sehepunkte 8 (2008), Nr. 5

Loïc Vadelorge: Rouen sous la IIIe République

One of the characteristic products of French historiography for several generations has been the exhaustive local history study. These were a product of the career pattern of French academics, which typically began in provincial universities. The status of tenured professor required completion of a traditional multi-volume doctorat d'état, which demanded years of work in the archives. Regional archives were the most accessible, and hence local histories.

Many of the greatest names of the French historical profession produced such works, which had major historiographical impact - studies of popular politics in Provence, or of peasants in the Limousin, or - as with Jean-Pierre Chaline, who directed Loïc Vadelorge's research and provides a preface to the present work, of the bourgeoisie of Rouen. Unlike in some other countries, where 'local history' is a rather low-status occupation with antiquarian overtones, French works in the genre were far from being narrow in their focus. Rather, they combined an exhaustive knowledge of the local case-study with national or (more rarely) international perspectives of class, politics, or economic and social change, as they attempted to show the ways in which the particular place they were studying both fitted into and differed from national patterns of development.

Loïc Vadelorge certainly shares these wider perspectives; indeed, he pushes them so far as to be in a way subverting the local study genre itself. In his short but significant preface Chaline gently criticises his former pupil for, in his view, paying insufficient attention to the unique characteristics of Rouen: in the table of contents, the word 'Rouen' does not even appear. Chaline would have liked more specific discussion - even, if I read him correctly, some celebration - of Rouen's cultural achievements.

But Vadelorge's intention is apparently quite different: to undermine the supposed uniqueness of the experience of a particular city, even the proud and self-consciously ancient capital of Normandy. He argues that belief in what he calls the spirit of place ('esprit des lieux'), which was shared by the generations of Rouen's elites (and which it seems is accepted by many historians) was itself a historical creation. Moreover, Rouen's supposedly characteristic cultural history was little different from that of other comparable cities. In other words, what has been perceived as unique is in fact shared.

What is most important in the cultural history of Rouen is not the particular, but the general - the way in which French cultural institutions were created and perpetuated by groups and individuals (including politicians), and how policies and institutions shaped (or Vadelorge seems to think mis-shaped) the cultural life of this large conurbation, which he criticises for its 'cultural narcissism'.

That this is the history of cultural practices ('cultural' in the traditional sense of intellectual and artistic activity) is a rather original feature of the work. The typical French local history monograph is primarily or exclusively political, social and economic. Moreover, it is precisely in the cultural field that we might expect local specificity to be most marked - precisely what Vadelorge is contesting.

What is particularly striking in the history of culture in Rouen - and, if Vadelorge's thesis is correct, in that of other French cities, and hence of France in general - is the antiquity and stability of the dominant cultural institutions, and their ability to continue to shape cultural life over a long period. Perhaps surprisingly given the anticlerical tendency of the Third Republic, the Church retained a major role, particularly through the annual Joan of Arc festivals, which had an important musical dimension, as well as highly visible public displays. In the secular sphere, Rouen's Académie was founded in 1744. Its 'Société libre d'émulation' dates from 1792. Its first theatre opened in 1776, and later pioneered performances of Wagner in France. Its art museum and library were founded by Napoleon I. Some of these institutions lost their original vitality and raison d'être (the academy becoming no more than an elite social club). Others became unsure of their role: should the museum try to compete in its collecting policy with national museums in Paris or should it concentrate on regional art? Should the theatre be trying to stage opera to international standards? But because of their local prestige and lobbying power, not least as status symbols for the city and the region, they attracted political support and absorbed the lion's share of public subsidies. This has meant that, despite the large growth of the population and geographical extent of the Rouen conurbation in the twentieth century, cultural activity has remained disproportionately concentrated in the ancient city centre.

Finally, the system has contributed to what Vadelorge considers the failure to democratize culture in France, not only in the period before the Second World War, but also since. This is perhaps his most important and challenging conclusion. Some recent studies of the 'consumers' of state-subsidized culture today - to which Vadelorge refers - show that they are disproportionately composed of schoolchildren and the middle classes.

However, although some conclusions are made concerning contemporary cultural policy, the study itself stops in the late 1930s. Only Rouen insiders, therefore, will be able to understand references to the Zenith, seemingly a large concert space opened in the 1990s. One might regret that Vadelorge has not been able, within the confines of a pretty substantial volume, to take the story into the era of Malraux and Jack Lang, in which sustained attempts were made to democratize culture by state action.

The limited time scale is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the French monographic style, which still bears the imprint of the thèse d'état: exhaustive detail is de rigueur - the annual budgets of the theatre, for example, lists of exhibitions, the number of seats in the city's cinemas, and a huge number of the names of local intellectuals and politicians. This makes for a rich and vivid picture, but it inevitably limits the breadth of coverage. It is a pity that the publishers have not included a thematic index or a bibliography.

If all this perhaps somewhat limits the readership and impact of the book it also means that as a study of official culture in Rouen it is unlikely to be equalled, let alone superseded, for the foreseeable future. Let us hope that the author may in time produce a more general study of the history of the organization of cultural life in France, for which he would be excellently qualified.

Rezension über:

Loïc Vadelorge: Rouen sous la IIIe République. Politiques et pratiques culturelles, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2005, IV + 441 S., ISBN 978-2-7535-0035-8, EUR 23,00

Rezension von:
Robert Tombs
Faculty of History, University of Cambridge
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Robert Tombs: Rezension von: Loïc Vadelorge: Rouen sous la IIIe République. Politiques et pratiques culturelles, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2005, in: sehepunkte 8 (2008), Nr. 5 [15.05.2008], URL:

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