Matthew Douglas is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Marquette University and the recipient of the Cyril E. Smith Fellowship for the 2013-2014 academic year
Moving to Europe and walking into an archive left me with a sense of both excitement and fear. For a young historian, the confines of the archival wall contain the great stories, anecdotes, theses and dissertations. Entering the newly built Archives départementales, was no different. In August of 2013, I received the generous Cyril E. Smith Fellowship. This financial support flew me to France to conduct research in the local departmental archives in Nîmes, Montpellier, and in the Archives Nationales in Paris. My research focuses on the religious upheavals in France that began in the sixteenth century and lasted until the late eighteenth century. These disturbances began when French Protestants, or Huguenots, were socially accepted with the ascension of Henri IV, and his famous Edict of Nantes. The city of Nîmes became my case study, as it boasted a robust Protestant population when Louis XIV abolished the religious toleration for Huguenots with the Edict of Fontainebleau a century later.
The focus of my research concerns the criminal records associated with the court located in Nîmes. My most dramatic cases concern the Nîmois who joined in the Camisard Revolt centered in the neighboring Cevennes region in 1702. Many socially prominent citizens met their ends at the hands of the executioner for fighting for Protestantism. More commonly, the courts meted out less dramatic penalties to Huguenot adherents. Hundreds were sent to live out their lives in service to Louis XIV in his galleys. Many others paid high fines, and quickly emigrated. Other times, the judges absolved their Protestant neighbors, such as on the Christmas Day immediately after the Revocation. Regardless of particular circumstance, Huguenots took to hiding in various places around Nîmes and continued to practice their faith clandestinely.
While researching in a small and predominately “locals only” archive in the south of France, I learned a lesson from the people I shared the reading room with each day. As the token American, I was greeted each day by historians, archivists, and genealogists, all eager to ask about me, and the foreign winter wasteland I called Milwaukee. We drank coffee, lots of coffee. We spoke in French until they decided it was time to practice their English. At first, it seemed that they took absurdly long breaks for lunch. Later, I realized this pause was meant as a time to reflect on what we had found that morning. I knew about other’s research, and they were eager to hear about mine. Conversations developed, ideas generated and polished over too many carbs and red wine. I learned that an archival guide can point you generally in the right area, but having a group of local experts invested in your own work was invaluable. I cannot describe the camaraderie of the archive, one must experience it firsthand. Their friendships made both my research and my time in France better. The archive did not need to be intimidating, and I am happy to report that good friends, tasty food, and enlightening conversation while leafing through thousands of pages each day made that process downright enjoyable.