Sources discussed in this episode:
- Corbin, Alain. The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
- Jardin, André, and André-Jean Tudesq. Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848. Translated by Elborg Forster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- McPhee, Peter. A Social History of France: 1789-1914. 2nd ed. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
- Bibliothèque Nationale de France, “Gallica.”
If you’re interested in any of these works, purchasing them from the links above or below can help the show at no added cost to you due to Amazon’s referral program.
This is The Siècle, Supplemental 3: The Livres.
Welcome to a special bonus episode of The Siècle, a podcast about France’s overlooked century in between Napoleon and the First World War. Today we’re going to get a bit meta — this is a podcast about the podcast, a look behind the scenes at how I make the show. But don’t tune out if you’re only here for French history — I’m going to be sharing some of the books I’ve used to research the show, and some of the insights they offer about how French people lived 200 years ago.
This episode is brought to you by The Siècle’s 32 backers on Patreon, who help me cover the surprisingly hefty costs of producing the show for as little as a dollar a month. Because the show passed the $25 per month threshold at which I could cover The Siècle’s hosting costs, they earned a bonus episode — and generous people that they are, the show’s patrons told me without reservation that they wanted everyone and not just them to get access to this episode.
Each episode of The Siècle is a very complicated beast that takes probably two dozen hours to put together, all told — though that includes the inevitable writer’s block. The process started with the background reading I did before even releasing the show: a number of general histories of the period, which give me a general understanding of the key events and figures. Those sources, some of which I’ll describe in more detail shortly, have been useful in essentially every episode of the show so far.
But as I shape a particular episode’s script, I also do plenty of more specific research. This includes more focused books about particular events, such as John Post’s book The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World, which was entirely about the Year Without a Summer and provided the backbone for Episode 11. Other times I skim through more thematic works looking for anecdotes or statistics that can illustrate a point I want to make. I’ll also search on JSTOR, a collection of academic articles, for key phrases and names to see if anyone has written about them. You’d be surprised how often there’s some 70-year-old journal article about exactly the topic at hand!
In no case, however, do I ever rely on a single source for anything important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read one book describe an event in one way, then happened on another equally reputable source with a completely different take on the matter. Only by drawing a bigger picture from multiple sources can I present a take on events that I feel comfortable sharing with you.
Writing an episode is an uneven process. Sometimes I have most of my research complete and just sit down to shape it into a script. Other times I will write a few paragraphs, then pause to go research a particular fact or event that I feel I need better sourcing for, then rinse and repeat. Sometimes an episode flows onto the page relatively easily, other times I spent hours staring at a blinking cursor as I try to wrangle a coherent narrative from jumbled notes and thoughts.
Eventually, though, I end up with a finished script, which is basically what you can see online at thesiecle.com — fully researched and footnoted, and often with maps or graphics I made embedded in the text. Just about the only part of the final product I haven’t finished at this point is embedding historical images in the script, which is usually the very last thing I do before releasing an episode.
With a finished script, I then record it. Some of the early episodes I used a recording studio at my local library, but that was sufficiently tricky to arrange that I now usually just record in my office or bedroom. The acoustics aren’t quite as good, but I can lay down an episode late at night without leaving my house. I record using a Blue Yeti microphone, a common choice among podcasters for its blend of acoustic quality and affordability. If you’re interested, you can find a link to purchase one at thesiecle.com/supplemental3. I can’t speak to the competition, but compared to the cheaper solutions I’ve experimented with the Blue Yeti does wonders for the sound of the show, even outside a professional recording studio. It’s also portable enough that I’ve brought it with me on vacations to do recordings there.
After recording an episode, I go through and edit it, cutting out bad takes and adjusting the timing between clips to create a natural flow to my narration. Just a quarter second of adjustment here or there can make a big difference between something that sounds awkward versus natural. This usually happens the night before I publish. Then I track down historic images, most frequently using Wikimedia Commons to track down public domain or Creative Commons images, make sure all my footnotes are properly formatted, and click publish!
A screenshot of the editing in progress for this episode in GarageBand, featuring the introductory music — a snippet of Georges Bizet’s 1872 suite *L’Arlésienne — and opening lines of dialogue.*
But let’s back up a bit. I’d like to go into deeper detail on four of the specific sources that I’ve used to research The Siècle. These are four of dozens upon dozens of books, articles and historical documents in my collection, but if I did all of them this bonus episode would approach a length of Dan Carlin proportions1. For this bonus episode, I’ve picked sources that help shed light on the day-to-day lives of the French people, rather than just chronicling political events — although to my surprise, I’ve discovered that even older sources often have a lot more details about everyday life than you might expect!
My current (and ever-expanding) collection of French history books, as of Sept. 22, 2019.
I’m going to start with the most general source for this topic, and part of the first batch of books I bought after deciding to do this podcast: Peter McPhee’s A Social History of France: 1789-1914. This is exactly what it sounds like: a social history, as opposed to a political history, of France during the period of The Siècle, plus the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras before it. As such it’s rooted in extensive synthesis of other people’s fascinating research by a noted expert on the era.
McPhee divides his chapters into closer looks at how various social classes lived, such as Chapter 8, on “Rural Change and Continuity,” which informed so much of Episode 10: People of the Land — but also separate chapters on the social lives of nobles and bourgeois and urban workers. Each chapter jumps around as a survey of their topic, referencing money and work and sex and clothing and religion and food and childrearing and so many other subjects. There’s never enough on any one topic to base an episode on, but there’s something here on just about any topic that I could want to cover in an episode. Even when I haven’t cited it directly, its insights into daily life have informed my understanding of the period.
And unlike some of the more academic works on French history, this is also extremely readable, helped in part by its survey-style take on the topic. I didn’t just mine this book for information, I read it straight through. Moreover, the book closes with an extremely helpful bibliographic essay talking about helpful additional reading on a variety of topics covered in the book — many of which have since ended up in my library.
If you’re interested in buying a copy of this book, or any of the others I discuss in this episode, I encourage you to visit thesiecle.com/supplemental3, where I’ve posted links to purchase all of them on Amazon. Not only is this convenient for you, but it’s also an easy way to help the show, because I get a small payment for every sale I refer to Amazon using the included links.
Another extremely useful book is the 1973 history by André Jardin and André-Jean Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848. This was originally published in French as La France des Notables, or “The France of the Notables,” referring to the combination of nobility and bourgeois who dominated the country’s social and political life in the decades leading up to the Revolutions of 1848.
The first half of this book is a completely traditional history — a more or less narrative telling of the major political events to take place in France over this period. And as such it’s quite helpful! But what makes it so helpful is the book’s back half, which is a look at each region of France in detail, with a focus on the social and economic life rather than the decisions of politicians in Paris.
It’s the perfect antidote to the typical histories you get of the period, which tend either to be Paris-centric, or hyper-focused on a particular area where the author did their research. Both can be great — as you’ll see from my next recommendation — but it’s great to have a book that deliberately takes a regional approach to 19th Century France.
You heard lots of facts sourced from Jardin and Tudesq in Episode 3: The Kingdom of Louis XVIII, my tour of France’s physical and cultural geography. That episode would have been a lot shorter without this book! While Jardin and Tudesq tell us all about the politics of each region — who starts out as royalist or Bonapartist and how that changes over the coming decades — they also talk a lot about how people make a livelihood, what kind of customs were prevalent there, how geography affects culture, and more.
If the book has a downside, it’s that it essentially lacks citations or bibliography. The authors are clearly experts, and enough of their facts are corroborated in other sources, but more robust sourcing here would have made me more comfortable with the book, as well as giving me new options to research!
The third book I’d like to highlight here is a little bit of a different beast than the other two, but it may be my favorite of the three. While A Social History of France and Restoration & Reaction are both high-level surveys, this is an example of what author Alain Corbin terms “microhistory.” Far from a history of France, or of a region, this is a history of a single person — not a biography of a famous king or statesman, but a history of a simple, illiterate peasant and his impoverished backwater of a village. The book is called, in its English translation, The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France.
Corbin wrote this book as something of an experiment, visiting the regional archives of his home department, picking a volume of documents at random, and choosing names from the census tables at random. After all this, he ended up with a man named Louis-François Pinagot, who was born on June 20, 1798, and died on January 31, 1876, a clogmaker and day laborer who saw most of the 19th Century pass by from his home in the forest of Bellême in western France.
This decision to give a nobody the biographical treatment usually reserved for the rich or famous is interesting in its own right, but it also turns up fascinating insights into this period. Sadly, many of these insights aren’t actually about Pinagot himself — it turns out that an illiterate peasant doesn’t leave much in the way of documentation. But he leaves enough, as do his family and neighbors, for Corbin to weave a picture not so much of Pinagot but of his village, Origny-le-Butin, and its rich cast of characters: the feasts and famines, the various kinds of work, the almost ceaseless drinking, the petty feuds between neighbors, and how people reacted when outside events intruded, such as revolutions in far-off Paris bringing new political rights to the village’s farmers, or the fortunes of war in 1815 bringing invading armies to occupy the region.
Around the bare facts of Pinagot’s life — his height, his marriage, the homes where he lived, his children and their marriages — Corbin weaves a fuller tapestry using accounts written by literate residents of nearby towns, of centuries-old legal records, health records of military conscripts, tax rolls and lists of people relying on charity or public welfare, and more. Though this described just one man and one village in a particular part of France, the details and the lush portrait Corbin presents in The Life of an Unknown were vital to my description of the lives of peasants in Episode 10.
Moreover, it’s also short and easy to read, at least compared to other French history books. It’s just over 200 pages, grouped into 10 thematic chapters, without the tiny fonts and dense paragraphs you often find in traditional history books.
Finally, I’d like to close by briefly highlighting an invaluable source for primary sources: the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or French National Library, and specifically BNF’s digital library, “Gallica.”
This is an online collection of more than 5 million documents from across French history, many from the time of The Siècle. Because these documents are all well over a century old, they’re almost all in the public domain, free to peruse and download — though BNF annoyingly tries to limit the use of many of its documents, such as scanned pictures, to only “noncommercial” uses — an amorphous designation when it comes to something like a history podcast. Because of that I usually end up relying on Wikimedia Commons for reproducing images.
But Gallica remains a superb source for historical documents, from a copy of a post put up immediately after Waterloo in Marseille by members of the “Provisional Royal Committee,” to historical almanacs that I’ve turned to to get details like the weather in Paris at particular times on particular days. Gallica is free to use, and even has English-language navigation available (though you’ll need to be able to read French actually use the documents you find). Combined with other sources such as Google Books, Gallica is an invaluable tool for researching 19th Century France from my office in Minnesota, so far away from the physical archives in France.
Thank you again to all my Patreon supporters, who made this episode happen. If you’d like to join them for as little as a dollar a month, you can go to patreon.com/thesiecle, or thesiecle.com/support. If any of the books I described today interest you, please visit thesiecle.com/supplemental3 for special links to buy them that will benefit the show at no extra cost to you. And if you want to support the show without spending any money, you can make a huge difference by just rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get the show — those ratings and reviews help attract new listeners and increase the odds that the show could get featured in Apple’s brand new dedicated category for history podcasts. Every little bit helps!
We’ll be back to the regular narrative next time, hitting your ears in a week or two. Be sure to tune in then for Episode 14: Slipped on the Blood.
Dan Carlin is a history podcaster known for his multi-hour episodes. ↩