With "Dernière visite chez le roi Arthur", historian Michel Pastoureau looks back on the publication of his first book in 1976, and more broadly, on his career and developments in scientific research.

* Lire en français. The English translation is provided by the editorial staff, who are solely responsible for any inaccuracies.

Michel Pastoureau's name is well known to fans of cultural history, well beyond France's borders. The historian, now retired, won widespread acclaim for his work on the symbolism of colors and animals in medieval times. He also worked at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) on heraldry and, more broadly, medieval symbolism.

In Dernière visite chez le roi Arthur (Last visit to King Arthur), however, these elements are not at the heart of the story (although they are not absent). The subtitle, "Histoire d'un premier livre" (History of a first book), announces the ambition of this curious project: Michel Pastoureau looks back on the process of writing and publishing La Vie quotidienne en France et en Angleterre au temps des chevaliers de la Table ronde (Daily life in France and England at the time of the Knights of the Round Table), published in 1976 by Hachette.

Publishing in 1976

Michel Pastoureau recounts, with a few anecdotes about his phobia of the telephone, how, as a young graduate of the École des Chartes, he set about writing this first book. Readers are plunged into the publishing world of the mid-1970s, and discover how Pastoureau easily found his place in the prestigious "La vie quotidienne" collection. The author recounts his months of writing in the library of the Hôtel national des Invalides, and the reader learns that this book, like the dozens that followed, was typed by the historian's left index finger alone! He recounts with horror the faulty typewriter and the wide gap between what the book could have been (had he had the courage to rewrite the unsatisfactory pages) and the printed version, "obviously not the best".

After writing comes the meeting with the publishers. Pastoureau takes the opportunity to settle a few scores. He recalls his surprise at first to be greeted at Hachette by a simple manuscript preparer rather than an editor, on the top floor of a building on Boulevard Saint-Michel. The preparator proved charming, and taught him a few typographical rules that Pastoureau prided himself on having always observed. On the other hand, the collection's director, a certain Mr. S***, whom Pastoureau met a little later, took the cake: "dressed like a minister on an official mission", accompanied by a "greyhound of worrying thinness but with a magnificent greige coat", he revealed himself to be crassly uneducated and, to top it all off, he hadn't even read the young author's book, to which he made Pastoureau change his titles.

Then came the long-awaited, and somewhat disappointing, moment of publication. "There was no party, no reunion, no interview of any kind, not even a press office or a few copies to sign." The reception of this work of "high popularization" is not negative, even if Pastoureau is criticized for having published in a collection soiled by the name of Jérôme Carcopino, a historian of ancient Rome but above all a Vichy minister and convinced Petainist. The historian also recounts his anguish at the ritual of dedication and sending the book to important people who would never read a line. Three reviews are published, and we discover "a joke": the Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes having entrusted the review of the book to a friend of Pastoureau, the latter offered to write it and let his friend sign it. He took the opportunity to settle his accounts with the ideas imposed on him by the arrogant Mr. S***.

The book was subsequently translated into a dozen languages and won the Broquette-Gonin prize - "such an unusual name, not to say burlesque", that Pastoureau never mentioned it in his list of awards. He also advised Rohmer on his film Perceval (1978), although the director did not heed his remarks and recommendations. Pastoureau was soon invited to present his book, which led to some disappointment and even outright hostility on the part of people expecting lectures on esotericism, not to mention the militants of the national cause of french Brittany who howled at Pastoureau's reminder that "the ermine was not originally Breton".

In short, despite the author's perhaps somewhat congenial modesty, his first book is far from making no noise, and is far from going un-received.

Beyond the first book

From this point on - we're almost halfway through this Dernière visite - Michel Pastoureau strays somewhat from his initial subject, and begins to comment on his working practices and the general evolution of the research environment in France. He recounts a few unsuccessful conferences because he got the subject wrong, a few colloquia that were a little too long, a few invitations he didn't dare refuse.

This is followed by two chapters in which Pastoureau goes into greater detail on medieval society itself and, finally, on the shortcomings and updates of his book. These are undoubtedly the most interesting pages for historians. Pastoureau comments on the role of literature as a document of history, while emphasizing that "nothing is inaccurate" in the book he published in 1976. He points out that he could have given more thought to the use of sources: can a literary source be a historical document? How can we understand published documents, far removed from their oral and polymorphous uses in the Middle Ages? And besides, what is the Arthurian legend? Beautiful pages on the legend's geography and lineages plunge the reader into this fascinating universe, as we rediscover Lancelot, Perceval and Gauvain. However, Pastoureau points out that he has overlooked the contribution of archaeology, which has developed considerably in recent decades, and which has enabled us to gain a better understanding of medieval societies.

The end of the book is more bitter. A few piquants, scattered throughout the book, were already peppering the reading. The final chapter is the observation of a historian who feels overwhelmed by new research practices. While some of his criticisms are well-founded - who doesn't deplore project-based research? - others give way to nostalgia: today's doctoral students would no longer know how to write, or even how to think, obsessed as they are with their computers; students would no longer have any culture... This idealization of the past undoubtedly does not do justice to the present; but it is perhaps also what has enabled the historian to deliver the finest pages of the books that followed this first opus from 1976.