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Jacques Nicolas Augustin Thierry

Jacques Nicolas Augustin Thierry (May 10, 1795 - May 22, 1856), the elder and more gifted, was born at Blois.

He had no advantages of birth or fortune, but was greatly distinguished at the Blois Grammar School, and entered the Ecole normale superieure (1811). In 1813 he left it, and was sent as a professor to Compiègne, but stayed there a very short time. His ardent and generous nature led him to embrace the ideas of the French Revolution with enthusiasm, and he became fired with Saint Simon's ideal society of the future. He became the secretary, and, as he would say himself, the "adopted son" of the famous visionary (1814-17); but, while most of Saint Simon's followers turned their attention to the affairs of life, devoting themselves to the problems, both theoretical and practical, of political economy, Thierry turned his to history.

His imagination had been powerfully impressed by reading Les Martyrs, in which Chateaubriand had contrasted the two civilizations and the two races from which the modern world has sprung. His romantic ardour was later still further nourished by the works of Sir Walter Scott, and though he did not himself actually write romances, his conception of history fully recognized the dramatic element. His main ideas on the Germanic invasions, the Norman Conquest, the formation of the Communes, the gradual ascent of the nations towards free government and parliamentary institutions are already observable in the articles contributed by him to the Censeur européen (1817-20), and later in his Lettres sur I'histoire de France (1820). From Fauriel he learnt to use the original authorities; and by the aid of the Latin chronicles and the collection, as yet very ill understood, of the Anglo-Saxon laws, he composed his Histoire de la Conquéte de I'Angleterre par les Normands, the appearance of which was greeted with great enthusiasm (1825).

It was written in a style at once precise and picturesque, and was dominated by an idea, at once generous and false, that of Anglo-Saxon liberty resisting the invasions of northern barbarians, and reviving, in spite of defeat, in the parliamentary monarchy. His artistic talent as a writer makes the weaknesses and deficiencies of his scholarship less obvious. This work, the preparation of which had required several years of hard work, cost Thierry his eyesight; in 1826 he was obliged to engage secretaries and in 1890 became quite blind. Notwithstanding, he continued to produce works.

In 1827 he republished his Lettres sur I'histoire de France, with the addition of fifteen new ones, in which he described some of the more striking episodes in the history of the rise of the medieval communes. The chronicles of the 11th and 12th centuries and a few communal charters provided him, without requiring a great amount of erudition, with materials for a solid work. For this reason his work on the communes has not become so out of date as his Norman Conquest; but he was too apt to generalize from the facts furnished by a few striking cases which occurred in a small portion of France, and helped to spread among the public, and even among professional historians, mistaken ideas concerning one of the most complex problems relating to the social origins of France.

Thierry was ardent in his applause of the July Revolution and the triumph of liberal ideas; at this time, too, his brother Amedée was appointed prefect, and he went to live with him for four years. He now re-edited, under the title of Dix ans d'etudes historiques, his first essays in the Censeur europeen and the Courrier français (1834), and composed his Recits des temps merovingiens, in which he reproduced in a vivid and dramatic form some of the most characteristic stories of Gregory of Tours. These Recits appeared first in the Revue des deux mondes; when collected in volume form, they were preceded by long and interesting Considerations sur I'histoire de France.

From the May 7 1830, Thierry had already been a member of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres; in 1841, on the motion of Villemain, the Académie française awarded him the first Prix Gobert, which became a kind of literary inheritance for him, being renewed in his favour fifteen years in succession. Moreover, he had been allotted the task of publishing in the series of the Documents inédits a selection of acts bearing on the history of the Third Estate. By the aid of zealous collaborators (including Bourquelot and Louandre) he compiled, in four volumes, a valuable Recueil des monuments inedits de I'histoire du Tiers Etat (1850-70), which, however, bear only on the northern part of France. The preface appeared afterwards in a separate volume under the title of Histoire du Tiers Etat.

To Thierry belongs the credit for inaugurating in France the really critical study of the communal institutions, and we cannot make him responsible for the neglect into which it relapsed after his death. The last years of his life were clouded by domestic griefs and by illness. In 1844 he lost his wife, Julie de Querengal, an intelligent woman, who had been to him a collaborator as capable as she was devoted. The revolution of 1848 inflicted on him a final blow by overturning that regime of the Liberal bourgeoisie the triumph of which he had hailed and justified as the necessary outcome of the whole course of French history.

He began to distrust the rationalistic opinions which had hitherto estranged him from the Church. When Catholic writers animadverted on the "historical errors" in his writings he promised to correct them, and accordingly we find that in the final edition of his Histoire de la Conquite his severe judgments on the policy of the court of Rome, together with some faults of detail, are eliminated. Though he did not renounce his Liberal friends, he sought the conversation of enlightened priests, and just before his death he seems to have been disposed to enter the pale of the Church. He died in Paris, after several years of suffering endured with heroism.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.