Welcome to a new podcast about a pivotal period of history that shaped our modern world — but has been almost entirely forgotten. Over the coming months and years, I’ll introduce you to kings and peasants, wars and marriages, factories and farms, artists and aristocrats. Many of the people and events I’ll tell you about were household names during their lives, while others lived in obscurity even then. All of them, however, are now all but unknown today except among a small number of experts. This is a podcast about the world before our modern world began, about a proud people living through technological change and political upheaval. It is, in other words, about a people who are very much like us in many ways — and drastically different in others.

The setting is France from 1814 to 1914. This is The Siècle. Let’s get started.

My name is David Montgomery. I’m the writer and producer of this podcast; I’m a journalist, programmer and history fan based in Minnesota. And for the past year I’ve been up to my neck in books about France between two epic periods: the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars on one hand, and the First World War on the other. I imagine most people know something about both those periods, which are fascinating and action-packed. But I am drawn to the period in between, which I believe to be no less interesting for its smaller scale.

I’ve called this podcast The Siècle, borrowing the French word for “century” — though interestingly, it also has connotations of “the age.” One of France’s leaders during this hundred years will speak of being bound by “l’esprit de notre siècle” — the spirit of the age. What exactly constituted the spirit of the age — or spirits, plural — is one of the things we’ll be discussing over hopefully many episodes to come.

As you might gather by now, this is not simply a podcast about political history. My goal is to look at the topic holistically — covering the politics, wars and revolutions, yes, but also the daily lives of the French people. I want to engage with how economic changes affected social habits, and explore the ideas — some strange, some familiar — that animated people of this bygone century. If it sounds like a lot, I agree. But my goal is to break it down into manageable chunks, 20 to 30 minutes long, that each tackle a discreet subject. Some of those will tell the narrative of major events, while others will look at particular topics such as literature, religion, or military tactics.

My inspirations for this podcast come from a range of excellent history podcasters, including Mike Duncan’s Revolutions, Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps and E.M. Rummage’s Age of Napoleon. It was during a history podcast binge during a road trip last December that I came up with the idea of doing my own podcast. Since I’m new to the podcasting world, I’ll be influenced by all of those and many more — and also by your feedback as The Siècle takes shape in real time over the coming months.

As you may have noticed, I’m a journalist, not a historian. I have no specialized training in the field. But even though I’m not a historian, I hope you’ll still hold me to those standards. I want to make history accessible, which will inevitably involve some summation and omission. But it’s no excuse for errors. If I make mistakes — and I inevitably will — I hope you’ll let me know. You can reach me on social media, where I’m @thesiecle — t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e on both Twitter and Facebook, or by email at david@thesiecle.com.

That website, thesiecle.com, will also host a wealth of resources, including full scripts for each episode with citations and images. It also has a project bibliography, and a page for how you can support the podcast if you so desire. The easiest way to do that is to spread the word to friends, family and followers on social media, or by rating and reviewing the podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you feel generous, I’ve also set up a Patreon to help cover the costs of researching and hosting this podcast, and have an Amazon wish list where you can buy me French history books that I’ll use to research future episodes.

Some background notes about the podcast:

  • The theme music is the opening bars from Georges Bizet’s 1872 suite L’Arlésienne, or the Girl From Arles. It was originally written as incidental music for an unsuccessful play before Bizet turned it into a successful suite.
  • The logo I designed myself, incorporating an 1830 painting by French painter Léon Cogniet called “Scène de Juillet 1830 (Les Drapeaux)” — or “Scene of July 1830 (The Flags).” The map of France highlights Savoy, which France will acquire over the course of the century, and Alsace-Lorraine, which it will lose.

My French, as you may have noticed, is passable but not particularly good. I studied it for a number of years in school and lived for a semester in Provence, but that was years ago by now and even then, my pronunciation was not the best. Nonetheless I will do my best to pronounce French names and terms when appropriate, and appreciate any corrections from more fluent speakers than I. Because this podcast is intended for an English-speaking audience, I’ll be using English-language equivalents where they’re commonly known — so I’ll refer to Paris, not pah-ree, and “King Charles the Tenth” instead of “le roi Charles Dix.” Where there’s not a good English language alternative, or where the original French is important, I’ll do my best to pronounce the French terms and translate for non-francophone listeners.

Thank you so much for your interest in this new project. Together I hope to explore this fascinating, tumultuous century. You can already check out the first episode of the show, which both sets up the action and introduces the setting: Napoleon has abdicated as Emperor of the French, and the relatives of the guillotined King Louis XVI have returned to a society still reeling from the chaos of the French Revolution. It’s all waiting for you in The Siècle, Episode 1: The Return of the King.