A popular song lyric from 1927 ran: “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.” The poet Allen Ginsberg liked to boast that a line of three intermediate lovers connected him back to his idol, Walt Whitman. Well before the development of social media, the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation made many of us aware of just how few steps it takes to connect you, or me, to millions of others around the globe.
Webs of human connection are an important subject for historians. Tracing out who people in the past interacted with—and how, and where, and when—can provide rich insights into the dynamics of their societies. How rigid were the social structures? To what extent was preindustrial life really “undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative,” to quote Karl Marx about India before the arrival of the British? Just as medical scientists can learn how the body functions by following radioactive isotopes as they move through the blood or tissues, so too can historians learn about societies by exploring the contacts and connections of ordinary individuals as they pass through life.
The study of human connections has been central to the rich current of scholarship called microhistory, especially as practiced by Italian historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo Poni. In a key essay from 1979, they made the case for a “science of the lived” (scienza del vissuto) in which biographies written from below would yield “a history that is full of individuals and stories and is not of necessity a history of the great and the celebrated.” This approach is at the heart of Harvard historian Emma Rothschild’s captivating new book, An Infinite History.
As a starting point for this study of modern France, Rothschild chose, essentially at random, a woman who led a seemingly unremarkable life in a seemingly unremarkable town in the west-central part of the country in the 18th century: Marie Aymard, the illiterate daughter of a shopkeeper, who was born in Angoulême in 1713 and died there 77 years later. She married a furniture maker named Louis Ferrand in 1735 and had eight children, two of whom did not survive infancy. Louis left to work in the French West Indies in 1753 and died in Martinique several years later. In 1764, the couple’s surviving daughter, Françoise, married a tailor’s son named Etienne Allemand. Eighty-three people, mostly from the worlds of the trades and minor officialdom in Angoulême, signed the marriage contract.
Beginning with Marie Aymard and this marriage contract, Rothschild traces out webs of connection in both space and time. She first provides what amounts to a social MRI of Angoulême in 1764, concentrating on the economic strata of the contract’s signatories and illustrating their connections to the wider world, including especially France’s Caribbean colonies, which then formed the most important (and profitable) part of the country’s overseas empire. Rothschild then follows the family and their connections forward in time, through the French Revolution, the political and economic transformations of the 1800s, and into the early 20th century. One of Marie’s descendants was a woman who ran a wine shop and drinking establishment in Paris that counted Baudelaire, Manet, Courbet, and Nadar among its customers. There was also a banking heiress who married into the family of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man who rebuilt Paris under Napoleon III. The best-known member of the clan was Charles Martial Allemand Lavigerie (1825–92): a Roman Catholic cardinal, primate of Africa, prolific author, antislavery campaigner, founder of the missionary order of the White Fathers, and fierce enemy of what he called, prefiguring the hostile modern usage, “Islamism.”
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At times, Rothschild’s method seems almost impressionistic. As she writes: “The perspective of this micro- medium- macro history has been to start with the most obvious and accessible evidence about individual lives, and to follow these lives wherever they lead.” Although she has historical arguments to advance—about France’s overseas expansion, the French Revolution, and the French economy—they have a secondary place in the book. What matters most is the voyage itself, as one piece of evidence leads serendipitously to another. In this lyrical Michelin Guide to a now-vanished Angoulême and its people, everything “is worth a detour.” Some critics might see this preference for the idiosyncrasies of her subject matter at the expense of an overall thesis as a shortcoming of An Infinite History, and perhaps of the microhistorical approach in general. It is better, perhaps, to see it as a welcome challenge to a profession that has long been infatuated with different varieties of social and cultural theory. It can sometimes be a good idea to let past individuals, as much as possible, speak for themselves, rather than force their messy, irregularly shaped lives into grids borrowed from the theoretical literature.
To what extent are the voices that Rothschild has searched for still audible? The evidence she draws on is often frustratingly fragmentary and sparse. She has accomplished prodigies of archival research, but while Cardinal Lavigerie generated masses of written material, most of his extended family left only occasional written traces. In just a handful of instances did Rothschild uncover personal correspondence or physical descriptions of the people she tracked. She might have found much more had she continued her explorations past World War I, but she had to stop somewhere. While not literally constituting an “infinite history,” the webs of connections in her book quickly expand far beyond the capacity of any single historian to map out.
The traces that Rothschild did find exist only because of the insistently intrusive bureaucracy of the early modern and modern French state. Even humble tradespeople crossed into its sights at many moments in their lives: not just at birth and death but when they married, paid taxes, sued one another, petitioned the government for relief, bought and sold property, enrolled in the army, or gained a position in the bureaucracy itself. An astonishing number of records of this sort have survived. Marie Aymard never wrote a letter in her own hand, but we still know from a legal document that in 1760 she owned two old wooden beds, decorated with worn green serge; two wardrobes; 12 plates; a square table with 10 chairs in bad condition; six tin spoons; six iron forks; and six sheets. In 1764, taking her debts into account, her total wealth amounted to negative 160 French pounds. It was not for nothing that Balzac memorably called the French state, in its Napoleonic incarnation, “the nosiest, most meticulous, most scribbling, red-tape mongering, list- making, controlling, verifying, cautious, and finally just the most cleaning-lady of administrations—past, present or future.” Although it was not Rothschild’s principal purpose to show just how true this statement was, the book does so nonetheless.
Rothschild also benefited, it should be noted, from a steadily expanding universe of French genealogical websites and from the efforts of French archives to put much of their genealogical content online (as historians of the country know, amateur genealogists constitute by far the heaviest users of many French archival collections). She only briefly mentions these sites, and her research methods, in the book, and she could have said much more about them and about the way the Internet has opened up new frontiers for microhistorical research.
Partly this might be because Rothschild, despite an engagingly informal prose style, appears to want to leave herself out of her book as much as possible. “The history of Marie Aymard and her family,” she notes, “is also my own journey,” but she never really elaborates on that statement. She attributes her choice of approach to an early encounter with Ginzburg and Poni’s writings on microhistory, but it would have been interesting to add something about why she chose to center her own approach so closely on families. An Infinite History, it’s worth noting, is actually the second of her family stories. Her previous book, The Inner Life of Empires, focused on a Scottish clan whose members spread out across the globe in the 18th century as they served the British Empire. It seems at least somewhat pertinent that Rothschild herself belongs to one of the most fascinating and important families in European history: She is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Mayer Rothschild, founder of the banking dynasty.
Yet even if Rothschild does not wish to draw personal connections, those familiar with her long career will find many echoes of it in An Infinite History. Trained as an economic historian, she has written about the transformations in the American auto industry and about economic thought in the Enlightenment. Drawing on this background, she has studded An Infinite History with short, fascinating meditations on the nature of economic change in the 19th and 20th centuries. After noting that Marie Aymard’s most upwardly mobile descendants achieved their success without involving themselves in industrial capitalism, for example, she invokes “this unexplored continent of the semipublic, semiprivate, ever-expanding ‘service economy’: the economy in which most of us are now employed, and the large majority of individuals in the richest countries.” She also marvels at the astonishing shift in communication technologies that occurred between Aymard’s time, when news traveled on paper at the speed of horses and the wind, and that of Marie’s great-great-grandson the cardinal. He made brilliant use of the telegraph and illustrated newspapers to promote his humanitarian causes and did so, moreover, in what Rothschild terms “a new and even more modern way of being: a continuous self-expression, a relationship to hundreds of thousands of people; a universal network of humanitarian enterprise.” Rothschild does not put these insights together into a grand thesis statement about economic modernity, and clearly sees no need to do so.
A Briton who has taught for many years at Harvard University, Rothschild is also something of a wanderer. In her acknowledgments, she relates that “this book was written in Palo Alto, Cambridge (England), Angoulême, Santineketan, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Sabaudia and Rome.” (Obviously a pre-pandemic production!) And a fascination with overseas connections, above all in France’s colonial empire, permeates An Infinite History. Angoulême long had a reputation in France as the ultimate provincial town—the French Peoria, so to speak. Balzac satirically coined the verb se désangoulêmer to signify shaking off the somnolent shroud of dull provincial life. But even in the 18th century, Rothschild has found, a surprising number of the strands in Angoulême’s web of connections stretched all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
The first of these strands in the book was woven by Marie Aymard’s husband, Louis Ferrand, who traveled to the island of Grenada, then a French colony, and reportedly acquired a sum of cash, several mules, and “a certain quantity of negroes” there. Marie tried to recover this wealth after Louis’s death but never succeeded. Several years later, her son Jean-Baptiste emigrated to the larger French colony of Saint-Domingue— present-day Haiti—where he set up a shop in the town of Le Cap that included a small waxworks museum with figures of George Washington and Britain’s King George III. The shop was destroyed when the town burned in 1793, during the Haitian Revolution. By 1795, Jean-Baptiste and his family were back in Angoulême, penniless refugees who would vainly petition the French government for compensation.
Other family members with ties to overseas colonies had slightly better luck. In 1832, after France extorted a massive reparations payment from the Haitian government in exchange for diplomatic recognition (the Haitians would keep paying it until 1947), four members of the family received token indemnities of 1,710 francs each. In the 19th century, another of Marie’s descendants spent several years in Tahiti as a pharmacist in the employ of the French Navy.
Some of the travelers Rothschild has discovered had impressively colorful stories. Louis Félix, born into slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1765 and freed soon afterward by his white owner and likely father, came to Angoulême by his adolescence and apprenticed to a goldsmith. During the French Revolution, he became a prominent municipal official, carrying out searches for insubordinate priests and pushing for the strict observation of revolutionary festivals and the new revolutionary calendar. In his official capacity, he also registered the birth of Marie’s youngest grandchild, the son of the Saint-Domingue refugees. Louis Félix married twice, the second time to a cousin of one of Marie’s sons-in-law, and died in Angoulême in 1851.
Strangest of all was Jean-Alexandre Cazaud, the aspiring planter who hired Louis Ferrand to work for him in Grenada at a salary of 500 livres a year. Born in Guadeloupe in 1727, Cazaud came to Angoulême with his parents as a child, spent time as a dragoon officer in Bohemia, and in the 1750s began traveling between France and the West Indies. By 1761, he owned a plantation in Grenada, an island eventually seized by the British during the Seven Years War of 1756-63. Back in Europe, he gained a reputation as a writer, publishing works on sugar cane cultivation and winning an election to the Royal Society in London. The French revolutionary Mirabeau described one of his pamphlets as “the work of genius that has produced the revolution.” In Paris in 1779, an enslaved man named Jean-Alexandre James won a suit for freedom against Cazaud on the grounds that France was free soil. In doing so, he confirmed an important legal precedent; Cazaud then tried and failed to have the man kidnapped. He had better success in having his own wife imprisoned during a matrimonial dispute. In 1782, he absconded to Rome with his daughter to avoid paying a large dowry to her estranged and allegedly violent husband. Cazaud spent his final years in England, styling himself the “Marquis de Casaux,” and died there in 1796.
The extension of these webs overseas did not just have implications for the individuals who actually traveled abroad. The French overseas empire could not compare in extent and economic importance to the British, Spanish, and Portuguese ones, especially after the country’s defeat in the Seven Years War, but it nonetheless generated extraordinary wealth that flowed back to France. The future revolutionary Pierre-Victor Malouet wrote of Saint-Domingue in 1785 (with some exaggeration): “Oh prodigy of industry! A space of earth equal to that enclosed in the park at Versailles produces more riches than half the Russian empire!” The fact that this “prodigy of industry” depended on the most brutal system of slave labor ever seen on the planet does not seem to have disturbed most of the French people who set out to make their fortunes in the Caribbean. It would take several more generations, and a moral revolution of sorts, for antislavery sentiment of the kind expressed by Cardinal Lavigerie to resonate deeply with the French population.
The wealth generated by overseas trade had made its effects felt in Angoulême much earlier. In 1775, the shop of a woman connected to the signatories of Françoise Ferrand’s 1764 marriage contract included, in its inventory, wood from Brazil, alum from Smyrna, rice from Carolina, and chocolate, tea, and coffee from the French Caribbean—most of these things would have been virtually unknown in the town a century earlier. The wealth generated volatility, with abrupt shifts in prices and interest rates, financial scandals, and the opening up of new opportunities, such as the one that tempted Louis Ferrand to sail to Grenada. Rothschild notes how often the men and women of Angoulême were using the word “revolution,” decades before 1789, to describe these episodes of sudden, sharp change. The century’s economic volatility and its accompanying insecurity may not have caused the French Revolution, but she argues persuasively that it opened up mental and political horizons, making it easier to embrace a series of events that overturned much of the prevailing order.
Likewise, when the revolution did come, nearly all the men and women that Rothschild has tracked accepted it, and many profited from it, gaining new positions (as the former slave Louis Félix did) or purchasing lands confiscated from the church. One of Marie’s grandsons left the priesthood during the revolution, married a woman from the former nobility, and soon afterward purchased a large estate. By the mid-19th century, many of the descendants of Marie and Louis, two poor artisans, belonged to the comfortable middle classes, and some had made it into the upper bourgeoisie.
As already noted, however, the rise of the Aymard-Ferrand family was not necessarily a story of the rise of capitalism, at least in its industrial variety. The family’s members made their way up the social scale as civil servants, soldiers, lawyers, and bankers. And the most important source of their wealth in the 19th century was also the most traditional: landed property.
Marie’s daughter Françoise, the bride of 1764, had 13 children, but thanks to the turmoil of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, in which so many young French men died fighting in far-off corners of Europe, five of the girls never married. In the 1810s, these five daughters, using money diligently saved and invested by the family and taking out large mortgages, purchased a 10,000-square-foot property on the ramparts of Angoulême and transformed it into a boarding school. The school flourished for decades, and the property became the center of gravity for the large extended family (the future cardinal visited often). It eventually generated enough capital for another of Marie Aymard’s descendants to help fund the creation of an ambitious bank. That bank would eventually fail quite spectacularly in the late 19th century through mismanagement, but the owners remained wealthy and respected members of the haute bourgeoisie, with a grand Parisian residence and a villa in Arcachon.
In short—and this is the book’s most important historiographical contribution—the story of the Aymard-Ferrand family shows how even in the nonindustrial sectors and regions of a country notoriously slow to industrialize, an impressive degree of wealth creation and social mobility took place in the late 18th and 19th centuries. France was, in this lengthy period, a socially and economically dynamic country, and it should be no surprise that so many of its inhabitants embraced political movements—including revolutionary ones—that promised to remove many further barriers to advancement.
For all the insights it provides and the vivid sense it gives of successive generations, Rothschild’s impressionistic method does have some costs. The last third of her book lacks the satisfying heft of the first two-thirds—not surprisingly, since those cover a mere 30 years or so, and the remainder more than a century. Clearly, once Rothschild moved into the 1800s, the web of connections spinning out from Marie Aymard’s 23 grandchildren and scores of great-grandchildren simply became too extended and complex to follow comprehensively. As a result, unlike her treatment of the Revolution of 1789, many of the most important events of the 19th century, such as the Revolution of 1848 and France’s shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, flit by almost unnoticed. So does the single event that probably did more to facilitate contacts between Angoulême and the wider world than any number of 18th-century sea voyages undertaken by the town’s residents: the coming of the railroad in 1852. A trip to Paris that would have taken days before the revolution now took just hours (today, by the TGV high-speed train, around two).
Readers of An Infinite History will also get little sense that Angoulême actually amounted to a small quasi-urban island in a vast sea of peasants. At least 80 percent of the French population still lived on the land back then (even as late as the 1930s, nearly half still did—France really was slow to industrialize). Towns like Angoulême depended on the rural population for rent paid to resident landowners (also, before the revolution, feudal dues). Peasants came to the town to buy goods, to use legal and administrative services, and to keep the town fed. The sights and sounds of Angoulême life, few of which made their way into the official sources that Rothschild draws on, would have included, on most days, peasants with carts trundling produce and livestock through the streets. Even the slow trains of the 1850s would have left Angoulême behind and emerged into farm fields within a few minutes of departure—as their faster successors do even today.
Of course, no history book can re-create the totality of past experience. Mid-20th-century European scholars did try to write so-called total histories, mostly of early modern European societies. But these attempts foundered on the shoals of source material that, like Rothschild’s, was both impossibly vast and frustratingly fragmentary. Paradoxically, it was this failure that led a subsequent generation of historians to experiment with microhistory, drastically reducing the scale of their observations so as to draw the fullest possible portraits of a single small town, a single family, a single life—as William Blake put it, “to see a World in a Grain of Sand.” It was this work that so impressed the young Emma Rothschild. Although there are things, inevitably, that An Infinite History has missed, the book still represents one of the most successful attempts to put Ginzburg and Poni’s “science of the lived” into action, connecting life to life to life, and by doing so illuminating what the Italian scholars called the “invisible structures in which living experience is articulated.” It is not the totality. But it is an illumination.