Fustel De Coulanges, Numa Denis

views updated Jun 11 2018

Fustel De Coulanges, Numa Denis



Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830–1889) devoted his life entirely to the study of the origin, evolution, and transformation of societies. Fustel was born in Paris. He never knew his father, a retired naval lieutenant, who died a few months after his birth. After secondary studies at the Lycée Charlemagne in Paris, he entered the École Normale Supérieure. The reactionary atmosphere then predominant in France pervaded the school and modified Fustel’s previous liberalism. Graduating from that school in 1853, he spent two years at the Ecole Franchise d’Athenes, where he began the study of ancient Greece. Upon his return, he was appointed professor at the lycée at Amiens; he defended his theses for the doctorat-ès-lettres, the second of which, in Latin, concerned the cult of Vesta and contained in embryo the substance of The Ancient City, his first great historical work, published in 1864.

His tastes and his ability destined him for a university career, and in 1860 he was appointed to the chair of history in the Faculté des Lettres at Strasbourg. His brilliant teaching attracted many students, but despite this success he felt alone. When a vacancy occurred at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he applied for the post and for five years taught history there. His reputation as a teacher led Victor Duruy, the minister of public instruction, to entrust him with teaching history to the Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoléon III, but the lessons were interrupted after only a few months by the outbreak of the war with Prussia.

The war had a profound effect on the patriotism of Fustel de Coulanges; it aroused his resentment against the German nation and helped to change the orientation of his investigations. He now plunged into the study of the political institutions of early medieval France and devoted the major part of his scholarly efforts to them from that time on. In December 1875 he was called to the Sorbonne to take the chair of ancient history, and in December 1878 he was appointed to the chair in medieval history, a position he kept until his death in 1889—except for three years, 1880-1883, during which he served, somewhat against his will because his health was poor, as director of the École Normale.

The first of the two principal works of Fustel de Coulanges was The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. In the introduction the author stated that he hoped to reveal the principles and rules by which the societies of Greece and Rome were governed. Fustel’s selection of a subject was not determined exclusively by the search for knowledge: what he wanted as well was to prove that the conception of Greece and Rome that people had had ever since the beginning of the French Revolution was false and that the consequences of this erroneous conception had been unfortunate. “They have deceived themselves,” he said, “about the liberty of the ancients, and on this very account liberty among the moderns has been put in peril” ([1864] 1956, p. 11). And he added that such errors could be corrected only by an objective study of the history of the Greco-Roman world that would show that modern political conditions were not comparable to those of ancient societies.

According to Fustel, the formation of these societies was, in fact, based on a belief common to all the Aryan races, namely, that after death the soul continues to live, associated with the body, in the tomb. The earliest religion was ancestor worship, and the family unit that tended the sacred fire in the home became the basic unit of the ancient societies. This primitive social organization expanded by gradual stages: the gens, the Greek phratry, and the Roman tribe. The end point of the development was the city, which Fustel defined as “a religious association” open only to its citizens, that is, only to the members of patrician families. Over the centuries these primitive institutions lost their simplicity. The priest-kings who had governed the cities lost their political authority. The gens lost its cohesion; the plebs, which had been outside the city, entered into it. Then the Roman conquest transformed the character of the old cities bit by bit, by destroying their traditional municipal regimes. The triumph of Christianity was the final blow to traditional city government.

What Fustel de Coulanges argued with great logic, but perhaps at the expense of considering other relevant factors in social development, was that ancient society was founded on a particular belief and that it persisted insofar as that belief prevailed: it changed gradually as the belief weakened, and it did not survive its disappearance.

The Histoire des institutions politiques de I’an-cienne France (1875–1889) was Fustel’s second great historical work. After 1870 he devoted al most all his scholarly activity to it. The many articles that he published after 1872 in the Revue des deux mondes, the proceedings of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques (he was elected to membership in 1865), and a number of other journals dealt chiefly with specific problems related to his major work.

The work focuses on the impact of the Germanic invasions. Fustel demonstrated the way in which the political institutions and social organization of Roman Gaul changed gradually, becoming first those of Frankish Gaul and then those of feudal France. According to the prevailing “Germanistic” conception of the great invasions, they were an avalanche that buried the Roman world. Fustel de Coulange’s conception was more sophisticated. He saw the invasions as a phenomenon occurring over a long period, a slow infiltration of the empire by barbarian nations. These peoples, whether Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, or others, were not hostile to Rome; but their invasion, combined with the effects of internal causes, produced a gradual, imperceptible, and nonrevolutionary transformation in the political and social institutions of Romanized Gaul.

This conception of Fustel’s has been accepted by most subsequent historians, although they have tried to make the theory somewhat more flexible; Fustel’s logician’s temperament had left it too rigid.

Fustel de Coulanges has been reproached for having attached exclusive importance to written documents, in particular to charters, at the expense of other historical sources, such as archeological material. Nonetheless his faculty for interpreting texts enabled him to extract the maximum of their historical significance. As the great medievalist Charles Victor Langlois justly observed, Fustel needed only to apply his critical approach to a hundred words such as villa, marca, allodis, to revise radically the interpretation of Merovingian times.

Fustel’s analysis of texts and vocabulary produced results of considerable value to sociologists. To take one famous example, his method permitted him to show that agrarian collectivism had never really existed, contrary to the theory of Markgenos-senschaft that was developed by German economists and legal historians and diffused also in Romance countries. Fustel de Coulanges never doubted that the institutions of the family and of individual property were universal and went back to earliest times.

Robert Latouche

[Other relevant material may be found inFeudalismand in the biography ofGierke.]


(1864) 1956 The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in French.

(1875–1889) 1888-1892 Histoire des institutions politiques de Vancienne France. 6 vols. Paris: Hachette.


Guiraud, Paul 1896 Fustel de Coulanges. Paris:Hachette.

Latouche, Robert (1956) 1961 The Birth of Western Economy. London: Methuen; New York: Barnes & Noble. → First published in French.

Tourneur-Aumont, J ean M. 1931 Fustel de Coulanges. Paris: Boivin.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges

views updated Jun 27 2018

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges

The French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889) made a leading contribution to the study of ancient France and to the debate concerning Roman versus German influence on French institutions and society.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges was born in Paris on March 18, 1830. He was admitted into the École Normale Supérieure in 1850, in the oppressive days preceding the collapse of the Second Republic. In 1853 Fustel was appointed a member of the French School in Athens and then spent 2 years in Chio, an opportunity which provided him with material for a contribution to the history of the island. He then returned to France to become a teacher in Amiens and Paris while taking his final degrees in 1857 and 1858. He was appointed professor of history in the University of Strasbourg in 1860. There he wrote and published at his own expense his first masterpiece, La Cité antique (1864), opening a fruitful line of research when he showed Greek and Roman city organization to have rested on kinship and the cult of the family hearth and ancestors.

But Fustel was to be lastingly diverted to another problem, the birth of his own country. In February 1870 Fustel came back to Paris as a professor of ancient history in the École Normale. The Sorbonne welcomed him in 1875, and in 1879 a professorship for the history of medieval France was created for him, thus acknowledging his achievements in this field. The German victory over France in 1870 had but given particular acumen to a problem whose political implications made it a passionate subject for historical controversy all over Europe: was Europe an issue of its Roman conquerors, or had it been broken and cast by the German invaders into a different mold, which had been the Middle Ages? Fustel pointed out the living continuity of history, the blending of old and new into its flow, particularly stressing the facts about landed property. He argued his point in volume 1 of his Histoire des institutions politiques de l'Ancienne France (1874). His health, however, was now failing. In 1883 he had to resign the directorship of the École Normale, to which he had been appointed in 1880. His last years were spent in gathering new material and publishing some of it in Recherches sur quelques problèmes d'histoire (1885), La Monarchie franque (1888), and L'Alleu et le domaine rural pendant la période mérovingienne (1889). Fustel de Coulanges died near Paris in 1889.

Further Reading

A full-length study of Fustel is Jane Herrick, The Historical Thought of Fustel de Coulanges (1954). General works include George Peabody Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; 2d ed. 1952), and Robert Latouche, The Birth of Western Economy: Economic Aspects of the Dark Ages (1956; trans. 1961). □