A great institution at 200: The École des Chartes

The bicentenary lofo of the ENC

Jubilees come in various forms. Some are obviously too arbitrary or only remotely interesting, others call rigthly for your time and attention. Among French educational institutions the grandes établissements take pride of place. The École nationale des chartes (ENC) in Paris is surely very special among them. In 2021 it celebrates its bicentenary. Although it is obvious to make a comparison with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich, commemorated here in 2019 for its own bicentenary, the ENC distinguishes itself by being a school for archivists and paleographers. In this post I will look at the fundamental aspects of the ENC, some of its former pupils and at some famous episodes from its history.

The institutional setting

The royal ordinance of February 22, 1821 for the foundation of the ENC – image ENC

Fairly recently the ENC became a part of the Université PSL (Paris Sciences & Lettres) after a period as part of the university Paris Sorbonne, hence the different URL’s for some elements of its current digital presence. I had better start here with stating that the ENC is formally not a grande école or grand établissement with an independent status, but it ranks decidedly with its equals. I should tell you also immediately I am deeply impressed by a work on the development of history as a profession in France during the nineteenth century, written by Pim den Boer, Geschiedenis als beroep. De professionalisering van de geschiedbeoefening in Frankrijk (1818-1914) (NIjmegen 1987). This study helps you very much to see major institutions, minor and major figures and developments in their context. During the nineteenth century the ENC provided France in the first place with archivists and paleographers who put their work in archives at the service of historians. The chartistes did write theses, but these stayed closed to the documents; aktengemäss was Den Boer’s vignette for their production. We tend to associate the ENC with critical source editions, but producing book length editions is a much later development. The ENC shows its core qualities in the new critical edition of the royal ordinance of February 22, 1821 founding this institution, available online as a PDF and introduced with a video.

The creation of a journal by the ENC, the Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes (BEC) in 1839 was an initiative of the newly founded Société de l’École des Chartes. It is one of the oldest still existing scientific journals. You can find digitized issues at the Persée portal up to 2015. Among the issues from this century are some thematic volumes. With its training in the auxiliary historical sciences and its insistence on using historical research methods the ENC soon became a model institution. Dlplomatics, paleography, chronolology and sigillography are perhaps the best known auxiliary sciences for historians. These disciplines are still taught at the ENC, but next to the classic training for archivists the ENC offers four other masters. digital humanities for historians, digital humanities, transnational history and medieval studies. At the Theleme portal the ENC offers course materials, dossiers on several themes, and a number of bibliographies. You can benefit for example from the materials on book history in the Cours section. When reading Early Modern French documents you will encounter abbreviations listed in the Dictionnaire des abréviations françaises.

The ENC uniquely has both a library and a journal called bibliothèque, and both deserve some attention here. Its collections brought the library a recognition for excellence (Collections d’Excellence). Of course there is also a bibliothèque numérique, with apart form licensed resources also three digital collections from its own holdings, and three virtual exhibits. For the theses of students the library has created a subdomain in its digital library called ThENC@. On a second subdomain Theses you search in all these since 1840. PhD theses defended at the ENC between 2013 and 2020 are conveniently mentioned in a list.

Celebrating a bicentenaire

Of course it is clear the projected celebrations for the bicentenaire could only partially proceed in its original planned format. I will therefore skip presenting the program, except for the special issue on the jubilee published by the history journal L’Histoire (PDF). It is much more interesting to look at some of the educational platforms creaetd by the ENC, one of them put online only a few weeks ago.

The French sense for structure has led the ENC to create yet another subdomain for is applications with the nice abbreviation DH, because a number of them are a part of digital humanities. You can have a look at applications under development, too. The best known is perhaps Éditions en ligne de l’École des chartes (Élec), with currently 32 electronic editions. A few years ago I wrote here a contribution about Graziella Pastore’s edition of the Livre de jostice et de plet. The most used online edition is probably the great dictionary – actually formally only a glossary – for medieval Latin created by Charles de Fresne du Cange. The theme range of the editions is really wide. There are also some acts of scientific congresses, and for example a repertory for medieval French translations of texts in classical Latin and Greek. Among other projects I simply did not know about the online version of the Dictionnaire topographique de la France (DicoTopo,) a very useful tool for tracing French (historical) geographical locations.

I had expected to find here also a reference to the Theleme portal, but the ENC views this as an educational resource. Theleme stands for Techniques pour l’Histoire en Ligne:: Études, Manuels, Exercices, Bibliographies, a host of things much needed by (French) historians. The bibliographies for the historical auxiliary disciplines are splendid. Among the tutorials (cours) I would single out those dealing with book and printing history. The Dictionnaire des abréviations françaises should inspire palaeographers worldwide to create similar tools showing abbreviations for their own country and language. The dossiers documentaires offer both historical and palaeographic commentaries for images of charters and other documents in French and Latin from France. They offer students a most useful introduction in studying medieval and later documents.

The latest addition to the fleet of subdomains and digital projects of the ENC is ADELE (Album de diplomatique en ligne), an online project providing images of medieval charters for diplomatics, the study of charters as an auxiliary historical discipline, a classic activity at the ENC since its foundation.

Beyond reading old scripts

Being able to study old scripts was perhaps the thing most clear to outsiders about chartistes. It was not a coincidence professors at and former students of the ENC got involved in looking at the infamous document posing itself as evidence in the Dreyfus case around 1900. Interestingly chartistes were found both among the dreyfusards, those defending captain Dreyfus, and among his fierce opponents. In an earlier contribution I looked at this case and the importance of a newly found secret dossier. I remember in particular reading the article about the position of former élèves by Bertrand Joly, ‘L’École des Chartes et l’Affaire Dreyfus’, BEC 147 (1989) 611-671 (online, Persée).

It is not entirely by chance that the scientist René Girard (1923-2015) , one of the most famous former students of the ENC, became interested in the role and importance of mechanisms for blaming people. His theories about scapegoat mechanisms made him most interesting for anthropologists, but legal historians, too, have to be aware of such phenomena, and not only when dealing with criminal law. Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958) became an author of famous novels, foremost the series Les Thibaut (1922-1940), which brought him in 1937 the Nobel Prize for literature.

The ENC does not have its own various series of source editions like its slightly older German counterpart, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, but its professors and former students certainly produced numerous critical editions in the classic French series such as the Classiques de l’Histoire de France. Many theses defended at the ENC have as its core a source edition. Today the ENC offers four master degrees, including a degree for digital humanities, beside the original course for archiviste-paléographe. Its horizon goes beyond the Middle Ages. The MGH offer currently summer schools in the historical auxiliary sciences, but the institute does not have a school. A number of German historians did contributed editions for the MGH or were at some time a staff member. Both institutions have their own distinctive qualities and know an equally rich history with sometimes dramatic periods. Both deserve laurels as pioneers and models for contributing to historical research in Europe. For me 2021 would not be complete here without a commemoration of the ENC’s bicentennial!

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