Finally, a Long-Awaited Research Trip to France!
— Austin Collins
Throughout most of my time as a doctoral student, I have been living and studying in the United Kingdom, where I am in a co-tutelle arrangement with Durham University. Most of this time has also unfortunately been spent under travel restrictions, which made it difficult to travel from the United Kingdom to mainland Europe. But as I am currently based in Erfurt until October 2022, the recent semester break proved to be an ideal time for me to visit archives in France.
As part of my research project, which investigates how the French king Charles IX interacted with different city councils of the towns he entered as part of this Royal Tour of France from 1564-1566, I have narrowed down my research to three case studies. These case studies being Lyon, Angoulême, and the Loire Valley towns of Tours, Blois, and Amboise. But while I have been lucky enough to have access to online records for Lyon, there remained key documents which have not been digitised, and which required an in-person visit to the archives.
For my first research trip as a doctoral student, the KFG generously provided the funds to spend eight days in Paris, where I was able to see important documents in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). With the exception of traveling thirty minutes from my accommodation to the British Library everyday when I was researching for my master’s thesis, this Paris research trip was my first proper trip to the archives. And of course in the time of Covid, there were many new rules and regulations that readers had to follow.
On my first day at the BnF, I avoided a near disaster. In preparation for my upcoming visit, I ordered a reader’s pass in advance. I wanted to avoid a queue on my first day, and order my books in advance, as nowadays you must order your reading material for the next day before 14.00 on the previous day. But I had not received the confirmation email before I arrived at the BnF. Once going through security, I made my way to the information desk. The lady informed me that my reader’s pass application was indeed approved, and that I could go to the reading rooms. But, since it was after 14.00 on Monday, I could only order books beginning on Wednesday morning!
In a desperate act of problem solving, I noticed that quite a few of the books that I wanted to read were located in the Rare Books Reserve, which conveniently was the only room in the entirety of the BnF where you didn’t need to order your materials a day in advance. But actually getting to the Rare Books Reserve itself was quite the adventure. After clearing security at the BnF entrance, you needed to scan your reader’s pass to enter into this long corridor, with an escalator descending down to the lower ground floor, where you will need to scan your reader’s card again. But this corridor with the escalator was enormously tall, with metal walls, and red carpet. Every time I walked through this corridor, I felt like I was in a villain’s lair!
After scanning my pass for the second time, I made my way to a reading room, where I then had to find the lift in the back corner, and then take this hidden lift to the mezzanine level. Once there, I had to ring a doorbell, where I would be buzzed into the room. Only then would I actually be in the Rare Books Reserve. But this epic journey was worth it, as I was finally able to hold in my hands one of three original copies of Abel Jouan’s Recueil et discours du voyage du roy Charles IX. Since this is the only primary source that documents the entirety of the Royal Tour of Charles IX, accessing this particular book was key to my research. It was so amazing to actually hold this book in my hands, and be able to flip through the pages to see exactly what Jouan recalled about visiting the urban spaces of my three case studies.
While reading this book was certainly a highlight of my visit, there were a few other highlights as well. This included reading the Procès-verbal of the Tours city council from 1559, which included whether or not the individual councillors identified as a Huguenot, extremely detailed accounts from the Sens and Agen entries from the Royal Tour, and primary sources that will play a key role in developing my Angoulême case study. Overall, the Paris research trip proved to be quite the success in terms of the actual documents that I can incorporate into my doctorate thesis.
As opposed to the BnF in Paris, the archives in the Loire Valley operated on a much more “provincial” time schedule. The archives often weren’t open every day of the week, and some of the archives even required you to make a private appointment to visit. And I had to also maximize the time I spent in each archive, as they were all closed for approximately two hours every day for their lunch break. But the typical French lunch break allowed for excellent city strolls while eating a baguette sandwich and drinking a café au lait.
While actually seeing the documents first-hand was an amazing experience, I think my biggest takeaway from the Loire Valley trip were the interactions and connections that I made. I met with historians from the Université de Tours, among them Florence Alazard, Lucie Gaugain, and David Rivaud. It was amazing that they agreed to meet with me, and offer their advice and insight into my current project. But my meetings with these three historians, and the other archivists that assisted me, were entirely in French! While I was of course extremely nervous to speak entirely in French, these interactions greatly improved my confidence in speaking the language. And I can honestly say that my French speaking skills have never been better.
While seeing documents in the archives is always a fun and pleasurable experience, I especially enjoyed visiting museums in Paris, which included the Musée national de la Renaissance at the Château d’Écouen, the Musée Condé at the Château de Chantilly, and the Louvre. In the Loire Valley, I visited the Château de Chenonceau, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, and the Château de Chaumont, while I also admired the Château d’Amboise and Château de Blois from afar. Seeing and visiting these châteaux has always been and will always be an amazing experience for me, as the châteaux of the Loire Valley actually inspired me to study sixteenth-century France in the first place.
But now that I have focussed my research on how city councils interacted with the French monarchy in urban spaces within the context of the Wars of Religion, I have taken a different approach in how I appreciated my time in Paris, Tours, Blois, and Amboise. Often times at night, after the archives closed, I would wander around the historic districts of the city, and try to imagine what life would have been like in the sixteenth-century. I was trying to see if the city landscape had changed, and if the buildings would have been the same buildings that Charles IX saw during his Royal Tour. So I made an effort to retrace the exact entry route of the royal entrance in Paris, Tours, and Amboise. While many things have changed since the sixteenth-century, it was very surreal to walk along the same roads that Charles IX took from 1564-1566.
But the biggest surprise of my two research trips came when I went to Louvre on a Friday afternoon. As I made my way to the sixteenth-century portrait gallery to see the famous portraits of François I, Henri II, Charles IX, and Henri III, in the corner I noticed a painting that I had never seen before. As I approached, the portrait appeared to be of François Guerrier, one of the more prominent Lyon councillors that I have been studying in my Lyon case study. Without the Paris research trip, I might have never known that this portrait existed. And I might have never put a face to at least one of the many actors that I have been studying in my research.
Austin Collins is a PhD student jointly supervised by the Universities of Erfurt, Germany, and Durham, UK. He researches early modern French history with his project entitled “Le roy est entré dans notre ville: Examining how the Valois Monarchy Interacted with the Centre and Periphery, 1560-1574“