The Ouest France editions offer us two richly illustrated books: Paris at the heart of French history by Catherine Damien and The Middle Ages, a story in pictures by René Cintré. Both works benefit from reproductions of iconographic works from the Christian Le Corre collection. These images of Épinal illustrate the text and play on a sensitive chord, nostalgia, popular imagery or the reader's wonder.
Paris at the heart of French history
The book offers thematic-chronological insights into Paris over the centuries, illustrated by images of Épinal. The choice of themes and illustrations are relevant and varied and we appreciate that the last part briefly discusses the future projects of the capital. Chapters are also devoted to the Paris region, like those on the Palace of Versailles or on the important Ile-de-France castles. Do not expect a scholarly work but a beautiful historical and introductory book like the Metronome by Lorànt Deutsch. It is, on the other hand, better balanced and less questionable (see the numerous criticisms on the subject) although the book is not free from flaws. Paris at the heart of French history is punctuated with inserts on a place, a character or an important event linked to the theme. It also allows neophytes to have a more historical vision of the city's urban history through double pages devoted to the fashion of the suburbs and boulevards in modern times or to the universal exhibitions. The dark pages of Parisian history are not obscured: the Hundred Years War, the Fronde, the Commune or the German Occupation are handled satisfactorily for this type of work. The texts are short and very affordable. The chapters on the most recent history of the city abandon the images of Épinal and offer posters or photographs. In short, the book constitutes an interesting panorama for a clear, synthetic and attractive first approach of the French capital and through it of the history of France.
The Middle Ages, a story in pictures
The work is hardly different from the previous one in its form: thematico-chronological chapters accompanied by images of Épinal make it possible to paint a portrait of this vast period that is the Middle Ages (a few pages are devoted to the Muslim world and Byzantine). In this respect the foreword which insists on this duration is welcome and very pleasant to read. The book is accompanied by iconographic reproductions in sleeves. For example, on the foreword double page, a panorama of the history of costume and large-scale weaponry is offered, which allows the measurement of developments to be taken. The text broadens the medieval quotations which are integrated into the text in italics. However, the sources of these are not always indicated. In addition, the iconographic documents presented are not criticized: page 7, a representation of King Dagobert covered with a somewhat anachronistic crown; page 14 Charles Martel wears a winged helmet reminiscent of the representations of Vercingétorix at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century (helmet already anachronistic for Vercingétorix), etc. Through these iconographic anachronisms, the book perpetuates a fairly frozen and fantasized image of a very heterogeneous Middle Ages. The treatment of Saint Louis in the chapter entitled "Saint Louis: the holy king" is enlightening in this respect and poses a certain number of problems. The author leaves plenty of room for Joinville's story and devotes himself almost exclusively to his faith, his interest in monastic orders, the founding of “establishments intended for the poor, the blind” etc., the Sainte Chapelle and the installation. Dominican friars thus leaving aside his reforms or his political action more generally. The image of the king is not upset following this reading, unlike the important historiographical renewal on the subject for some twenty years.
These very similar books offer a more or less successful overview of the subjects they deal with. They can only constitute a richly illustrated summary introduction and are therefore not recommended for a readership with solid foundations due to the format chosen. But perhaps the interest of these books lies more in the iconographic reproductions proposed representative of the profusion and diversity of the images of Épinal during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. However, the treatment chosen does not allow us to escape a certain form of "graphic nostalgia" which would refer to a golden age where history was more present than today. "We no longer teach history" but are these images really today a key to revitalize this teaching?
Paris, at the heart of French history, by Catherien Damien. Editions Ouest-France, October 2014.
The Middle Ages, a History in Images, by René Cintré, Editiuons Ouest-France, October 2014.