Fustel de Coulanges, N. D.

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FUSTEL DE COULANGES, N. D. (18301889), was a French historian, best known as author of La cité antique (1864). Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges would perhaps be surprised to find himself the subject of an entry in this encyclopedia. He entered the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1850, and chafed under the strictly conventional classical education imposed by the regime of Napoléon III; if the revolutionary movements of 1848 left him with a lasting fear of civil war and violence, as expressed above all in his thesis on Polybius's approval of the Roman conquest of Greece (1858), the counterreaction engendered his equally persistent anticlericalism.

Fustel taught in Strasbourg from 1861 to 1870, then in Paris at the Sorbonne and the École Normale, of which he was director from 1880 to 1883. He saw himself as a scientific historian, examining evidence systematically and without preconceptions. Throughout his life, the main target of his critical scrutiny was the belief that primitive society was democratic. In La cité antique Fustel criticized the view that the concept of personal liberty was born in the ancient city-state and that in early Greek and Roman society there was no private ownership of land. Later, in the first volume of his Histoire des institutions politiques de l'ancienne France (1875), Fustel asserted that the determining influence in French history did not come from the Frankish invaders but from the Roman legacy in Gaul; finally, in his book Recherches sur quelques problèmes de l'histoire (1885), he argued that the primitive, democratic village community, which held land in common, could not be found even in Germany.

Fustel's reputation as a founding father of the sociology of religion is based largely on his assertion that religious ideas could have a decisive effect in the formulation of a society's social and economic structure. In La cité antique Fustel argues that the practice of worshiping ancestors determined the form of the family and the patrilineal form of lineage (gens ) that grew out of it. The private ownership of land was derived from ancestor worship. A man was buried in the fields he had farmed, and because his descendants were obliged to care for his tomb they could not allow the land that contained it to pass out of the family. Religion tied culture and social structure to nature. To care for family tombs was natural and needed no explanation (or so it seemed to Fustel and his contemporaries, though the cemetery had only recently become a place of pilgrimage in their own time). At more complex levels of social organization religion was linked to nature in a different way: People worshiped gods who were believed to control physical forces and whose rites could be shared by a wide circle.

Pagan religion thus followed the contours of social organization. The paganism of the Gauls merged easily into that of the Romans as the Gauls became latinized. Fustel dismisses druidism as a brief interlude; he viewed the druids as professional religious specialists whose doctrines and practices did not arise naturally from social life. The power of the druids had been based on a close alliance with the native political elite who turned away from them after the Roman conquest.

Fustel's treatment of Christianity is more complex. Early Christianity, he thought, was truly democratic in its organization. With its incorporation into the empire, the structure of the church became more hierarchical, mirroring the structure of political society. Fustel became somewhat torn between his dislike of priestly hierarchy and his desire to see the church as the vehicle by which Roman social organization was preserved and transmitted to medieval France. Because it was separate from the state and grew up initially without official recognition, the church constituted an alternative source of authority on which the conception of the individual's rights against the state could be based; but contraposition to the state also turned the church into a political organization. In his early Mémoire sur l'île de Chio (1856) Fustel showed how the opposition between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches became the focus of hostility between Greeks and Franks.

Émile Durkheim and the structural-functionalists followed and extended Fustel's insight into the relation between religion and social structure. Louis Dumont has revived his idea of a link between Christianity and individualism in his Essais sur l'individualisme (1983). Fustel's complex attitude toward the priesthood and his interest in the relation between church and state form part of a chapter of nineteenth-century intellectual history that has yet to be written.


The English edition of The Ancient City (Baltimore, 1980) contains an introduction by Arnaldo Momigliano and myself. A new French edition, with an introduction by François Hartog, was published in Paris in 1984. Fustel's other work on religion is to be found in the Histoire des institutions politiques de l'ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris, 18881893), Nouvelles recherches sur quelques problèmes de l'histoire (Paris, 1891), and Questions historiques (Paris, 1893); all were edited posthumously by Camille Jullian. Jane Herrick's The Historical Thought of Fustel de Coulanges (Washington, D.C., 1954) contains useful material on Fustel's attitude to religion. Further bibliography and information on Fustel's intellectual background can be found in Arnaldo Momigliano's "The Ancient City of Fustel de Coulanges," in his Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Oxford, 1977), pp. 325343.

New Sources

Various materials and subtle interpretations are provided by François Hartog, Le XIX siècle et l'histoire. Le cas Fustel de Coulanges. 2d ed. Paris, 2001. Fustel's contribution to ancient history and law history is still the object of historiographical debate. See Arnaldo Marcone, Il colonato tardo antico nella storiografia moderna: da Foustel de Coulanges ai nostri giorni, Como, Italy, 1988; and Andrea Galatello-Adamo, L'antico e il positivo: per un commento a N. S. Fustel de Coulanges, Naples, 1981.

S. C. Humphreys (1987)

Revised Bibliography