HI/ES 301:
The Powers of Paris:
the City, the Capital
and the Center

By Prof. Stephen Sawyer / Created 2010-10-15

The claim that we live in a global age has become one of the great truisms of our young century and for those of us at AUP, our current global condition may be seen with particular acuity. One of the aims of an AUP education is to understand more clearly our place in this globalized context. As a result, our history class seeks to demonstrate that just as globalization is not a new phenomenon, neither is Paris’ structural place in shaping it.  Recognizing that liberal learning at AUP takes place on the three scales of “the University, the city, and the world,” our course on the history of Paris offers a historical understanding of how these concentric circles formed and Paris’ place within them.

Our course traces the history of Paris from ancient times to the present and has unsurprisingly been a pillar of the AUP curriculum for decades. Offered in summer and during the year, AUP and visiting students have been drawn to a course that helps them make historical sense of the city where they have chosen to pursue their studies. The course serves students from across the university and also serves the three majors in the History Department (History, European and Mediterranean, and Urban Studies) as well as its many minors.

The course itself has a long history. Taught by faculty members from History, EMC and Art History, the foundations of the course have remained the same while the emphasis and readings have varied. In its current incarnation, the course has been designed to reflect current scholarship on Urban and World history as well as Global Studies.

Traditionally, urban history developed out of a nineteenth-century antiquarian tradition of erudition in which the history of the city was treated as biography. Focusing on the birth, the development, occasional triumph or decline, the biographical approach to urban history treated cities as independent units filled with details, idiosyncrasies and ultimately, a singular history. While recognizing the great value of such studies for the density of information they provide on particular cases, Urban History and Global Studies have slowly moved away from such an approach, in favor of a focus on the structural similarities of cities and the relationships between them. As a recent work on urban studies suggests, “what gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus.”

Global Studies have pushed even further in this direction. As stated above, globalization is not a new process. In schematic terms, the history of globalization can be divided into three phases: the first began with the European conquest of the Americas and the construction of trade on a world scale in 1500, while the second began in the mid eighteenth century with the industrial revolution and the emergence of a drastic economic gap between European and Western countries and the rest of the world. Finally, it has been argued that we are experiencing a third phase, which began in the second half of the twentieth century and has been built on finance capital and tertiary economies. The sociologist Saskia Sassen has argued that while the first two phases of globalization were structured by kingdoms and then nation-states, the current phase is increasingly structured by cities. She further argues that there has been a rise of what she calls Global Cities in which cities like London, New York, Tokyo or Paris have more financial and cultural connections between them than they do with other cities in their own nations. 

For students of Parisian history, the driving question in this context becomes: if Paris is currently a Global City and has a structural place in the forces of globalization, is it possible to trace the history of this relationship between the city, Europe and the world? Such then is the aim of our course. As a result, our course reconsiders the traditional “history of the city” by understanding Paris as a point of intersection located within multiple scales: the local, the regional and the international. In order to provide a clear roadmap through 2000 years of Parisian history, we explore the history of how each of these scales has shaped Parisian history. Specifically, we explore the history of the CITY: Paris has existed as a city, or a discrete political entity, since the Roman empire when it took on the legal title of civitas, or city; the CAPITAL: Paris became a capital, the political headquarters for the French kingdom, in the High Middle Ages when the Capetian dynasty consolidated its power; and the CENTER: Paris became a center, the site which contained and produced values for all of Europe and the West as of the thirteenth century. In our course, each of these scales has a history. Consequently, the history of Paris as a whole is not only the history of the accumulation of these three scales but also their interaction across time.

To end on a local/global note, it was precisely during the postwar moment that another international experiment in higher education began, The American University of Paris. Paris has an almost 800 year history of international higher education and since 1962, our university and our classes have been a part of this tradition. HI/ES 301 offers an opportunity to experience that tradition just as one learns to put it and its urban context into proper historical and analytical perspective.

Stephen Sawyer is Assistant Professor of History and Chair, Department of History at AUP.