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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Augustin Thierry (1795–1856)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frédéric Loliée (1856–1915)
 
AUGUSTIN THIERRY, the celebrated historian and renovator of historical research in France, was born at Blois, May 10th, 1795. He died in 1856. A pupil of the École Normale, and at first destined to the profession of teaching, he was for several years the collaborator of Saint-Simon. With this venturous economist he prepared several works upon industry, speculative politics, and the organization of European societies; imbibing his master’s ideas without sharing his chimeras. But his true vocation was elsewhere. He had felt it awakening within him from his school days. This was in 1811, as he was finishing his studies at the lyceum of his native town.  1
  An enthusiastic reading of Chateaubriand’s ‘Martyrs’ lighted the spark in his intellect and decided his destiny. The striking evocation of the empire of the Cæsars in its decline; and the admirable narrative of Eudorus; and the dramatic picture of a Roman army marching across the marches of Batavia to meet an army of Franks,—as though to hurl against each other, in one terrible shock, civilization and barbarism,—had given him already a very vivid glimpse of a new and picturesque manner of exhuming and reanimating the past. He was still very young when he decided to establish the basis of his renovating method. He began by a straightforward attack upon the erroneous science of the old historical school, and by demonstrating the necessity of breaking with the false views of traditional teaching. This was the object of his ‘Lettres sur l’Histoire de France’ (Letters upon French History: 1827), in which are brilliantly developed the principles of an entirely modern art of restoring to original documents their primitive physiognomy, their color, and significance. For he possessed to a marvelous degree the intuition which could discover the spirit under the dead letter of charters and chronicles. Then, armed with a science painfully acquired in the depths of libraries, where he lost health and later sight, he proceeded from theory to practice. He published ‘L’Histoire de la Conquête de l’Angleterre par les Normands, de ses Causes et de ses Suites’ (History of the Norman Conquest of England, its Causes and Consequences: 1825, 3 vols.; new edition revised and enlarged, 1845, 4 vols.); an account, detailed and extremely lucid, not only of the national struggle which followed the victory of the Normans over the Saxons, but also of the tendencies, impulses, motives, which impelled men placed in a social state approaching barbarism. Then in his ‘Récits des Temps Mérovingiens’ (Narratives of the Merovingian Era: 1840, 2 vols.), he presented with a truly Homeric color of truth the manners of the destroyers of the Roman Empire, their odd and savage aspect, and the violent contrasts of the races which in the sixth century were mingled but not yet blended on the soil of Gaul. This is the most finished of Augustin Thierry’s works. One should read also the pages, full of candor and charm, of his ‘Dix Ans d’Études’ (Ten Years of Study: 1834).  2
  Augustin Thierry did not wholly escape the risk of errors,—the anticipating views or daring conjectures always more or less entailed by the spirit of generalization. In return he penetrated with astonishing profundity to the very heart of barbarism; and rendered as living as contemporaries the characters of one of the most complex and least known epochs of European history. A great author as well as a great historian, he carried his care for form to an incomparable degree. Sainte-Beuve called him a translator of genius, of our old chroniclers. Indeed he possessed the double seal of genius: boldness in creation, and finish in detail.  3
  The life of Augustin Thierry, like his style, deserves to be offered as an example to the writers who seek in art something more than selfish and transitory satisfactions. A martyr to his researches,—blind, crippled, helpless,—until the last hour he never stopped perfecting his writings in the sense of beauty and truth. Nor did he ever cease to consider devotion to science as superior to material pleasures,—to fortune, and even to health.  4
 
 
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