Marc Bloch: The Historian's Craft (Part 2)

This is the second part of a seven part series on March Bloch’s classic “The Historian’s Craft.” Access Part 1 here.

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Marc Bloch 2

Bloch’s first chapter examines “History, Men, and Time.” As mentioned before: History in the early twentieth century – when Bloch is writing and teaching – is condemned as the “most superficial and capricious of all” forms of knowledge, a condemnation echoed in Bloch’s opening paragraph on the dangers of history’s subjugation to other forms of knowledge, especially sociology, which seems to be in vogue in the 1940s, when Bloch is writing The Historian’s Craft.

Today’s textbooks on history and historical writing treat the profession as essential, if unemployable. Bloch is writing from another era, an era in which he must defend history from those seeking to “relegate it to one poor corner of the sciences of man – a sort of secret dungeon.” It all seems trite today to declare that various forms of knowledge – sociology, geology, any kinds of scientific inquiry, etc. – are historical in some sense. But I imagine for Bloch to write this then, it was revolutionary and not something fully conceived.

Bloch would agree with the saying: “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until eventually he knows everything about nothing.” Bloch’s most powerful moments are in the defense of “universal history,” for which the Annales school was famous for. He likened specialists of the Stone Age or Egyptology never speaking to one another or bringing their research to the present tense. Bloch writes:

We simply ask both to bear in mind that historical research will tolerate no autarchy. Isolated, each will understand only by halves, even within his own field of study; for the only true history, which can advance only through mutual aid, is universal history.

So what is history? Of course, it

places no a priori prohibitions in the path of inquiry, which may turn at will toward either the individual or the social, toward monetary convulsions or the most lasting developments. It comprises itself no credo; it commits us, according to its original meaning, to nothing other than ‘inquiry.’

One can feel the Van Ranke’s and the Elton’s rolling over in their graves – sort of. This, again, is taken for granted. History is more than great men, more than “facts” as they are given to us. History surrounds us. History is vibrant. History is for those who love life (“understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian”). History is local, regional, national – universal. It is not hard to see why Bloch and the Annales school of thought got such blacklash nor why it was so popular and influential for developing nations as well as truly objective writers in “first world.”

Annales

History and science continue to battle over alms in the night sky throughout Bloch’s work. I will reiterate that the scientific-ness of history has fallen on hard times, but placing Bloch’s book into history, one sees why he gives great prominence to this idea, if only to subvert stalwarts to open their minds and incorporate other methodologies into their works. I believe he saw history as scientific, he all by states it. But I will explore this line of thought in a latter part of this series.

In his first chapter, Bloch determines that something is “history” once it contains (1) a human element and (2) time. History can be used by other forms of knowledge, but historians are concerned with the human element (something that has been challenged since Bloch’s time) and time, for the historian “does not think of the human in the abstract…[h]is thoughts breathe freely the air of the climate of time.”

Importantly, Bloch could have said: “the climate of our time,” meaning the present. It is a line of judgment where history and the present begin and end (the “satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments”). The truth, as Bloch concedes, is that “men resemble their times more than they do their fathers,” which is important in saying that historical phenomenon must be taken, analyzed and understood from its moment in time, without discarding its role in modern life. Thus, the dichotomy of past and present always surrounding the other.

Bloch is famous for doing just that – placing himself in the time he studied – in this case, the Middle Ages (see Part 1 for a brief biography and list of works). “The first duty of the historian, who would understand and explain them,” Bloch explains, “will be to return them to their milieu, where they are immersed in the mental climate of their time and faced by problems of conscience rather different from our own.”

Bloch, who was murdered by the Nazi Gestapo in 1944, never witnessed the birth of postmodernism in historical thought. He was still dealing with the modernists! “Without fully recognizing it,” he wrote, “the historians, too, are caught in this modernist climate. Why then should they not feel that, within their province, there has also been a shift in the line which separates the new from the old?”

Postmodernism obliterated the new and the old, but it doesn’t have much place here than to say that Bloch witnesses the easy shifts in historical emotions – “the end of history” anyone? – that permeate academic cultures. He alludes to the day history will become irrelevant (if it wasn’t already in his eyes). Thus, the need to justify history.

‘Since 1830, there has been no more history. It is all politics.’ One would no longer say ‘since 1830’ – the July Days have grown old in their turn. Nor would one say: ‘It is all politics.’ Rather, with a respectful air: ‘It is all sociology.’ Or, with less respect: ‘It is all journalism.’ Nevertheless, there are many who would gladly repeat that since 1914, or since 1940, there has been no more history.

Thus, those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. To claim that there is “no more history” or an “end to history” is only perpetuating the cycles that human beings follow with the utmost contempt and passion.

Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present.

So, history is not a series of violent jerks that textbooks display them as, writes Bloch. “Observation proves, on the contrary, that the mighty convulsions of that vast, continuing development are perfectly capable of extending from the beginning of time to the present.” In contemporary words:

I guess it’s just common sense
to preach what ought to be but ensure it never is
in the present tense (Propagandhi – “Last Will and Testament”)

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~ by Daniel on June 4, 2009.

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