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The Allure of the Archives

The Allure of the Archives

by Thomas Scott-Railton

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Arlette Farge’s Le Goût de l’archive is widely regarded as a historiographical classic. While combing through two-hundred-year-old judicial records from the Archives of the Bastille, historian Farge was struck by the extraordinarily intimate portrayal they provided of the lives of the poor in pre-Revolutionary France, especially women. She was


Arlette Farge’s Le Goût de l’archive is widely regarded as a historiographical classic. While combing through two-hundred-year-old judicial records from the Archives of the Bastille, historian Farge was struck by the extraordinarily intimate portrayal they provided of the lives of the poor in pre-Revolutionary France, especially women. She was seduced by the sensuality of old manuscripts and by the revelatory power of voices otherwise lost. In The Allure of the Archives, she conveys the exhilaration of uncovering hidden secrets and the thrill of venturing into new dimensions of the past.

Originally published in 1989, Farge’s classic work communicates the tactile, interpretive, and emotional experience of archival research while sharing astonishing details about life under the Old Regime in France. At once a practical guide to research methodology and an elegant literary reflection on the challenges of writing history, this uniquely rich volume demonstrates how surrendering to the archive’s allure can forever change how we understand the past.

Editorial Reviews

Lisa Jardine

"This is a book to be cherished, to be handed on from generation to generation, preserving as it does the thrill of each new reader’s encounter with the fragmentary written remains of the past. Arlette Farge captures with extraordinary vividness the ‘obscure beauty’ of archival records, and the passion and exhilaration that handling centuries-old documents can stimulate."—Lisa Jardine, University College London
Kunal Parker

"In The Allure of the Archives, one of France's leading historians offers the reader a stunning phenomenology of archival practice. Arlette Farge combines an unparalleled account of the immediacy and excess of the archive with a profound meditation on converting archival research into historical narrative and argumentation. This book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the production of historical knowledge. Its translation is long overdue."—Kunal Parker, University of Miami School of Law
Kathryn Burns

“A captivating introduction to the pleasures of the archive.  The allure, le goût de l’archive: Scott-Railton’s translation captures the full flavor of Farge’s remarkable prose.”—Kathryn Burns, University of North Carolina
Richard Price

"This reflexive, gendered ethnography of the historian’s craft – already a French classic – delicately explores what the author calls the organized topography that lies beneath the archives. Every student of history should read this book."—Richard Price, author of First-Time, Alabi’s World, and Travels with Tooy
Roger Chartier

"Deciphering nearly illegible texts, recopying them endlessly, passing from document to document, each day burrowing deeper into the archives in order to retrieve the words of the past: these are the historian's tasks that Arlette Farge brings to life with a touch that is both tangible and subtle. Her book illuminates the strange task that is the historian's, whose aim is to enter the past, find the long lost and the long dead, and listen to their reasons, their misfortunes, their words."—Roger Chartier, Collège de France
Linda Gregerson

"The Allure of the Archives is the ars poetica of a particularly gifted and eloquent historian. The reading room may be brutally unheated and the volumes unwieldy, the occasions of transcription quite flatly hostile or indifferent to the voices we most wish to hear, but the archive’s pull is all the more profound: its holdings bear witness that the world is larger than our preconceptions."—Linda Gregerson, University of Michigan
Emma Rothschild

"The Allure of the Archives, available at long last in a marvellous English translation, is a profound and moving work about archives, about history and the law, and about women in history."—Emma Rothschild, author of The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History
Chronicle Review - Jacob Soll
"[Farge's] description of a personal, physical relationship to archives resonates more than ever as the essence of curiosity, an existentially fulfilling act in which the historian can literally touch the past."—Jacob Soll, Chronicle Review
Inside Higher Ed - Scott McLemee
"A little gem of a book. A diamond, perhaps, given both its clarity and the finesse with which it’s been cut and set. It is an unmistakable classic: one of the great memoirs of the silent, day-to-day drama of research . . . Adamantine: sharp, brilliant, perfect, and created to last."—Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
Shelf Awareness
"Lyrical, suspenseful and humorous in turn. Farge has created a fascinating account of how historians work that will appeal to scholars and history buffs alike . . . [This] classic intellectual memoir, finally translated into English, elegantly re-creates the thrills and (literal) chills of a historian's archival treasure hunts."—Shelf Awareness, Starred Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
"In this elegant and captivating (and admirably translated) account . . . we gain an appreciation of historical research as a calling, an obsession, and an insight into how our ideas about the past might be shaped."—Los Angeles Review of Books
French-American Foundation - Translation Prize
Received second place for the 2014 translation prize in non-fiction given by the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation.
TLS - Arnold Hunt
‘Farge’s work is an eloquent testimony to the materiality of the archive and its power to astonish and delight’ —Arnold Hunt, TLS
The Threepenny Review - Brenda Wineapple
“A unique, lyrical  paean to historical research, . . . now superbly translated into English. . . . The kick of research—not self-evident, by any means—is the subject of Farge’s marvelous book. Behind it lies the goal of history, which is ‘the understanding of a time and a world.’ . . . [But] The Allure of the Archives is more than a reflection, however evocative, on the seductive joys and travails of research; it is a methodological handbook, . . . [containing] several chapters with subheadings that read like guidelines for the would-be historian.”—Brenda Wineapple, The Threepenny Review
Library Journal
In her 1989 work Le goût de l'archive, translated here into English for the first time, Farge (dir. of research in modern history, Ctr. National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris) writes eloquently about the thrills of undertaking archival research and offers advice on how (and how not) to write about history. She cautions against distractions, tangents, and feeling overwhelmed by sources, all dangers inherent in the research process. These reflections are interspersed with brief chapters that evoke the more mundane aspects of researching in archival collections: filling out request forms, choosing the best seat, fixating on the quirks of fellow researchers. She writes specifically of working with judicial records of 18th-century France, but her observations have wide appeal. Natalie Zemon Davis's (history, Univ. of Toronto) new foreword underscores the ongoing relevance of Farge's book, particularly in an age when many people wrongly believe that everything is digitized and available electronically for their easy access. Especially intriguing is the translator's note that the French word dépouiller, used by archivists to mean unpacking and sorting records, has its roots in "to unveil" or "to plunder." VERDICT Recommended for historians, readers of history, librarians, archivists, and anyone who has ever wondered how history books get written.—Megan H. Fraser, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, Libs.

Product Details

Yale University Press
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The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-C
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The Allure of the Archives

By Arlette Farge, Thomas Scott-Railton


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17673-5


Traces by the Thousands

Whether it's summer or winter, you freeze. Your hands grow stiff as you try to decipher the document, and every touch of its parchment or rag paper stains your fingers with cold dust. The writing, no matter how meticulous, how regular, is barely legible to untrained eyes. It sits before you on the reading room table, most often a worn-out looking bundle tied together with a cloth ribbon, its corners eaten away by time and rodents. It is precious (infinitely so) and damaged; you handle it cautiously out of fear that a slight tear could become definitive. You can tell at a glance whether a bundle has been opened even once since it was first stored. An intact bundle is easily recognizable. Not by its level of deterioration—after all, it may have been subjected to damp cellars and floods, wars and disasters, frosts and fires—but by a uniform layer of stiff dust that cannot be blown or brushed off, a scaly hide hardened by the years. Gently, you begin undoing the cloth ribbon that corsets it around the waist, revealing a pale line where the cloth had rested for so long.

Each judicial archive has its particular characteristics. This book deals almost exclusively with those of the eighteenth century, which are stored in the French National Archives, the Library of the Arsenal, and the National Library. My work as a historian has been founded upon these collections.

The archives of the eighteenth century have little in common with the illuminated medieval manuscripts that preceded them. There is nothing decorative about them. They were simply one of the modes of civil and criminal administration under the monarchy, and time has preserved them as a trace of its passage. Like today, yet so unlike today, the police took statements and filled out logbooks. Superintendents and police inspectors sent notes and reports to their superiors. Suspects were interrogated, and witnesses gave their accounts to clerks, who then transcribed their words without any punctuation, following the custom of the time. The eighteenth-century judicial archives are simply the accumulation, loose sheet after loose sheet, of criminal complaints, trials, interrogations, case summaries, and sentencings. Crimes both large and small can be found here, as well as countless police reports and case summaries that describe in detail the population that they doggedly attempted to monitor and control. Usually these were collected and bundled together in chronological order, month by month. But every once in a while, they were bound together in registers or stacked in the gray cardboard boxes that contain criminal records, arranged by name and year. An archive presupposes an archivist, a hand that collects and classifies, and even if the judicial archives are the most "brutally" preserved of the archival and library collections—which is to say that they were mostly preserved in their raw form, unbound and without folders, collected and tied together with string like bales of hay—these documents were still in a sense readied for later use.

There was, of course, their immediate use: The eighteenth-century police needed them in order to function properly. But could anyone at the time have anticipated that more than two centuries later, a historian would decide to use these documents as witnesses once again, privileging them over the more familiar and accessible printed sources?

The judicial archive is quite different from printed documents and texts, "relations," letters, newspapers, or even autobiographies. Its material form makes it harder to grasp. It is excessive and overwhelming, like a spring tide, an avalanche, or a flood. This comparison with natural and unpredictable forces is not arbitrary. When working in the archive you will often find yourself thinking of this exploration as a dive, a submersion, perhaps even a drowning ... you feel immersed in something vast, oceanic. This analogy to the ocean can be found in the archive itself. The archival inventories are subdivided into fonds, the name given to collections of documents, which are grouped together either because they are similar in subject, or because they were donated by a particular individual. These numerous and ample archival fonds, stored in library basements, bring to mind the hulking masses of rock in the Atlantic, called basses, that are visible only twice a year, during the lowest tides. The technical definition of these archival fonds in no way detracts from their mysteriousness or their depth: "Groupings of documents, whatever their form or their format, that were compiled organically, automatically, through the activities of a person or institution, public or private, and whose preservation in the archives respects this grouping and refrains from breaking it up."

Archivists and archive staff do not lose their bearings in this ocean. They talk about the archives in terms of how many kilometers they span, of thousands of linear meters of shelves. This is another form of gigantism, or maybe it's just a clever way of coming to grips with the archives, of taming them while at the same time recognizing the impossibility of ever taking full possession of them. These metric metaphors lead to a contradiction: stacked on shelves, measured in kilometers like roads, the archive seems infinite, perhaps even indecipherable. Can you read a highway, even if it is made of paper?

Unsettling and colossal, the archive grabs hold of the reader. With a sudden harshness it opens onto a hidden world where rejects, wretches, and ne'er-do-wells play their parts in an unstable and living society. As soon as you begin to read, you are struck by an impression of reality that no printed text, no matter how unfamiliar, can give. Any printed document was intentionally produced for public viewing and meant to be understood by a wide audience. Printed texts seek to make an announcement and create a certain belief, to modify the state of things by advancing a particular narrative or commentary. They have been ordered and structured according to systems that are more or less easily discernable, and whatever form they might have taken, they have been brought into existence to be convincing and to change what people think. Official, fictional, polemical, and clandestine printed texts were circulated at a brisk pace during the Enlightenment, crossing social boundaries, often pursued by the royal authorities and the censorship service. But whether its message was direct or masked, a printed document was charged with intention; its simplest and most obvious goal was to be read by others.

This is nothing like the judicial archives, which are the rough traces of lives that never asked to be told in the way they were, but were one day obliged to do so when confronted with the harsh reality of the police and repression. Whether they were victims, accusers, suspects, or delinquents, none of these individuals ever imagined that they would be in the situation of having to explain, file a complaint, or justify themselves in front of the unsympathetic police. Their words were recorded right after the events had transpired, and even if they were strategic at the time, they did not follow from the same mental premeditation as the printed word. People spoke of things that would have remained unsaid if a destabilizing social event had not occurred. In this sense, their words reveal things that ordinarily went unspoken. After a brief disorderly incident, these individuals suddenly needed to explain, describe, or comment on how "this" came to happen in the midst of their everyday lives, in their neighborhood or their workplace, on a street corner or inside a tenement stairwell. Characters begin to emerge out of these short sequences of events that describe an injury, a fight, or a theft. We can make out a long limping procession of baroque silhouettes whose habits and faults are suddenly brought to our attention, whose good intentions and ways of life are outlined.

The archival document is a tear in the fabric of time, an unplanned glimpse offered into an unexpected event. In it, everything is focused on a few instants in the lives of ordinary people, people who were rarely visited by history, unless they happened to form a mob and make what would later be called history. The archive was not compiled with an eye toward history. It describes, in everyday language, the derisory and the tragic in the same tone, for what was important above all for the administration was first to find out who was responsible and then to figure out how best to punish them. Questions are followed by answers, and each complaint, each deposition, is a scene that puts into words that which ordinarily would not have been thought worth discussing, much less being written down. The poor did not write, or wrote very little, about their own lives. The judicial archives are the domain of the petty crime and, rarely, of the serious felony. They deal more with small incidents than assassinations, and each page reveals details of the lives of the city's poorest inhabitants.

Archives of this type have sometimes been compared to brèves, the short items in newspapers that describe miscellaneous and strange news of the world. But a document from the judicial archives is not a brève. It was not created to surprise, titillate, or inform, but to better serve the police's constant need for surveillance and punishment. It is the accumulation of spoken words (fabricated or not, true or false, their importance is elsewhere) whose authors, constrained by the course of events, never intended to be authors. In this sense the archive forces the reader to engage with it. It captivates you, producing the sensation of having finally caught hold of the real, instead of looking through a "narrative of" or "discourse on" the real.

This gives rise to the naive but profound feeling of tearing away a veil, of crossing through the opaqueness of knowledge and, as if after a long and uncertain voyage, finally gaining access to the essence of beings and things. The archive lays things bare, and in a few crowded lines you can find not only the inaccessible but also the living. Scraps of lives dredged up from the depths wash up on shore before your eyes. Their clarity and credibility are blinding. Archival discoveries are a manna that fully justify their name: sources, as refreshing as wellsprings.

Police interrogations and testimonies seem to accomplish something uniquely miraculous. They appear to have the ability to reattach the past to the present. When exploring these sources you can find yourself thinking that you are no longer working with the dead—although history remains first and foremost an encounter with death. The material is so vivid that it calls both for emotional engagement and for reflection. It is a rare and precious feeling to suddenly come upon so many forgotten lives, haphazard and full, juxtaposing and entangling the close with the distant, the departed.

It could be argued that the discovery of an autobiography or a private diary can have a similar effect, but there is still a significant difference. Even the most intimate personal notebook, abandoned in the corner of an attic and only discovered several centuries later, nonetheless presupposes that whoever wrote it was in some fundamental way looking for it to be discovered, in the belief that the events of his or her life called for a written record. There is none of this in the archives. The witness, the neighbor, the thief, the traitor, and the rebel never wanted to leave any written record, much less the one they ended up leaving. Their words, acts, and thoughts were recorded for an altogether different reason. This changes everything, not only the content of what was written, but also the relationship we have to it, particularly our feeling of being in contact with the real. This feeling is insistent and stubborn, perhaps even invasive.

One Morning in the Library of the Arsenal

I feel cloth under my fingers, an uncommon coarse softness for hands long since accustomed to the archive's chill. I slip the cloth out from between two pieces of paper. The fabric is white and solid, covered in beautiful firm handwriting. It's a letter, the work of a prisoner in the Bastille, many years into a long sentence. He is writing his wife a pleading and affectionate letter. His dirty clothes were being sent to the laundry, and he took advantage of the occasion to sneak out a message. Nervous about the outcome, he begs the laundrywoman to please stitch a tiny blue cross on a pair of his cleaned stockings. This sign would reassure him that his cloth note reached his wife. That this piece of cloth now sits in the prison archives says of itself that no small blue cross was ever stitched into the prisoner's cleaned stockings ...

I come across a slightly swollen file, open it delicately, and find a small pouch of coarse fabric pinned to the top of a page, bulging with the outlines of objects that I cannot immediately identify. A letter from a country doctor accompanies the pouch. He is writing to the Royal Society of Medicine to report that he knows a young girl, sincere and virtuous, whose breasts discharge handfuls of seeds each month. The attached bag is the proof.

I face the decision of whether or not to open something that has not seen the light of day in two centuries. I open it delicately, withdrawing the thick pin from the two large holes it has poked in the slightly rust-stained twill. This way I will be able to close the pouch neatly by fitting the pin back into the holes, just as it was before. A few seeds escape and rain down on the yellowed document, as golden as they were on their first day, a brief burst of sunshine. What if these really came from the woman in the bloom of youth whom the doctor so trusted? Puns aside, this feeling reflects the surprising power of these seeds, still intact, as real as they are immaterial, meant to be both the fruit of a body and a scientific explanation for menstruation.

These two objects discovered accidentally while consulting the documents communicate the feeling of reality better than anything else can. Not to mention the playing cards, whose backs sometimes served to scrawl calculations or note down an address, or the doodles and scribbles in the margins of case summaries, traces of a distracted clerk's daydreaming or an inspector's clumsy quill. It is as if some material traces had returned from this departed world, traces of moments that were the most private and least often expressed. Moments when people were taken by surprise, or pained, or at least feigned being so. The archive preserves these moments at random, chaotically. Each time, the person who reads, touches, or discovers them is at first struck by a feeling of certainty. The spoken word, the found object, the trace left behind become faces of the real. As if the proof of what the past was like finally lay there before you, definitive and close. As if, in unfolding the document, you gained the privilege of "touching the real." And if this is the case, what's the point of scholarly debate, why come up with new words to explain what is already there on these sheets of paper (or between them)?

These overwhelming feelings never last; they are like mirages in the desert. No matter how much the real seems to be there, visible and tangible, it reveals nothing more than its physical presence, and it is naive to believe that this is its essence. This can make the "return from the archives" difficult. The physical pleasure of finding a trace of the past is succeeded by doubt mixed with the powerless feeling of not knowing what to do with it.

Excerpted from The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, Thomas Scott-Railton. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Arlette Farge is Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Natalie Zemon Davis is Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Thomas Scott-Railton is the translator of several books, including works by Étienne Balibar, Michel Foucault, and Slavoj Žižek.

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