by Jean Leclant, Perpetual Secretary

The Function of Council and Supervision

The Academy provides advice to Governmental authorities in the areas of its expertise whenever requested to do so. In certain domains, these requests are statutory and binding. Thus the law of 11 Floréal of the year X (May 1, 1802) and the law of 1809, corroborated by later texts, assures the Academy’s presence in the literature and humanities chairs of the “ Collège de France ”. The same was true for the “ École des Langues Orientales ” before its recent transformation.
The Academy plays an important role in the function of the “ École des Chartres ”. This school is closely associated with the Academy because it was originally created to provide it with associates in its publishing projects. In many cases the alumni of the “École des Chartes” continue to work on the publications that are under the patronage of the Academy. It also participates in the scholarly supervision of major French research institutes outside France. These include the “ École française d’Athènes ” and the “ École française de Rome ” founded respectively in 1846 and 1875 ; the “ Institut français d’Archéologie orientale du Caire ” ; the “ École archéologique de Jérusalem ”; and the “ École française d’Extrême-Orient ”. Each year reports are officially drafted, published and presented to the appropriate authorities. Along with the “Académie des Beaux-Arts” and the “Académie des Sciences et morales politiques”, the “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” also supervises the “Casa de Velázquez” in Madrid. The Academy is also represented by some of its Members or by the Perpetual Secretary in various other cultural institutions, such as the “Commission consultative des recherches archéologiques à l’étranger” or the “Caisse nationale des Lettres”. Some reforms have set aside a place within the committee that designates directors to the “Écoles normales supérieres” as well as in certain boards of directors or scientifics councils of these schools.

Function of resonance and instigation in historical and archaeological research

The scientific role of the Academy results directly in the activities of its Members either in their official capacity or in their personal pursuits. Here we will consider both the work done by academicians, as well as the work they promote and encourage in numerous academic and research institutions. The Academy holds a unique position for the dissemination of knowledge on a national and international level thanks in part to the presentation of scholarly activities during its weekly meetings, convened on Fridays, that are open to non-academicians. During these sessions, Members as well as the scholars (foreign or French) are invited to present for the first time the new discoveries whether from field research or from research in archives or libraries. The presentations are usually short, allowing the scholars to outline their work and, in some cases, to secure appointments for further consideration. The Academie’s publication, the Comptes rendus (remarkably prompt), offers a current and topical overview of an immense amount of work that covers vast amounts of space and time: from the dawn of prehistory to the 17th century, from France and the Mediterranean to the Far East. The Comptes rendus has an active interest in every aspect of human culture. The Journal des Savants, a publication that is three hundred years old, has long cast its critical eye on works of the highest importance to historical scholarship. It publishes articles that mark significant advances in subjects within the domain of the Academy, as well, because of their results, relating to the new aspects of their methodologies.
The “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” plays a role of incentive to research by attribution of many prizes, which have been not only envisioned by their founder as a reward but above all as an aid to encourage research. These prizes are awarded by the Committees, whose members are renewed annually.
Even though many of the prize awards have decreased in monetary value since their inception, they continue to have a considerable influence in the progress of the science either by direct favour or by adding prestige to meritorious work. Recently the total value of all of the Academy’s prizes has been reevaluated and, in general, their value is not less than 1 500 euros. The two oldest prizes were created by an initiative of the French state itself. After the reconstitution of the Academy by the Consuls in 1803, the annual “prix du Budget” was created to award work dealing with a question posed by the Academy in response to a problem it considered very important in the domains of the studies of the Middle East, the classical antiquity, the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. Under the Restoration, in 1820, the minister of the Interior, who had guardianship over the Academy, was also created a competition called “Concours des Antiquités de la France” to encourage important work on the history or archaeology of France. In the beginning, gold, silver, and bronze medals were given to the winners, but since the end of the 19th century, they have been replaced with monetary sums that have been revised several times. They are normally given along with another prize that was established in 1833 by Baron Gobert. The “prix Gobert” is given “to the most knowledgeable and in-depth scholarly work in French history and in related domains, and to the closer work”. It is most frequently awarded to a doctoral dissertation on the history or archaeology of France which is considered the finest work of that year. The first medal of the “Concours des Antiquités” is also usually awarded to an excellent doctoral dissertation. The second “prix Gobert” and the second and third medals of the “Concours des Antiquités” usually go to very meritorious scholarly work on regional history. The “prix Bordin” and “prix Saintour”, founded in 1835 and 1887 respectively, are awarded alternatively to each of the domains of study within the Academy : classical Antiquity, the Orientalism, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In contrast to the previous awards mentioned, it can also be awarded to work outside of the field of French history actual.
The other prizes, which are all from private sources, have been established according to the layouts of their founder and after confirmed by a decree of public authority. They can be awarded either to work on a specific historical period, or to work in a particular discipline, or to work on a specific area of the world or the history of a specific region of France. In general terms, these awards can be divided into the following broad areas of study : Middle Eastern antiquities, classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Byzantine world, India and the Far East, the Americas, the History of Paris, the History of Lorraine, the History of art, Numismatics, Scholarly Bibliography, Linguistics, Mythology and the comparative history of religions. Among these numerous prizes, it is important to note the “prix biennal pour la numismatique ancienne” (biennial prize for ancient numismatics) founded in 1821 by Allier de Hauteroche, the “prix Honoré Chavée” established to encourage linguistic studies and especially research relating to Romance languages, and the “prix Louis Fould” corresponding to the prize of history of drawing’s arts. As for the “prix Volney”, it enjoys an assured celebrity since it was instituted in April 1820. Created to encourage the philological studies of languages, it has honoured, among others, Eugène Burnouf and the young Ernest Renan. We would also like to mention that some of these prizes aim in a more general way at promoting current scholarly research. Because of the role these prizes play, a call has been put out to sponsors who would like to encourage scholarship to contribute to the funding of these prestigious awards.
The “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” is also in charge of endowments (which are entirely insufficient today) that provide aid for the following projects :

  • contributing to the conservation or restoration of important monuments that are not classified as historic ;
  • creating the possibility of archaeological excavations and explorations in various areas ;
  • promoting archaeological expeditions to Africa and/or to Asia ;
  • contributing to the preparation of a dissertation either in history in general or in Egyptology ;
  • encouraging the publishing of scholarly works ;
  • aiding researchers in need ; and
  • facilitating the diverse activities of the Academy.

The mission of publishing fundamental research tools

The Academy is one of the principal centers of publication of fundamental research tools within its fields of competence.
One of its first concerns — which continues to be an important one to the Academy — was the publication of literary and archaeological sources. These, of course, are basic tools for all historical and philological research and can be used by specialists from all types of disciplines (including the social sciences) as well as social historians. From the beginning of the previous century, the regulations of the Institute had expressly stipulated that the Academy would resume the publication of the Notices et extraits de manuscrits de la Bibliothèque nationale, as well as the work that the Benedictines had begun : the Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, begun in 1706 under the orders of Pontchartrain and then personally handed over to several academicians. To the Collection des chartes et diplômes of French Middle Ages — an ambitious task to begin with — can be added the series of Documents financiers and the series of Pouillés. The collection of the Historiens des Croisades was expanded in a Collection of documents which provides historians of the Middle East with its basic documentation. The Histoire littéraire de la France has undertaken the critical cataloguing of the sources of literary history, as well as of scientific, legal, and philosophical histories. Soon the Recueil général des sculptures sur pierre de la Gaule romaine, so called “Nouvel Espérandieu” will collect all documentation available. As for the Carte archéologique de la Gaule it provides the pre-inventory of already 70 French subdivisions administered by a Prefect. Within the framework of the “Union académique internationale”, the “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” has taken over the responsibility of some similar works, such as the Nouveau du Cange, which is a dictionary of medieval Latin, as well as several corpus collecting documentary series such as the Corpus des Inscriptions sémitiques, founded in 1867 by E. Renan, and the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. The Academy bestows its support on other similar endeavors with effective and consistent aid given to the institutions that carry them out. Examples include the publication of the archaeological dig at Delos as well as the publication of the Dictionnaire de bouddhisme (Hôbôgirin), the international studies on the Ramayana, and the Lexique iconographique de la Mythologie classique. We should not forget to mention the part the Academy has played in the publication of some of the great fundamental works on the history of the French language that were written by academicians: the Dictionnaire by Émile Littré, the monumental Histoire de la langue française by Ferdinand Brunot, the Inventaire général de la langue française, which is a precursor to what is now known as a database. Through this brief overview of the activities in which the Academy has participated in its traditional role of the guardian of the French historical heritage and by the evocation of its active intervention in the current development of basic disciplines, it is easy to locate the place of this institution in the current phase of historical research where the safeguard, the implementation and the diffusion of old and new documentation appear essential.Throughout the world the “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” also contributes in an indirect way to many archaeological excavations and the activity of the institutes of research. Since the time of Champollion, decipherer of hieroglyphs, Egyptology always was in honor. The discoveries in the Near East have also been closely followed by the Academy, which gives equal importance to research in the world of Islam and the Far East. The Academy has also been always partial to classical studies (Greece, Rome, and national antiquities). Finally, the Academy is active in the diverse disciplines associated with the Middle Ages history : philology; critical editions of diplomatic, narrative, and literary texts ; archaeology; and art history up to and including the 17th century.

Thus the importance of the “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” stems essentially from the breadth of work it provides and, it hopes, by the high quality of this work. The entire sum of the enterprises directed by its members, the number of publications that they produce along with their disciples, provide for a considerable output. Proud of its long tradition that has attracted precious aid during three centuries, it hopes to be worthy to continue its role as a guiding force and it desires to effectively carry out its work for the good of the entire community of scholars.