The works on the history of France are numerous, of very uneven quality (we have seen this again with the recent The history of France for Dummies) and intended for a diverse audience. Amongst this strong competition, the Nathan publishing house is betting on simplicity and clarity, with this History of France, published in the Repères Pratiques collection, and intended for a wide audience of pupils and students.
Chronology and iconography
As debates rage over the place of chronology in the teaching of history, the authors of this textbook take this angle without any ambiguity. Without deciding this question, it seems to us that it is not necessarily a bad idea not to completely forget a few chronological markers, and we can say right now that this is one of the strengths of this book. It is divided into eight parts, from Prehistory to the 21st century, and its plan is immutable for each part: on the left a chronology, on the right a specific theme (character, cultural phenomenon, political change, etc.). It is moreover illustrated by an abundant iconography, taking again the classic images of the history of France (the painting of Royer on the surrender of Vercingétorix, the portrait of François Ier by Clouet, that of Napoleon by Ingres, etc) and some others welcome; we just regret that they are not always captioned. The layout is in any case clear and easy to read or only to browse. Let us also note some maps, simple but precise.
The big drawback of history books intended for the general public, and even more when it comes to the history of France, is the accumulation of clichés and received ideas, or the glorification of great figures (and this even in the “Altermanuels”…). Likewise, this idea of a continuity of France between Antiquity and the contemporary era. The book does not avoid this pitfall, on the contrary, it even dates back to prehistoric times, which is inconvenient in a purely historical approach. The manual doesn't avoid big men either (the cover speaks for itself), but that's not a problem in itself, it all depends on how they're approached. On the other hand, and this is a significant and positive point, he avoids a lot of clichés and even returns to some historiographical debates: lazy kings, Joan of Arc, Robespierre, Jules Ferry,… Of course, it is succinct and even too fast most of the time (the barbarian invasions for example, which would have deserved to be more questioned), but we can welcome the approach. Just like that of tackling broader themes than political history or history of battle, with for example pages devoted to cathedrals, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or the Impressionists. We are here in a spirit close to textbooks, where the history of Art is taking more and more place.
For which audience?
The end of the book includes interesting appendices, which can be used as files: genealogies (simplified) of the kings of France, list of heads of state since 1792, small bio of Presidents from Auriol to Sarkozy, and above all a lexicon . All of this is useful, but contrary to what the publisher claims, the manual is not intended for such a large audience. Its simplicity makes it very easy to access, practical for general culture, and for middle and high school students. On the other hand, it is far too short for undergraduate students, and even more so for those in pre-school classes or who pass the competitive examinations (at most for the CRPE). However, knowing these reservations, we can qualify this book as pleasant, with a rather positive approach in view of the competition, and very practical to have on hand to fill an oversight or a gap on a simple point in the history of France. .
The authors :
Gérard Labrune is Inspector of National Education in History and Geography.
Philippe Toutain is certified in history and geography.
Annie Zwang is an associate professor of history.
- G. Labrune, P. Toutain, A. Zwang, The history of France, Collection Repères Pratiques, Nathan, 2011, 160 p.