Michel Lagrée

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michel Lagrée, historian: born Rennes, France 2 May 1946; married (two sons, one daughter); died Cesson-Sévigné, France 15 October 2001.

Michel Lagrée, historian: born Rennes, France 2 May 1946; married (two sons, one daughter); died Cesson-Sévigné, France 15 October 2001.

Perhaps there has been a decline in the importance of intellectuals in present-day France; the matter is controversial. But everyone agrees that French historians are flourishing. Michel Lagrée, who has died at the early age of 55, is an example. He was a Breton who worked almost exclusively on Breton history. He had published some eight books and had two in the press. The importance of these publications, distinguished as they are, is that they contribute widely to the understanding of cultural, religious and social history.

Lagrée was born in Rennes, the son of a schoolteacher. He studied in the lycées of Avranches and Rennes, before winning a place at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Saint-Cloud, in 1967. Three years later he was placed first in France in the competitive examination of the agrégation d'histoire. He returned to Rennes, first as a teacher at the lycée, then as a lecturer at the University of Rennes-II. He had begun his research into the diocese of Rennes and fulfilled the traditional university requirements of preparing a thesis. In fact he did more, since he wrote two theses, the one dealing with the diocese of Rennes from 1815 to 1848, and the other, more considerable, being the religious and cultural history of Brittany, in the century from 1850 to 1950 – published as Religion et cultures en Bretagne (1850-1950) (1992).

The principal concern of these histories is to see how cultural and religious beliefs and practices were affected by changes in the modern world. But, while accepting that the general evolution of societies influenced religion, Lagrée believed that it was necessary to envisage a dialectic perspective between the religious phenomenon and the changing world. Religion could have its influence on the nature of political and social change.

Lagrée's work was unusual in that he examined a region, five departments in administrative terms and five dioceses in religious organisation. He studied newspapers as well as archives. The persistence of collective memory (prior to 1914 the national 14 July celebrations were marked in some parts of western France by people keeping the shutters of their houses closed), the importance of certain priests in their localities during the 1920s, the strengths and weaknesses of group religion, all these are issues of the widest interest for cultural historians.

Lagrée was active in local politics and trade-union activities. He was one of the editors of the Presses Universitaires de Rennes, and a practising Catholic; shortly before his death he was awarded the Papal Medal of St Gregory. But he never forgot that his father had been a teacher in a state school.

Douglas Johnson