Listening to history

Bringing archives to live

by Isabelle Backouche, historian

As part of my history dissertation, published in 2000 (La Trace du Fleuve, La Seine et Paris, 1750-1850), Paris, Editions de l’EHESS, 2016 [2000]), I lived for five years with these “people of the Seine”. But they didn’t reveal themselves to me immediately; it wasn’t as though they had been waiting sensibly in a box of archives. To bring the 18th century river back to life I had to give voice to all of the people who lived on and around the Seine, and not let myself be guided only by the most powerful voices: those who could write, the authorities responsible for the river, the provost of merchants, and the King.

As a historian, I also based my approach on archives spread over several different repositories. This social history aimed to reproduce the depth of the humanity surrounding the river, the diversity of interests associated with it, and the conflicts produced by competition for its use. In the 18th century, the Seine was indeed a saturated territory, where everyone sought to take what they could to survive; where they tried to promote technical innovations, or tried to impose new urban arrangements; or even where they sought to strengthen ancient dynasties

None of these archives as such allowed me to bring this rich and colorful world of the river back to life. For this, I had to comb through the daily records of the Town Office to extract everything related to life on the river. Thus the managers of the laundry boats signed 60-year leases to have the right to set up their boats on the river, they had to pay rent and respect strict constraints. My meticulous study of the 206 contracts signed during the 18th century allowed me to create an image of this small and relatively closed society, which operated along the banks of the Seine. Similarly, a close survey of the annual decrees that forbade retail trading on the ports, stipulated opening hours and obliged merchants to respect the spaces dedicated to different provisions, led me to a description of an urban space that was extremely dense and closely monitored. In the 18th century, the Seine was indeed a vital site for the capital.

It is this wealth of material, focusing on the numerous voices around the river, that Gens de la Seine brings back to life, through collaboration with Michèle Cohen. In this respect, although the form of the audio created by Michèle is stark contrast to my academic writing, she is in perfect harmony with my historiographic approach. Together we seek to promote an original approach to social history that breaks away from a history of Paris that is too often political, because of the town’s status as the capital.

The Power of Sound

by Michèle Cohen, artistic director

I am not a historian. For me, history is a remote and somewhat indistinct time, in which Charlemagne, Clovis, Robespierre and others all merge together like tiny figurines. As my work on Gens de la Seine progressed, with Sarah and Isabelle, I became aware that even though these people lived in the 18th century, they were just people like you and me. They too had arms and legs, faces, bodies, thoughts and emotions.

This sense of proximity to our fellow Parisians, our 18th century counterparts, I owe to the historical research by Isabelle Bakouche. Her studies focus on the ordinary people, those who didn’t know how to write, whose traces could only be found in a police report or a grievance letter. This extremely precise, subtle research provides an understanding about the social organization of the time. But because it focuses on the details of ordinary lives, this research also produces emotion.

How can we convey that emotion? How can we share Isabelle Backouche’s scholarly research with today’s Parisians, those who stroll aimlessly along the Seine with hands-free kits on their ears? No novels, no plays, no sound and light shows, no historical reconstructions – nothing fictional, nothing that would seem fabricated or artificial could do. But simply writing their stories, addressing the people of today. Telling them – where you are standing now was where the dyers washed their cloth in the 18th century; a little further along was where the tripe merchants cleaned their offal; and over there, on the Ile-de-la-Cité, and the Hôtel Dieu, people went to die horrific deaths from scrofula or pestilent tonsillitis.

Here we are bringing these people back, through the sounds they made, them and their animals. Working jointly with, and building bridges between, Nova, the EHESS and the CNRS, making sound clips with the splish, splash, knock, clang of their activities – exaggerating and having fun as if comics could come alive. And making the most of the extraordinary imaginative power of sound to say: “look at them getting on the ferry with their animals! Can you see Widow Marchand going to the public scrivener? There’s Michel Kern, a worker, he’s drunk and he’s taken off his shoes and fallen in the river!” And, little by little, with sound effects, a splash, a bit of music, and a police report, they come back to life.

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