region, especially in South of France, antiquarians dig up the archives and the libraries in order to find texts able to illuminate how worked the ancient Christian family or able to give informations, sometimes sensational, about the history of particular towns or places. A lot of texts were then published especially in issues of local reviews like for example the Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de Picardie or the Bulletin de la Société Polymathique du Morbihan... This interest vanished after the first world war especially because the war depleted the ranks of the provincial learned societies.

 A second surge rose during the seventies and the beginning of the eighties with the publication and the comment by professional historians (not anymore by scholars) of a whole set of great texts. It was then the peak of the history of mentalities as the Annales’ schoold designed it and for Jean-Marie Goulemot, Daniel Roche, Madeleine Foisil, or Alain Lottin, it was a way to understand the behavior of a social group or a social – like the people de Paris for Daniel Roche – through a particular person who has written and left a text – Jacques Louis Ménétra in this case. Again this scientific interest vanished at the end of the eighties.

 Since 2002, we notice a third phase about “écrits du for privé”, embodied in our Groupe de Recherches.

             This phase has four main characteristics :

- the will to work on series of texts and not on a single text.

- we pay more attention, I think, to the conditions of productions of texts – the material conditions (what kind of document is used : registers, books, single pages… ; where the text is kept in the house ; what kind of inks ; what level of literacy…) – the cultural and social conditions of the productions (for example the models followed by the writers…).

- we have the will to integrate another types of approach mainly literary ones ; we are working closely with Philippe Lejeune, author of a well-know essay about autobiographical literature, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Seuil, 1975. We are resolute to apply interdisciplinarity.

- lastly, we are willing to see what is going on in Europe about egodocuments and it is exactly why we have initiated this meeting.

2. What we mean by “écrits du for privé” ?

 Several words are used in Europe to describe a very complex family of manuscripts texts which can be found in archives or in libraries or in huge amount in private hands. Firstly, these texts are produced by ordinary people or rather by people acting in their own name and not for an administration like a report from a civil servant or for official purpose like deed from a public notary for example. You have already seen of course of lot of them – Diapositive 2.

Secondly, these texts are non-literary or non-fictional and they were not aimed to be published for the most part. Thirdly, they deals with “private” matters – a very difficult term indeed – narrating the ordinary life of an individual or of a family.

A wide range of texts could be stored in this category from the simple “livre de raison” or “livre de famille”, “libri di famiglia” to the more complex autobiographies, memoirs and all kinds of private diaries (military, diplomatic, medical and travel diaries…). In some ways, correspondence are inside this category.

Ego-documents is a term coined by the Dutch Jacques Presser and it is currently the most employed. They are also called “écrits personnels”,  “Selbstzeugnisse” or “first-persons writings”. We are using “écrits du for privé” from a paper written by Madeleine Foisil in nineteenth eighty six for a five-volumes publication called Histoire de la vie privée and run by the medievalist Georges Duby and the early modernist Philippe Ariès. The term “for” is an old religious word coined during the twelth and thirteenth centuries in order to distinguish the “for externe” that is the public law court and the “for interne” that is the inner tribunal of the conscience of the individual.

Of course we are fully aware of the difficulties put forward by the meaning of “for” and “private”. At least, we can build more surely on “écrits” because our texts are deeply linked to the progressive development of the “civilisation de l’écrit” – the written culture – so deeply studied by Roger Chartier. 

In some ways, we do not entirely agree on the subject of our studies. Some of us are mainly interested in rather traditional topics – religion ; politics… and studying them through the lens of egodocuments is a good way to conform to the general trend of historians to consider social practices. Some are trying to use to them to explore new or fashionable fields of history : the natural disasters through the centuries for example ; the history of the illness seen from the point of view of the patient, something quite new ; and, of course, the question of the personal identity. Other pay more attention to the category in itself : the several sub-types of egodocuments ; the chronological evolution of each of them ; the decline of family books and the rise of the autobiographies. We are all coexisting in the same group and working efficiently together. But it is time I tell you more about our Groupe de Recherches. 

           3. The first database

We manage firstly to build a list of printed and manuscripts references of French egodocuments (by French, I mean kept in a French depository ; the language or the nationality of the writer does not matter) :

-          Eventually, we count 2715 references at the 31st of December 2007, just in the Archives Nationales (Paris) and in the onwards 100 French districts archives. We know that more are kept because some district archives did not seriously the census. These references can be seen on a online database run by the Direction des Archives de France. The database gives a small number of vital informations about them ; its aim is mainly to locate the documents.

-           To this sum, you must add :

-           all the manuscripts kept the Bibliothèque nationale de France – we have a reference.

-           all the manuscript kept in the municipal librairies and archives – we know yet nothing about them

-           and, of course, all the texts which have been printed especially during the nineteenth century but which have later disappeared or which are in private hands. We have just a reference.