Marc Bloch: The Historian’s Craft (Part 5)

This is the fifth part of a seven part series on March Bloch’s classic “The Historian’s Craft.” Access Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4.


marc bloch portrait

“When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. Let us not say that the true historian is a stranger to emotion: he has that, at all events. ‘Understanding,’ in all honesty, is a word pregnant with difficulties, but also so much hope.”
-Marc Bloch

The fourth chapter, the last real bit of writing in The Historian’s Craft is also the longest chapter in the book – and the most important. It deals with “Historical Analysis.” Specifically, with understanding and judgment of evidence and history; the “diversity of human functions to the unity of consciousness;” and language, nomenclature. History, for Bloch, is changing before his eyes. He theorizes that history must contain a continuity to be relevant – something easy, in a way, due to history’s subject-matter, us – as well as diversify in order to analyze trends and features in the past that will enliven and enlighten the present.


As chronicled in other pieces of this series, history is more than “just the facts, ma’am” or as Ranke saw it, history as no other aim than the describe things as they happen. “In other words,” responds Bloch, “the historian is urged to efface himself before the facts.” Of course, in analysis, Ranke’s singular mission of history as science (and as the tales of great, white men) did not work – and Bloch was at the birth pangs (was he kicking?) of a new vision of history, a history of human accompaniment.

Bloch, however, sees two problems: historical impartiality and history as an attempt at reconstruction or an attempt at analysis. In the first case, historical impartiality, Bloch believes this trend “satisfies a deep-rooted instinct” for correction and judgment. In reality:

“Danger threatens only when each searchlight operator [historian] claims to see everything himself, when each canton of learning pretends to national sovereignty.”

In the second case, Bloch seems outdated. His cries of “Robespierrists! Anti-Robespierrists! For pity’s sake, simply tell us what Robespierre was,” resonates today in a world where specializations and jargon dominate the academic world – more on that later. Writing that the passions of the past “blend[ing] with the prejudices of the present [creates a] human reality…reduced to a picture in black and white,” it is hard to argue. Yet it is hard to take this line of argument to conclusion when Bloch states,

“What do I care for a historian’s belated decision on this point?”

This is, in a sense, true. What does it matter? It is important to state here that Bloch has been one of the most influential historians, in terms of historiography, in the twentieth century. But, I cannot do anything but confess that this penchant for the facts – be it revolutionary, as the Les Annales school was – is disconcerting as analysis is the most important work of the historian. Bloch later agrees, which leads to me believe the translation may be to fault. Surely Bloch, who emphasizes understanding and history’s role in human development, wouldn’t mean that analysis is beyond the pale. Perhaps his discourse on judgment got tangled with analysis, but I’ll leave that for another reading.


The execution of Robespierre:

The execution of Robespierre: 'Robespierrists! Anti-Robespierrists! For pity's sake, simply tell us what Robespierre was.'

In Bloch’s discussion on human function and consciousness, he emphasizes strongly that history, like science, needs a subject-matter as well as man. “A notebook of experiments,” he writes, “is not to be confused with the moment-by-moment diary of everything that happened in the laboratory.”

Here one sees Bloch’s endorsement of specializations, despite the inherent difficulties in binding disciplines into one “humanities.” Science separates biology, chemistry, physics. This is seen as an authentic way to formulate knowledge. Bloch says of science, “the landscape of unity exists only in my consciousness” – history, thus, should seek to combine divisions.

“The interrelations, confusions, and infections of human consciousness are, for history, reality itself.”

“Vertical justifications,” as Bloch refers to specialized knowledge as, are rational. Someone interested in money, but with only a knowledge of specie after the year 1000, when money became ubiquitous, would need help exploring a rare coin found in an ancient part of the world. Here, Bloch argues, someone with knowledge, like he, of the Middle Ages would be able to “correct [the] lack of breadth” in understanding, creating a fuller picture of the past.

Extrapolating his theories on historical criticism from Part 4, Bloch uses this to explore generational consciousness – a key element to a historian’s craft. First, Mechelet wrote:

“If I had introduced only political history into my narrative, if I had taken no account of the diverse elements of history (religion, law, geography, literature, art, etc.), my procedure would have been quite different. But a great vital movement was needed, because all these diverse elements gravitated together in the unity of the story.”

Then Fustel de Coulanges, from a generation later:

“Supposing a hundred specialists had divided the past of France according to lot, do you think that, in the end, they would have written the history of France? I very much doubt it. At the very least, they should miss the linkage of facts: now, this linkage is itself a historical truth.”

The knowledge of fragments, writes Bloch, never makes up the whole, “it will not even produce that of the fragments themselves.” It is trivial, then and now, to confine ourselves to aspects of one individual or one society. Our own, or otherwise.


Bloch would have been a linguist if history had not grabbed hold of him. His influence in the world of linguistics, in relation of history, cannot be overstated. It is here where Bloch searches for a clarity of voice in history that had (has) not arrived.

Two distinct orientations divide the language of history: one, the reproduction of terminology straight out of the Middle Ages, or wherever one studies or two, translating language into a national tongue.

Bloch: Echoing Orwell

Bloch: Echoing Orwell

The reproduction of terminology can confuse true meanings. For example: serf, slave and peasant. Each may conjure a similar image, but each is distinct and nationally specific. Or empire. “Hierarchic bilingualism,” when two languages exist side-by-side in a culture – imagine the United States with Spanish and English everywhere, or English sprinkled on roadsigns and restaurants across the globe – also paints false pictures.

Words can also become loaded. Bloch spends lots of time talking about “feudalism,” “capitalism,” and “revolution.” Their origins are often benign, but added to social scientific theories, weight is added and the mere mentioning of certain words may imply a certain analysis or biased that (can) disqualify objectivity.

Worse yet, words can also obscure. Echoing Orwell, Bloch sees the power of words the intentionally hide their true meanings, deceiving the reader and cultivating falsehood. History that is the lives of kings and queens may become a history of national governments, treated as they are living beings themselves. Words also change, become politically correct: “empires” become “preponderances.” War is Peace.

“Now, unfortunately, such is the fate of great many of our words. They continue to live among us the unquiet life of public disputation. It is not the historians who nowadays harangue us to consider capitalism and communism as identical. Our symbols are variable according to time and place…The reactionaries of 1815 hid their faces in horror at the very name of revolution. Those of 1940 used it to camouflage their coup d’etat.”

But words are never useless. “The vocabulary of documents, is, in its own way, only another form of evidence.”


Can we characterize the evolution of society as a whole? Society is not single entity, a single drop in a sea of civilizations. It is a split in social classes. In theorizing on the information above, he wonders if the forces acting upon a young urban worker act upon the young rural farmer? Is there a mode of analysis that cuts across cultures, classes, religions, races? Is there a type of language that can bridge these gaps?

It is, in Bloch’s (as well as my) view, that historical language and legitimacy is a generational thing at best. Bloch grew up as a scholar following the Dreyfus Affair (his being a Jew in France did not help, I am sure) and relates to students bridging the divides between classmates as those “of the war [World War I]” and those after.

Where does that put me, one must ask? It will always be different for every generation. I gained my consciousness when I was 15 years old watching the World Trade Center crumble to the ground, my first week of high school. For someone only a few years younger, they will relate to the wars in Iraq, maybe a family member serving. Unfortunately, being “of the war” has been a constant demarcation for centuries.

“It is inevitable [Bloch writes] for the generations to permeate each other, for individuals do not always react in the same way to the same influences.”

The trick of history, it seems, is to reconcile the language and the narrative, then write for your generation, as it will carry into the next, if not in your words, someone else’s.


~ by Daniel on July 1, 2009.

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