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The “Portfolio” from Every Angle

Le « portefeuille » sous toutes ses coutures

Archiving and Preserving Working Documents (1680s-1820s)

Archiver et conserver ses documents de travail (années 1680-années 1820)

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Published on Monday, February 06, 2023


The preservation of digital data is a current societal issue. The eighteenth century saw a similar awareness due to an unprecedented increase in the quantity of documents preserved and therefore available. One of its manifestations was the portfolio (or “porte-feuille”): “cardboard folded in two, covered with skin or some cloth, & used to carry papers” (Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, 1718). The aim of this conference is to examine this medium for storing and classifying personal documents, whether or not they were known to his contemporaries, published or not: drafts, reading notes, letters, printed matter and other “living writings”. The entire literate society can then be considered, let us think of the portfolios of a minister, an artist, a merchant, a craftsman, a man of letters, a scholar, etc. The French term “portefeuille” itself suggests tracking its progressive use throughout Europe and its colonial extensions.


University Côte d'Azur, CMMC-MSH Sud-Est | 21-22 March 2024


The storage of digital data has been at the heart of our concerns for the past 60 years. Technologies come and go - floppy disk, CD-Rom, USB stick, external hard drive, cloud computing - with greater storage capacity to meet the exponential growth in digital data production. The new ‘digital industry’ also has to respond to the growing fear of data loss as old storage formats become obsolete. However, the issue is older and deserves to be put into a longer perspective. In particular, there seems to have been an inflection in the 18th century, when the quantity of documents preserved and therefore available, compared to previous centuries, recorded an unprecedented growth. 

The “portefeuille” (or “porte-feuille”) is an example of this concern for the conservation of documents. Used since the 16th century according to the French Academy, in 1718 this term still referred to a “cardboard box folded in two, covered with skin or some other material, & used to carry papers”. While its use in the French language expanded over the course of the century, the term did not enter foreign dictionaries until the beginning of the 19th century, with literal translations of “porte-feuille”: brieftasche (German), portfolio (English), portafolio (Spanish) or portafoglio (Italian). It is in the European space and its worldwide extensions that the portfolio will be considered here as a support for storing and filing personal documents, documents known or not by its contemporaries, published or not.

With the rise of the concept of literacy, the ‘writing life’ (Bertrand, 2015) has animated recent historical studies. The portfolio could add to this historiographical renewal a tool used in all sectors of society - the portfolios of a minister, a merchant, an artist, a craftsman, a man of letters, a scholar, etc. - which contains documents that allow us to identify the life of a person. This is a collection of documents that allow us to get closer to the daily life of the actors. Drafts (Ferrand, 2012), notebooks (Blair, 2010), letters (Chapron, Boutier, 2013), printed matter and so on are ‘living writings’ (Bertrand, 2015) offering the possibility of writing a material, cultural, social and political history. 

Three main axes have been selected for this scientific meeting in order to consider the role taken by portfolios in society as well as the inflection of uses and practices between the 1680s and the 1820s. The focus will be on case studies, not only of portfolios of famous figures but also of more modest and lesser-known actors.

1. The formation of portfolios

If a material approach connects the historian with the archives, it is necessary to understand the uses and sensitivity of the actors to their portfolio(s): purchase, creation, insertion of papers, momentary or definitive extraction, filing, loss, destruction.

  • After the acquisition or creation stage, portfolio management becomes the primary concern. For example, does the fill rate, the flow of records in and out, the method of selecting or filing documents indicate good or bad management? Are owners already experiencing storage problems due to overfilling or fear of losing papers to the ravages of time? Particular attention will be paid to where portfolios are kept, as well as to the conditions of transport. The similarities and differences with former institutional and private conservation logics will also be considered.
  • The sensitivity of actors to external interventions on their portfolio(s) should be discussed, primarily after destruction, theft or confiscation.
  • The fate of portfolios after the disappearance of their owners, linked to legatees or not, also deserves interest.
  • Although the term ‘portfolio’ is used and circulates primarily in France, this singularity must be considered, as must the progressive appropriation of the term abroad.

2. Within and outside portfolios

This section will focus on the documents contained in the portfolios, which are associated with both the successes and failures of their owners.

  • The portfolios reflect the general questions of the owner. To what extent do they allow us to probe their complexity and contradictions? Drafts, notebooks and other documents also reveal the construction of a project, with its writing practices, information gathering, intellectual filiations and relations with peers.
  • The documents kept are not systematically by the same hand, suggesting the outline of the world of these scribblers or draughtsmen who breathe, or not, a new air into the final productions (Benrekassa, 2004).
  • The circulation of private documents in the Republic of Letters has been widely considered for the last two decades (Chartier, 2005). The aim here is to study the circumstances of the exit of documents and their possible re-entry into the portfolios. In which networks are they disseminated? Do they give rise to particular sociabilities or convincing intellectual advances? We will consider both private circles and times of controversy, when documents kept in portfolios can serve as a guarantee, as well as their publication, whether faithful or not, once the owner has died.
  • The literary genre of “Portfolio of”, which developed in the 18th century in educational literature, may give rise to a comparison with portfolios, as well as periodicals of the same name.

3. Governing and existing through portfolios

The focus here will be on portfolios in relation to the organs of power, without forgetting the power granted to the individual outside of institutions.

  • Ministerial portfolios will be the focus of attention here, without forgetting the role of secretaries and clerks highlighted by recent historiography (Schapira, 2020; Guerre, 2019). Management by portfolios thus encompasses all ministries but also official institutions, from the local to the transnational level. Did portfolios allow for better administration and the possibility for script writers to become men of power? 
  • Political unrest is also driven by the life of portfolios. The opening of these private papers is often at the origin of great affairs of state, as shown, for example, by the “Affair of the Antraigues Portfolio”, the spy betraying Bonaparte (Grandsaignes, 1962). It is also a question of considering the secrecy of papers unknown to contemporaries, a source of fascination but also of stimulation for the production of forgeries.
  • Finally, by moving away from institutions, we can examine the power that the individual derives from the possession of a portfolio (social recognition, legitimacy, etc.).

by Simon Dolet

Submission guidelines

Proposals in French or English, the languages of this International Conference, should be between 1 and 3,000 characters in length and accompanied by a bio-biographical presentation. They should be sent by email to dolet.simon@gmail.com

before 30 September 2023.

This International Conference will be published.

Scientific commitee

  • Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire-Hernandez (Université Côte d’Azur)
  • Jean Boutier (EHESS)
  • Liliane Hilaire-Pérez (EHESS, Université Paris Cité)
  • Isabelle Laboulais (Université de Strasbourg)
  • Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Università Ca’ Foscari)


Benrekassa Georges, Les manuscrits de Montesquieu : secrétaires, écritures, datations, Naples, Liguori Editore et Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2004.

Bertrand Paul, Les écritures ordinaires. Sociologie d'un temps de révolution documentaire (entre royaume de France et empire, 1250-1350), Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2015.

Blair Ann M., Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, Yale, Yale University Press, 2010.

Chapron Emmanuelle, Boutier Jean, « Utiliser, Archiver, Éditer. Usages savants de la correspondance en Europe, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles », Bibliothèque de l'École des chartes, 171/1 (2013), p. 7-49.

Chartier Roger, Inscrire et effacer : culture écrite et littérature (XIe-XVIIIe siècle), Paris, Gallimard, Le Seuil, 2005.

Ferrand Nathalie (dir.), numéro thématique « Brouillons des Lumières », Genesis. Manuscrits, Recherche, Invention, 34 (2012).

Gardey Delphine, Ecrire, calculer, classer. Comment une révolution de papier a transformé les sociétés contemporaines (1800-1940), Paris, La Découverte, 2008.

Grandsaignes R. (de), « L’affaire du portefeuille d’Antraigues », Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 167 (1962), p. 54-69.

Guerre Stéphane, Nicolas Desmaretz (1648-1721) : Le Colbert oublié du Roi Soleil, Paris, Champ Vallon, 2019.

Schapira Nicolas, Maitres et secrétaires (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles). L'exercice du pouvoir dans la France d'Ancien Régime, Paris, Albin Michel, 2020.



  • Nice, France (06)

Event attendance modalities

Hybrid event (on site and online)


  • Saturday, September 30, 2023

Attached files


  • portefeuille, 18e siècle, histoire matérielle, histoire des savoirs


  • Simon Dolet
    courriel : dolet [dot] simon [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Simon Dolet
    courriel : dolet [dot] simon [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« The “Portfolio” from Every Angle », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, February 06, 2023, https://doi.org/10.58079/1ahn

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