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February 7, 2002 Professor revisits royal processions in 16th-century France



Marie-France Wagner

Professor Marie-France Wagner, Department des Études Françaises

Photo by Christian Fleury

by Sigalit Hoffman

Marie-France Wagner, a professor in Concordia’s Departement des Études françaises, has received a $1.6-million grant over five years from Canada’s major social science and humanities research agency.

“I was speechless,” said Wagner, who is the first Concordia professor to receive an award of that magnitude. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) announced in December that she had been awarded one of five Major Collaborative Research Initiative grants handed out across Canada. The grants usually range in value from $1.5 to 2.5 million, and the competition for funding is always stiff.

“We were 32 last January, 10 last April and five in December,” she said. “It was very selective.”

Her co-investigators are Benoît Bolduc (University of Toronto), Alain Laframboise (Université de Montréal), Lyse Roy (Université du Québec à Montréal), Daniel Vaillancourt (University of Western Ontario), Pierre-Louis Vaillancourt (Université d'Ottawa), and Hélène Visentin (Smith College).

Claude Bédard, the dean of graduate studies and research, was also overjoyed with Wagner’s achievement, which is bound to be a badge of honour for the university.

“This is amazing news,” he said. “The grant proposals were submitted to hard-nosed reviewers, and these people agreed that hers was one of the best applications this year.”

Rituals of power

Wagner will be the head researcher in a project that involves five other universities across Quebec and Ontario. In all, seven researchers, 15 graduate students, and five collaborators from as far away as France will study the evolution of royal processions in French towns between 1484 and 1615.

Though the topic may seem far removed from the 21st century, Wagner said there are elements of the royal visits that are still current. Like a politician visiting his constituents or the pope visiting his followers, Wagner said, the processions were “a ritual of power, of the glory of the personality that passed.”

In later processions, local artists would engrave the king’s or queen’s genealogy on structures built especially for the occasion. One could also find mythology on obelisks, arcs, fountains and statues. To Wagner, this is proof that while the processions were a statement of the monarch’s sovereignty over the town, they were also reflections of what the town wanted the monarch to be.

“Power needs images,” she said. “The use and abuse of these images is as old as the world.”

The processions were not only demonstrations of power, they were also a rallying cry. They helped foster a sense of belonging to the city, and to the greater French nation, Wagner said.

The processions, which began to wane after the 17th century, told a lot about the towns in which they took place. At first, they were reported on in little books that were four to five pages long. At the peak of their popularity, during the reign of Henri II, they become the subject of 250-page poetic tomes.

For example, in a town of 24,000 people like Troyes, up to 6,000 “undesirables” would be kicked out and “replaced” with 4,000 military men, and for the ceremony, the municipal council built a series of ephemeral structures to punctuate the procession.

Wagner, who plans to read the narration of the processions in succession, hopes to piece together the history and the culture of the towns in which the processions took place.

“Reading the accounts is a study of politics, of art, of culture, and of language,” she said.

SSHRC is the major federal agency that gives grants to humanities and social science researchers. The SSHRC corresponds to two other major granting agencies, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

SSHRC’s budget is the smallest of the three organizations, but caters to the largest number of researchers. The agency usually allocates the bulk of its funding to social scientists rather than humanities researchers such as Wagner.

Last year, the average SSHRC grant was $76,000 over three years, up from $49,000 the year before. The agency gave grants to 36 per cent of applicants last year, and 38 per cent of applicants the previous year. There were 79 SSHRC grant-holders at Concordia last year. The grants were divided between the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the John Molson School of Business, and Fine Arts.

This is the first year a Concordia faculty member has received a Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) grant from SSHRC. The grant typically ranges between $1.5 and 2.5 million, and is awarded to five institutions across Canada. The university that receives the MCRI grant becomes the lead institution in charge of coordinating a major project that involves the participation of other universities.