Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis

Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis

(nümä` dənē` füstĕl` də ko͞oläNzh`), 1830–89, French historian. His masterly study, La Cité antique (1864, tr. The Ancient City, 1874), stressed the influence of primitive religion on the development of Greek and Roman institutions. Losing (1870) his professorship in antiquities at the Univ. of Strasbourg after Strasbourg became German, he turned to medieval history. The result was a work of profound and original scholarship, Histoire des institutions politiques de l'ancienne France (6 vol., 1888–92; rev. ed. by Camille Jullian, 6 vol., 1905–14). In it Fustel, attacking belief in the Germanic origin of feudalism and the manorial system, traced these institutions to Roman influences. His theories were widely attacked, but they opened the way for new interpretations of early medieval history.


See J. Herrick, The Historical Thought of Fustel de Coulanges (1954).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis


Born Mar. 18, 1830, in Paris; died Sept. 12, 1889, in Massy. French historian. Member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (1875).

Fustel graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1853. He was a professor at the University of Strasbourg from 1861 to 1870, at the Ecole Normale from 1870 to 1875, and at the Sorbonne from 1875 to 1888, except for the period from 1880 to 1883, when he headed the Ecole Normale.

Fustel’s earliest research dealt with ancient history; his first major work was The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Law, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (1864; Russian translation, 1867). The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and the Paris Commune (1871), which he opposed, marked a turning point in his career; his remaining years were devoted to the study of the Middle Ages.

An unwavering opponent of revolution and of socialism, Fustel belonged to the pluralistic positivist school of bourgeois historiography In his articles and in his principal work, The History of the Political Institutions of Medieval France (1875–92; Russian translation under the title History of the Social Structure of Ancient France, 1907), he argued against the theories espoused by such historians as F. Guizot and A. Thierry; he denied the importance of the class struggle during the Middle Ages and rejected the notion that revolutions conform to historical laws.

Fustel’s ideas about the origin of feudalism in Western Europe were in keeping with the reactionary nature of his political opinions and of his overall historical outlook. He denied the revolutionary character of the transition from the classical period to the medieval period and viewed the transition as a gradual transformation of the institutions of the late Roman Empire. A Romanist, Fustel believed that European civilization derived exclusively from such aspects of Roman society as large-scale landholding, monarchical power, and the subordination of the actual producers to the landholders.

Fustel minimized the historical role of the Germanic peoples and their social institutions. He believed that the invasion of the Germanic tribes in the fourth to six centuries A.D. was not a conquest that destroyed the Roman order. In his view the Germanic peoples made no original contributions to the development of the European countries. He denied that the Germanic peoples brought with them the free peasant commune, and he insisted that long before their arrival in Gaul they had adopted private, large-scale landholding and had developed an aristocracy that lived off the labor of the peasants.

Fustel tried to prove that private property, classes, and the power of the propertied strata existed throughout history. He attempted to use his findings as historical substantiation for the claim that socialist ideas are unfounded and that the revolutionary activities of the working class are futile. Nevertheless, Fustel, unlike many French historians of his era, did attach great historical importance to economic, especially agricultural, relations. He was one of the first to undertake a specialized study of the history of agriculture in early medieval France.

Fustel was also a leading expert on documentary material and a master at the thorough and subtle analysis of texts. He brought many new historical sources to the attention of scholars. In his desire to substantiate his theories, however, he often resorted to arbitrary and tendentious interpretations of texts. His Romanist theories and his methods of handling sources were seriously criticized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by such historians as the Frenchmen E. Glasson and P. Viollet and the German G. Waitz. He met with particularly severe criticism from the Russian scholars M. M. Kovalevskii, V. I. Luchitskii, P. G. Vinogradov, and other investigators of the history of the communal system in Europe. Nevertheless, in the early 20th century Fustel’s ideas came to exert a marked influence on bourgeois historiography, especially in France.


Alpatov, M. A. Politicheskie idei frantsuzskoi burzhuaznoi istoriografii XIX v. Moscow-Leningrad, 1949. Pages 180–403.
Gutnova, E. V. “Fiustel’ de Kulanzh i ego kontseptsiia genezisa feodalizma.” In the collection Srednie veka, fasc. 35. Moscow, 1972.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.