Marc Bloch: The Historian's Craft (Part 3)

This is the third part of a seven part series on March Bloch’s classic “The Historian’s Craft.” Access Part 1 and Part 2.


Marc Bloch 3

“Explorers of the past are never quite free. The past is their tyrant. It forbids them to know anything which it has not itself, consciously or otherwise, yielded to them.”
– Marc Bloch

The second chapter in Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft concerns historical observation – how one perceives history and gathers the resources to write it.

Often, and this is still true today, history is thought to be an “indirect” science that places the man (or woman) between the past and present. Bloch does not disagree (he does not engage the modern arguments that history is the more the reflection of the writer than anything else) but sees history’s place in society in as rich terms as biology, physics, or psychology. Scientific observation (Bloch clearly feels history is based upon scientific foundations) continues to show this work’s struggle between history as science or narration.

For one, Bloch writes, no form of human knowledge would be as detailed as they are unless it was the work of history to illuminate the contours of former thought in the light of present research. In other words:

…all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past.

Many see history as a narration of events which “attaches extreme importance to the exact reconstruction of the actions, words, or attitudes of a few personages.” This is easier than identifying history as how they speak knowledgeably on current events, scientific theories, and many other forms of human interaction. Knowing the battle of Waterloo or the dates of World War II are mere trivia. How they impact humanity is history.

But how does the historian come to impact society? As alluded to in his first chapter on “History, Men, and Time,” a historian must acknowledge their place in the world and address the issues of the past through the mentality of the past, yet allow the present enough clout to shine through as to showcase the bonds between past, present and future. Further, the historian must be skilled at observation. They can never be present at the historic events that they may be covering, but with determination, everything, just like a scientific experiment, “leaves behind certain residues which [a historian] can see with his own eyes.”

The residue left behind, “whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern,” it is always relevant and inexhaustible to historians.

If nothing else, The Historian’s Craft does two things. First, it expresses the absolute necessity of historian’s using more than a few documents to build their narratives, but art, archeology, linguistics, etc. Second, it promotes skepticism on power and sources that are created to be disseminated for posterity. In this chapter, Bloch advances the cause for both variety and doubt.

“The past is,” Bloch writes, “a datum which nothing in the future will change. But the knowledge of the past is something progressive which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself.” He opens with this to explain that the old idea of historian weeding through documents in a dimly (candle)lit room is false. A history written on a few documents, even if scrutinized to the extreme, is never enough.

The variety of historical evidence is nearly infinite. Everything that man says or writes, everything that he makes, everything he touches can and ought to teach us about him.

History, as Bloch saw it evolving, was making strides in its acceptance of languages, social developments and economics as “sources” for the historian to cull from. “Properly speaking,” he said of the academic evolution he was experiencing in the 1930s and 1940s which would no doubt include history’s progressive tint, “it is a glorious victory of mind over its material.”

But, having many sources is one thing, distinguishing their validity and placement in any given history is the second aspect of good observation. As Bloch notes: “…not all “tracks” lend themselves equally well to this evocation of the past for the edification of the future.” In short, not all sources lend themselves to the art of historical writing and inquiry. Bloch spends much time writing about “speaking” to documents (“cross-examining”), asking them questions. And this, of course, is true. One can be in possession of a document on an event of some kind, but one does not understand the context or has any experience with other pieces from that period, the questions one will ask to the text, and what the text will deliver to you, will be hardly worth repeating to outside ears or eyes. Thus, the historian must expand his knowledge into other realms of life to be able to write history as a process of questions seeking answers – instead of the other way around.

Variety and skepticism are the pillars of observation, but both have often been forgone in the interest of time (or publication deadlines). Bloch likens the deflation of variety and skepticism (as do I in recent years) as tantamount to misinformation, a grave sin as Bloch views history as “nothing less than the passing down of memory from one generation to another.” At play in Bloch’s time and our own are the gatekeepers, those who influence variety and skepticism by holding the information that is influential for history. Corporations, or private bodies, are not “open” they way some government profess to be. Obtaining sources (the work of skilled journalists) is another trait, it is beginning to seem, that historian’s must obtain in order to, scientifically or not, write the next great histories of our time.


~ by Daniel on June 8, 2009.

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