Olivier Chaline

Ocean Historian

Reality is always more complicated than the idea we have of it, but it is more exciting to study.

What is the link between Baroque music, the history of Central Europe and the ocean? A historian from Sorbonne University, Olivier Chaline, is the bridge between these seemingly faraway shores.
Portrait of one of the captains of the Ocean Institute.

Olivier Chaline's biography is linked to the history of the ocean. Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1964, the director of the Maritime History and Archaeology Research Federation1 was raised in Rouen, a city steeped in history, thanks in particular to its imposing medieval cathedral. And when your parents are historians, freshly recruited by the university of the Norman capital, it is difficult to escape history.

“In this city with its considerable architectural heritage, history was immediately present, and this influenced me from a very young age," recalls Olivier Chaline. The idea of researching and teaching history was an obvious one.

A fellow countryman also stimulated this interest. The young Olivier Chaline studied at the Lycée Pierre Corneille, in the same 17th and 18th century buildings where the illustrious playwright was educated and he was also a history buff. "I thought to myself that at my age, he was there, like me. It's strange to have a kind of complicity with one of the great French literary authors, but I didn't feel intimidated by this character who seemed very close to me. We frequented the same city, the same places, I saw things that he had seen. As if he was my direct ancestor.”

In 1982, Olivier Chaline obtained his literary baccalaureate and, after two years of preparatory classes, entered the École normale supérieure (ENS) on rue d'Ulm, in Paris, where he obtained the agrégation2 in history in 1987. But vacancies in higher education were scarce and he was advised to go to the École nationale d'administration. He was stubborn, and the future rewarded him for it. "History made me dream, and continues to make me dream.”

In 1989, his schooling and his military service completed, the ENS called him back to become a "caïman", an old hand who prepares his young comrades for the aggregation exam. At the same time, he prepared and obtained, in 1995, his doctorate on the history of the parliament of Normandy. In the wake of this, he was elected associate professor in modern history at the ENS. In 1998, he then obtained his habilitation to direct research with a work on the Thirty Years' War, a conflict that began in 1618 with the uprising of the Czech Protestant community against the House of Habsburg. He has a real love for the Czech Republic, whose language he learned in evening classes at the ENS during his years as a caïman. "As a child, I discovered Smetana's Vltava at school and found this composer at home. Smetana and Dvorak undoubtedly oriented me towards their country and the waters of the Vltava have never ceased to irrigate my work."

In 1999, after ten years at the ENS, it was time to see other horizons. "I wanted a change of scenery.” A position as a professor of history became available at the University of Rennes 2, where he stayed for two years, before Sorbonne University offered him the chair of Central European history.

The Great Plunge

He was soon asked to take over the maritime history seminar at Sorbonne University, a rarity in France and the only seminar of this type in Paris. He returned to the halls of the university where, in 1986, his first-year Master’s thesis led him to study the fitting out of ships in Le Havre in the 18th century for the first time. It seemed to always come back to the sea.

With a team in place, he worked on what would soon become, under his aegis, a research federation. After studying parliaments and magistrates in France under the Ancien Régime and then in Central Europe, he turned to the history of the maritime. His work on maritime wars enabled him to collaborate with the French Navy and in particular with the Naval School. At the National Archives, he immersed himself in the campaign diaries of the army commanded by Admiral de Grasse, the naval force sent by Louis XVI to secure the independence of the United States. "I knew the history of the Navy, but when you don't have the practice at sea, you miss a lot. It was important to surround myself with sailors to explain the elements of navigation. This is a good example of how historians and sailors can work together. Just as I had to learn Czech, with the ocean, I learned a language, a vocabulary."

The Navy even invited him aboard one of the schooners, the Belle Poule, which sailed from Brest to the Grande Armada de Rouen in 2013. "I had never sailed before, except on ferries, and I learned to read a nautical chart, what a night watch is, an aber, a tidal current... I knew this route from the archives. But when you have the chance to go to the very places you have studied, you really appreciate and collect images, not only in the memory of your camera, but real sensations, too. The real thing is always more complicated than the idea we have of it, but it's more exciting to study."

Due to his experience, he was nominated by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to discuss this topic with the Faculty of Science and Engineering and the National Museum of Natural History. This led him to be quickly associated with the start of the Ocean Institute established by the Sorbonne University Alliance. So it’s only natural that he is also involved in the organization of the Oceans Forum 2022.

Oceans Forum 2022

On March 2, the Ocean Forum, a challenge for European scientific expertise, begins in Paris, in line with the Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development launched in 2021 by UNESCO. Prepared by the Ocean Institute and the Mare Institute in Lisbon, it will alternate conferences and round tables on global changes, new knowledge from research and the relationship between science and society to the Big Blue.

Then the forum will move to Lisbon, from September 2, to address Franco-Portuguese themes, both geopolitical and gastronomic.

At 57, Olivier Chaline sees his future in blue. "It is likely that it will be maritime. Since 1989, while studying history, I have the impression that I have been in different jobs. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next ten years there are new metamorphoses."

1 The Maritime History and Archaeology Research Federation brings together Sorbonne University, the Musée national de la Marine, the Naval School and the Naval Archaeology Research Group

2 Agrégation: certification to teach in higher education