Doing Research in France: Caroline Hackett, PhD Candidate

Caroline Hackett working in a French archive

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am in my third year of my PhD and my 4th year at FSU overall (I completed my masters here beforehand). I have been drawn to history since I was a kid. My parents prioritized taking me to museums, and I developed a love for French history and culture; taking European History courses in high school only solidified those interests. I initially intended to research in Paris like many of my colleagues, but after spending a language immersion summer in Montpellier a few years ago, I fell in love with the region and became fascinated with its history, and the lack of anglophone scholarship about it.

What is your project about?

I am looking at the relationship between gender and property in southern France before, during, and after the French Revolution. My dissertation focuses on women who owned, purchased, sold, rented, etc. I am trying to complicate historians' existing views on how women fared at this time; for instance, some would argue that marriage extinguished a woman's agency and power, but my research will demonstrate that this is not always the case. I am finding married women in all socio-economic classes who owned property outright. And not only did they own it, but they fought for it, sued over it, controlled its transmission to future generations, etc. All with zero regard for their husband. There are a lot of other points I want to make, but this is a big one, and it's being driven by a handful of very interesting women who lived in Montpellier and its vicinity.

How did you prepare for fieldwork?

Nothing out of the ordinary- I spent hours on the archive finding guides online. I emailed archivists and consulted my dissertation committee. I drew up a list of leads. This was all helpful, but there is only so much you can do in advance, so having a game plan and being flexible are equally important.

What is it like to work in French archives?

It is simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, and intimidating. It often feels like searching for a needle in a haystack, and there are days where I find nothing useful. But I have to remind myself that even striking things off of a list of potential leads is still accomplishing something. And it feels great to find exactly what I am looking for.

What sort of sources are you working with?

Family papers, notarial documents, court cases, correspondence, and more.

What surprised you about doing research?

The sheer amount of material. Sifting through thousands and thousands of documents. And the fragile nature of the documents.

What major challenges did you have to deal with?

I basically taught myself paleography, which is the skill of deciphering old writing systems. At the beginning, I was extremely frustrated with my inability to read the looping, ink-splotched cursive. Even the phrases and vocabulary used in these documents can differ greatly from today's French. However, I stuck with it and gradually improved. I can now go back to documents from a few months ago that I thought were illegible and read every word. I still struggle here and there, but I have mostly overcome this hurdle.

What advice would you give to other graduate students before they start doing their research?

My biggest word of advice would be to be kind to yourself, because this can be a difficult and arduous process. Plan ways to maintain a healthy work-life balance to reduce burnout. And like I said before, be flexible.

And finally: what is life like in France for you?

In short, it's awesome! I am living the life of my dreams. As an extrovert, I made plenty of friends here from all over the world. Montpellier is an underrated paradise with an intact medieval downtown, the oldest medical school in the west, a beach, and nearby Roman ruins. Traveling is one of my greatest passions, and it's a real privilege to walk the same streets as my historical subjects.