Revisiting Reign, The Tudors, Versailles and the horrors of historical fictions

Rare is the historical TV drama that hasn’t attracted complaints about its inaccuracy. The “televisionization” of well-known historical events have become increasingly popular recently, with the blooming of various TV shows supposedly based off prominent historical figures such as Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, the Borgia, Louis XIV…

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Historical fiction is by no means a bad genre if it retains at least a consequent portion of factual history. But the problem is that most of them awash in serious inaccuracies.

In the last decade, the cultural landscape has witnessed a shift in its approach to representing history. The sophistication and intricacy of historical events have been almost systematically dumbed down on T.V and exchanged instead for pop culture history. Undeniably, certain cinematic productions on historical events have attracted more readers of history than standard history books have.

Television producers and “popularizer” journalists who write pseudo-history have sometimes gained a reputation than few academic historians have. What is problematic and almost alarming is the public’s granting to them the enormous power to comment and have control on the ways in which the past is mediated and explained.

Yet, a perplexing paradox remains: while history has never been more popular among the youth, it has never been more distorted and triviliazed.

The sensationalization of history and its “embellishment” through cinema and literature has led the public to believe that the simple truth cannot be interesting enough. In watching a fictonalized T.V show which sacrifized assiduity of research for glamorous cinematic effetcs, most viewers are aware that intellectual depths have been undermined, yet few seriously realize the extent of its falsification. After all, the public’s  faith in the credibility of popular history is what makes historical fiction so profitable.

Three highly popular shows, Reign, The Tudors and the ongoing Versailles, are examples of TV shows labeled “historical” that have veered way out of historical accuracy territory. The historical fictions are told from the lens of modern sensibilities which include multiple anachronisms and dialogues that do not fit the period. Throwing factual history out of the window, the teenage-geared dramas opt instead for a bland story covered in sugar and play the generational dumbing-down card that attempts to make history accessible.

With such a purpose, several questions immediately come to mind: Does making history “accessible” automatically assume presenting the past in a digestible, whimsical way? Can’t entertainment and academic rigor go along in attempting to teach “history to the masses”? Should there be “permissible” inaccuracies in a work of fiction? If so, how do we draw the line?

Giving “history back to the people” has never suggested doing an inaccurate version of it, let alone a hinderance to the past. If one is pushing for pseudo-history, which is responsible for omitting, trimming or inventing data, then that isn’t history.  It’s simply a distortion of the past, referred to as epistemological abuse.

Zoom in on those ahistorical shows that have taken far many too liberties in the practice of historical fiction.

The Tudors:

On paper, The Tudors officially falls into the genre of historical fiction. Yet, the show comes as simplified storylines about the life of Henry VIII, far from a nuanced, academic tone. Though it has withhold no claim of being scholarly, it is STILL presenting itself as the history of the Tudors.

More than anything else, The Tudors is actually a ahistorical depiction of Henry VIII’s “marriages”. Not much is covered about the Protestant reformation in England and the wars it engendered. Yet, these were not only the primary issues of 16th century England but they produced an enormous sets of events that drastically impacted the people of England and led to the shaping of current-England (in contrast, le peuple cared probably little about the King’s marital behavior). Notably, the Queen being Head of the Church of England dates back from Henry VIII. All British monarchs have held such a position ever since -and the separation between church and state in England isn’t yet to be on the table.

If the political perspective wasn’t missing or feeling forced, the show would have been turned into better art.

But unfortunately, sex and intrigue is much more interesting for TV producers than a series of boring political discussions and the sacking of religious heritage. As for the complexities of ruling in Renaissance-era, the producers deliberately left that aside, depriving the show of its raison d’être.

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While there are enormous historical inaccuracies in the show, I would like to focus solely on the most aberrant ones.

♦ First, in trying to create a sort of “intellectual T.V series”, one should at least try to portray accurately the eponym-protagonist of the show. Granted, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is probably the handsomest actor to have played Henry VIII. But he shares little resemblance with the overweighed, red-headed King.

In reality, due to a leg injury that contributed to his physical decline, Henry VIII was thought to have weighed up to 145 kg at the end of his life. His set of armors testifies of a drastic shift, with a waist measurement of 147 to 152 centimeters1. Therefore, he wasn’t considered particularly attractive.

And yet, throughout the show, the actor vacillates between sexual whispering and irritable yelling, without hitting at King Henry VIII’s complex personality. Since the producers probably thought that people primarily watch television to enjoy handsome actors, they didn’t let Johnny gain any weight, probably to allow him to retain his sex appeal.

To this matter, Michael Hirst, the show’s writer explains: “We didn’t bother to put Johnny, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in a red wig and make him fat and put a beard on just because then we’d say, ‘Oh, look that’s Henry VIII!’ We wanted to get closer to the spirit of the thing, to a kind of reality”2. Too bad you failed to do both.

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This is Henry VIII. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection

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This is Jonathan Rhys. Young. Black hair. Thin. The opposite of Henry VIII.




Nonetheless, The Tudors doesn’t get just one thing completely off track. Other conflations and inaccuracies include :

♦ Age inaccuracies: little Princess Elizabeth is shown to be at least 6 years old when her mother Anne Boleyn was beheaded. In reality, she was only 2 years old. Cardinal Von Waldburg is shown to be 80 years old but the real character was in his early 20s when the reform broke out.

♦Princess Margaret marries the King of Portugal. Actually, she married James IV of Scotland in 1514.

The Venus de Milo is seen as Henry and Anne walks in a garden. The Venus wasn’t discovered before the mid 19th-century.

♦ Queen Claude is portrayed as a gorgeous woman who is courted by Charles Brandon in 1528. In reality, Queen Claude was quite unattractive to the time’s standards and she had scholiosis. She died rapidly.

♦ Queen Katharine of Aragon prays in English. But Catholic prayer was in Latin (come on, that one was easy to respect based on the show’s story!) Changing it to the country’s language was actually one of the major reforms of the Protestant movement.

♦ Henry receives a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Though we don’t know when Machiavelli wrote The Prince (the general historiographical trend claims that he wrote it before Discourses), it was not published until 1532 and it is very unlikely that Henry VIII would have been sent off a copy.


Among the historical shows that have the most veered off the rails, Reign would probably win the Emmys. I would accept Reign as it is, that is a soap opera for prom-obsessed teenagers if it had made no claim for historical accuracy. But it did. In fact, the series’ creators modestly claimed: “In each episode we’ll educate people on what element of history helps our story”3. Thank you for making the point of my article clear.

Created by the same people who made Gossip Girl (which already says quite a lot about the show), Reign is more interested in focusing on romantic turmoil than getting close to any semblance of historical fact. Liberties were taken, co-creator Laurie McCarthy explained, in order to “tell stories persuasively”4. But how far is too far? Rather than invented stories, can we not tell the truth “persuasively”? Wouldn’t that actually “help our story” better, so to quote their words? In making historical fictions, most T.V shows lack the essential skills of being able to narrate the past accurately, as if ommitting the truth is imperative to good story telling on T.V.

For starters, the drama series follows the story of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots as a teenager in 16th century France. The first episode sets off with Mary playing soccer in a convent (soccer wasn’t brought to the UK before the 17th century and made popular before mid 19th century5) with a Lumineers soundtrack in the background. From that very first episode, we already get the feeling that the show is going to let loose with the historical authenticity. In fact, throughout the seasons, the show mainly focuses on the lavish costumes and the love triangles between Mary, Francis and a-entirely-invented-half-brother named “bash”, short for Sebastian de Poitiers.

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♦ But let’s zoom in on Mary.

Real historical Mary Stuart’s story goes as follow: Queen of Scotland when she was six days old, Mary was immediately thrown into a caldron of political turmoil due to the succession dilemma to the English throne confronting England on one side and Scotland on the other. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VIII, Mary was next in line to the crown of England after Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, the King’s children. Due to the growing religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants, she was obliged to move to the French court at age 5 and was raised with the Dauphin Francis of France, whom she married at 15. After his sudden death, she returned to Scotland and married Lord Darnley. Her marriage with Darnley was in vehement opposition to Elizabeth’s for he had a claim to the English through Margaret Tudor. The murder of Darley led to Mary’s third marriage with Lord Bothwell who, it is believed, raped and abducted her in an attempt to secure the crown. Later, Mary’s return to Scotland was blocked by Protestant lords who had no desire to let a Catholic Queen rule the country. After the murder of Lord Bothwell, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son James. Forced to flee the country to England, Mary was immediately imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth, whom was suspicious about her and believed the rumored plots that circulated among some Dukes. After eighteen-years of imprisonment, Mary was sentenced to death in 1587 by an almost unanimous decision and authorized by Elizabeth’s signing of the death warrant, persuaded to end the threat to her throne once and for all.

What is wrong then with the character of Mary in Reign? Literally everything. As explained below, Mary was raised at the French court. She was never sent to live in a convent in France, nor did she meet Francis II, for the first time in 1557. They practically grew up together, this is far from the show starting with a fully-developed 18-years-old woman. During the second season, the added storylines of Mary’s rape by a Protestant gang and her fictionalized romance with the Prince of Condé officially place Reign not only in the land of  fiction, but very bad fiction.

Oh and physically, Mary was red head. Was it really such a big effort to have the actress dye her hair appropriately for the role or simply hire a redhead actress and quit the discriminatory hiring practices?

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Mary, Queen of Scots. Royal Collection.

♦With regards to Francis, he is portrayed as a healthy, vivid, womanizing man who has endless sexual affairs with various  ladies at the court and ends up having a child with one of them. In reality, Prince Francis was a sickly fragile young teen who died after less than two years on the throne at age 166. It was also believed that his sickness might have impacted his ability to conceive.

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One of the only portrait made of Dauphin François II. BnF, Paris.

♦ As for Mary’s ladies-in-waiting – whom were all named “Mary” and known as the “Four Marys”- are named here Greer, Lola, Kenna, and Aylee. Let that last one sink in for a moment, I’ll wait.

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Throughout the show, they spend a lot of time emoting over love stories, presented as their unique occupation (as Reign‘s favorite motto “love is the most dangerous subject” suggests). They are portrayed as free-spirited, in a perpetual state of wanting to experience real love. In doing so, the producers hope to appeal to a teen audience and smoothen their identification with the main characters.

But in reality, 16th-century noble relationships were, for the most part, entirely a matter of politics and not personal desire. Rather than trying to paint a picture of 16th century mentality and explore how teens at the royal court might have felt about their situations, the show simply contents itself with projecting contemporary sentiments and the concerns of today’s teenagers onto the historical characters.

Yet, the 16th century is one of the most fascinating periods in history, one that deserves attention from T.V producers. The intellectual changes, the political and religious conflicts that occurred led to a complex series of events that dramatically changed Western culture. Instead of using such a setting as an asset to tell persuasive stories that millennials might find compelling, the drama shows no other ambitions beyond turning it into a somewhat-Renaissancesque Gossip Girl.

♦ Perhaps the most ridiculous abhorrence comes with the evasive outfits and anachronistic clothing displayed throughout the show. Mary and her ladies-in-waiting wear prom-like dresses with corsets as outerwear (corsets were only worn as underwear in Renaissance time) and their dresses are far too colorful and sleeveless with far too prominent cleavages for the early modern period. While I understand that in terms of audience, historically accurate 16th-century clothing is probably less appealing to today’s teens, one should at least understand that low-cut, lacey, glittery, strapless dresses were not popular until the late 20th century. Some of the outfits displayed in the show seem to have come from a futuristic Paris fashion week.

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Tiara is also worn by almost everyone in the show. These are perfectly okay for a 21st-century modern wedding whose theme is “Great Gatsby” (and “Great Gatsby” only) , but is completely far off track in a Renaissance context.

But it gets even worse when at some point in the show the girls prepare for… prom7. Bastille is playing, confetting are raining down, and the show has officially lost whatever shred of credibility there was left. There, we get the feeling that the serie is interested in historical accuracy as much as Marie Antoinette or Troy was.

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16th-century prom. Oxymoron at its finest.

♦ As for Nostradamus, the portrait dressed by the writers of the show is, like most things in Reign, entirely inaccurate. In 1557, Nostradamus was a 54-year-old apothecary who had never prophesied the death of the Dauphin if he married Mary Queen of Scots8. Apothecary. Seer. Old. These were the things that Nostradamus were in 1557. And they hardly resemble Rossif Sutherland.

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Rossif Sutherland plays Nostradamus in Reign

♦ Although the series is set in France, everyone speaks with an English accent and uses modern vocabulary. There is one notable episode where a guard portrayed by a New Zealand actor lets his natural accent run free without even trying to make it sound different.

♦ But perhaps, the biggest historical lie comes with the portrayal of Catherine de Medici. Few historical figures in French history have attracted such systematic and unflinching criticism for centuries following their death as Catherine de Medici. Known as the “Florentine merchant” and chief instigator of civil and religious strife such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, it was not until the 1970s than a wave of revisionism began to rehabilitate the Florentine’s reputation.

Nonetheless, the traditional scholarly approach to the Queen as a poison-happy, sinister, despotic, Italian crone have long remained prevalent in the popular mentality and heavily inspired the arts. Paintings and literature have almost systematically execrated these morbid representations of the queen, forging the redundant theme of Catherine’s Machiavellian tactics into the collective consciousness.

Even the cinematic production did not spare her. Reign, as a recent example, maintains the stereotyped image of Catherine as the eternal intriguing murderous schemer coupled with a caricatured Italian accent.  She is represented as an authoritative, churlish, and bloodthirsty Queen who murdered Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s favorite mistress, and tried to have Mary raped and killed. All of this portrayal is obviously untrue and entirely misleading about who Catherine de Medici really was. Too bad for the show’s creators, Diane de Poitiers died comfortably in 1556 (oh and she never had a son with Henry II – sorry Bash).

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CDM in Reign


Like its peers, Versailles’ intrigue and sex titillate. Without dwelling into the traditional problems that historical fictions engender (anachronistic blunder, characters invented, sack of the plot, etc), there is one particular remark I would like to make about Versailles.

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The show tends to heavily  focus on sexual affairs and in particular, women seem to really enjoy their first time. Romanticizing actual events is the ingredient of most historical(ly inaccurate) shows. Actresses of Versailles were probably hired for their acting skills when it comes to faking orgasms since grimacing and expressing pain would have probably turned down audience.

But, in reality, the royal reality was much more tedious. The dominating gender role attitudes and perceptions of sexuality did not expect women to experience sexual pleasure between the sheet9 10. Most importantly, women were usually not educated or even told what would happen to them in bed, which likely made the whole first-time experience less glamorous.

Most importantly, marital rape was rampant as it was tolerated, and most of the times culturally accepted, since, in popular mentalities, sex was seen as a wifely duty, something women owe to men, whom had the grant license for the sexual decision11. As for the King, his sexual entitlement was obviously greater and his mistresses were expected to be available whenever he needed them. But the Hollywood formula works much better at eliciting interest and emotions from the viewers if we are lured into the idea that every time they had sex, mistresses at the French court had a blast.


The scourge of squandering public money on supposedly historical dramas which turn out to be nothing historical goes beyond the ethical debate whether such shows should stop existing.

The problem lies in using such inaccurate label when the show throws out any semblance of a relationship to history within the first few episodes of the first season. While some fictionalizing is to be expected in an entertainment drama (in contrast with a documentary) most series show a lack of research and deviate heavily from the historical record, from manipulating chronology and key characters to inventing events and places in order to suit a storyline. In doing so, the label “historical” loses its purpose.

Creators of such shows who claim to reproduce the story of historical figures in a more-or-less accurate way, but who are in fact entirely misrepresenting history, are attracting audience under false pretenses. It’s one thing to discard historical facts to make a series more entertaining, but it’s another thing to manipulate and distort history so that it fits Hollywood glows. Even the smallest historical facts and details carry importance: they embody the thoughts and emotions that people had at a given time. Changing them is the rough equivalent of a journalist inventing quotations on the grounds that nobody actually said.

For one who wishes to create a historical fiction of Henry VIII or Mary Queen of Scots, there should be no problem in using the “historical” label if accuracy is prioritized and not just occasionally respected. If not then, one should stick to making it just fiction and take adequate measures to let the audience know that the work is historically inaccurate (providing a specific warning about the innacuracy before the show, changing the names of the characters involved, etc).

Most importantly, making history accessible does not mean dumbing down people’s mind. Modern audience shouldn’t content themselves with the accustomed bland mediocrity and adolescent-tone that comes with such shows. History should make people think and not the opposite. Promoting “cheap history” and an innaccurate portrayal of famous historical figures ultimately blemish people’s opinions on these time periods and create a misleading impression of the past that isn’t without consequences. A 2009 study from Washington University published in Psychological Science suggests that students who learn history by watching historically based blockbuster movies may be doomed to repeat the historical mistakes portrayed within them12. A later Duke study printed in Applied Cognitive Psychology reveals that historical innacuracies in movies can hinder learning13.

What is the key then, to get the merits of making an accurate historical drama, both entertaining and academically rigorous? Representing the past with careful verisimilitude while making a watchable TV show shouldn’t be that difficult. Some lesser-known drama series have succeeding in ensuring historical accuracy. For instance Band of brothers, Deadwood, Johns Adams or Hatfields and Mccoys. Others, such as Downtown abbey created a fictional storyline (as not to sell it as “historical fiction”) but took actual events of British history (like World War I, the decline of aristocracy, etc) and stayed faithful to the period about major details such as language, props and costumes, cutlery, social interactions between characters based on their social category…

It is a shame that most TV-producers grounded in Hollywood flavor refuse to ensure such authenticity. Sometimes the truth is far more interesting than fiction.

For accurate information on the Tudors, The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser,  Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir are essential reads. About Mary Stuart, John Guy’s Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart is probably definitive for scholarly works. The most notable revisionist works on Catherine de Medici are Catherine De Médicis: Le Pouvoir Au Féminin by T. Wanegffelen; Catherine De’Medici  by R.J. Knecht and Le Haut Coeur De Catherine De Médicis by Denis Crouzet who wrote an extensive two books on the matter.

1. Maria Hayward, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII (London: Routledge, 2017), 6
2. Alex Cohen, “The Tudors Battles with Truth,” Pop Culture, NPR (March 28, 2008),
3. As quoted in Maggie Furlong, “‘Reign’ Cast Talks Playing With Mary, Queen Of Scots’ History, Using Modern Music And More At TCA 2013,” Huffingtonpost (July 30th, 2013),
4. As quoted in Lisa de Moraes, “TCA: CW’s First Crunchy-Gravel Drama ‘Reign’ Flirts With History,” Deadline (July 30th, 2013),
5. Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: From the Earliest Period, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles (London: Methuen & Company, 1801), 90
6. See La maladie et la mort de François II, roi de France by Albert Potiquet (Paris: Rueff, 1893)
7. Interesting article about the origins of the word “prom” and its evolution:
8. See Jean-Paul Clébert, Les Prophécies de Nostradamus. Les Centuries. Texte intégral (1555-1568) (Paris: Dervy, 2003)
9. Marylin Yalom, A History of the Wife (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001), 59
10. See also Judith Daniluk’s book Women’s Sexuality Across the Life Span: Challenging Myths, Creating Meanings and Laura Gowing’s “Knowledge and Experience, C. 1500-1750” in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present, which are essential reads with regards to early modern sexuality and perceptions of women’s body.
11. 17th English jurist Matthew Hale’s line: “the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract” has been stated by many scholars who worked on marital rape. As quoted in Diana E.H.Russel, Rape in Marriage (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), 17.
12. Andrew C. Butler, Franklin M. Zaromb, Keith B. Lyle and Henry L. Roediger III, “Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting,” Psychological Science 20, no. 9 (2009): 1161–1168.
13. S. Umanath, A. C. Butler and E.J. Marsh, “Positive and Negative Effects of Monitoring Popular Films for Historical Inaccuracies,” Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 26 (2012): 556–567.

Posted in Early modern era, Mediatized history, Popular history, Renaissance era, Women's history | 1 Comment

Notes de lecture : Jeanne d’Arc, Vérités et Légendes (Colette Beaune)


Fille cachée du roi, pauvre petite bergère, sorcière, survivante du « bûcher de 1431 à Rouen »… A travers les décennies, on a tout dit sur Jeanne d’Arc. Les films, les légendes, les romans ont nourri l’imaginaire populaire. Parce qu’elle était femme, issue du peuple, charismatique et jeune, on a été jusqu’à lui contester sa vie et sa mort. Mais à vrai, dire, que sait-on exactement de Jeanne d’Arc, et qui était-elle vraiment?

C’est en faisant une recherche sur les mythographes que j’ai été amené à lire un certain nombre de leurs ouvrages, tel que L’Affaire Jeanne d’Arc. En quatrième de couverture nous sommes confrontés à une ribambelle de questions, toutes aussi légitimes les unes que les autres,  cherchant à lever le voile sur l’identité de la Pucelle. Néanmoins, dans les dernières lignes nous pouvons lire : « L’histoire officielle n’apporte pas de réponse à ces questions pourtant légitimes. Parce que l’histoire a été sciemment falsifiée. Le dossier a été truqué. Voici pourquoi. Voici comment ».

Dans ce livre de poche de 280 pages, les dits-auteurs pensent faire lumière sur « les dossiers cachés » de l’Histoire et rendre justice à Jeanne d’Arc. Hélas, malheureusement pour Jeanne, sa légende à dépasser la réalité historique. Comme nous l’avons vu ici, les mythographes écrivent souvent l’histoire à l’envers, partant d’un postulat qui leur plait (par exemple dans ce cas-ci, “Jeanne d’Arc est une noble, fruit de l’adultère d’Isabeau de Bavière avec le Duc d’Orléans”), et manipulent, troquent les sources pour faire concorder leur arguments et les faire adhérer à leur thèse de départ.

Le problème avec ce genre de méthode c’est qu’on pourrait réécrire toute l’histoire de France. C’est sûr, l’histoire de Jeanne d’Arc ne changera pas, à moins d’une découverte dans l’avenir de documents d’époque, authentifiés et fiables sur Jeanne d’Arc. Alors oui, cela fait certainement plus vendeur de dire que la Pucelle est la fille cachée du roi et qu’elle a survécu aux flammes des anglais, que de dire qu’elle est née de condition paysanne et que les imposteurs qui se sont fait passés pour elle après sa mort n’étaient que des imposteurs. Plus attrayant et plus vendeur certes, mais historiquement incorrect. La légende est dépassée, et heureusement pour nous, l’historien se soucie de la vérité plus que de la proximité.

En m’appuyant sur le livre de Colette Beaune, Jeanne d’Arc, Vérités et Légendes, cet article se veut purement synthétique en y ajoutant toutefois mes propres recherches, en relation avec les deux articles écrits précédemment. Colette Beaune couvre un certain nombre de points et seuls les plus importants (ceux sur son identité et sur son rôle pendant la Guerre de Cent Ans) sont abordés ici. Retour donc sur une liste non-exhaustive de mensonges historiques qui ont encore la vie dure.

Un point sur l’auteur: Colette Beaune, historienne médiéviste française, spécialiste de Jeanne d’Arc, professeur émérite à l’université Paris X, a consacré une grande partie de ses recherches sur la Pucelle (voir Jeanne d’Arc) et est aujourd’hui considérée comme l’une des plus importantes spécialistes sur la fille de Domrémy.

Jeanne d’Arc : conditions sociales

Encore aujourd’hui, Jeanne d’Arc apparaît dans les films, les romans, les vitraux des églises… comme une pauvre bergère de campagne. Hors, Jeanne d’Arc ne nait pas de condition pauvre et ne devrait en aucun cas être considérée comme une bergère. Ses parents sont des laboureurs aisés. Beaune nous le rappelle: Jeanne possède son propre lit, un luxe pour le milieu et l’époque.

La plupart des raisons qu’évoquent Colette Beaune sont d’ordre symbolique. Jeanne d’Arc est souvent représentée dans les églises comme bergère gardant ses troupeaux. Et cela, non pas dans un but mythologique mais bien dans un but religieux. Comme l’historienne le rappelle, dans la Bible, Dieu choisit ses prophètes parmi les bergers (Amos, David…). En effet, dans le Nouveau Testament, ils sont souvent les premiers à entendre la bonne nouvelle et adorer l’enfant:”(…) lorsque les anges les eurent quittés pour retourner au ciel, les bergers se dirent les uns aux autres: Allons jusqu’à Bethléhem, et voyons ce qui est arrivé, ce que le Seigneur nous a fait connaître” (Luc 2:16).

De plus, Jeanne d’Arc a été dite “pauvre” puisque les pauvres sont souvent les « élus » de Dieu, les « choisis » pour accomplir une tâche rédemptrice bien précise.

Bien entendu, nous ne devons pas comparer la condition sociale de Jeanne d’Arc de « classe moyenne » pour le village de Domrémy du 15ème siècle avec ce que cela signifie aujourd’hui. Certes, Jeanne est aisée par rapport aux paysans de son village mais elle reste pauvre par rapport aux nobles ou aux juges de Rouen.  On est toujours le pauvre de quelqu’un, je suppose.



Paysanne aisée certes, mais certainement pas noble

Alors, oui Jeanne est « d’Arc ». Mais il est important, comme le souligne Beaune, de ne pas tomber dans l’anachronisme en éclaircissant le passé avec des éléments contemporains. En effet, la particule « d’ » ou « de » n’est pas nobiliaire au XVe siècle (sa mère est « de Vouthon »).

Nombreux sont les mythographes qui se sont appuyés sur le texte “Le Mystère du siège d’Orléans” de 1460 qui « fait » de Jeanne d’Arc une noble. Hors, à cette date-là, Jeanne d’Arc est morte depuis longtemps. Effectivement, nous pouvons considérés Jeanne d’Arc et sa famille comme noble mais seulement à une date précise, celle de 1429, date de leur anoblissement par le roi (ce qui n’a rien à voir avec l’affiliation de la noblesse par la naissance). En effet, le texte royale est clair : ils ne sont pas « nés d’une noble famille ». Si le roi éprouve le besoin de les anoblir, c’est bien parce qu’ils ne sont pas nobles à la base.

Fille cachée du roi ?

C’est en 1805 qu’est apparue l’idée que Jeanne serait la demi-sœur de Charles VII, fille de la reine Isabeau et du duc d’Orléans. Ici encore, Colette Beaune casse les mythes :

Les bâtards sont souvent légitimés par le roi. Par exemple, l’armée de Charles VII compte pas moins de 4% de bâtards nobles. De plus, les bâtards, contrairement à ce que l’on croit, peuvent accéder au trône: Henry de Trastamare, par exemple, devient roi de Castille après avoir éliminé l’héritier Pierre le Cruel.

La reine Isabeau accoucha  du petit Philippe le 10 novembre 1407, mort né, selon les registres du XVe siècle. Contrairement à ce que l’on croit, ce qui se passe dans le lit conjugal est connu : pour des raisons médicales, on recommande au roi et la reine d’entretenir des rapports sexuels – l’activité sexuelle soulage le malade, le roi ne va donc pas chez la reine en catimini. Si l’on regarde les naissances des enfants du couple royal, il y en a eu 5 avant la première crise de folie du roi en 1392. Les quatre suivants conçus pendant des périodes de rémission : Catherine en 1401, Charles en 1403, Philippe en 1407. Les rapports continuèrent périodiquement, ce qui fait de Philippe un enfant légitime. Avons-nous des preuves que Louis d’Orléans et Isabeau ont couché ensemble ? Bien que les lits « non conjugaux » sont moins accessibles à l’historien, le Traité de Troyes nous permet de déduire la légitimité de Philippe. Beaune explique que l’on ne peut pas dire que les « mœurs légères d’Isabeau sont connus de tous » parce que ce n’est pas vrai. Les rumeurs sont chronologiques (1404, 1407, 1428, 1429). Elles sont instrumentalisées par la propagande bourguignonne. Enfin, ne l’oublions pas, toute femme de pouvoir est potentiellement vue comme une marie-couche-toi-là  (Anne Boleyn en a fait l’expérience par sa décapitation, à tort).

Selon les mythographes, ce petit garçon Philippe, mort né, que les mythographes ont déclaré bâtard, Jeanne va le remplacer.En réalité le bébé est bel et bien mort et enterré à St. Denis. Et c’était bien un garçon, contrairement aux rumeurs : lors d’un un accouchement public, il est difficile de tricher. Mais certains mythographes vont même plus loin que d’autres. Colette Beaune donne l’exemple de P. de Sermoise qui annonce que la reine donna naissance à des jumeaux : un petit Philippe qui meurt et Jeanne, conduite à Domrémy. Mais là encore, rien ne colle. Un indice tout simple nous permet de le comprendre: oui, les prénoms sont redonnés dans le milieu royal quand un enfant meurt né. Hors, Charles et Isabeau avait déjà une petite Jeanne en pleine santé. Il n’est pas question de la « refaire ».

Enfin, bien que l’absence de certificat de baptême (comme c’était le cas la plupart du temps dans le milieu rural), le baptême de Jeanne à Domrémy a bien été rapporté par des témoins. Les mythographes s’appuient beaucoup sur l’une des phrases clés qu’a dit la Pucelle, par rapport à sa condition sociale qui dit: « plus il y aura de princes du sang ensemble, mieux cela sera ». Les mythographes veulent qu’elle ait dit « plus nous serons de sang de  France » ce qui donnerait en latin « quaranto eramus » alors qu’elle a dit « quaranto plures ». Enfin, si Jeanne avait été envoyée à Domrémy, cela ne prend pas en compte avec ce qu’elle a mainte et mainte fois répété: « j’ai environ 19 ans ». Cela situe sa naissance autour de 1412 et non en 1407. A l’époque, tout le monde, y compris les nobles, donnent leurs âges “environ”. Cela placerait l’âge de Jeanne autour de 18-20 ans, une marge de deux ou trois ans maximum, mais pas cinq.

Les voix : véridiques ?

Jeanne d’Arc a rapporté avoir entendu les voix de l’Ange Michel, Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie (fille de roi Égyptien, martyre qui a refusé le mariage), Sainte Marguerite d’Antioche (bergère, martyre du IVème siècle).

Nombreux historiens ont affirmé que les voix étaient d’ordre médical. En effet, la tuberculose que Jeanne a contractée plus tard aurait provoqué chez elles des lésions dans le lobe gauche provoquant des visions ou des voix. Certes, les médecins de l’époque étaient peut-être moins savants qu’ils ne sont aujourd’hui, mais ils se sont posés les mêmes questions et tous conclurent à une femme saine d’esprit.

Hors, ce qu’il faut bien retenir c’est que les voix sont un fait historique incontestable. Au même titre que l’existence de Jésus de Nazareth, par exemple. Qu’elles aient existé ou non, ne tient plus du fait historique mais bel et bien de la foi. Peu importe, nous rapporte Colette Beaune, « elles ont fonctionné comme du vrai ».

Il est important de se rappeler que le rôle de l’historien, on l’a vu, n’est pas de faire croire, mais de rapporter les faits aussi précisément et objectivement possible. Pour un historien du christianisme, par exemple, son rôle est de rapporter qu’un homme de Nazareth nommé Jésus a existé, parlait à des prostituées et des marginaux, a été mis en croix, etc..  Il ne s’agit pas de “démontrer” que Jésus a fait des miracles, qu’il est ressuscité, etc.  Cela tient exclusivement du registre de la foi, mais pas de l’Histoire.

Rôle de Jeanne



On le sait, Jeanne a joué un rôle crucial dans la libération d’Orléans et d’autres villes tenues par les anglais. Les renforts et le soutient envoyés par le roi avec Jeanne feront la différence. Orléans a du tenir 8 mois pour être libéré en 8 jours avec Jeanne.

Des mythes toutefois: la pucelle n’avait pas une armée de 10,000 hommes comme le prétendent les mythographes. Une armée médiévale est capable au maximum d’aligner 3,000 à 4,000 hommes maximum, rappelle Colette Beaune. De plus, ne soyons pas naïfs, Jeanne ne dirige pas l’armée. Elle exerce plutôt une influence personnelle. C’est une battante, elle n’a peur de rien et elle sait entraîner les hommes. Elle a en effet une influence considérable sur le moral des soldats.

Autre point: Jeanne permet le sacre du dauphin Charles le 17 juillet (les anglais riposteront et feront sacrer le petit Henry le 6 novembre 1429 comme roi d’Angleterre et le 16 décembre comme roi de France, 7 mois après la mort de Jeanne)[1]. C’est effectivement grâce à elle que le cours de la guerre de Cent Ans est inversé. Indéniablement, c’est par elle que la France a été libéré de l’occupation anglaise. Sans Jeanne, son audace et son courage, la France serait certainement devenue une sorte de colonie anglaise tournée vers le protestantisme.

Trahie ou abandonnée?

Jeanne d’Arc a senti sa mort venir. Ainsi, elle déclara un an avant sa capture: “je ne durerai qu’un an, guère plus”. Le 23 mai 1430, Jeanne d’Arc entrepris l’attaque du camp bourguignon à Compiègne. Confiante, elle s’avança avec 500 hommes et attaqua le camp. Mais les anglais l’attendait. Très vite, voyant le danger, l’armée se replia. Il ne restait plus que Jeanne et une poignée de soldats. Un archet parvint à la faire tomber de son cheval. Le frère de Jeanne Pierre fut également fait prisonnier.

Remise à Jean du Luxembourg, celui-ci la vendit aux Anglais pour 10,000 livres. Jeanne fut ensuite confiée à Pierre Cauchon, évêque de Beauvais et allié des Anglais, qui fit tout pour la condamner pour hérésie.

Pendant longtemps on accusa le capitaine de l’armée de Compiègne, Guillaume Flavy, d’avoir délibérément laissé capturer l’héroïne mais nombreux sont les historiens, dont Colette Beaune, qui réfutent la thèse de la trahison. Brutal et bourru, Flavy avait mauvaise réputation. Il a été dit qu’il aurait refermer volontairement les portes de la ville, empêchant ainsi toute retraite. En vérité, aucun document historique ne mentionne cette prétendue trahison. Comme toujours, les mythes historiques sont tenaces et la controverse est encore d’actualité.

Ne l’oublions pas, Jeanne avait des ennemis. Aujourd’hui encore, on associe automatiquement la victoire d’Orléans à Jeanne, pas comme une réussite collective où l’armée de secours et la garnison par Gaucourt ont aussi joué un rôle. “Les capitaines n’ont pas tout à fait tort : Jeanne focalisait la lumière. Tous ne firent pas désolés à l’annonce de sa capture. Capturés, rançonnés, eux aussi l’avaient été. La gloire n’allait pas sans épreuve”, explique Beaune. Le roi, lui-même, n’a pas été complétement anéanti. Il voulait changer de politique et négocier avec les Anglais, ce à quoi Jeanne s’opposait catégoriquement. Jeanne éloignée, il pouvait ainsi reprendre le contrôle politiquement. Il a certainement cru disposer de temps pour négocier sa liberté. Beaune rappelle que le duc d’Orléans était prisonnier depuis 1415 et il ne fut libérer qu’en 1440, on a donc négocié pour sa liberté pendant plus de 20 ans.

A partir du moment où Jeanne fut jugée pour hérésie, ni le roi ni personne ne pouvait plus rien faire. Celui qui aidait un hérétique était considéré comme tel. C’est seulement à sa mort que le roi décida d’entreprendre l’annulation du procès de Jeanne puisqu’il ne voulait pas tenir son trône d’une hérétique. La mère de Jeanne, Isabelle, aida à l’ouverture d’un nouveau procès le 7 novembre 1455.

Jeanne n’est pas morte au bûcher



Jeanne a subi de nombreux interrogatoires, et examens (dont plusieurs de virginité). Elle a échappé à la torture n’ont pas parce qu’elle était d’origine royale mais parce qu’elle était femme. La torture n était jamais obligatoire pendant un procès d’inquisition[2]. De plus, l’Église ne condamnait rarement à morts les hérétiques: le tribunal inquisitoire infligeait des pénitences plus ou moins importantes selon le niveau d’hérésie. Cela allait des visites aux églises, du port de la croix jaune sur les vêtements aux pèlerinages et confiscation des biens. La plus grosse peine était bien souvent la prison. Seuls ceux qui retombaient dans leurs erreurs, “les relaps”,  pouvaient être amener à l’excommunication, l’incarcération ou le bûcher. En effet, moins de 10% des procès d’inquisition se terminaient en bûcher. Cela fera l’objet d’un prochain article, nous y reviendrons.

Nombreuses sont les rumeurs colportées par les mythographes que Jeanne n’a pas été brûlée par les flammes anglaises mais qu’elle a belle et bien “survécu” puisqu’elle est réapparue quelques années plus tard.

Encore une fois, la réalité est dépassée par la légende; Au terme de quatre longs mois de procès, Jeanne est condamnée à mourir brûlée ce 30 mai 1431 en place du Vieux-Marché à Rouen. À aucun moment, elle n’a voulu quitter ses habits d’homme. On peut lire sur la mire dont elle est coiffée les mots suivants: “hérétique, relapse, apostate et idolâtre”. Jeanne est morte ce jour-là et il n’y aucun doute historique là-dessus. Comme le souligne Beaune: “il fallut que sa mort soit public si les Anglais voulaient prouver sa mort”. Le bourreau ne l’a pas étranglé comme on le faisait d’habitude, certainement pour lui épargner la souffrance. Qui dit place public donc, dit témoins. Une centaine de soldats étaient présents ainsi que des gens ordinaires. Nous noterons Jean Fave, étudiant en droit, Jean Moreau, un proche de Jeanne, Guillaume de la Chambre, un médecin, etc. Tous ont témoigné de sa mort.

Selon les témoins, Jeanne cria plusieurs fois le nom de Jésus dans les flammes et son corps mis plusieurs heures à brûler. A la vue de son cœur intact au milieu de ses cendres,  le secrétaire du roi d’Angleterre s’écria : « nous sommes perdus car nous avons brûlé une sainte ». Tous ces éléments nous attestent que Jeanne est bien morte ce jour-là.

Claude des Armoises n’est pas Jeanne

On l’a dit, beaucoup adhérent à l’idée que Jeanne n’est pas morte ce jour là à Rouen et qu’elle est revenue sous le nom de Claude des Armoises. En effet, Claude apparait à Metz le 20 mai 1436 vêtue en homme et se fait passer pour Jeanne.  A partir de 1436, elle est reconnue pour Jeanne d’Arc. Son cas n’est malheureusement pas isolé: un certain nombre de fausses Jeanne d’Arc apparaissent dans les années qui suivent la mort de la Pucelle. “Claude-Jeanne” aurait fondé son imposture sur une certaine ressemblance avec Jeanne. Hélas, cela ne suffit pas à en faire d’elle notre héroïne. Claude n’a rien en commun avec Jeanne. Marié, femme malcommode et rude, elle ne ressemble en rien à la Pucelle d’Orléans.Bizarrement ici, aucun examen de virginité ne fut envisagé…

Néanmoins, les mythographes avancent que ses propres frères ainsi que quelques membres de l’aristocratie l’auraient reconnu. Exact. Mais cela ne vient rien prouver. Comme le rappelle Beaune, Pierre et Jean avaient toutes les raisons de la reconnaître “officiellement” comme leur sœur. Sans elle, l’or et les titres n’affluaient plus sur la famille.

Nous avons plusieurs sources à ce jour qui attestent de l’imposture de Claude. Quand celle-ci voit le roi en 1440, elle avoue sa trahison publiquement. Les mythographes renvoient sa “trahison” à autre chose. Pourtant, le texte du Bourgeois de Paris nous confirme bien qu’elle n’est pas la Pucelle. Les imposteurs ne sont pas nouveaux. Ils étaient nombreux au Moyen-Age. 35 voulurent se faire reconnaitre comme roi.

Des reliques à l’ADN

En vérité, nous en savons peu sur Jeanne d’Arc. Physiquement, Jeanne était fine: elle n’avait pas ses règles, probablement à cause de la vie sportive des camps. Elle ne mangeait presque rien, se nourrissant simplement de l’hostie chaque semaine. Les soldats expliquèrent aussi que “jamais elle ne descend de cheval pour les nécessités de la nature ». Nous n’avons pas de portrait précis. Le seul et authentique reste le portrait griffonné le 10 mai 1429 par le greffier du Parlement de Paris dans la marge de son registre.

Il n’existe à ce jour aucune relique de la Pucelle d’Orléans. Du 13 février 2006 à Avril 2007, une équipe de chercheurs s’est livrée à des examens des restes présumés de Jeanne. Les résultats annoncèrent qu’ils appartenaient à une momie égyptienne.

La raison pour laquelle il n’existe pas non plus d’objets connus à ce jour ayant appartenu à Jeanne c’est parce que c’était la volonté politique des Anglais de ne rien laisser d’elle après sa mort. Il fallait tout brûler pour éviter tout culte. Certains objets résistèrent pour disparaître bien plus tard au XVIIe siècle.

Récemment néanmoins, le parc thématique Vendéen le Puy du Fou  a acquis pour près de 380 000 euros une bague présentée comme celle de Jeanne d’Arc, dans le but de l’exposer à terme au cœur du parc. Cette bague du XVème siècle en argent recouverte d’or comporte l’inscription “Jesus Maria”. On sait que Jeanne possédait une telle bague offerte par son père avec la même inscription. Elle est citée plusieurs fois dans son procès comme étant une bague ayant des pouvoirs magiques puisqu’on essaie à tout prix d’accuser Jeanne d’Arc de sorcellerie. Le problème, c’est qu’il y avait trois croix sur la sienne, là, il n’y en a qu’une seule sur un côté. A ce jour, nous ne disposons d’aucunes preuves historiques que la-dite bague est celle qui appartenait à Jeanne.

1: Pour info, les anglais auraient pu faire sacrer le jeune Henry VI avant le sacre du dauphin Charles car c’est eux qui tenaient Reims, donc l’huile sainte. Mais le sacre n’avait pas autant d’importance qu’en France. Il paraissait sensé d’attendre la majorité prévue pour les rois de France, soit 13 ans. Henry, âgée de 8 ans était aussi bien jeune pour subir une cérémonie de plusieurs heures.

2: Voir notamment Michel Roquebert, Histoire des Cathares

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L’Histoire, la vraie: comment et pourquoi? (partie 2)


« Ceux qui n’apprennent pas de l’histoire sont condamnés à la revivre »  – Georges Santayana.

Dans la première partie, nous avons vu les divergences entre la méthode historique et la méthode journalistique ainsi que les différences entre mythographes et historiens.

Chaque historien travaillant sur un problème historique cherche à répondre aux trois grandes questions suivantes: quoi, pourquoi, comment. Plus spécifiquement, ces étapes préliminaires, quoi qu’importante pour la suite des travaux, sont définis de la sorte:

Premièrement, la question “quoi”  se manifeste sous la forme suivante: «Qu’est-il arrivé? Quelles ont été les circonstances et les événements qui ont eu lieu au cours de cette même période ? Quel est le contexte politique, social ou religieux ? » Parfois, cela signifie reconstruire une histoire compliquée à partir de sources historiques dispersées – c’est le cas, par exemple, dans la construction du récit de la guerre civile espagnole.
Deuxièmement, les historiens sont dans un objectif de réponse à la question du «pourquoi»: “pourquoi cet événement s’est-il produit? Quelles étaient les conditions et les facteurs qui l’ont provoqué ?” Ce corps de questions invite l’historien à fournir une explication cohérente, généralement source d’une série d’années de recherche et parfois de collaboration entre plusieurs chercheurs et laboratoires – cela est souvent indiqué à travers les notes de fin de pages ainsi que la bibliographie (un point important dans la fiabilité du récit: plus une étude contient des références, plus l’on peut considérer son auteur comme fiable) . Plus fondamentalement, cela suppose que l’historien à resituer chaque événement dans son contexte historique, souvent emprunte d’une histoire longue et compliquée.

Par exemple, par souci d’expliquer l’arabisme et l’islamisme contemporain qui  a conduit à la création de nombreux partis politiques arabes, dont certains jouent jusqu’à aujourd’hui et surtout depuis le Printemps Arabe, un rôle majeur dans l’islamisme politique, un spécialiste du Moyen-Orient contemporain se devra de replacer cette analyse dans le mouvement dit “de l’Histoire longue”. Les révolutions arabes « récentes » de 1950 et 2011 devront donc être prises en compte, mais surtout l’impact de l’effondrement et le démantèlement de l’Empire ottoman qui remonte à 1923. Évènement majeur qui a engendré la création du Moyen-Orient actuel et a notamment contribué à la montée du nationalisme pan-arabe qui, en autre, se retournera quelques années plus tard contre les Occidentaux, accusés d’impérialisme et de dénaturation des sociétés arabes.

Ainsi, fournir une telle explication historique suppose un compte rendu des mécanismes de causalité (causes sociales, politiques….), ainsi que les circonstances de fond qui ont provoqué de tels résultats. De telles réponses à de telles questions exigent une interprétation minutieuse des actions et des intentions des individus et/ou des cultures en jeu. Cet aspect de la pensée historique est «herméneutique» et ethnographique.

Troisièmement, et en rapport avec le point précédent, les historiens sont parfois amenés  à répondre à la question du «comment»: «comment ce résultat a-t-il pu se produire?”. Par exemple, comment l’armée prussienne a t-elle réussi à vaincre l’armée française qui était bien supérieure en 1870?

Conjonction entre passé et présent : traitement des sources

Il existe une variété de compétences, parfois s’entremêlant, commun à tout historien qui se respecte. En effet, un historien traite les sources avec entière « fidélité » : c’est-à-dire qu’il ou elle ne fait pas dire des choses aux documents qu’ils ne disent pas et il ou elle n’ignore pas délibérément des documents qui sont susceptible de contredire ses  arguments. De plus, un historien se doit de rechercher et de consulter toutes les données alors connues à ce jour (primaires et secondaires) sur le sujet qu’il ou elle travaille. Plus le sujet est connu, plus l’intérêt devra être justifié. En effet, si un historien publie le x millième livre sur la Première Guerre Mondiale – l’historiographie de la PGM est immense, avec plus de 25,000 livres et articles publiés jusqu’à ce jour-  c’est très certainement qu’il a de bonnes raisons et qu’il n’est pas entrain de répéter ce qui a déjà été dit et redit. Il y a certainement là quelque chose de “neuf” à sa connaissance: nouvelle ré-interprétation des faits, approche ou questionnement différents ou la prise en compte de la découverte de nouveaux éléments (nouvelles sources et/ou nouvelles façon d’exploiter des sources connues) qui avaient été ignorés jusqu’alors[1]. A l’inverse, un historien travaillant sur des sujets beaucoup moins étudiés tels que les conflits du 20ème siècle en Papouasie occidentale depuis l’annexion de celle-ci à l’Indonésie en 1963, devra justifier l’intérêt de ses recherches. Par exemple, on pourra dire que ces mêmes conflits qui continuent toujours aujourd’hui font l’objet de massacres passés sous silence, commis par les Indonésiens sur les Papous par milliers depuis 40 ans. A chaque fois donc, l’historien fait face à des questions essentielles: pourquoi devrions-nous nous en soucier? En quoi ses travaux vont-ils éclairer le présent, en quoi vont-ils changer quelque chose pour le futur? Si le chercheur ne peut trouver réponses à ces questions, cela veut dire qu’il n’y a pas d’intérêt à en faire une étude.

Avant tout, l’historien fait face à une tâche intellectuelle encore plus grande: celle de donner un sens aux documents d’archivage qui existent sur un événement ou une période donnée dans le passé. Les données historiques ne parlent pas d’elles-mêmes; les archives sont souvent incomplètes, équivoques, contradictoires et ambiguës. L’historien doit donc essayer de combler ces lacunes et brouillards. Autrement dit, il ou elle doit agir comme interprète pour être en mesure d’en faire ressortir un récit cohérent. Ainsi, certains événements complexes comme la guerre civile espagnole engendrent une montagne de traces historiques localisée dans divers endroits et archives du monde; ces collections reflètent parfois les efforts spécifiques qu’on fait certaines personnalités politiques pour les dissimuler (par exemple, les efforts de Franco pour dissimuler toutes les preuves des massacres des républicains après la fin des combats); la tâche de l’historien est donc de trouver comment il est possible d’utiliser cet ensemble de preuves afin de faire lumière sur le quoi ? pourquoi ? et comment ? du passé.
Objective, l’Histoire ?

Si l’historien est vu comme un interprète objectif il n’en est pas moins influencé par sa position personnelle : ses opinions et ses positions sociales et politiques vont en effet jouer un rôle dans le type d’interprétation et de thèse qu’il ou elle va soutenir. L’histoire, telle qu’elle est écrite, est avant tout la conjonction entre le passé et le présent dans lequel écrit l’historien. C’est le reflet de l’historien qui se tourne vers le passé afin de le comprendre dans la perspective qui est sienne (ancrée dans son temps).

Le principe d’impartialité en histoire est donc très largement discuté. L’intérêt de l’historiographie ici prend donc tout son sens. Au fil du temps, “l’histoire de l’histoire” s’étoffe, laissant place à différentes écoles de pensée qui permettent une amélioration continue quant à la recherche de la vérité. En réalité, la vérité historique, tel qu’on la comprend, n’est jamais totalement définie, toujours en voie d’achèvement. Néanmoins, plus le temps passe, plus certains événements historiques sont établis comme faits. Par exemple, il est un fait indiscutable que Jeanne d’Arc soit morte au bûcher le 30 mai 1431 à Rouen. Sa naissance en 1412, en revanche, l’est un peu moins: l’âge exact de la pucelle demeure inconnu).



1: Ceci était notamment le cas avec le livre de l’historien Chris Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, publié en 2012, qui est très certainement l’une des études les plus intéressante à l’heure d’aujourd’hui.

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L’Histoire, la vraie: comment et pourquoi? (partie 1)

L’Histoire. Elle est partout et nulle part à la fois. Nous sommes dans une société “super historique” où l’histoire est vulgarisée à travers les films, les séries, les romans à l’eau de rose, et même les jeux vidéos. Histoire en bande dessinée, documentaire-fiction, histoire romancée, roman historique, pour ne pas évoquer les manuels scolaires. Néanmoins, on ne peut qu’être attristé par le constat de la place de l’histoire, réduite ou optionnelle dans les programmes scolaires, trop bien souvent bafoués, orientés vers l’immédiat ou l’utilitaire. Un autre problème reste bien entendu le mélange entre la mémoire et l’Histoire. Depuis quelques décennies, l’histoire mémorielle a envahit la société, si bien qu’elle est parfois devenue une substitution de l’Histoire même. Confrontée à une médiatisation malsaine, l’Histoire est instrumentalisée à la passion des uns et des autres. Depuis quelques années, le petit écran est envahi de séries TV “historiques” telles que Les Tudors, Reign, ou encore tout récemment Versailles qui sont en fait plus de l’ordre de la fiction, du divertissement et d’un soap ado. Côté bouquins, les rayons librairie regorgent de Marcel Gay, Lorànt Deutsch et de Jean Orieux qui écrivent avec prétentions pédagogiques en se faisant passer pour historien sans en avoir ni les compétences ni le mérite. A l’Historien, on laisse le philosophe, le sociologue, le romancier… l’interprétation des faits. Et c’est ce qui nous amène à la création de cette article.

En effet, ces “fantaisies” sont loin d’être inoffensifs. Un lecteur lambda pensant se cultiver sur l’histoire de Paris en lisant Métronome se verra au regret d’apprendre que le-dit livre est rempli d’amalgames et d’erreurs à la limite de la désinformation. Et pourtant le livre est bien présenté comme “l’histoire de Paris”. Ce sont pourtant ces mêmes “historiens de garde”[1] qui divulguent une histoire orientée et des méthodes discutables si ce n’est hasardeuses, qui dominent le paysage audiovisuel français et international. Ce qui a pour conséquence de malheureusement orienter l’Histoire, à défaut des véritables historiens maniant scientifiquement leur discipline. Ce qui nous invite à la réflexion suivante: si l’histoire est à tout le monde, qui peut la pratiquer et comment différentier passionnés/ amateurs du travail d’historien? Existe-il un consommateur “moyen” d’Histoire? En quoi consiste le métier d’historien et en quoi est-il important? Pourquoi l’historiographie prend tout sa place dans la construction de l’image que la société a d’elle-même?


I. Qu’appelle-t-on des « mythographes » ?

Les mythographes, très souvent des journalistes, sont fascinés par les mythes et légendes dans différent domaines universitaires à savoir la littérature, l’histoire ou encore l’ethnologie. En histoire, nombreux sont des journalistes « dit d’histoire ». Leur livres, surtout très lus, sont souvent fantaisistes, avec des titres alléchants et se lisent comme on lit du Musso ou du Lévy. Surtout, ils contiennent beaucoup d’inexactitudes, voire pour certains d’énormités. Ils ne possèdent habituellement pas de notes de fin de pages, pas de bibliographie : un mythographe n’a pas trop besoin de sources, il sait et affirme. L’hypothèse lui suffit.

Ceux-là sont souvent poussés à jouer les Antigone, à vouloir défendre des valeurs aussi variées et larges telles que la justice, la liberté, l’égalité, le droit à la vérité, etc (c’est comme ça que Lorànt Deutsch  fut décorée par la ville de Paris et amené à animer des ateliers d’histoire dans des écoles parisiennes, en autre).

Par son influence sur le présent et le futur, celui qui possède l’Histoire est donc puissant. Qui a le droit de disposer d’un tel privilège? Après tout, l’Histoire n’est-elle pas donné à chacun d’en faire ce qu’il veut? La réponse est non. Et là est bien l’erreur de la plupart des mythographes: plutôt que d’un travail historique fondé sur une étude critique et méticuleuse des sources, ils affirment souvent beaucoup de choses, sans preuves. Pire encore, ils parlent “d’éclairage” ou de “vérité” en avançant leurs thèses sur ce qu’ils pensent être les “dossiers secrets” de l’histoire et lacunes du passé, comme si l’histoire n’était qu’une question de point de vue. La vraie problématique est enfin de compte de savoir si les mythographes disposent des capacités nécessaires pour écrire, raconter et « juger » l’histoire; livrer leur théories à leurs lecteurs (à savoir, beaucoup de monde : un livre de Lorànt Deutsch s’est mieux vendu en un mois qu’un livre de Le Goff en des décennies, hélas) sur un fait historique avec le même ton objectif qu’un historien.

En effet, historiens et journalistes ne traitent pas pareil l’information. L’information journalistique est très souvent redondante, débordante, criarde ou tape-à-l’œil. Elle est aussi essentiellement rendue visible et adaptable à un public de masse puisque les gens la trouvent à la radio, à la télévision, dans les journaux… Quand cette même information se dit historique, nous sommes tentés de penser que nous disposons d’informations solides et véridiques, ne distinguant plus alors l’historien du journaliste.

Hors ce que l’on retrouve souvent chez les journalistes est une information « gros titre ». Un historien a besoin de recul et de temps pour discerner ce qui a de l’importance et ce qui peut être avancé comme véridique. D’ailleurs, les documents d’archives sont soumis à un un délai de 30 ans avant de pouvoir être consultés. Certaines archives de moins de 100 ans, notamment communales et municipales ne sont parfois pas consultables.

La distanciation critique, la rigueur, la mesure du poids des mots et, surtout, l’étude des sources jouent donc un jeu majeur dans l’argumentation d’un fait historique et l’écriture propre de l’Histoire. A contrario, les mythographes véhiculent une information souvent très superficielle et bien souvent pauvre en (re)sources historiques. Les faits sont avancés sans impartialité, peu nuancé avec toujours un manque de recherches approfondies.

Ce qui nous emmène à une question de fond : si le jugement historique nécessite une distance temporelle et une recherche méticuleuse au fil du temps, un journaliste peut-il apporter un jugement lucide sur un événement historique ? En quoi son travail diffère-t-il du travail de l’historien ?

II. La méthode journalistique : une antithèse historique

A l’époque de Hérodote, que l’on considère comme le premier historien, les événements relatés révélèrent plus du journalisme que de l’histoire même, vu la proximité du récit. En effet, en grec notamment, istorié (histoire) signifie « enquête » et la barrière entre journalisme et histoire ne sera qu’établie que bien plus tard[2].

Le « fait historique » n’existe pas en soi, comme aime le rappeler les partisans de l’Ecole des Annales. Il n’y a que des informations placées dans l’espace du temps ; ainsi un journaliste ne sera intéressé que strictement par celles qui  ne sortent pas de la catégorie d’actualité. De plus, toutes les informations ne se valent pas. Par rapport à sa spécialité propre (sport, people, faits divers, politique, etc…), le journaliste va privilégier des informations qui peuvent attirer l’attention du public : mariages people, coup d’état, nouveau sondage sur la drogue des adolescents en France, etc…  En bref, catégories confondues, ce qui intéresse c’est toucher l’émotionnel des gens. Plus une information est jugée spectaculaire ou bien scandaleuse, plus elle suscitera l’émotionnel du lecteur et sera digne d’être lue et retenue.

Pour un journaliste dit « d’histoire », un genre tout particulier peut ici être retenu, celui d’histoire immédiate.

Néanmoins, d’un point de vue strictement méthodique, l’histoire nécessite le recul temporel par rapport aux événements donnés. En effet, plus le temps s’écoule, plus il devient possible d’analyser les dits événements, pouvant développer ainsi un récit cohérent du début à la fin. C’est la théorie de Nachträglich de Lacan, qui dit que l’un ne peut comprendre le monde seulement qu’après-coup. Oxymore donc pour ces “journalistes de l’instant”, puisque le journalisme reste perpétuellement scotché à l’actuel et à sa séries d’événements.

De plus, le journaliste écrit par rapport aux contraintes et pressions liés aux médias, à l’opinion politique du journal pour lequel il/elle est embauché(e), à ses propres passions et idéologies. La neutralité et l’impartialité exigées en théorie par le métier d’historien pour ainsi arriver à une analyse correcte des faits devient alors très difficile à mettre en pratique pour le journaliste dit « d’histoire ».

III. Mais au fait, le travail d’un historien c’est quoi exactement ?

On a souvent l’image d’un historien dans une bibliothèque un peu poussiéreuse qui passe son temps enfermé à la recherche de la-dite-source pour valider son argument sur des sujets aussi lointains et peu signifiants pour nous tels que l’impact de la levée des impôts dans une certaine province sous Louis VI le gros. En réalité, cela est beaucoup plus subtil que ça. L’historien a pour rôle d’éclairer le passé pour donner au sens au présent. Il ou elle n’est pas coupé(e) de son temps et ne saurait moins que jamais l’être. Chroniqueur, chercheur, analyste, interprète et narrateur, un historien est tout ça à la fois.

L’historien travaille en examinant les sources primaires – textes, documents, et autres matériaux datant de la période sur laquelle ils travaillent. En comparant ces sources et en les évaluant dans leur contexte, l’historien développe des interprétations, souvent à la lumière des interprétations données par d’autres historiens avant lui. Ces écrits –livres, articles de journaux spécialisés… – sont considérés comme des sources secondaires.

Un historien n’est pas un archiviste, mais il finit par connaitre suffisamment les archives de telles ou telles villes pour y avoir passé une très grande partie de son temps à étudier les divers documents écrits en telles ou telles langues. Suivant sa période d’étude, elles peuvent être des langues anciennes, jargons, dialectes et autres formes d’élocution, écrites à la main. Un historien est en effet souvent polyglotte. De plus, il ou elle réunit les conditions idéales pour une ample réflexion sur son objet d’étude. Retiré, l’historien œuvre loin du bruit du monde, contrairement au journaliste qui lui, écrit à propos et dans le bruit du monde. Il est indispensable à l’historien de travailler dans le silence afin de développer un jugement plus détaché, plus impartiale et donc plus neutre par rapport aux événements donnés. C’est un exercice intellectuel indispensable pour que l’historien accomplisse sa tâche en quête de vérité et de savoir.

Comme chacun, après les premières émotions souvent bruyantes et enragées, nous avons besoin de recul pour comprendre certains événements, mêmes ceux qui sont les plus « triviaux ». Il est facile de se perdre dans le tourbillon et l’agitation journalistique et médiatique qui accumule hypothèses sur hypothèses et qui est soumis aux réactions de l’opinion publique.

Le sensationnel, l’anecdotique, le spectaculaire, l’inattendu, l’invraisemblable, l’insolite… empêche de voir ce qui a réellement de l’importance. On entend souvent dire des années plus tard à propos d’un événement, qu’à l’époque « les journaux n’avaient pas mentionné ça ». En fait, il suffit d’accepter que sur le moment, on ne comprend pas toujours tout. Et c’est là que le travail d’historien prend tout son sens. Il a la vertu de recomposer minutieusement les différents éléments significatifs à l’enquête en prenant assez de recul pour pouvoir le faire.

Le risque et l’erreur d’aujourd’hui est de chercher à toujours lié l’Histoire au culte de l’immédiateté, du sensationnel, de l’utilitarisme, dans une société qui se sent plus comme partie intégrante de son passé.

En d’autres termes, les passions déchainées sont propres au journalisme tandis que son souvenir, sa recomposition et la recherche de son importance demeurent travail d’historien.

En outre, tous les historiens ne se ressemblent pas. Les historiens écrivent sur toutes sortes de sujets, époques, lieux, personnes, etc. De l’histoire ancienne, à l’histoire moderne, d’une décennie spécifique, à un événement historique précis, en passant par les très récents événements arabo-musulmans au Moyen-Orient, il existe de nombreux “types” d’historiens, chacun possédant une spécialité ou une zone d’étude spécifique. Par exemple, un historien pourrait se spécialiser dans l’histoire des États-Unis avec une maîtrise particulière de la culture pop des années 1960. Un autre se spécialisera dans l’histoire sud-africaine avec une concentration sur l’apartheid tandis qu’un autre deviendra spécialiste de l’histoire politique contemporaine et plus particulièrement du monde arabe et des questions actuelles. Enfin, les historiens peuvent également se spécialiser dans un “genre” d’histoire, comme l’histoire des femmes, ou l’histoire de la médecine.

Dans la seconde partie, nous verrons les étapes entreprises par l’historien telles que le traitement des sources primaires, la notion d’histoire objective et l’importance de l’historiographie.



2: La barrière entre l’histoire des historiens comme discipline en sciences humaines et la philosophie de l’Histoire, au travers de Hegel, Marx, Kant… qui se concentre principalement sur l’évolution de l’humanité, ne sera établie encore que bien des siècles après.

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Apocryphal quotes or when we render to Caesar things that aren’t his at all.

When it comes to history, many things are falsy taken for granted, from approximate dates to major events, from the common people who truly made history vs the ones who are the subjects of history, embedded within the Great Man Theory. In the process of making and, above all, remembering history, language plays a tremendous role. Yet, there exists far too many quotes that have been either misinterpreted or attributed to the wrong person and, despite the lack of sources, have entered the everyday language. Here is a list of 10 rather famous apocryphal quotes (note: the list is not exhaustive). So that next time we quote Voltaire or Einstein, we want to make sure we are not paying tribute to a dork.

  1. “Let them eat cake!” – Marie Antoinette

    According to the legend, Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France and wife of King Louis XVI, said those words at the window of the Versailles castle in front of enraged Parisians who had come to complain about the rising price of the bread.  Now, here is how the story goes:

    On October 2nd, 1789, the Revolution was at its highest peak: the king had recently rejected the Declaration that had granted suspensive veto to him and established the long-lasting presence of the Assembly. Three days later, the Women’s March on Versailles took place in which hundreds of women decided to march to Versailles to talk about the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations were intertwined with that of the revolutionaries, both forming a mob of thousands of people marching to the Versailles Palace with a couple of cannons taken from the Hotel de Ville. Important deputies such as Robespierre welcomed and supported the marchers. Progressively, the crowd besieged the castle in hope to press their demands upon King Louis XVI. Some protesters succeeded in making their way inside the palace. A couple of guardsmen were killed and the violence boiled over into savagery as one of them, Tardivet, had his head put on a pike. Finally, some communication was established between the protesters and the royal gardes du corps.

    Lafayette’s intervention, especially, played a role in easing tensions as he managed to convinced the King to talk to the crowd. While the deputies pressured the king to ratify the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which he ended up doing on the same day, the crowd succeeded in compelling the “boulanger, la boulangère et le petit mitron” to return with them to Paris and stay in the Tuileries Palace. This event marked the beginning of the end of the ancient régime and put an end on the king’s complete independence: the royalty was now fully at the service of the people. The March saw the emergence of a new balance of power which displaced the French nobility and favored the common people collectively known as the Third Estate.

    In the midst of turmoil, Marie Antoinette would have supposedly said to the crowd “let them eat cake” in response to the scarcity of bread. Truth is, and as much as she was hated and we would like to drag her down a little bit more, she never pronounced those words. The French words, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” first appeared in Rousseau’s book Confessions which was written around 1765 and published in 1782, date at which Marie Antoinette was just a child living in Austria. Rousseau never attributed those words to her but to a “great princess”[1]. Yet, in the mid-1800s, in trying to fully gain support against monarchical and despotic governments, many contemporaries embedded within the Enlightenment ideas started to give a name to Rousseau’s “great princess”, namely Marie Antoinette. For only one and precise reason: Marie Antoinette, nicknamed and commonly known as “the Austrian whore” or “Madame Veto”, was hated by the people for her naïve and foolish attitude, her excesses, her grand parties and her lavish spending (i.e the creation of the Petit Trianon, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace). On top of that, she appeared to be a woman and this was the time of propaganda against female rulers, which had a long-lasting impact in the sixteenth, seventeeth, eighteenth century (neither Catherine de Medici nor Marie de’ Medici  could escape the traditional attacks and the consequent creation of their so-called ‘Black Legend’ that notably dominated the historiography for hundreds of years).

    There is always a scapegoat when it comes to justifying a turning point in history. The complete and absolute approval of the shift from hundreds of years of monarchical governments to républiques in France could not have been achieved (well, one could say it didn’t go smoothly at all, i.e the Vendées Wars, Robespierre’s Reign of Terror) if it weren’t for the enlightened philosophers who prepared the ground beforehand, and the novelists of the 19th century’s Romanticism movement  who made sure that the abuses of the ancient régime were pinned down.

    Marie Antoinette’s phrase was ideal in that sense, but it is nonetheless anachronistic.  In fact, it is debated that Rousseau was most likely referring to the also-most-likely-apocryphal quote “Why don’t they eat meat?”, quote said by Chinese emperor Jin Huidi (259-307 A.D), whom, according to Zizhi Tongjian,  would have said that in response to the fact that his people did not have enough rice to eat.

    Finally, “let them eat cake” is doubly erroneous. A “brioche” is nothing like “cake” (well, duh, it’s French food) but is literally a sweet, eggy bread that was nothing like the common people during the eighteenth century could afford (which, one could say, made Marie Antoinette even more detested)

  2. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

    Yea, right. But no. The quote was actually written by the biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire. In doing so, she tried to contextualize Voltaire’s thinking in one sentence in regard to the philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius. Because she put it in first person, it was later misread and taken as an actual quote from Voltaire. However, something more-or-less similar was written by Voltaire in his Treatise on Tolerance: “Think for yourself, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.


  3. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

    In 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and said what would become one of history’s most famous quotes: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. But Armstrong declared that he actually said “that’s one small step for a man…” and that “people just didn’t hear [the ‘a’]”[2]. Nonetheless, that little indefinite article makes quite a difference and changes the meaning a bit. But for some reasons, it sounded better to include the entire human species, so we changed it a bit (and of course we got lovely support from the media, as usual! Yoop!

  4. “The end justifies the means” – Machiavelli

    I know. We all think Machiavelli said that somewhere between the fox and the lion quote in his famous 16th-century political treatise The Prince. Because, after all, that’s mostly the-one-quote that everyone remembers about Machiavelli and enbaled the word “Machiavellian” to come into usage as pejorative. Nonetheless, Machiavelli never said it exactly like this. The closest that expresses this view in The Prince can be found in chapter XVIII:

    [M]en judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result

    For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.[3]

    So the closest sentence could be the sentence I underlined in bold, which is a little more nuanced and likely more forgettable if I may say than the catchy straightforward sentence attributed to the Florentine political theorist.

    Interesting enough, many philosophers and writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered that The Prince was a complete work of satire. Undoubtedly, Machiavelli is quite mischievous and wrote several satirical comedies. Yet, it is important to remember that he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the Medici family. Family in which, Lorenzo de Medici, nephew of pope Giovanni de’ Medici, was the very Medici member to which Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to. One could say that The Prince is a defiant portrait of a lived experience of Italian politics during the 16th century.

  5.  “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” – Gandhi

    Fair enough, it does sound like it is something that the great modern pacifist could have said. Turns out, however, that there is no reliable evidence for this quotation. The closest to it that Gandhi said comes from his 98 volumes of writings, more precisely from Volume 13, published in 1913. In chapter 153, page 241, it says:

    We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. […] We need not wait to see what others do.

  6.  “Et tu, Brute?” – Julius Caesar

    Perhaps, this is one of the most famous misquote in history. We don’t know what were Julius Caesar’s last words while he was assassinated. He may or may not have said something. Some historians have reported that his last words were the Greek phrase “καὶ σύ, τέκνον” which translated into « You too, child ? ». While other historians say that he did not say anything when he saw Brutus among the conspirators. Truth is, we will never know. There is no reliable source on Caesar’s “last words” while he was being stabbed some 23 times (according to Roman historians Plutarch and Suetonius). The Latin line “Et tu, Brute” comes from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (1599)[4].

    Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

    Vincenzo Camuccini, “Morte di Cesare”, 1798.

  7. “L’Etat, c’est moi” or “I am the State” – Louis XIV

    For more than four centuries, historians have been discussing whether or not those were the words pronounced by the Sun King on April 13th, 1655 in front of the president of the Parliament. These words express the peak of absolute monarchical power France had reached under Louis XIV, in which the king held all political authority. It has been quite argued that it is most likely an apocryphal quote, without sources to attest it. Furthermore, this quotation contradicts what Louis XIV said on his death bed, on September 1st, 1715: “Je meurs, mais l’Etat demeurera toujours »[5], which translates in English into “I am going, but the State shall always remain”


    Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, 1651

  8. “If the bees disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left” – Albert Einstein

    As dramatic as it sounds, there is no proof that Albert Eistein said this. In 1906, the French Journal “Les Abeilles et les Fruits” stated that life would become extremely difficult if bees were to disappear and attributed it to Darwin. The first connection between the future of mankind and bee extinction attributed to Einstein first appeared in 1941 in the “Canadian Bee Journal”. In 1994, Einstein was again misquoted in a brochure distributed by the French National Beekeeping Union in response to the European agricultural policy:

    Yes, every kind of animal or insect is a link in the endless chain of nature and, if a link is removed, it is a long time before the chain serves again its full purpose. If I remember well, it was Einstein who said: “Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.

    Yet, this is a distortion of one of Einstein’s quote. Indeed, in 1951, in response to a group of schoolchildren, he stated that “without sunlight there is: no wheat, no bread, no grass, no cattle, no meat, no milk, and everything would be frozen. No life”[6]. He did later talk about bee extinction but there is no evidence that proves that he said such phrase.

  9. “Paris vaut bien une messe” or “Paris is worth a mass” – Henry IV 

    Pronounced on July 25th, 1593 by King Henri IV when he converted to Catholicism, King Henri IV was finally allowed him to become King. During the reign of Henri III, in absence of heir, the last Valois chose Henry of Navarre, a Protestant prince with Bourbon blood, being his cousin and brother-in-law (he married his sister, Margaret of Valois) to succeed him. Nonetheless, after the assassination of Henri III on August 1st, 1589, Henri of Navarre was prevented from becoming King by the Holy League, which sought to give the crown to the Duke of Mayenne or the Cardinal de Bourbon) and by Philipp II of Spain who proposed his daughter Isabela, granddaughter of Henri II, as candidate for the crown of France.

    Nonetheless, Henri of Navarre succeeded in legitimizing his claims, with one obstacle left to the approval of his coronation: his Huguenot religion. On July 25th, 1593, Henri fully abjured and converted to Catholicism once again before the Archbishop of Bourges (he had already done so in 1572 to escape the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre but quickly revoked it). He became King Henry IV and entered Paris on March 22nd, 1594.

    It is during this ceremony that, it is said, he would have uttered the words: “Paris is worth a mass”, suggesting that if the sacrifice to make to have access to Paris, symbol of the French crown, was to convert to Catholicism, then it was worth it. But historians are not sure about the true existence of this quote. Indeed, it appeared, for the first time, in 1622, 12 years after the assassination of Henry IV, in Les Caquets de l’accouchée, where the quotation is actually attributed to Sully. According to the satire, Sully would have told the king: “Sir, Sir, the crown is worth a mass”[7]. There is no evidence that Henri IV pronounced those words.

  10. “And yet, it moves” – Galileo Galilei

    Quote attributed to Galilei in 1633 after being told by the Church that he ought to renounce his claims that the Earth moved around the Sun. Neither his trial nor the biography of him written by Vincenzo Viviani in 1655 mentions the phrase. In reality, it was first found in Giuseppe Baretti’s book The Italian Library in 1757, more than a hundred years after the death of the astronomer. The quote became notably famous with the publication of Baretti’s book in Querelles Littéraires 4 years later.

The moment he was set at liberty, he looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and, stamping with his foot, in a contemplative mood, said, Eppur si muove, that is, still it moves, meaning the earth.[8]


1: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confession (1891), 220
2: Live Science Staff,”‘One Small Step for Man’: Was Neil Armstrong Misquoted?”, (August 26, 2012)
3:Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (FastPencil Inc, 2010), 73
4: William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems, Vol. 5 (London: Whittaker, 1858), 333
5: Jean Touchard, Histoire des Idées Politiques (Presses Universitaires de France, 1959), 342
6: Alice Calaprice, Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), 185-187
7: Edouard Fournier, Les Caquets de L’Accouchée Nouvelle Edition (Paris: P. Jannet, 1855), 173
8: cited in Maurice A. Finocchiaro, Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 113

For further reading, see The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes

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Chamberlain: Revisiting the motives behind the pursuit of the controversial “appeasement” policy.

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Seventy-seven years ago, on September 30th, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact, handing over the Sudetenland – a portion of Czechoslovakia- to German Führer Adolf Hitler, as he had Hitler promised that it was Germany’s “final territorial demand” (Ganapathi, 94). Enthusiastic Chamberlain returned to England with the belief that war had been avoided. Universally hailed as a savior, Chamberlain who had secured “peace for our time” remained confident that Hitler was speaking the truth. Eleven months later, the Second World War began.

In most minds today, Chamberlain is perceived as the “Guilty Man” who foolishly tried to quench Hitler’s insatiable thirst through the shameful policy infamously known as “appeasement”, or the idea that one has preference for negotiation to confrontation.  Although appeasement was, at the time, justified through many political, social and economic reasons towards aggression, it was in September 1939, when Hitler was marching into Poland, widely considered as not only a failure to stop the dictator but as the driven factor that precipitated the war.

The word in itself went from a very respectable term between 1919 and 1937, connoting the pursuit of peace and security, to a “dirty” word, especially in international diplomacy, seen nowadays as a “lesson of the past” to learn from. Perhaps, and most importantly, the historiography of appeasement has been inextricably intertwined with shifting understandings of Chamberlain’s conduct of British  policy over the last 70 years. The overall question to know whether or not appeasement was an essential factor in bringing about the war, and more significantly, whether Chamberlain was to be held responsible, somehow, for promulgating such “calamity”, drastically changed between the 1940 and the early 21st century.

Examining Chamberlain’s motives behind the pursuit of the appeasement policy

Chamberlain served as a brisith soldier in WWI and managed an estate for a couple of years before winning the election to the Birghaman city council. He became Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940.

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Some of his early efforts focused on improving the lives of workers. For instance, the Factories Act of 1937 restricted the number of hours that children and women worked. The following year, Chamberlain supported the Holiday with Pay Act, which gave workers a week off with pay. Yet, Chamberlain’s appeasement policy overshadows the rest of his actions and accomplishments. Instead, he is remembered for being the one who tried to pacify Hitler, who underestimated Hitler’s ambitions. The one who drove England to war and with it, many other countries.

As the league of Nations started to gradually lose public support notably exacerbated by the failure in Abyssinia in 1935, appeasement became the new policy followed chiefly by the British in the 1930s. It aimed at solving international conflicts through compromise and negotiation (Rock, 14). Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain actively promulgated the policy as he believed that it could help to bring about order and lasting peace regarding international relations.

Why did appeasement become so popular and why did it lose public support so quickly?

Chamberlain’s policy became popular as many thought that the Versailles Treaty had brought some fairly legitimate grievances about territory and economic resources in Germany. They believed, indeed, that the German minorities were entitled to self-determination and that Germany was entitled to equality in armaments. Appeasement emerged as the ultimate solution, through peaceful negotiation to prevent war with Hitler (Rock, 74). At the Munich conference in September 1938, Britain and France gave in to Hitler’s demands and handed him the Sudetenland without even consulting Benes, the Czech Prime Minister. Yet, despite his undeniable authentic motivation, Chamberlain’s policy saw a turning point: the Munich Agreement failed to stop Hitler invading Czechoslovakia. As he confessed in the Commons at the outbreak of war, “Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins” (cited in Self, 3).

Once the war broke out, appeasement was blamed for the failure to stop the dictators. Appeasement went from a very respectable term to something that should be avoided and Chamberlain’s name became a synonym for weakness. The entry of Churchill as Prime Minister hardened opinion against appeasement and encouraged the search for those who were responsible. This drastic change came about with the Orthodox school of thought, claiming that British foreign policy was a “diplomacy of illusion” and made the aggressive German foreign policy possible. A trio of British left-wing writers – known as CATO– wrote the book Guilty Men, calling for the removal from office of fifteen notorious public figures including Chamberlain.

The book shaped scholarly thinking about appeasement for twenty years – defining it as the “deliberate surrender of small nations in the face of Hitler’s blatant bullying” (CATO, 1)- and enjoyed a great deal of support from many historians, diplomats, journalists and common people, all denouncing Chamberlain and appeasement. For instance, John Wheeler-Bennett, an English historian of German and diplomatic history viewed appeasement as a policy of complete delusion, describing Munich as the “disease of political myopia which afflicted the leaders and the peoples of Europe in the years between the wars” (cited in McDonough, 3). Others such as Anthony Eden placed the whole blame on Chamberlain, claiming that most of his cabinet was opposed to appeasement while Winston Churchill argued that Chamberlain led Britain to “the bull’s eye of disaster” (cited in McDonough, 3). To Churchill (1948), “easily, the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented” (pg. 37), which emphasizes the incompetence of Chamberlain and his foolish, illogical policy. Immediately, the moral of appeasement was that war was preferable to “peace at any price”. Furthermore, the Guilty Men argued that Chamberlain’s policy was a policy of poor judgment and ineptitude in military planning and diplomatic relations, all carried out under fear (McDonough, 2). It suggests that Chamberlain rejected any other alternatives to appeasement, and that he knew exactly what he was doing.


Was CATO right?

Arguably, Chamberlain did know that his policy was not ideal – and that, perhaps, it was not the best solution- as he told Lord Halifax, his foreign secretary, that the underlying strategy was to hope for the best while preparing for the worst (Dilks, 30). Yet, much of the Guilty Men’s criticism was hastily written with very few claims to historical scholarship and, despite having no access to government archives, made instant historical judgments. It would be incorrect to argue, as it was popularly seen in the 1940s and 1950s by historians, that appeasement was a policy of fear. In fact, appeasement was rather a policy of hope.

Of course, Chamberlain’s policy was incontestably carried out with an overall mood of fear, that of being fully aware of Britain’s military weakness in comparison to an aggressive and growing Germany that had re-militarized ever since 1933. The Germany that Chamberlain had to deal with was not the disarmed and democratic Germany of 1932. Rather, the policy aimed at appeasing an aggressor that sought at repealing integrally the Versailles treaty. In front of such calamity, the desire for Britain was to avoid war, predominantly to preserve economic and imperial interests but also because of Britain’s outrageous desire for pacifism and peace at any price. As World War One killed nearly 1 million British soldiers and civilians altogether (Horne, 2010, pg. 374), British leaders as well as citizens after the war became propagandists of peace, claiming war to be a plague that kills “not only men but also consciences” (Quétel, 70).

In essence, Chamberlain truly believed that negotiating with Germany was necessary if one seeks to avoid war and open a new era of peaceful co-existence. Fundamentally, this desire to avoid any open confrontation with the dictators, either physical or conversational, laid the foundation for Chamberlain’s policy. As Sir Horace Wilson, British top government official who had a key role in the appeasement-oriented ministry of Chamberlain, puts it: “Our policy was never designed to postpone war, or enable us to enter war more unified. The aim of our appeasement was to avoid war altogether, for all time” (cited in McDonough, 55). Therefore, appeasement was not foolishly chosen as a policy of fear but rather clearly saw war as a real possibility and tried desperately everything to prevent it. Neville Chamberlain may not have been the ideal prime minister of a country preparing for war, but he was no fool and was fully alert to the danger set by Nazi Germany.

Although the authors credited the Prime Minister for being a supporter of rearmament, they blamed him for the slow pace of those efforts and for continuing with peacetime methods while the Germans were spending the double on armament. In this case, however, CATO was partially right. Arguably, economic constraints provided a powerful argument for following appeasement. After the great depression added on top of the war reparation, Britain limited defense spending in order to maintain economic stability and allow Britain to fully recover from economic depression. Additionally, Britain had just renewed in 1932 the “10-year rule, under which it was assumed that Britain would not be involved in another war for the next decade” (Goodlad, 14-15). Not surprisingly, therefore, the need for rapid rearmament was not seen as a priority. Yet, Guilty Men forget that Chamberlain was doing more than just being a supporter of armament. In fact, in 1936, he introduced an extensive 4-year plan for rearmament. Chamberlain was criticized by many who wanted to abolish national armaments and oppose national defense, notably by leader Clement Attlee for spending nearly all the budget on “the instruments of death” and that it was a “war budget” where “all available resources are to be devoted to armaments” (The Times, 1936, pg. 16).

Although German armament was already two-fifth of the national spending compared to Britain’s 7% (Bennett, 81), Chamberlain was very aware of the possible threat of another war and took armament seriously. In fact, the Ten Year Rule was abandoned in 1932 (Kennedy, 231). World War I was no longer considered the “war to end all wars”. Appeasement, in this sense, was just a policy implanted that allows Britain to buy time. Chamberlain’s policy therefore consisted of rearming while simultaneously creating better relations with Hitler in the belief that, by addressing Germany’s legitimate grievances, it would prevent another unbearable world war.

Indeed, Britain was in no way ready to go to war in 1936. Britain’s “10-year rule”, as mentioned above, specifically indicated that Britain was not going to face a war for the next decade. Britain started rearming in 1934 on a very limited scale while Germany was prepared for war and had been preparing since the Treaty of Versailles was signed, though on a secret, informal basis. It was nonetheless massively expanded after Hitler came to power in 1933. Tardy rearmament on the Allied sides was one of the reason why the nation was not ready for war. While Hitler’s Luftwaffe was being double in size in the couple of years preceding the war, Britain’s air force waited until April 1938. In March 1938, the British Army’s Chiefs of Staff submitted a report to the Cabinet assessing that, in face of war, Britain was not in a military position to stop Hitler. It was concluded that the outstanding feature of German’s army was “the increasing probability that a war started in any one of these three areas may extend to one or both of the other two… We cannot foresee the time when our defense forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade, and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously” (cited in Shen, 43). For that reason, if Britain would have tried to stop Hitler in Czechoslovakia, it would have probably been defeated rapidly. Delaying the war as much as possible gave Britain a chance to rearm properly and put all the odds on their side to defeat Hitler’s army. This was obviously a factor that drastically played a role in going with appeasement and most of the leaders at the time embraced this idea. The fault of the war, therefore, should not be put on only a handful of men as Guilty Men has suggested but rather on the nation as a whole during the interwar years. The people of Britain who wanted peace at any price, who started refuting the “virile” values traditionally attributed to the war. French historian Antoine Prost (1977) clearly sets the mood of the civilians during the interwar years who were “propagandist” of peace”, claiming that “no, thousand times no, war is not a school of nobility and power. War is a scourge more redoubtable than leprosy, plague, cancer or tuberculosis. War kills not only men but also consciences” (32). Therefore, those people who were rocked by outrageous pacifist illusions, supported appeasement. Chamberlain had to deal with a nation who fought for disarmament and they were not only Clement Attlee or McDonald, but, as Churchill has argued in response to those who were asking an inquiry into who were to blame for the disaster, “There are too many in it” (cited in Gilbert, 240).

Overall, Guilty Men is a simplistic portrayal of good and evil with a black and white depiction of rather complex issues, lacking a deeper analysis of the  numerous factors that plunged Britain into war. The fact that their authors wrote the book from an initial analysis carried out urgently after the fall of France plays a role their hastily written judgments. They did not consider the situation with detachment from an historical perspective. In fact, the government that dealt with appeasement was shaped by a significant range of constraining factors, facing few allies and many enemies even within Britain, including the anti-war nation itself, and it was not therefore a government of stubborn and incompetent men as portrayed by CATO.

Historiographical shift after WWII: A.J.P Taylor’s controversial theory

Among historians CATO’s view started to change drastically at the end of the 1950s. The main reason why was because the British government made available records and documents of the time to researchers. As British historian David Dutton suggested: “The result of this was the discovery of all sorts of factors that narrowed the options of the British government in general and narrowed the options of Neville Chamberlain in particular”. More specifically, the change in the meaning of the word “appeasement” started to emerge. Historians started treating Chamberlain and his policy far more sympathetically. Above all, the refutation of the idea of appeasement as cowardice and error was made possible by historian A.J.P Taylor in 1960 in his book The Origins of The Second World War. The book set off a huge storm of controversy and debate that lasted for years. Most of the American and British historian who reviewed Taylor’s book gave it a negative review (Sisman, 294).

CATO’s “angry” book Guilty Men differs sharply from Taylor’s revisionist The Origins of The Second World War in its overall evaluation of appeasement and Chamberlain. Indeed, A.J.P Taylor rejected the Orthodox view and instead argued that appeasement, under the circumstances that Britain was facing, was a realistic and rational policy. He avoids moral judgments on Chamberlain and instead focuses on social, economic and strategic factors, arguing that appeasement was appropriate to the time both politically and diplomatically. In Taylor’s view, the men “behind appeasement” recognized the mistakes made by the peacemakers in 1919 with the peace treaties and sought with appeasement to solve them. In other words, the drafters of appeasement were “men confronted with real problems, doing their best in the circumstances of their time” (Taylor, 8). In doing so, Taylor challenged the common view of the appeasers as a degenerate group of men as portrayed by CATO.

Additionally, Taylor claims that Chamberlain’s mistakes came after he abandoned his policy which brought the war on. One of them was to guarantee Polish security and freedom in March 1939. This “left the British decision for war in the hands of Poland” (McDonough, 4). According to Taylor, Hitler would have accepted another peace conference to deal with the Polish issue (Taylor, 69). In claiming so, Taylor challenged the Orthodox view that saw Hitler as a monster that had planned out everything. Instead, Taylor declared that Hitler was an opportunistic statesman, “no more wicked and unscrupulous than many other contemporary statesmen” (Taylor, 29). He did not have a blueprint for war nor did he want it. “Far from wanting a war”, Taylor writes, “a general war was the last thing Hitler wanted” (5). Instead, he simply took advantage of the mistakes of the other leaders.

Analyzing Taylor’s arguments:

Despite the criticism that Taylor received, many of his claims are not dull. There is some merit in Taylor’s book that truly should be acknowledged. Ironically, his thesis – and the controversy it provoked- played a major role in reshaping historical scholarship on appeasement.  As Chamberlain’s era records were made available, historians found themselves forced to exploit these “new” kinds of historical sources to shed light on the motives and drawbacks behind appeasement. This is what A.J.P Taylor did and his only error was to be the first historian to detonate the bomb of “revisionism”.

Regarding Taylor’s argument on the rationality of appeasement, one can indeed argue that the choices that the politicians were facing at the time were not simple. The crisis that was progressively escalating as Hitler’s demands became incessant, forced Britain to reconsider its post-World War One position. In a sense, there was no good or ideal solution in dealing with Hitler. A.J.P Taylor, in claiming that appeasement was a rational policy, did not, however, claim that it was perfect.

CATO has argued that the Munich Agreement was a plague at which Britain and France betrayed Czechoslovakia in the name of appeasement. In handing over the Sudetenland to Hitler, Chamberlain was giving up “all the fortifications and gun emplacements the Czechs had bled themselves to erect on this German frontier during the previous five years” (CATO, 53). Yet, as Taylor suggested, Munich was not “merely a triumph for selfish or cynical British statesmen” and it was not signed through an ‘indifference to the fate of far off peoples” (67). Rather, unlike the Orthodox view, Taylor sees Munich as a “triumph for those who preached equal justice between people” (67) in that it saw Britain and France attempt at solving their mistakes over the Treaty of Versailles with Germany by finally accepting the policy of self-determination. In essence, Taylor is right in considering that appeasement was not the cause of the Second World War. Rather the causes were rooted in the way the problems of the First World War had been treated. The Treaty of Versailles, notably, and particularly the admission of the collective guilt of the German people was a crucial factor in the rise of the Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party which provided the theme for Hitler’s political campaign. As Marshall Ferdinand Foch declared, “this (Treaty) is not peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years” (cited in Kissinger, 250). Appeasement, in a sense, was in fact what Taylor argued; a way to make up for the past, open up to Germany and listen to Hitler’s demands, which seemed fairly understandable given the legitimate grievances that the Treaty had put on Germany’s shoulder.

Yet, Taylor’s view seems to lack one of the most essential points in going to Munich. Of course, Munich allowed for the revision of the 1919 Peace settlement but it above all provided a breathing space for British military preparation. Taylor’s explanation for pursing the policy of appeasement is a bit too simplistic. It was, without a doubt, guided by moral concern over the “harshness and shortsightedness of Versailles” (Taylor, 67) but it is only one reason out of the complex judgments that influenced the making and pursue of the policy. Taylor fails to acknowledge the essential reality behind appeasement, that of Britain’s poor military capability in defeating Hitler in 1938.

Furthermore, Taylor’s argument that the failure of Chamberlain’s government came about with the abandonment of appeasement after Munich and the Polish Guarantee suggests that Britain and France were as much, if not more to blame for causing the war, not only because of the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles but also because of their failed policy of appeasement towards Germany. It seems that Taylor is partially right in claiming so. Of course, appeasing Hitler and constantly giving him what he wanted encouraged him to seize new opportunities for expansion. Additionally, the allied countries probably overestimated Germany’s power and the ambitions of Hitler, which pushed them to appease him more and more.

However, Taylor’s claim immediately suggests that one should not consider Hitler as the guilty one, the monster who wanted to swallow Europe and the world as a whole but rather as a normal statesman. This claim is half convincing. First of all, one cannot forget that Hitler had a clear, step-by-step plan which was ever since 1926, laid out in his open book Mein Kampf. Everything that Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf was coherently achieved by Nazi Germany, from creating a racially pure German empire – getting rid of the minorities such as the Jews, homosexuals and gypsies-, invading France, Poland and annexing Austria to completely repudiate point by point the entire Treaty of Versailles which Hitler described as “a scandal and a disgrace (…) an act of highway robbery against our people” (Hitler, 2). As British Historian Hugh Trevor-Ropper (2004), whom strongly opposed Taylor’s views, declared: “To the end, Hitler maintained the purity of his war aims” (34)

In analyzing the extent to which Hitler caused the war, it seems hard to discard Mein Kampf as it clearly shows Hitler’s designs for war. For these reasons, it appears difficult to call it, as Taylor did, a mere “daydreaming” and that Hitler “exploited events far more than followed precise coherent plans” (Taylor, 4). If Hitler was just an opportunist, then one can wonder why two thirds of Germany’s economy was dedicated for war as early as 1933. There is, it would seem, enough evidence to show that Hitler did have clear plans for Germany’s expansion. Yet, Hitler was probably an opportunist too, as he used the weakness of the British and French leaders at the time, who were eager to please him in order to avoid war. In other words, one could argue that Hitler was a planner with clear aims but pursued them with an opportunistic approach. Therefore, it is rather plausible to say that Hitler was not, as Taylor stressed, “just another statesman” (Hiden, 159). Yet, despite Taylor’s limited options, one can however draw upon a rather interesting idea behind Taylor’s statement. The history of World War Two has been written by the victors and we tend to consider Hitler with moralistic judgments. Hitler, far from being innocent, despite Taylor’s argument, should not however be seen as the only one to blame for the start of war, for British but also French, Americans, Poles, and Russians shared some guilt.

Revisionist Taylor in examining the causes of Second World War focused on social, economic and strategic factors but failed to address moral judgments on Chamberlain. The extent to which Chamberlain himself should be seen as a guilty “man”, as CATO claimed, is avoided by many revisionists.

Shift in the 1990s and concluding thought:

In the 1990s, new historians that never lived through the appeasement era emerged. They had much more sympathetic criticism of Chamberlain and appeasement. New theories about Chamberlain and appeasement emerged as “counter-revisionist”. British Historian David Dilks is one of the first who looked at the man before looking at the policy of appeasement. In his book Neville Chamberlain: Volume 1, 1869-1929, Dilks adopts a sympathetic attitude towards Chamberlain. He portrays him as a complex character with a sharp mind, a man who was “inclined to accept advice or suggestions” before pursuing any foreign policy (Dilks, 399). In confronted with the possibility of war at Munich, Chamberlain knew that the outcome of such war would be far more disastrous for the British Empire and Europe as a whole than just a mere territorial concession in the Sudetenland, to which Germany had some legitimate claim.

More and more, this new school of thought started looking at appeasement as probably the best choice the British government made in the 1930s that suited Britain’s nation, political and economic needs best. That what the leaders responsible for appeasement attempted was somehow logical and understandable. For instance, historian R.A.C Parker argued that they were not fools or cowards but they misunderstood the nature of Nazi ambitions for expansion (Parker, 716-718).

Perhaps, historian David Dutton who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister embodies counter-revisionist the best. He openly claimed that Chamberlain “should be praised, not buried”. He explains that Chamberlain “made mistakes in the 1930s. He overestimated his ability to reach a settlement with the dictators; he probably clung too long to the hope of averting war. But it is doubtful if anyone else would have done much better, Churchill included” (2009). He further assets that: “Like all his generation, Chamberlain had been deeply scarred by the memory of the First World War. Expert opinion predicted that any future war would be even worse: to the slaughter of the battlefield would be added unspeakable destruction from the air. Extrapolating from the Spanish Civil War, it was estimated that the first few weeks of a German air assault would bring half a million casualties: Britain was defenseless in the face of the bomber” (2009).


Regarding Dutton’s argument, it seems evident that one needs to take a step back and look at Chamberlain as a man who fought for peace as much as he could and went to war because it was the last available option. A man who lacked Churchill’s convincing speaking skills to give courage to people. It is indeed easy to forget that it was only 20 years after the end of the last world war and neither British politicians nor the people were willing to make the sacrifices they made in World War One. In retrospect, the reality behind appeasement is rather complex as there was probably no right answer to the problems Britain was confronting in the 1930s. One could conclude that Chamberlain, for the mistakes he made, cannot be praised but should arguably be spared the humiliating criticisms that do not reflect the situation he faced in the 1930s. From the different points mentioned previously, appeasement was probably the only choice for the British government but was poorly established, came about a bit too late and failed to constrain Hitler fully. Dutton’s final words perhaps sum up Chamberlain’s choice of pursuing appeasement in the face of such calamity: “He had not been a great prime minister. But he did his best to steer his country safely through the most unpromising situation it faced at any time in the 20th century. Yes, he failed – but could anyone have succeeded?” (2009).
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