Anonymous asked: Hello, you seem very knowledgable, so I thought I would pose a question! Um, can you explain exactly what the Polytechnique was? I mean, I understand it was/is a university, but for what? Like, what was the study for? In Les Mis it seems as if they are a specific sort of student, not law or medicine or art, but I don't know what else there was!
An excellent question! And believe me, I’d never even HEARD of the Ecole Polytechnique before I got into this book and this fandom. But it was kind of a big deal —and still is, really though it’s of course rather different today.
Basically, it was a military engineering school. A modern army needed someone to design all those new-model cannons and weaponry, after all, and this is where they learned to do it. In the 1820s and 1830s they were also kind of a hotbed of rebellion; even the school’s own homepage talks about their role in the Revolution of 1830, when 50-60 of them took to the barricades in full school uniform. The school was also in the Latin Quarter; Hugo tells us that’s where Courfeyrac moved to be nearer to revolutionarily-minded laborers, and Courfeyrac was also the one dispatched to the Polytechniciens in Enjolras and His Lieutenants. How involved they were in the actual fighting in 1832 I’m not sure; there seems to have been some official effort to keep them out of it, and at least one account talks about them breaking through the school gates to help the rebels. The school was also apparently quite open to somewhat fringe philosophies like Saint-Simonism and Fourierism, and overall seems to have been a pretty counter-establishment place for a school that was, you know, training guys for government service.
So why aren’t any of the Amis Polytechniciens? Probably because it would have required much more acknowledgement of the ‘student life’ aspect of their lives. As has been discussed, “lawyer” was basically the option to take if you wanted the title of student with the barest possible minimum of actual studenting, say, if your real full-time occupation was community-organizing a rebellion. But I’ve seen a few fics give polymath Combeferre some time in the Polytechnique before changing fields (don’t know how plausible that might have been, but I can believe Combeferre would find a way) and it would be extremely plausible for them to have close friends and allies in the school.
And there’s your bit of background knowledge for the day! Hope it’s helpful!:) As always, additional links and background from those more knowledgeable are very welcome!