Will Andrews (History and Modern Languages, 2015) achieved the highest mark in his cohort in this year’s Finals examinations. Here, he reports on a research trip supported by Somerville’s Alcuin Fund.
I can’t say I often engage with the work of historians of the late Middle Ages – but I have to admit I find Patrick Geary’s work on archives as institutions of social memory fascinating.
He describes the archive as the ‘invisible partner’ of academic history; and emphasises how would-be empiricist historians – desperate to let the texts of the past ‘speak for themselves’ – tend to ignore the impact of institutional sites of memory such as archives on the social processes of knowledge-production.
And so I went to the archive. The Alcuin Fund supported me on a trip to Paris, where I descended into the depths of state power in the basement of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BnF), a towering and terrifying cement-and-glass emblem of national glory. I went looking for traces of a counter-revolutionary nun, Adélaïde de Cicé and of her fellow subversive sisters in their various acts of resistance against the irreligious revolutionary state in the 1790s.
De Cicé is a fascinating subject of study – and the study of my undergraduate thesis. Although she was repeatedly placed under surveillance, associated with émigrés, organised counter-revolutionary meetings and an illegal press, founded a secretive religious society and hosted clandestine masses and fugitive refractory priests, de Cicé got away with it all – all while her masculine co-conspirators were either imprisoned or guillotined.
Her experiences between 1785 and 1805, as she moved from Brittany to Paris in the midst of revolutionary upheaval, provide a fascinating microhistorical lens through which many paradigmatic aspects of historiography on the French (Counter-)Revolution might be re-analysed.
That’s not to say that my trip was only thesis-focused, although I did spend all but 2 days of my 10 day trip in the BnF. I met up with a nun who was a sister of the convent de Cicé set up for instance. Upon realising that I was in Paris at the same time as fashion week when I got there, I managed to get into some events, and I even ended up at a party at the Centre Pompidou.
And to emphasise that this trip was enriching beyond the boundaries of my degree, even if I did go with the aim of conducting thesis research: I did it all in French! Begging to be let into a state research library is tough in any language – the BnF research sections are technically only open for those preparing for, or already in possession of, a DPhil qualification – but in the end, it all worked out.
The Alcuin Fund was established by former Principal Catherine Hughes to help tutors and students in History with self-development and travel. Read more about the achievements of Somervillian Finalists here.