Type of Document Thesis Author Cox, Katherine Ly Author's Email Address email@example.com URN etd-11132007-091801 Title Ideology, Practicality, and Fiscal Necessity: The Creation of the Archives Nationales and the Triage of Feudal Titles by the Agence Temporaire des Titres, 1789-1801 Degree Master of Arts Department History, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Darrin McMahon Committee Chair Claudia Mineo Committee Member Rafe Blaufarb Committee Member Keywords
- Celebratory Burnings
- Armand-Gaston Camus
- Agence Temporaire des Titres
- Archives Nationales
- French National Archives
- Celebratory Destruction
Date of Defense 2007-10-29 Availability unrestricted AbstractThe Archives nationales has a history all its own—a history tied firmly to revolutionary ideology, pragmatism, and fiscal necessity. On 29 July 1789, a mere two weeks after the storming of the Bastille, legislators of the National Assembly voted to create a repository that would house all documents produced by and relative to the operations of the new state; it was named the Archives of the National Assembly. Revolutionaries later adopted the name “Archives nationales” and steadily gave form to the institution with each passing year. But on 25 June 1794, legislators consolidated all previous mandates concerning the Archives nationales into one decree—the law of 7 messidor II. The forty-eight articles outlined in 7 messidor II made it the most comprehensive law governing the Archives nationales throughout the course of the Revolution.
The establishment of the Archives nationales in 1789 and the state’s later efforts to acquire the deposits of the Old Regime illustrate a dramatic change in the French governmental attitudes towards archives. In relation to archival deposits maintained under the Old Regime, the notion of a national repository was itself quite revolutionary. For centuries, archives existed in private, decentralized deposits dispersed throughout the nation; revolutionaries were the first to erect a truly national repository that cataloged and maintained documents under the instruction of one institution.
At the start of their work in the fall of 1790, revolutionaries faced an estimated 5,700 archival repositories scattered across the country, each varying in size, content, and arrangement. But it was not until 1794 that legislators began an aggressive campaign to integrate deposits of the Old Regime into the Archives nationales in hopes of utilizing feudal records for the political, fiscal, or pedagogical benefit to the Revolution.
Since the creation of the Archives nationales was such an unprecedented attempt to consolidate and arrange records of the Old Regime and revolutionary state, the history of the Archives nationales is often told as a narrative of progress. Overtly positive interpretations of the archival legislation passed during the Revolution often fail to account for the Revolution’s destructive character. Legislators indeed designed the law of 7 messidor II to arrange and preserve all documents generated by the new state, alongside records produced under the Old Regime. But the law also called for the deliberate and systematic destruction of feudal records by creating an agency, known as the Agence Temporaire des Titres, to carry out the triage of archival deposits—a process of examining and sorting records into two categories, labeling them with either the word “to preserve” (conserver) or “to annihilate” (anéatir). Legislators therefore designed the process of the triage in the law of 7 messidor II to distinguish between feudal documents that were considered either “useful” or “useless” to the nation.
Feudal titles to land, property, water, and windmills were among the most valuable and consistently sought after documents because they provided revenue to the Revolution; the state could sell titles to land and property that they acquired from the various Old Regime deposits as Bien Nationaux, thereby accruing a profit for the government. By contrast, titles of nobility, genealogy charts, and other records validating aristocratic privileges—referred in the collectively as “purely feudal titles” or “titles to abolished feudal rights”—were among the most sought after documents for annihilation because of the records’ association with “an abhorrent feudal past.”
The law of 7 messidor II originated at the height of radical violence and bloodshed; feudal titles to nobility and privilege fell victim to the National Convention because of the substantial power these records granted to the aristocracy in the feudal past—a past that stood, by its nature, in opposition to the new revolutionary state. The public burning of feudal records at the hands of the public and revolutionary government served as an important and particularly violent show of power—the destruction of records that represented the legal and symbolic power of the aristocracy came to signal an end to the political, social, and economic order of feudalism.
Scholarship regarding the law of 7 messidor II views revolutionary ideology as the strongest motivating factor in pushing the developments of the Archives nationales forward, but there are still other avenues that are just as important to our understanding of the Archives nationales that scholars have not yet explored. Even though revolutionaries supported archival destruction, practicality and the need to clear space in the holdings of the Archives was one alternative motive driving the destruction of documents. Financial necessity also inspired revolutionaries to preserve feudal records of financial utility; titles to land and property demonstrate how legislators put aside the ideological warfare they raged on feudal records so long as the state could derive some monetary benefit from the papers left behind by the Old Regime.
Ideology, practicality, and fiscal necessity thus proved to be the central strategies governing the organization of the Archives nationales, the legislative mandates to seize and absorb deposits of the Old Regime, the creation of 7 messidor II in 1794, and the triage of deposits throughout Revolution. The Agence Temporaire des Titres, in this examination, serves as a gateway to understanding the political, economic, and cultural contexts of the Revolution that shaped the developments of the Archives nationales and the triage of feudal records. We come to see that in practice, agents concentrated more on the recovery and preservation of records of financial utility and less on the destruction of feudal titles to nobility and privilege; the revenue provided by titles to land and property outweighed the ideological desire of revolutionaries to destroy the papers as “abhorrent” vestiges of feudalism.
The developments of the Archives nationales and the treatment of Old Regime records likewise illustrate major themes that are of particular interest to historians of the French Revolution; the destruction of feudal archives was one means used by the public and legislature to validate the defeat of aristocratic power and to prevent a return to the economic, social, and political structure of feudalism. The public burning of feudal documents also adds to our understanding of an emerging revolutionary culture that materialized in the form of festivals and celebratory performances. But the creation of the agency under the law of 7 messidor II signified the ultimate transformation of the Archives nationales into a political instrument of the revolutionary state—whereby legislators could shape the laws governing the Archives to fulfill their ideological, political, historical, and fiscal interests. Hence, this thesis regards the Archives nationales not as a neutral site of information, but rather as a site of conflict between past and present regimes, between advocates of archival destruction and preservation, and between remembering and forgetting.
The goal of chapter one is to illustrate how the act of creating an archival repository for government documents forced legislators in 1789 to answer the questions “what is an archive” and “what kind of documents are worth keeping.” It begins with a summary of archival repositories before 1789 to better illustrate the distinction between record-keeping under the Old Regime and revolutionary government. The discussion then leads into a description of the first formative years of the Archives nationales between years 1789 and 1791, with emphasis on the ways in which legislators relied on the information yield by records of revolutionary and Old Regime origin. The bulk of the chapter details how National Archivist Armand-Gaston Camus organized documents, how legislators used records to serve their legal initiatives, and how their use of feudal documents led revolutionaries to reflect on the legal, fiscal, and historical power of documents created under the Old Regime and the potential of these records to threaten the new state.
Chapter two details the revolutionary treatment of archives between years 1789 and 1794. The goal of this chapter is to explain the political, cultural, and social landscape of this tumultuous period from which the law of 7 messidor II came into being. The first part describes the assault on feudal archives led by the rural and urban communities and draws out the popular perception of these records as markers of an “abhorrent” feudal past. The latter half details the laws of 1792 and 1793, which authorized the public burning of titles to abolished feudal rights and represented one facet of a much larger campaign of destruction intended to obliterate the vestiges of the Old Regime. The debates that took place between advocates of archival destruction and archival preservation in the session of 1792 reveal how the majority of legislators sought to manipulate the content of the Archives nationales to symbolize the Revolution’s political and ideological rejection of the Old Regime and to showcase the supremacy of the new state. The final section examines how the law of 7 messidor II was not only shaped by the ideological currents taking hold at the time, but also by the practical and fiscal necessities of the state.
Chapter three features a comprehensive
examination of the policies and practices of the Agence Temporaire des Titres in an effort to show how the triage of Old Regime deposits was more difficult to carry out in practice than legislators anticipated. It begins by describing the size and scope of Old Regime deposits in order to grasp just how large of a logistical challenge it was for agents to separate titles of utility from titles destined by law for annihilation. The inconsistencies, challenges, and contradictions of the triage become apparent as readers trace the work of the agency over the course of its six years in operation. Undeniably, the destruction of records took place at the hands of the Agence Temporaire des Titres. What is disputed, however, is the extent to which agents could and did destroy titles to abolished feudal privileges. The latter part of this chapter, therefore, is reserved to show the factors that account for why feudal titles of abolished feudal rights still exist in the holdings of the Archives nationales to this day.
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