Making History through Archives

About : Stéphane Péquignot et Yann Potin (dir.), Les conflits d’archives : France, Espagne, Méditerranée, Presses universitaires de Rennes

by Alessandro Silvestri , 22 November 2023

Archives are not neutral repositories of information. The establishment, management, and accessibility of the documents they preserve have a impact on societies, often leading to tensions.

Over the last two decades, scholars have increasingly shifted their attention to archives, intended not as mere repositories of information, but as objects of study in their own right. This historiographical trend known as ’Archival Turn’ has engaged, among others, historians, anthropologists, archivists and science historians. The main purpose of their investigations is the examination of archives’ multifaceted nature and their role in societies. Often adopting an interdisciplinary approach, they have produced a growing number of publications, including Markus Friedrich’s The Birth of the Archives (2013) and Randolph C. Head’s Making Archives (2019). [1] Some scholars have examined the correlation between the expansion of documentary production and the emergence of modern polities. Others have focused on the intricate process that led from amassing information in the archives to producing searchable and usable knowledge, investigating, for instance, record-keeping methods and archival strategies. Furthermore, there have been investigations into the social history of archives, a perspective which also includes an analysis on the personnel involved, with many other historians examining the impact of archives on the pre-modern world historiography. [2]

Scholars have predominantly offered a positive perspective when examining archives. They suggested that after a period of experimentation and development during the Middle Ages, as exemplified by M.T. Clanchy’s influential work From Memory to Written Records (1979), [3] archives underwent an inexorable process of rationalization and centralization in the Modern Age. During this historical process, they transformed into what Robert-Henri Bautier aptly described as «arsenals of authority». [4] In this sense, archives theoretically operated as perfectly organized documents’ repositories through which authorities could exercise their rule effectively and access the information they needed, whether it concerned political, economic, or social affairs.

However, it is crucial to stress that archives are not neutral institutions. Starting with the assumption that «il existe dans le monde contemporain de multiples conflits portant sur des archives» (p. 9) that still need to be examined, the anthology edited by Stéphane Péquignot et Yann Potin, helps us to understand the complexity of archives and their role in societies. The book originates from the academic meetings organised in the context of the Casa de Velázquez’s programme Conflits d’archives and held between 2012 and 2015. By focusing on a set of Mediterranean examples, the contributors show that archives have a significant impact on contemporary society, to the extent that they could generate frequent political, social, and juridical conflicts. With the main purpose of giving intellectual coherence to this interdisciplinary anthology, the editors adopted four main criteria of analysis. Firstly, archives are considered in the broader sense, namely, without referring to the strict institutionalized definitions of archival studies; second, the editors adopted a useful longue durée approach, which allowed them to include in the anthology contributions ranging from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century; third, the book pursued a Mediterranean comparative, although mostly concerning France and Spain, and, on a lesser note, Greece; fourth, the work is based and interdisciplinary dialogue, with not just historians, but also archivists, jurists, and anthropologists.

Creating, naming and moving archives

The first section explores the conflicts arising from the establishment of archives and by the selection of their names, with the opening chapter effectively serving as a manifesto on these issues. In this essay, Diego Navarro Bonilla illustrates the complex process behind naming archives and documentary series. In the pre-modern era, archives often existed unofficially before receiving their formal names. Consequently, the act of naming archives became the means by which authorities officially sanctioned their existence, strengthening their governmental role. This naming process also bestowed upon these repositories the crucial responsibility of preserving the administrative memory, as well as «celle de l’histoire et des décisions» (p. 27). Due to its significance, it could generate tensions, as vividly demonstrated in Stéphane Péquignot’s chapter dedicated to the ongoing debate surrounding the Archives of the Crown of Aragon (ACA) in Barcelona, also known as the Royal Archives of Barcelona, as some critics suggest. This debate has persisted since the nineteenth century but intensified during phases of Catalan nationalism and the growth of independentism, particularly when it came to «définir les compétences respectives des autorités désireuses de les contrôler» (p. 52). Likewise, in Greece, the establishment of the General State Archives in 1914 became a matter of national interest, particularly following the territorial expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the absorption of various local archives. This process faced significant challenges, particularly at the local level where the new Greek territories sought to preserve their own records. Furthermore, archival conflicts arose with Russia and Bulgaria concerning «le partage de certains fonds» (p. 64).

Nonetheless, archives could also play a role in conflict reconciliation. Initially established in Francoist Spain as instruments of repression against the members of the Popular Front, the archives produced and seized during Franco’s dictatorship and later incorporated into the General Archives of the Spanish Civil War in Salamanca (2005), now serve as historical records but also as crucial documentary tools for compensating prisoners of war and victims of Francoist repression. However, as Verónica Sierra Blas suggests, the establishment of the Francoist archives has also caused issues, encompassing the restrictions due to secrecy concerns, the legitimacy of unofficial papers preserved, and the role of the archives themselves, often perceived as tools of the authorities. Moreover, the concentration of the Francoist Archives in Salamanca raised protests, as exemplified by the successful legal battle the Catalan government led against the government of Castilla y Leon (where Salamanca is located) to secure all the documents and records confiscated by Franco in Catalonia during the dictatorship.

«Archives militantes»

The second section explores various examples of archives produced by minority groups, associations, and private individuals, which the book’s editors refer to as «archives militantes». These archives exist outside the official institutionalized archival system and have gained increasing attention from scholars in recent years due to their alternative methods of record-keeping, organization, and document retrieval. Their management and use have often led to conflicts, for instance, as discussed in the first chapter, the archives produced by the Mudéjar/Morisco community in early modern Spain. The subsequent essays all focus on case studies from the twentieth century. Whereas Antonio Castillo Gómez examines the emergence of «les archives de l’écriture populaire, autobiographiques ou de la vie quotidienne» (archives of popular writing, autobiographical, or everyday life), Bénedicte Grailles discusses feminist archives, particularly highlighting the role of the Centre des archives du féminisme (CAF) in their preservation in France. Both authors emphasize the crucial role these repositories play in preserving not only the memory but also the identity of social strata and radical groups, whose documentary repository have often been neglected by the official archival system and its professional staff.

Shifting the focus to a private archive, Philippe Artières then examines the disputes surrounding the papers of the philosopher Michel Foucault. For a long time, Foucault’s papers and letters were neglected by the French central administration and even faced the risk of being sold outside France, until the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) finally acquired them in 2013. This case underscores the challenges that can arise in preserving and accessing private documents of prominent individuals. [5]

Intentional destructions and their consequences

The role played by archives exposes them to a risk of destruction, not only due to accidental events like fires or floods but also as a consequence of political and ideological decisions. The essays in the third section, thematically the most cohesive of the volume, delve into the conflicts arising from such destructions, even when they were intended to address social and political tensions. They also explore the consequences, which may not necessarily be negative, of such archival destructions. An exemplary essay in this regard is Serge Bianchi’s Destruction et protection des archives sous la Révolution française. While it is true that the ten years following the French Revolution in 1789 were marked by the so-called «vandalisme révolutionnaire» (p. 173), which affected royal, religious, and feudal archives, it is also true that this conflict initiated a process of régénération. involving a national strategy aimed at establishing and preserving central and local archives. The following two chapters examine the destruction of political archives produced in Greece since the interwar period and during the Greek civil war, in order to control political opinions. This decision, made in 1989, originated from a coalition government comprising the center-right New Democracy party and an alliance of left-wing parties. The goal was to address the longstanding conflict between right and left by embracing oblivion to foster reconciliation, as suggested by Maria Couroucli, (p. 216). However, a shift in strategy occurred in 2016 when the Greek government announced that the remaining 2,000 folders would be made available to researchers.

The strategy of destroying archives as an act of contrition also appears to be a common thread in various case studies. For example, in France, the destruction of archives related to the persecution of Jews largely occurred after the liberation of the country. Rather than preserving a «fichier juif», the new Republican government preferred to destroy archives previously maintained by the préfecture de Police, whose members had played an active role in the persecution of Jews during the occupation. In the case of Francoist Spain, the deliberate destruction of sensitive archives created during the dictatorship was pursued by the heirs of Francoism, notably by Rodolfo Martín Villa, who served as a minister between 1976 and 1979. This strategy aimed to erase the crimes and, in turn, prevent a critical reexamination of the past during the transition to democracy.

Opening archives to the public

The book’s last part’s essays show the different pathways through which authorities made available the papers preserved, firstly to historians and researchers, and later to a broader public. This section helps us to understand the conflicts that led to, or resulted from the opening of the archives, also discussing the eventual closure of documentary repositories and the limits of access to records, as established by different archival policies still today. Moreover, the opening of archives could also generate tensions between those who possess the documentary repositories and professional scholars, as they often had different expectations. This case is for instance discussed with reference to the private aristocratic archives in the Iberian Peninsula and Portugal in particular, which has been object of a recent research project. [6]
These questions are also exemplified by Olivier Poncet’spiece. He exposes the process through which French sovereigns granted access to archives since the mid-sixteenth century. One notable figure in this context is Jean Du Tillet (c. 1500-70), a civil servant who extensively searched the Trésor des Chartes to compile his work Recueil des traictez et guerres d’entre les roys de France et d’Angleterre. Following Du Tillet’s example, various jurists began to exploit documents not only from the Trésor des Chartes but also from repositories like the Parliament and the Chambre des Comptes. This utilization of archives became a powerful tool for the seventeenth-century royal polemicists, helping them to further strengthen the French Crown’s authority and rights. This development marked a shift from emphasizing «la preuve authentique» to «l’authenticité prouvée» (p. 276).

Over time, the gradual opening of archives paved the way for historians and jurists who were granted access to these valuable documents. Nonetheless this chronology varies greatly according to country. It was not until the nineteenth century that lay scholars gained entry to the Vatican Archives, thanks to a decree issued by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), with a significant expansion of available records under John Paul II (1978-2005). François Jankowiak’s essay adds another layer to this discussion by emphasizing that the Vatican Archives continue to be the archives of a sovereign. This is exemplified by the formal supplication addressed to the reigning pope by researchers wishing to obtain a reader’s card.

The archival conflict as a factor of analysis

As Yann Potin states, the main purpose of the book is to show «une histoire par les archives», namely, how and to what extent archives operate as active institutions both as «forces motrices ou au contraire éléments de blocages, des représentations sociales, mais aussi du droit, des rapports de forces politiques et sociaux» (p. 331). This means that through studying the conflicts surrounding the archives’ establishment, management, and even destruction we can better understand the social, institutional, and political framework in which we live today. While some essays in the anthology may not explicitly emphasize the concept of «conflit d’archive», this overarching theme permeates the book. This focus can indeed open up new avenues for the history of archives and information, extending beyond the Mediterranean examples discussed here. It invites scholars to adopt a comparative approach not only within continental Europe but also on a global scale and in the context of post-colonial studies, where archival conflicts have played a significant role.

An aspect of great significance here is the role archives had not only in generating conflicts, but also in solving them. This means archives should not be viewed solely as instruments through which rulers exercise their authority and impose their will. Instead, they can function as dynamic and versatile tools that play a role in negotiations, whether among opposing factions within a society or between governments and their subjects. [7]

Moreover, we can hope that the anthology will serve as an inspiration for further investigations into archival destruction and dispersal. These matters, frequently overlooked by scholars, are important not only in the study of archival history but also in providing insights into the intricate dynamics of societies, governance and political transitions spanning from the pre-modern era to the contemporary world. In any case, they serve as a reminder that the archives we sometimes have in hand are less the result of an accidental pick than of a long history, increasingly attracting scholar interest.

Stéphane Péquignot et Yann Potin (dir.), Les conflits d’archives : France, Espagne, Méditerranée, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2022, 342 p., 28 €.

by Alessandro Silvestri, 22 November 2023

To quote this article :

Alessandro Silvestri, « Making History through Archives », Books and Ideas , 22 November 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Friedrich, Markus. The Birth of the Archive. A History of Knowledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018 (first published, 2013), and Head, Randolph C. Making Archives in Early Modern Europe. Proof, Information, and Political Record-Keeping, 1400-1700. Cambridge: University Press, 2019.

[2See for instance the essays collected in Archival Transformations in Early Modern Europe, edited by F. de Vivo, A. Guidi and A. Silvestri. Special issue of European History Quarterly 46, no. 3 (2016), and The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe, edited by L. Corens,
K. Peters and A. Walsham. Past & Present 230 (2016).

[3Clanchy, Michael T. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307. London: Edward Arnold, 1979.

[4Bautier, Robert-Henri. «La phase cruciale de l’histoire des archives. La constitution des dépôts d’archives et la naissance de l’archivistique, XVIe-début du XIXe siècle». Archivum, no. 18 (1968), 139–150.

[5See the Fonds Michel Foucault’s contents at:

[6In this respect, see:

[7For instance, on the role of information and archives for ruling composite polities, see: Information and the Government of the Composite Polities of the Renaissance World (c. 1350-1650), edited by A. Silvestri. Special issue of European Review of History 30, no. 4 (2023).

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