Marc Bloch: The Historian's Craft (Part 1)

This is the first part of a seven part series on March Bloch’s classic “The Historian’s Craft.” The first six covering the chapters of the work, the seventh as an overview of the historiography after Bloch, the state of the Annales school today, and its impact on, particularly, Latin America.

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marc bloch historians craft

March Bloch, the French historian murdered by the German Gestapo in 1944 as part of the French Resistance to the Vichy government, is a huge name in the historiography classes taught at most universities across the world. I remember being taught that he was a founder of the Annales school of historical thought – one that prized a overarching view of history blending social, anthropological and scientific methods into a concise and, often, large narratives. As George Duby wrote of the history he taught:

[It] relegated the sensational to the sidelines and was reluctant to give a simple accounting of events, but strived on the contrary to pose and solve problems and, neglecting surface disturbances, to observe the long and medium-term evolution of economy, society and civilization.

Along with his friend, Lucien Febvre (for whom The Historian’s Craft is dedicated) the Annales school of thought has survived the post-World War I founding and survives to the day. It’s focus has fluctuated but the idea of histoire totale, or total history, remains a centerpiece. In order to answer a historical question, the entire panorama of life must be open for the historian to extrapolate any sort of truth.

Bloch’s major contribution to the Annales school was The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France and La Societe Feodale. In The Royal Touch, Bloch examines how ancient kings in the Middle Ages (where Bloch spent his life researching) built a mythology of being able to cure scrofula, a disease affecting one’s lymph nodes, by simply touching their those suffering. Instead of looking into if it was true (it wasn’t), Bloch became a villager during the Middle Ages and began to examine the intricate relationships between villager and king that flowed through many different hierarchies of society, transcending many facets of what was traditionally considered “history” at the time.

La Societe Feodale (broken into Volume 1 and Volume 2) followed with a review, if you will, of the feudal society. It did not tackle a singular moment in feudal history, but sought to form a basis for further research and, as he goes to pains to emphasize in The Historian’s Craft, historical understanding. Febvre’s tome on the world of Philip the Second, the King of Spain from 1556 to 1598, is similar in scope. In that work, Febvre does not approach or mention Philip II until the second half of the work, over five hundred pages into the work. For Febvre, the setting was essential, as witnessed by his later works on the importance of geography in history. Much of this, as I will mention below, seem obvious today – but these are the reasons.

Over the course of these pieces, more will be said on Bloch and the Annales school, but let me state: what interested me in Bloch was not his death by Germans, his life as a Jew in Europe, or his fascination (that I cannot find myself able to share) with the Middle Ages and feudalism. What brought me to Marc Bloch was that I see remnants of him and his friends in the history I prize today. The Annales school is famous for intruding upon cultural and society as a means of obtaining historical “truth.” The growth of “people’s history” in the last two decades and works that emphasize the people over those in power can be traced to Bloch and many others who shape our current landscape.

I have not read The Historian’s Craft before except in excerpts and a general interest in its outlines. Just from the introduction to follow, I have learned more about this school than I did in class. The purpose of this piece to to encourage others to read history and historiography because it really does intrude upon our everyday life more than we give it credit for, acknowledged or not.

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“Tell me, Daddy. What is the use of history?”

March Bloch

March Bloch

His famous opening lines express a momentous occasion in Bloch’s, and by extension, humankind’s life. It is the moment our children question the world they will inherit and it is our job to explain just what we have spent our lives doing (and not doing). Thus, a routine examination of historiography or a student guide to writing history this is not. This book – with both existential and literal death surrounding Bloch – takes on a whole new height of importance from the beginning phrase.

What is history? It is not science, although we should be indebted to the empiricists in some way, claims Bloch. It is not mythology or legend as we are not Thucydides or Herodotus chasing ghosts and plagues. It does not predict the future as we are not soothsayers or mere fortune cookies to be cracked at anyone’s disposal. History, to Bloch, does have roots in Christianity and Greco-Roman culture – although today we have fields of scholarship that challenge these hypotheses (that, it turns out, is history). History does provide entertainment and comfort, although it is also serious and academic at the same time.

He does not come out and say it, but history is a tool. It is something one must learn to use wisely lest it be used against you.

Bloch, in the “Introduction,” begins to systematically justify the “use” of history. For history graduates, we often get asked, why did you get a history degree? What is the purpose? How will you ever find a job? Serious questions, often hurdled off guard and puts us on the defensive. Bloch adds “common sense,” as he puts it, into the mouths of our (still) benighted profession. We do not write for amusement, nor do we ignore the world around us.

No one today, I believe, would dare say, with the orthodox positivists, that the value of a line of research is to be measured by its ability to promote action. Experience has taught us that it is impossible to decide in advance whether even the most abstract speculations may not eventually prove extraordinarily helpful in practice. It would inflict a strange mutilation upon humanity to deny it a right to appease its intellectual appetites apart from all consideration of its material welfare. Even were history obliged to be eternally indifferent to homo faber or homo politicus, it would be sufficiently justified by its necessity for the full flowering of homo sapiens.

Thus, to conclude, historians must “prove itself” as a profession and a “legitimate form of knowledge.” It is this searching for legitimacy that takes us back to the empiricists, clearly the school of thought Bloch is attempting to transcend.

A note on empirical history. This school of thought is, perhaps, the oldest modern form of historical methodology – and is closely connected to science, which it is often modeled after. When I use “empiricists,” I am recalling classical authors like Leopold Van Ranke and Geoffrey Elton. In fact, all modern historians take, in some ways, from this school in our use of footnotes or primary sources – but the point of departure from which Bloch hopes to ascend must be well taken. This school produced a history based solely around such documentation and did not have (or would not heed) the wherewithal, nor the tools and mindset, to challenge documents, primary sources or “official” histories. Thus, it is the champions who wrote history (much of the work was of “great men” in history, a genre that still thrives to this day) and the historian as the squire who, in today’s parlance, jotted down the party line. Thus, Bloch emphasized the scrutiny of the historian in his or her sources and the way they frame the history he or she set out to write.

The empiricists believed, according to Bloch,

that no authentic discipline could exist which did not lead, by immediate and irrefutable demonstrations, to the formulation of absolute certainties in the form of sovereign and universal laws.

This gave birth to multiple schools. One that tried to mold “a science of human evolution which would conform to a sort of pan-scientific ideal.” Another felt it could not place science and history together and invented “a sort of aesthetic play” which “promised neither very positive conclusions in the present, nor the hope of progress in the future.” Bloch calls forth a new school of thought.

One that held science in regard, but on a leash.

[W]e are much better prepared to admit that a scholarly discipline may pretend to the dignity of a science without insisting upon Euclidian demonstrations or immutable laws of repetition. We find it far easier to regard certainty and universality as questions of degree. We no longer feel obliged to impose upon every subject of knowledge a uniform intellectual pattern, borrowed from natural science, since, even there, that pattern has ceased to be entirely applicable.

Science imparts a large role in the “Intro” to Bloch’s work. This is understandable, as he mentions Newton as well as Einstein, who’s atomic bomb (of which Bloch mentions in passing speaking of the “world which stands upon the threshold of the chemistry of the atom”) would soon revolutionize the world – and make history seem even more frivolous in the face of such tangible threats the Cold War would bring. Importantly, coupled with the statements above, Bloch does not reject history as science per se, but it is different. It does not lose its veracity as a “legitimate form of knowledge” because it is narrative or poetic.

Thus, science is the elephant in the room. Today, as a trained historian, we would not think twice about feeling like history is not science and to throw it under the bus. This change of mind came from the tepid words of those like Marc Bloch. From his lease, we gave ourselves freedom.

So what is the “use” of history – nothing but understanding and then application. The goal of the historian is to provide the first part, it the role of human culture to administer the second.

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~ by Daniel on June 2, 2009.

One Response to “Marc Bloch: The Historian's Craft (Part 1)”

  1. Marc Bloch didn’t die in 1940, it was 1944. Everything else sounds creditable.

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