According to Roland Barthes’ Preface to his edition of Michelet’s La Sorcière “His subjectivity was only the earliest form of that insistence on totality, those authentic comparisons and associations, that attention to the most insignificant concrete detail, that today characterize the very method of the human sciences. It is because Michelet was a discredited historian—from a positivist point of view—that he could be at once a sociologist, an ethnologist, a psychoanalyst, a social historian” (124).

The idea of a history embracing more than politics and the actions of the great had, of course, been put forward by many Enlightenment writers. Friedrich Schiller, for instance, conceived of something close to the “total history” that, according to Febvre or Barthes, had been Michelet’s goal. “In truth,” Schiller wrote, “the history of religion and the churches, the history of philosophy, the history of art, of customs and manners, and the history of trade and commerce ought to be consolidated with political history. Only such a history would be a true world history.” (Cited in Friedrich Burschell, Schiller [Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1968], p. 295) But this remained an ideal. In practice, the story of the underground dwellings that ants build for themselves in silence while eagles and vultures tear each other apart in the air above them, as Voltaire put it, was usually conceived as distinct from other activities and was confined in the work of Voltaire and Hume to separate chapters, isolated from the main narrative. Nor was the Enlightenment historian sensitive to the interest of “the most insignificant concrete detail.”

[Return to “Jules Michelet: A Pioneering French Historian in Victorian England”]


Barthes, Roland. “Preface.” Michelet’s La Sorcière. Paris: Club Français du Livre, 1959. Reprinted in Essais Critiques. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1964. p. 124)

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