Lepetit was recognised as being a scholar of remarkable ability, and it was confidently expected that through his work and through the research of his associates he would become one of the great figures of French historical writing.
In recent years it has often been said that, in a country which was famous for its intellectuals, France seemed never to have found a successor to Jean-Paul Sartre, to Raymond Aron, to Michel Foucault, or to others who had disappeared or fallen silent. But the exception was the study of history.
French historians always seemed to flourish and to attract admiration wherever history was studied. In particular there was the period where Ferdinand Braudel laid down the law, insisting that historians should absorb the work of other disciplines (geography, anthropology, economics) and should study the tendencies that were to be seen over vast periods of time. This was "la Nouvelle Histoire".
Lepetit claimed that this way of studying history had had its day. And he had the boldness to do so from the Annales, which had been Braudel's fortress. He pointed out that history was a social discipline. It had to be taught. The Braudel legacy meant either that there was a gap between the research historians were carrying out and the history they were teaching. Or it meant that historians were going to ignore the common market of historical imperatives that Braudel had left and simply return to narrative and diplomatic history, which was disappointing.
Lepetit's argument was that the activities of men and women were what counted, rather than the weight of macro-economics or the stifling limitations of social structural theory. In his first book, which was a study of French towns between the 18th and the 19th centuries, it was not enough to look for statistics. One should not study a town such as Angers by the same methods that one had used when studying a more commercial urban centre, like Rouen. By virtue of studying the activities of the populations of towns it was possible to see the importance of politics in making a town the centre of an administrative hierarchy. One cannot remain on a purely economic plane; nor, like some English urban historians, pay attention only to the quality of life. Politics count in social history.
Thus Braudel was wrong, when studying the archives of Spain in the Mediterranean, to be excited only by the details of shipping and cargoes. The documents that he turned over with impatience contained accounts of the actions of men, and they should have been studied. Equally, because it was thought important to study history over long periods of time, the French Revolution has almost ceased to exist as a subject. Rather there is the growing decline of the Ancien Regime, and the problem is why did it cease to function rather than why a revolution broke out.
Lepetit named himself an historian of towns and of space. His aim was to transform social history. In 1995 he edited a book which includes contributions on Florentine magnates at the end of the Middle Ages, different types of sovereignty in the Islamic states of the Mediterranean, the French naval industry at the end of the 19th century, the study of the Malthusian interpretation of population growth, and several others. This was not, explained Lepetit, a junk-shop. It was to illustrate how the concepts of social history were relevant to different subjects in different periods.
Lepetit was passionate about history which he had taught in the University of Paris I before going to the Hautes Etudes. His books, Les Villes dans la France moderne (1988), Une Ecole pour les sciences sociales (1996), Les Formes de l'experience (1995) are published in France by Albin Michel and in England by the Cambridge University Press.
Bernard Lepetit, historian: born 28 August 1948; married (three children); died Versailles 31 March 1996.Reuse content