Communications and National Identity in Early Modern France

Introduction

This website contains a range of material related to the research project undertaken by Professors Angus Martin and Margaret Sankey, and Dr Elizabeth Rechniewski, since 2000 under the title: Communications and National Identity in Early Modern France. The project addresses a fundamental question in current debates over nationhood and national identity: the ideological and discursive bases on which nations are built, by studying through an innovative set of methodologies, the roots of modern nationhood and national consciousness in Early Modern France. In this period, new definitions of the nation were emerging in the context of the social, political and economic changes that were forging a more coherent national community under an increasingly centralised monarchy.

Contributing to the dissemination of ideas and discussion about the nation was the development of more efficient communication systems: the infrastructure of roads, coaches and postal services, the river and canal network; the systems of information exchange employed by the administration and the army; the regulatory effects of the legal system both national and local; channels of commerce and travel; all levels of education and the spread of literacy. These developments not only greatly assisted the dissemination of new ideas but helped to define the boundaries of the national community. SEE MARTIN 2002.

The speed and efficiency of the communication of ideas was moreover being revolutionised by the increasing development of mediated forms that allowed the fixing, reproduction and dissemination of text and image: personal and public dimensions of letter writing; privately circulated literary and political texts; the spread of popular print media; reader involvement and the lending libraries; the dissemination of periodicals; public and private art galleries and collections; the Church and visual arts; the production and sale of art prints. New audiences were created, particularly at the national level.

Pierre Achard argues that the emergence of the concept of 'we the people' is accompanied by 'une vue théorique de la nation, où l'essentiel est dans un 'caractère collectif' se manifestant par similitude entre les peuples composants et par différence avec des peuples-nations voisins'. This web site provides and analyses examples of such characterisation in a broad range of literary, philosophical and political texts. It illustrates this perpetuation of particularist ideas about the 'French people' and France, and about other European and non-European peoples, within the universalist context of Enlightenment thought. A paper by Elizabeth Rechniewski for example (SEE RECHNIEWSKI 2002) examines the characterisation of the French in the Encyclopédie. It identifies the nature and some of functions of national characterisation, explores the contradictions and paradoxes which these diverse functions created and demonstrates how central such ideas were to the thinking of the Enlightenment. This website provides extensive collections of such material compiled from Frantext, from the Encyclopédie, and from other sources.

Taken as a whole these different approaches contribute to building a picture of the overall changes in thinking about the nation, nationhood and national identity that were underway in seventeenth and eighteenth century France.