Back to the Past: Daniel Arenas on doing research in France and Spain

Thu, 06/15/23
Daniel Arenas on research in Spain and France

I am Daniel Arenas; I am a PhD student working on Napoleonic Europe under the supervision of Dr. Blaufarb. The topic of my dissertation is the occupation of Spain from 1808 to 1814. I came to Florida State University in 2014 for my undergrad and joined the PhD program in 2018. Being at FSU for such a long time has given me a sense of connection to the History department that I value very much.

I joined FSU with the idea of doing International Relations/ Political Science. I took one statistics class and realized that it was not for me. I had taken French since middle school, and when I discovered that the History department offered courses on Napoleonic France, I was sold. I took a few history courses to try it out and realized that history was the aspect of international relations that I had really liked.

What is the main difference between undergrad and grad school?

The biggest difference is historiography. As an undergrad we learn what history is, the facts of it, and we learn a little bit about how to interpret events differently. In grad school, we learn about history as schools of thought and ways of creating our own historical interpretations. It was quite a change to study how historians analyze and write. But as future historians ourselves that is incredibly important to know.

What is your project about?

In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain, starting a long war. The term ‘guerilla war’ comes from this conflict. In English, most of the books written on this conflict are purely military histories. The basic underlying assumption has been that the French government that was installed in Spain (Napoleon made his brother Joseph king), was an unpopular occupying force. But when you start digging, the story becomes a lot more complicated. Yes, the French government never had mass appeal, but there was a sizeable element within the Spanish elite who saw the French invasion as an opportunity to push through their own vision for Spain. There were three factions in Spain at the time who were in conflict with each other: the absolutist monarchists, those leaning more towards a constitutional monarchy that recognized the Spanish nation, and a third group that was interested in establishing a strong centralized Spanish state. The last group had been involved in attempts to reform the Spanish state throughout the 18th century. When Napoleon invaded, the absolutists and the constitutional monarchists united in opposition, but the centralizing reformists were sympathetic to the new government.

How did you prepare for fieldwork?

Because my topic is so under researched, there is very little written about it in English. I had to read academic texts in Spanish and French to get at some of the history. I read through all the monographs I could find, made lists of archives they took their material from, then scanned the archive websites for collections that I would need to consult. And then you go there and sometimes something that looked really promising in the inventory holds very little or nothing. And something else turns out to hold very rich material.

I am researching in both France and Spain. The problem I encountered in Spanish archives is that because it was such a touchy subject after the war whole collections in the archive are just labelled ‘Intrusive Government,’ i.e., Joseph’s government, and nothing else is listed about the material. The French archives gave me the details on the preparation for the French occupation, and the Spanish archives have material on how the occupation played out.

What is it like to do research in both countries?

In France, I worked in the National Archives in Paris. I was struck by how professional the archives were. All the material they have is on the archive website. My personal issue was that the series of documents I wanted to see could only be accessed on microfilm. That was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you lose the feeling of actually touching history. But on the positive side, once I understood how to use the microfilm readers, I could download the images. Which turned out to be faster than taking photos. On the downside, because not many people used microfilm, those computers were in bad shape and crashed all the time. Overall, the archive was very streamlined and hyper professional.

The National Archive of Spain has a different set of rules. You cannot take pictures. You can’t bring a phone, a camera, not even a notebook. You can only bring loose paper, a pencil, and a laptop. That has slowed my research down to a crawl as I have to transcribe documents by hand. The archivists themselves are very friendly, and it is very easy to connect with them on a personal level. But institutionally, I am butting heads. The reason is that the files are considered to be property of the crown, so taking pictures violates intellectual copyright.

Most of my sources are either government records or correspondence between officials. My dissertation is turning out to be a diplomatic-political history of the time. In France, I looked largely at the correspondence of the foreign and interior ministries, and that of important people. In Spain, I am looking at the correspondence of Joseph’s foreign ministry and documents that were abandoned in Madrid when the French left.

The good side is that because I am transcribing the documents by hand, I am spending more time with each one, and I can listen to their individual voices – and complaints. I recently found a collection of correspondence between the Spanish interim consul in Amsterdam and the Bonapartist government, and he actually tried to scam the government for money by making up a wild story about shipwrecked Spanish sailors in Holland!

What was the biggest surprise?

What surprised me about my documents is that there is a brief moment in 1808, right after the coup in Spain, when everything in Spain is up in the air, and there is a group of people who are open to a French intervention. At the time, everyone had their own ideas about the right way forward for Spain, and hatred of the French was not unanimous or widespread. That is so unlike the usual narrative about this part of Napoleon’s campaigns, that it surprised me very much. It is only because of the early decisive defeat of the French in battle and the widespread rebellions that what might have been a passing constitutional crisis turns into a war against the French. This is something I found both in the French and Spanish archives.  Additionally, I was not expecting just how multi-lingual the sources are. Of course, the majority are in French and Spanish, but I have found sources in Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, German, and one even in Russian!

What major challenges did you have to overcome?

The major challenge is that documents were only saved piecemeal. A lot of material was destroyed in the fighting. What survives is really haphazard. I found references to 100s of letters that were written by the foreign ministry in Spain to foreign diplomats– but only a small fraction of them actually got preserved. So, I know that there was stuff there, it is just no longer accessible. What I am hoping is that letters might have been preserved in a personal or private archive somewhere, and that with time, I will find them.

Because of the focus of my dissertation, I am looking at national level stuff. In the future, I would like to consult more local-level archives. Because of the no-pictures rule, I can’t look at everything that is in the archives. I am making notes right now about what documents are where, what collections to consult, so that I can come back later, when I might have more time, and transcribe more documents.

What was life like abroad?

The biggest problem for me was not being in a foreign country, but being alone in a foreign country. That can be hard. You will feel like an outsider because of language issues. Not being able to speak like a native can create anxieties. Develop little routines that will get you out of your room. Find a local café or bistro and go there regularly. It was also really important for me to keep in touch with friends back home.

The archives usually keep regular business hours, their opening times will pattern your weekdays. I found that Paris was much more alive in the evenings and at night than Madrid. And, of course, I was in Paris during all the unrest about President Macron’s retirement reform. Luckily, I never came across a live protest, but there was graffiti everywhere.

In France, all the people I interacted with were very polite but formal. It took a while before they warmed up to me. In Spain, it is very different, people were friendly and smiled immediately.

Something else to be aware of: local events can affect your ability to do research. If people go on strike and there is no public transport, that might mean that you can’t go to the archives that day.

What advice would you give to other students going on research abroad?

A lot of practical stuff. You need to get your visas. Reach out months before you want to go on your research trip as getting the necessary visas can be a very slow and expensive process.

Know which archives you want to work in and review all their inventories before you go. Don't be afraid to email the archives and ask about collections that don't have a lot of information online! Let the inventories guide you in framing your research question. If there is a lot of stuff on a specific aspect of your broad topic, then focus your research on that.