Crisis of Historical Legitimacy at the Académie des Inscriptions

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Anton Matytsin, Kenyon College
This paper will explore how the debates about the origins of the French monarchy at the Académie des inscriptions contributed to the crisis of historical consciousness in the early Enlightenment. Originally founded as part of King Louis XIV’s image-making campaign in 1663, this academy came to play a vital role in transforming the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers understood the ancient and the more recent past. Their research deeply unsettled the existing Judeo-Christian chronological framework. By engaging in a comparative analysis of ancient civilizations and cultures, the members of the Académie began to develop a sense of their own place in the process of historical development and to articulate ever more complex theories of human progress and philosophies of history. The study of ancient and medieval societies exposed readers to a variety of alternative models of social and political organization and raised questions about the historical legitimacy of the monarchy and the nobility, destabilizing established assumptions about the nature, origin, and purpose of political authority.

This paper examines the debates between the young Nicolas Fréret and the abbé René-Aubert de Vertot. Fréret’s Discours sur l’origine des Francs, delivered at the Académie in 1714, disputed the dubious notion that the Franks were the descendants of the Trojans. Vertot denounced Fréret in the harshest terms, leading to Fréret’s imprisonment in the Bastille at the end of the Louis XIV’s reign. Their exchange sheds light on the political and historical implications of writing dynastic and national histories in a period when the French crown was attempting to strengthen its legitimacy. By examining this debate in the context of a longer scholarly tradition of French dynastic histories, this paper will explain why this question proved especially controversial for the legitimacy of the monarchy and of the nobility in the early eighteenth century.

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