HISTORY OF THE ACADÉMIE
by Jean Leclant, Secrétaire perpétuel de l’Académie
The current Académie
After the final fall of the Empire, Louis XVIII resumed the rehabilitation of the academic structures begun ten years earlier. By the royal order of March 21, 1816, which cautiously addressed the double heritage of the old and the new institutions, the monarch gave back the traditional names to the four Compagnies that made up the Institut, whose title he maintained. At the same time, he accorded them his direct and special protection. Apart from the necessary adjustments that have since been introduced to the articles that address the size and modality of recruitment, the life of the Académie des Inscriptions has continued to this day to be shaped by the well designed provisions of the 1816 royal order.
The history and development of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in the 19th and 20th centuries, parallels the history of French scholarship in the rich domains of the classics, Middle Eastern and Asian studies, and medieval studies, as well as the development of new disciplines related to history, archaeology, and philology.
During the Restoration of the July Monarchy, the Académie boasted within its ranks esteemed figures who were among the veritable fathers of contemporary humanities. Among them a few deserve special mention: the brilliant Jean-François Champollion, whose difficult labors deciphered hieroglyphic writing; the very great Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, founder of Arab and Persian studies in France; Antoine-Jean Letronne, who laid the methodological foundations of classical epigraphy; Augustin Thierry, author of the Histoire de la conquête de l’Angleterre par les Normands (1825), whose erudition and scrupulous technique are only rivaled by the beauty of his prose; as well as the writer Prosper Mérimée, general inspector of historical monuments, who was the first to push for the preservation of the French national heritage.
The Académie des Inscriptions played an important role in this period when remarkable intellectual fermentation led to the rise of several French institutions on a regional and national scale. In fact, the Académie was a force behind this institutional expansion, as the following two examples illustrate. The Académie participated in the birth of the École des Chartres, over which it has had a role of guardianship ever since. This École was created by royal order on February 21, 1821 “to bring back a kind of study that is indispensable to the glory of France” by providing assistants to the academicians. The Académie was also important in the creation of what became the Comité des Travaux historiques et scientifiques under Guizot (by an order of July 18, 1834).
Because of its involvement in the expedition of Egypt, the Académie naturally actively participated in the scholarly missions in the Peloponnese (1829-1831) and in Algeria (1830). Furthermore, by the fact that it created teaching structures to prepare scholars and travelers who were going abroad, it established the groundwork that led to French research institutions outside of France. The École française d’Athènes, which was created by royal order on September 11, 1846, was the first to benefit from this. Thanks to two orders issued in 1850, the Académie was entrusted with the double role of intellectual director and patron of this school. Indeed, it was the Académie that stripped the École française d’Athènes of its literary pretensions and quickly turned it into a veritable and long-standing center of scholarly research, to the immense profit of French Hellenism and Byzantine studies. Since that time the Académie has contributed to the establishment of a whole network of research institutions devoted to developing the domains of study that are traditionally within its scope, and has played an active role in monitoring their projects. These institutions include the École française de Rome, the École française d’Extrême-Orient, the École biblique et archeologique de Jérusalem, and the Casa de Velásquez founded respectively in 1875, 1901, 1920, and 1928. The École française de Rome was founded within the context of the identity crisis that followed the defeat of 1870. Initially created for the “practical preparation of the members of the École française d’Athènes”before their departure to Greece, it quickly became the major center for French scholarship of Italian antiquity. It also distinguished itself as a center for the study of the spread of Roman civilization, and of the medieval, modern and contemporary cultures of the Italian peninsula.
The École française d’Extrême-Orient was created by an initiative of three members of the Académie (the India specialists Auguste Barth and Émile Senart and the linguist Michel Bréal) as well as the support of the governor general of French Indochina, Paul Doumer. Its headquarters were set in Paris in 1956 and it progressively established several outposts that investigated Asian cultures ranging from India to China, Japane and South-East Asia.
The École biblique et archeologique de Jérusalem was founded in 1890 by Père Lagrange of the Saint-Étienne Dominican convent of Jerusalem. In 1920 the Académie recognized it for its contributions to archaeology and epigraphy and it has since remained undeniably important in the teaching and research within the diverse fields that are related to the world of the Bible.
Finally, the Casa de Velázquez was created in between the wars after a project that was conceived by the archaeologist and académicien Pierre Paris and supported by the donation of a piece of land in Madrid by King Alfonso XIII. It occupies a privileged position in Hispanic studies and supports research in art as well as any kind of scholarly activity related to Spain and Latin America.
Rather than catalogue a complete list of all the countless contributions of the Académie des Inscriptions since the second half of the 19th century, we shall just provide a small but representative gallery of portraits of illustrious personalities whose activities were made possible with the help of the Académie.
In classical studies, a few names stand out: the historian Victor Duruy, minister of public education under the Second Empire and founder of the École pratique des Hautes Études; Gaston Boissier, specialist in Latin literature and humanism; the archaeologist Charles Beulé, who is famous for clearing the complex entryway to the Acropolis and for his archaeological work in the port of Byrsa; Salomon Reinach, the historian of ancient religions and societies; his brother Théodore, the numismatics scholar and art collector, who donated his beautiful Villa Kérylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer to the Institut de France; Hellenists Georges Perrot, Paul Foucart, and Théophile Homolle, these last two initiator and director respectively of the “Great dig at Delphi;” Albert Dumont, the founder of the École française de Rome; Camille Jullian, undisputed master of national antiquities; the numismatist Ernest Babelon; the papyrologist and specialist of the Ptolemies Pierre Jouguet; the epigraphist René Cagnat; the historian of Rome Jérôme Carcopino; the great connoisseur of Greek art Charles Picard; the internationally renowned epigraphist Louis Robert; R. P. Festugière, the exegete of Greek thought; and finally Henri-Irénée Marou, historian of antiquity and later specialist of patrology.
As for in Byzantine studies, which developed closely in tandem with classical studies (because archaeological digs are often located on the same spot and because a great deal of the classical manuscripts were passed down to us through copies made in Constantinople), renowned académiciens include Gustave Schlumberger and Charles Diehl, masters of the Byzantine Orient; Gabriel Millet and André Grabar, art historians; and Paul Lemerle, prolific specialist of the history and civilization of the Byzantine Empire.
Naturally, the rich field of Middle Eastern studies found a veritable home in the Académie, who promoted it in France—especially after the second half of the 19th century during which there was huge interest in collecting archaeological and epigraphic sources that were likely to correspond with biblical content. The figureheads of Semitic studies were located on the quai de Conti and they included: Ernest Renan, director of the fruitful “Mission of Phoenicia” (1860-1861) and founder of the important Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum collection; the Marquis Melchior de Vogüé, specialist in ancient and medieval Syria; Charles Clermont-Ganneau, famous interpreter of the Stone of Mesha and learned epigraphist; Édouard Dhorme, master of Biblical studies; and André Dupont-Sommer, Aramean expert and world renowned specialist of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of the Essenic brotherhood.
Important Egyptologists include the philologist Emmanuel de Rougé; Auguste Mariette, who discovered the Serapeum of Memphis and founded the museum of Boulaq; his successor Gaston Maspero, a scholar of countless capabilities, editor of the famous Textes des pyramides and organizer of the Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte; as well as Alexandre Moret, Pierre Lacau, Gustave Lefebvre, Pierre Montet and Jacques Vandier. Assyriologists and specialists of the Middle East who deserve special mention include Jules Oppert, the decipherer of Assyro-Babylonian; René Dussaud, the great historian of Syria; Claude Schaeffer, who unearthed the sites at Ras Shamra and Enkomi; André Parrot, who unearthed Mari; and finally Emmanuel Laroche, master of Hittite and Asian studies who published the famous Trilingue de Xanthos in collaboration with André Dupont-Sommer and Henri Metzger.Arab studies have always been well represented in the Académie. Those who deserve special mention include, of course, the great Sylvestre de Sacy, as well as Armand Caussin de Perceval who was a pioneer of Arab dialectical; the brothers William and George Marçais, two scholars devoted to North Africa; the epigraphist Max van Berchem; the philologist and historian Gaston Wiet; Henri Laoust, the specialist of Islamic and Berber cultures.
Finally, in the domain of Turkish studies, Amédée Jaubert, Abel Pavet de Courteille, and Charles Barbier de Meynard; and in the domain of Iranian studies, Louis-Matthieu Langlès, Étienne Quatremère, and Henri Massé all merit mention.
The Académie has always placed an importance on Indian studies, which are often very closely associated to studies of comparative grammar. Thus several great scholars have been in the Académie: the Sanskrit specialist Antoine-Léonard de Chézy; the philologist and specialist in Buddhism Eugène Burnouf; the great scholar of Indian religions Auguste Barth, the specialists of Veda Abel Bergaigne and Louis Renou; Émile Senart, the specialist in Buddhism, who also devoted time to studying the inscriptions of Ashoka; Alfred Foucher, archaeologist and specialist of Sanskrit and the art of Gandhara; and Jean Filliozat, who was the founder of the Institut français de Pondichéry and who was a historian and philologist interested in the religions of southern India and especially in the cult of Shiva.
Chinese studies have also been well represented in the Académie. Some scholars who deserve special mention include Abel Rémusat, who christened the chair of language and literature at the Collège de France; Stanislas Jullien, philologist and grammarian who specialized in travel accounts of India written by Chinese Buddhists; Édouard Chavannes, a model scholar whose abilities ranged from archaeology to linguistics and from epigraphy to anthropology; Paul Pelliot, also a master in his own right who directed the famous expedition in Central Asia (1906-1908); Henri Maspero, well-rounded historian who was known for his work in the religions of China and for pioneering the study of the languages of the Far East; Paul Démieville, philologist and eminent specialist in Chinese Buddhism and author of the very first installments of the Hôbôgirin encyclopedia that was published by the Académie; and finally, Jacques Bacot, master of Tibetan studies.
The great number and quality of medievalists, philologists, historians, law specialists, archaeologists, and art historians that occupied its ranks demonstrate the Académie’s longstanding commitment to medieval studies. In fact, medieval studies developed quite rapidly in France thanks in part to the Académie’s interest in the publishing during the Ancien Regime of manuscript primary sources (Chartes et diplômes relatifs à l’Histoire de la France, Histoire littéraire de la France, Recueil des Historiens de la France, Recueil des Historiens des Croisades, etc.). Some important medievalist scholars bear mentioning. In the 19th century: Paulin and Gaston Paris, specialists in French literary texts; Natalis de Wailly, publisher of Joinville and Villehardouin; Jean-Barthélémy Hauréau, philologist and scholasticism expert; Paul Meyer, connoisseur of the languages and literatures of Southern Europe; the great director of the Bibliothèque Nationale and multifaceted historian, Léopold Delisle; Jacques-Louis de Mas-Latrie, historian of Venice and of the crusades; Arthur Giry, expert on international relations; and finally Robert de Lasteyrie du Saillant, specialist of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. In the 20th century: Gustave Dupont-Ferrier, precursor of medieval prosopography and the social history of administrative personnel; the great historian Ferdinand Lot; Charles Samaran, protean scholar, great paleographist, and historian of Gascogne; the Romanists Mario Roques and Edmond Faral; the famous art historian Émile Mâle; the historian of architecture Marcel Aubert; and the archaeologist Paul Deschamp who is responsible for the important work on the constructions of the Crusaders.
More recently, the Académie has welcomed within its fold other disciplines that came into existence because of the increased specialization within the humanities. Thus, almost a century ago linguistics found a special place in the Académie. Among the scholars deserving special mention are Antoine Meillet, peerless master of Indo-European studies; Émile Benveniste scholar of Iranian languages, Indo-European grammar, and linguistics in general; the phonetics specialist Maurice Grammont; the specialist of Celtic and classical languages Joseph Vendryes, the Latinist Jules Marouzeau; and the lexicographer Paul Imbs, promoter of the Trésor de la Langue Française. One could also add Georges Dumézil, founder of Indo-European comparative mythology to this list because of the commonalities between his research and the field of linguistics.
The Académie has also become interested in the very different areas of prehistory and to a lesser extent, paleontology, which is more within the domain of the Académie des Sciences. In these the abbé Henri Breuil and André Leroi-Gouran bear mention.
Finally, because of its interests in historiography and historical epistemology of the 16th and 17th centuries and because the chronological limit of the assassination of Henri IV seems increasingly less pertinent, the Académie has included in its domain the period going all the way to the end of the 17th century. After the art historian and Renaissance specialist André Chastel, there are today several chairs occupied by modernists who work on various aspects of this important period of France’s history.
Today, the work of the Académie continues a tradition that goes back several centuries yet keeps close to the cutting edge of research. To find more information on its current organizational structure and operation as well as on its basic daily tasks, you can continue your visit by clicking on “Introduction.” Otherwise you can click on “Publications” and “Activities” for information on the Académie’s editorial and scholarly activities.
The intellectual primacy and the scholarly importance of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres within France’s cultural landscape is a result of the fact that académiciens are chosen from among the best scholars within the humanities and form a nucleus of indisputable expertise.