Obituary: Roland Mousnier

Douglas Johnson
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:10

Roland Mousnier, historian, born Paris 7 September 1907, Professor of History at the Sorbonne 1955-77, died Paris 8 February 1993.

ROLAND MOUSNIER became the centre of controversy amongst historians when in 1958 he wrote an extremely sharp article attacking the work of a Soviet historian, Porchnev.

The matter had suggested that those who revolted against taxes in early modern France were the equivalent of the proletariats in modern industrial societies. But, having devastated his opponent, Mousnier went on to explain that these popular movements of protest were in no way spontaneous. They had been engineered by certain important nobles who were opposed to the monarchy and to personalities such as Richelieu and Mazarin.

In this controversy lay the essence of Mousnier's views about the past. It was anachronistic to think in terms of social classes. One had to think he argued of individual and family positions which were reflected in terms of social solidarity, reputations, esteem and influence. It was who you were that counted and to discover the hierarchy that prevailed in society one had to study genealogy, marriages, family relationships and responsibilities. This was a society of different orders rather than a society divided simply according to wealth.

With these arguments Mousnier became the leader of the historical school, based at the Sorbonne, which opposed the economic and social historians who were based at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and associated with the review Annales. It was denied that this extended into politics and became a conflict between left and right wings, but Mousnier became a partisan of French Algeria and denounced as traitors those intellectuals who stated publicly that one should not go to fight in Algeria. He was very anti-Communist and as a staunch Catholic he had little time for social Catholicism.

Mousnier applied his view of history to academic life. As Professor, he dominated the history section of the Sorbonne (which later became Paris IV but which is always known as Paris-Sorbonne) from 1955 to 1977. Highly respected for his many scholarly and famous publications and for his carefully prepared and lucid lectures, he was also well known as an authoritarian. Predictably, he was horrified by the student demands of 1968, he who would call his junior lecturers into his office for discussions, remaining seated at his desk, they standing before him. Beware the man who spoke too long at one of his seminars. Mousnier would pass him twice a piece of paper and if he still continued Mousnier would then remove his watch and put it in front of him with a vigorous gesture.

But he was also a genial companion who enjoyed meeting other historians, especially the British. I once went with him and some French historians to see Romeo and Juliet at Stratford. In the interval Mousnier told me that he had become enamoured of the beautiful actress who was playing Juliet. Could I not invite her to have a drink with us afterwards? I sent a message, not expecting that an actress would wish to meet a bunch of historians after an exhausting performance. But she did. Mousnier's students would hardly have recognised the charming and witty person who then emerged and who entertained the whole company. He was a formidable scholar and teacher, who had a good sense of humour.

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