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The Allure of the Archives

The Allure of the Archives

Arlette Farge
Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton
Foreword by Natalie Zemon Davis
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 152
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  • Book Info
    The Allure of the Archives
    Book Description:

    Arlette Farge'sLe Goût de l'archiveis widely regarded as a historiographical classic. While combing through two-hundred-year-old judicial records from the Archives of the Bastille, historian Farge was struck by the extraordinarily intimate portrayal they provided of the lives of the poor in pre-Revolutionary France, especially women. She was seduced by the sensuality of old manuscripts and by the revelatory power of voices otherwise lost. InThe Allure of the Archives, she conveys the exhilaration of uncovering hidden secrets and the thrill of venturing into new dimensions of the past.Originally published in 1989, Farge's classic work communicates the tactile, interpretive, and emotional experience of archival research while sharing astonishing details about life under the Old Regime in France. At once a practical guide to research methodology and an elegant literary reflection on the challenges of writing history, this uniquely rich volume demonstrates how surrendering to the archive's allure can forever change how we understand the past.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18021-3
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    Natalie Zemon Davis

    Readers of Arlette Farge’s writings have marveled at the world of eighteenth-century France that she has opened before our eyes. Whether in her stylish and lyrical French or in excellent English translation, her books have brought to life women and men of Paris in their workshops, bedrooms, and kitchens; on their doorsteps and in their streets and taverns; making appeals to their parish church and summoned before the commissariat of police. She has retrieved stories of love and abandonment among young working people and servants; of quarrels between apprentices and masters, with the master’s wife standing in the middle; of...

  4. Traces by the Thousands
    (pp. 1-17)

    Whether it’s summer or winter, you freeze. Your hands grow stiff as you try to decipher the document, and every touch of its parchment or rag paper stains your fingers with cold dust. The writing, no matter how meticulous, how regular, is barely legible to untrained eyes. It sits before you on the reading room table, most often a worn-out looking bundle tied together with a cloth ribbon, its corners eaten away by time and rodents. It is precious (infinitely so) and damaged; you handle it cautiously out of fear that a slight tear could become definitive. You can tell...

  5. On the Front Door
    (pp. 18-22)

    On the front door there is a sign listing the library’s hours. There is no way for the uninitiated to know that they do not necessarily coincide with the hours the documents are available for consultation. Lower down on the sign, one can find a list of holidays, as well as the accompanying days the library will be closed before and after weekends. It’s a long text, unostentatiously typed on plain paper bearing the letterhead of the Ministry of Culture, posted so discreetly that one rarely notices it at first glance. Which is exactly what happens to our reader. Pushing...

  6. Paths and Presences
    (pp. 23-46)

    To give preference to the judicial archive presupposes a choice, and presents an itinerary; to make it the sole basis of one’s research or to bring it into the historical debate as one’s principal interlocutor is not altogether natural. Why deny it? There’s certainly something a little quaint about spending years of research obstinately parsing reports of lives led centuries ago, even as increasingly elaborate new ways of thinking about history are all the while being formulated and reformulated. But we should not forget to what extent the judicial archives themselves made many of these breakthroughs possible in the first...

  7. She Has Just Arrived
    (pp. 47-52)

    She has just arrived. She is asked for a card that she does not have. She is then told to retrace her steps to the other room, in order to obtain a day pass. In this next room, she is asked to present a different card, this time one she has. She takes the pass, returns to the first room, and presents it to the reading room supervisor, who takes it. She waits for him to give her a place number, but he does not look up again. So she whispers to him, asking where she should sit. The supervisor,...

  8. Gathering and Handling the Documents
    (pp. 53-78)

    For some, what I’ve written so far might represent a naive and outmoded view of archival research. Assembling a narrative by building relationships to the documents and the people they reveal might seem today like a vestige of outdated scholarly practices. This technique appears to have no place in an intellectual period that is both more traditional—perhaps even more conservative—and less attached to descriptions of daily life. What appeal can the archives retain when others have already said everything, or almost everything, about the beauty of research for its own sake, the dialogue we carry out with the...

  9. Captured Speech
    (pp. 79-113)

    The judicial archives reveal a fragmented world. The majority of police interrogations consist of questions whose answers are incomplete and imprecise, quick snippets of speech and life whose connecting thread is difficult to make out.

    On the other hand, the more one becomes interested in the archives, the more expressive these trivial complaints about trivial matters become—people quarreling over stolen tools, for example, or over some dirty water splashed on their clothes. Because they led to police reports and interrogations, these signs of minor disorder have left behind a trail. These personal matters where almost nothing was said, but...

  10. The Inventory Room Is Sepulchral
    (pp. 114-120)

    The inventory room is sepulchral. Someone decided that central heating wasn’t needed here, so cold damp air is continually drifting down from the high ceilings. Prison-issue gray iron tables line the length of walls stacked high with volumes. Their purpose is to allow for the consultation of the inventories that contain the serial numbers under which a sought-after document is stored. In the middle of the room there is a table, as austere as the others, although perhaps slightly larger. An impassive archivist is sitting there. Beside a window opening on to the garden, a staff person is numbering pages...

  11. Writing
    (pp. 121-124)

    We cannot bring back to life those whom we find cast ashore in the archives. But this is not a reason to make them suffer a second death. There is only a narrow space in which to develop a story that will neither cancel out nor dissolve these lives, but leave them available so that another day, and elsewhere, another narrative can be built from their enigmatic presence.

    A taste for these ragged tatters of words and actions will always shape the way you write about them. Grounded in fragments, this style of writing builds on sequences of what was...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 125-130)
  13. Translator’s Notes
    (pp. 131-131)