Henri Sée (1864–1936), French economic historian, was born at Saint-Brice (Seine-et-Oise). He attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and then the Sorbonne. In 1887 he became agrégé d’histoire and taught for several years in the provinces. After successfully defending his doctoral thesis on the policy of Louis XI toward the cities, he was appointed professor at the University of Rennes in 1893. He remained there until a serious illness compelled him to retire prematurely in 1920. He continued to do historical research for the remainder of his life.
The work of Sée has a remarkable unity, which derives from his conception of the aims and the methods of history. His teachers, including Fustel de Coulanges, Ernest Lavisse, and Charles Seignobos, had trained him always to respect the rules of historical criticism. Sée believed that history must be rigorously objective, eschewing, on the one hand, grand systems and philosophies, and on the other hand, the domination of bias. But Sée also realized the futility of a kind of erudition that consists of data increasingly scattered among compartmentalized specialties, no longer useful for the development of synthetic knowledge.
Sée’s Histoire economique de la France (1939–1942) is the work of a historian who cannot imagine studying economic facts apart from the milieu in which they occur and evolve, and the same spirit prevails in his L.’evolution commerciale et industrielle de la France sous I.’ancien regime (1925a) and his Esquisse d.’une histoire du régime agraire en Europe aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (1921). As a historian who was ever aware of the complexity of the facts, he found the Marxist doctrine of historical materialism unacceptable: from his viewpoint its great defect was its unilateral character. Although he was faithful to the socialist ideal all his life, it was from the effort of human thought rather than from “the blind movement of economic forces” that he expected humanity to progress, and his historical research was designed to show some of the conditions of rational progress.
Like his teacher Fustel de Coulanges, Sée was primarily interested in collective entities and institutions, even though he felt that Fustel had given too short shrift to the actions of individuals and the importance of “accidents.” He believed that history should provide knowledge of the institutions, beliefs, and customs of a society, its way of thinking, its dominant concerns, and its guiding ideas. See felt that the most certain way of making his contribution to history as the “science of human societies” was to devote himself to both social and economic history and the history of ideas. Neither political or military history nor the biographies of rulers serve to reveal peoples to themselves. The most important dynamic factors in the evolution of societies are economic necessities, which predominantly determine the feelings and actions of governments and of social classes; however, the economic factor does not explain everything, and economic interpretations of history by no means have the character of laws.
Sée was a prolific author, his writings comprising no less than 28 books and 194 articles. As economics editor of the Revue historique he performed an important service to his profession.
1901 Les classes rurales et le régime domanial en France au moyen âge. Paris: Giard & Brière.
1921 Esquisse d.’une histoire du régime agraire en Europe aux XVIII.e et XIXe siècles. Paris: Giard & Brière.
1925a L’évolution commerciale et industrielle de la France sous l’ancien régime. Paris: Giard & Brière.
(1925b) 1931 Economic and Social Conditions in France During the Eighteenth Century. New York: Croft. → First published in French.
(1926) 1931 Modern Capitalism: Its Origin and Evolution. 2d ed. New York: Adelphi. → First published in French.
1927 La vie économique de la France sous la monarchie censitaire. Paris: Alcan.
(1927) 1929 The Economic Interpretation of History.New York: Adelphi. → First published as Matérialisme historique et interprétation économique de I.’histoire.
(1928) 1933 Science et philosophie de I.’histoire. 2d ed., rev. Paris: Alcan.
1929 Évolution et revolution. Paris: Flammarion.
(1939–1942) 1948–1951 Histoire économique de la France. 2 vols. 2d ed. Paris: Colin → Volume 1: Le moyenâge et Vancien regime. Volume 2: Les temps modernes: 1789–1914.
Beck, Earl R. 1951 Henri Sée and “The New History.” Florida State University Studies No. 4:21–35.
Knight, Melvil M. 1956 Henri Sée. Pages 107–117 in Architects and Craftsmen in History: Festschrift für Abbott Pay son Usher. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.
Parker, Harold T. 1942 Henri Sée. Pages 444–476 in Bernadotte E. Schmitt (editor), Some Historians of Modern Europe: Essays in Historiography. Univ. of Chicago Press.