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Miniatures of French History Review


General history books are often interesting not so much for their history, but as a reflection of the views of the time and their authors. It is particularly so with Miniatures of French History, by the Anglo-French writer Hillaire Belloc. This is a collection of not so much short stories, but rather depictions of French history and French individuals at what the author views as crucial periods of France’s existence, very much as the title states, in the form of miniatures.

What are some of the moments? Belloc’s history of France takes form early in the historical account, secure by the 5th century. It begins with the Romans, who to his eyes civilized France, starting in Caesar’s Gallic Campaigns and the battles against Venites in 56 BC. The spiritual component of France for him is overwhelmingly a Christian, a Catholic one, born in the end of the 4th century with the Christianization of France by Saint Martin. And the third one is the Baptism of Clovis, leading to the hierarchical, monarchical France that would endure for more than a millennia.

They give a good description of what Belloc’s understanding of French history and society is, as a Latin-Christian-hierarchical country, the soul of the west, and animated with a historical mission as the eldest daughter of the church. France’s destiny in this account is bound up with an ideal greater than merely France, with a Christian ideal of the propagation of the faith. It brings the romance of France far afield, its most pivotal story the Battle of Tours against the Muslims in 732, and the Crusades one of the richest and most dramatic of tales for Belloc, from the capture of Jerusalem, to the defeat at Hattin, to the death of Louis IX CHECK at the gates of Tunis. And at home, the Protestants and the battle between Catholic and the heretics takes central stage. Notably, it is by this also a military and warring one: the great majority of the events involve battles and wars.

It’s a story which rejects many other aspects of France: it’s striking that a book written in 1926 takes no note of the many revolutions that had shaken France for nearly a century from 1789 onwards, save for indirectly their end, in the bitter street fighting of Paris in 1871. The French colonial and overseas odyssey, leaving asides the question of the crusades isn’t something that features significantly in Belloc’s history of France. And the intellectual seismic shifts of the French Revolution, secularism, the establishment of the French Republic, and the profound economic changes which had gripped France: these are much less important aspects for Belloc. It’s ironic that the cover to at least my edition of the book is a picture of the Pantheon, irrevocably associated with the Republic and the Empire, while Belloc’s story of France has nothing at all to do with them.

It’s a shame that this exploration of French history is one that for the most part ignores the common people. They appear from time to time, but its overwhelming focus is upon the high political points of French existence, what the author sees as the turning points r key events in France’s history, rather than on the story of the common people throughout. In this it’s easy to see why books written at the same period, focusing on the lives of common people in history, such as Medieval People by Eileen Power, were so revolutionary.

There isn’t very much direct value to the book nowadays, from the story itself: it’s a rather simplistic history of France, and although there is some charm in some of the miniatures it has, they’re not exemplary and don’t have a deep value to them that you can find in other historical fiction pieces or historical romances. But it does give an interesting perspective into one particular vision of France, its destiny, and what it views as its crucial moments that continues to be an excellent historical source.

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