Publication of the complete Correspondance of Napoleon I: initial results of the Fondation Napoleon’s grand project

Author(s) : BARTHET Emilie
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A little more than six months after the laucnh of the historical adventure of the publication of a complete and critical edition of the correspondance of Napoleon, the moment has come to consider the initial results. It must be said that the project is proceding well, as a result of the participation of several archives and the mobilisation of many external collaborators, all of whom have devoted themselves energetically to the project.

A brief overview of the results

The publication of the Correspondance of Napoleon has in itself a long history.
In 1858, Napoleon III gave the order for the publication of the Official Correspondance of Napoleon I. The 28 volumes which were to be produced after 11 years of work did not contain all the letters. The 22,000 which went to make up this Correspondance contained also the orders, bulletins and decrees, whilst leaving it to be understood that there existed beween 30 and 35,000 letters proper.
A first editorial committee set about completing the project, and published the great majority of the letters dated October 1793 to AUgust 1807. One of its committee's boasts was that it was “scrupulously forbidden to alter, cut or modify the texts of the Emperor's letters.”(1)  

On 3 February, 1864, Napoleon III disbanded the first commission and appointed a second, under the presidency of his cousin, Prince Napoléon (“Plon-Plon”). The latter, less scrupulous than the former with regard to the text, engaged in almost systematic bowdlerisation and alteration. The declaration of the commission on this subject as published in the preface to tome XVI of the correspondance is well known: “In general, we have taken as our guide the simple idea, namely that our vocation was to publish what the Emperor would have made public if, with an aim to live beyond his age and to outstrip the justice of the age, he had wished to show to posterity his person and his system.” (2)
Confronted with this the second commission's agenda – which in the end oversaw the completion of publication – many historians, from as early as the late 19th century, published collections of unpublished letters. Léon Lecestre and Léonce de Brotonne published the greatest number, a total of about 4,500.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the professor Jean Tulard set about organising the publication of the Correspondance générale de Napoléon. This project could not be completed because of changes in the French politics, budgetary cuts and personnel problems.
To this day, historians have been reduced to using the above-cited collections or re-publications (without critical apparatus) of the 'old' Second Empire Correspondance.
It was in this context that the Board of Trustees of the Fondation Napoléon decided to relaunch this exceedingly complex and difficult project. The completeness of the source was one of the key aims for this the development and renewal of Napoleonic studies. And this aim to collect roughly estimated tens of thousands of two-hundred-year old documents required more trhan just one actor: indeed, by its very nature, the p[roject was not just 'academic' but also 'industrial', given the mass of archives and papers to collect, edit, commentate and publish.

The actors

A) The Official Committee

The Fondation decided to found a Committee for the Publication of the Correspondance of Napoleon I. This Committee is headed by the Baron Gourgaud, president of the Fondation Napoléon. He is assisted by vice-presidents Martine de Boisdeffre, Conseilleur d'Etat and Director of the Archives de France, and Professor Jean Tulard, of the Institut; the secretary of this committee is Thierry Lentz, Director of the Fondation Napoléon.
The board of trustees of the Fondation Napoléon is to act as a Steering Committee, whilst two commissions will take care of the academic and editorial side of things: the academic commission is to be headed by its president, Professor Jacques-Olivier Boudon, of the University of Rouen and President of the Institut Napoléon; the editorial commission's president is to be Comte Florian Walewski.
The academic committee is made up of the following members: André Palluel-Guillard, Professor at the Université de Savoie, Bernard Chevallier, Director of the Musées de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Marie-Paule Arnauld, Directrice of the Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Christine Nougaret, Conservateur en chef at the Archives Nationales, Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Bodinier, representative for the Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre, Monique Constant, deputy to the Director the Archives du ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Jacques Jourquin, Director-Editor of the Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, Jacques Garnier, member of the Société française d'Histoire militaire, Sylvie Pélissier-Rocard, general delegate of the Fondation La Poste, and Dr Peter Hicks, historian and web-editor at the Fondation Napoléon.
The editorial committee comprises: Denis Maraval, literary director at the publishers Fayard, Sylvie Pélissier-Rocard, general delegate of the Fondation La Poste, one representative from the Archives nationales and Irène Delage, head of the Service Documentation at the Fondation Napoléon.
The Fondation La Poste, president Jean-Paul Bailly, is a major sponsor of the project.
B) The collaboration of French institutions: the action of the Archives de France and the Archives at the Quai d'Orsay

Prestigious institutions have joined the Fondation to help bring the project to a successful conclusion.
To begin with, Martine de Boisdeffre, director of the Archives de France, sent a note to all the archives for which she was responsible (departemental, municipal, …) informing them of the project.

Marie-Paule Arnauld, director of the Centre historique des Archives nationales, and her bureau have helped in identifying letters of Napoleon about to sold at auction and pinpointing letters in private archives.

As regards primary documents, the Archives nationales have provided the Fondation with a print out of all the microfilmed papers of the archives of the Second Historical Commission of the Second Empire (400 AP). contains a complete copy of all the minutes of the letters available, and some further particularly interesting information, namely the annotations on individual letter stating why they were to be omitted from the published work.
The Archives du Ministère des Affaires étrangères have provided paper copies of all the letters signed Bonaparte or Napoleon held in they collections, in other words more than 20 volumes. These hundreds of documents are all the sent version of the letter (not minutes) and as such of great historical value. Their publication will considerably enlarge our knowledge of the period. The fact is, original letters can have two manifestations: the sent version (or 'expedition' in French) and the minute (or preparatory draft). The minute was the version normally kept by the amanuensis who copied the letter. There are often differences between the two versions, with the sent version obviously being the 'fairest copy'. Comparison of these two types of original can be very informative.
Other institutions, such as the Archives de l'Ecole Polytechnique, museums and others organisations, including many corresponding societies have helped in driving the project forward.
C) The appeal to institutions outside France: 25 such institutions contacted so far
Peter Hicks, of the Fondation Napoléon, is in charge of international contacts. 25 archives and libraries wordlwide have been contacted thus far, notably in Germany, Austria, Canada, USA, Italy, UK, Sweden. We have received from them 191 letters (sent versions). 
D) Voluntary assistance
With the institutions contacted, the involvement of private individuals is also essential, for several reasons: to inform owners of Napoleonic letters of our project, to encourage enthusiasts or those merely interested to go to the various archives to search the catalogues, to be active either outside Paris or abroad so as to finetune our search for documents.
1) Participating collectors
Much less well known and of difficult access, private collections often contain documents relevant to the project. A dozen autograph dealers have been approached with the aim of publicising our project amongst their customers, in Paris, London the US or wherever.
Some collectors, driven by a desire to further historical knowledge, have spontaneously sent copies of their letters to the Fondation. Other well-known collections have however remained impervious to the demands of scientific history… although we have not given up hope.
2) Fondation Napoléon Research Grant students
The young researchers who received Fondation Napoléon research grants have worked on the papers of the Commission historique, and have also given a great deal of their time in comparing the archival material with the documents printed in the Correspondance published during the Second Empire. So much so, that all the documents provided by the Archives Nationales were processed over the summer! 

3) The “Corresponding members”
The passion which the Fondation Napoléon has shown for the project has been matched by the enthusiasm of those for whom we have the term “Corresponding members”, in other words, all those who have voluntarily helped (in what ever way) with the project. The Fondation is proud to say that there have been so far 70 volunteers.

We have also used all the communication media available to inform as wide a public as possible of the project. We have used both the weekly bulletin and also the homepage of the site to keep the public up to date with developments. We have also published articles on the project in various specialised journals. In August, the French monthly Sciences et Avenir published our call for collaboration which we had placed on an internet discussion list for librarians and archivists! Proof (if proof were needed) that the project goes far beyond the usual world of Napoleonic history.
At present, some corresponding members are working at the Fondation itself comparing the archival material with printed versions, others are working in their local archives tracking down Napoleonic letters or simply giving valuable advice on local history. Other members have helped in contacing archives outside France, notably in America, Spain and the Netherlands.
4) The commentators
The Fondation Napoléon asked the Historical Commission to begin approaching the historians best qualified for each historical area.

The data file system

As was said above, history and scientific procedure is one thing. The management of tons of paper is however a completely different matter. We have designed and made a custom-built system of data file creation and management. 

A) A method for processing the letters
1) What is a 'letter'?
It may seem obvious to some, but in fact the first and most difficult question we had to resolve was the decision as what exactly a 'letter' was. The commission defined the unit of publication (a letter) as a document written, using the first person ('I, me, etc.'), either from dictation or actually written down by Napoleon himself, sent to a specific, or specific persons, and preferably signed. Excluded therefore from the publication project are: orders, decisions, bulletins, declarations, bills, notes (although some may be included if joined to a letter), etc.
Using such a definition, work could begin on the census of the printed sources. This first task consisted in the compilation and gathering together of a bibliography (as complete and precise as possible) of works containing published letters. The volumes in the Bibliothèque Martial Lapeyre, provided 4/5 of the necessary works. Some of the books were very graciously lent to us by the Bibliothèque Paul Marmottan, or by private individuals. The Centre historique des Archives nationales has put certain works at our disposal. The tracking down of letters published in reviews and catalogues is a huge job in itself. We have begun this task but it will take a very long time: volunteers will be welcomed with open arms.
2) The creation of the descriptive file
The work underway at the moment has been principally that of the establishment of a publishable text. This consists of pinpointing in a batch of manuscript archives the letters which have already been published in the five so-called 'reference' works which between them contain the very large majority of the letters already published, namely: the Correspondance published by order of Napoléon III, Léon Lecestre: Lettres Inédites vols 1 et 2, Léonce de Brotonne: Dernières Lettres Inédites vols 1 et 2, Léonce de Brotonne: Lettres Inédites and Jean Tulard: Lettres d'amour à Joséphine.

In order to provide place in which to collect the many and varied pieces of information resulting from the comparison of the original texts with those already printed, 'datafiles' are being compiled. These datafiles contain all the key elements which differentiate one document from the next. And this information is of primary importance for the person who is to write the commentary. The datafiles will also make it possible to group the letters thematically, enabling them to be easily selected and sent to the relevant specialist for commentary. These files will in addition contain details concerning the letters' contents. Once a datafile is complete, it is joined to a copy of the original and stored in chronologically arranged box files.
3) From paper to computer
Whilst the academic work is human, the job of data management (selection, statistics, chronological numbering) is best given to a machine. Computers can find in seconds one or more thematically linked documents in a collection of 35,000. For this reason, the Fondation Napoléon designed and had built by the Junior Entreprise de l'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications a software datamanagement system for the Correspondance Project. Nicknamed “Emily”, the sotware is designed to store and retrieve the datafiles produced for each letter. 
B) Digitalisation of the letters: a significant innovation

Alongside the creation of the data files, the existing published letters are being digitalised in order to avoid the vast job of retyping the letters already in print.
1) Digitalised texts in XML Markup Langage: freedom
In collaboration with the the group AIS-Berger-Levrault, 5,326 letters to date have been digitalised. The Fondation chose to structure the documents using XML because this markup language because of the subsequent freedom which that language will give in terms of form. Once digitalised, the texts will later be accessible on, although in the nearer future they are to be made available on CD-ROM.

2) Publication ready format
Furthermore, the Fondation is to provide the publishers Fayard with digital files containing both the text of the letters and the commentary which goes with it. Indeed, the digitalisation of the letters will have made it possible for the commentators to write their commentary (as it were) on the back of the digital versions of the text. Following an editorial charter drawn up by Fayard and the Fondation, the notes to the letters will be simple, short, and above all designed to aid comprehension of the text.

There are likely to be twenty volumes, including thematic indices, timelines, maps and fac-similés. The first two volumes are to be published in 2004.

Some statistics

A) How many letters have been processed, and from which sources?

To date, 1,400 letters from archives have been processed. To these must be added the 5,000 which come from the collections edited by Lecestre, Brotonne and Tulard, whose quality for the purposes of this edition is to be taken as read and for which there will be no proecessing.
Work on the material from the Archives nationales is almost complete. A third of the letters from the Archives du Ministère des Affaires étrangères have likewise been processed, i.e., for all these letters, a datafile has been compiled, the text has been established according to the original (minute, sent version or both), and basic research has been performed regarding the content of the letters has been done.

B) How many people have participated so far?

More than 70 : namely, 12 research grant winners, 35 'corresponding' members, 13 information gatherers, 16 collectors, not to mention the two commissions and the personnelle of the Fondation Napoléon.

C) How many previously un-published letters (both completely un-published and un-published with respect to the Second Empire correspondance) have been processed?
30% of the letters processed do not appear in any of the standard reference works, namely: the Correspondance published by order of Napoléon III, Léon Lecestre: Lettres Inédites vols 1 et 2, Léonce de Brotonne: Dernières Lettres Inédites vols 1 et 2, Léonce de Brotonne: Lettres Inédites and Jean Tulard: Lettres d'amour à Joséphine.
About fifty of the documents are totally unknown, one of which being a love letter by the young Bonaparte, currently being authenticated by an expert.


This huge Napoleon Correspondance project is clearly on the right track. And this first review is positive for several reasons:
— the gradual fine-tuning of the working procedure is beginning to bear fruit,
— a large quantity of little-known or completely unknown documents have come to light,
— the enthusiasm and motivation of the initial weeks has grown stronger over the months and has been encouraged by the kind collaboration of archives and scholars and enthusiasts the world over.
The aim of publishing the first two volumes in the Autumn of 2004 looks likely to be achieved.


(1) : Report of the Commission to Napoléon III, 20 January, 1858, quoted in Léon Lecestre, Lettres inédites de Napoléon 1er, Paris, Plon, 1897.
(2) : Ibid.
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