The Historians Craft

Citation preview

Marc Bloch THE

HISTORIAN'S CRAFT translated from the French

by Peter Putnam with a Preface

by Peter Burke

Manchester University Press

' Copyright © Alfred A. Knopf 1954, reprinted 1963, 1967, 1976, 1979, 1984, 199 1, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006


Preface copyright © Peter Burke I 992

Published by Manchester University Press Oxford Road, Manchester M 13 9NR, UK and Room 400, 17 5 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY I 00 I 0, USA uk

Preface: Marc Bloch and the New History by Peter Burke A Note on the Manuscripts by Lucien Febvre ·

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Translator's Note

page vii xix

xx iii


ISBN 0 7190 3292 X

Introduction /


I: History, Men, and Time I. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

The Choice of the Historian History and Men Historical Time The Idol of Origins \£. The Boundaries between Past and Presen Understanding the Present by the Pastl(. Understanding the Past by the Present'x.


19 23 24

29 32 36

II: Historical Observation I. General Characteristics of Historical Observation 2. Evidence X. 3. The Transmission of Evidence


50 57

III: Historical Criticism I . An Outline of the History of the Critical Method7 2. In Pursuit of Fraud and Error 3. Toward a Logic of the Critical MethodY

Printed in Great Britain by Bell & Bain Limited, Glasgow



66 75 91



IV: Historical Analysis I. Judging or Understanding?,{ 2. From the Divmity of Human Functions to the Unity of Consciences 3. Nomenclature V: Historical Causation


119 129


by Peter Burke


MARC BLOCH AND THE NEW HISTORY When the English translation of The Historian's Craft was first published, in 1954, its author, Marc Bloch, was still in some need of an introduction to the English-speaking world. In the 1960s, he began to be better known. His Feudal Society was published in English in 1961, his French Rural History in 1966, Land and Work in Medieval Europe (a selection of his essays) in 1967, and his Royal Touch in 1973. The works of other members of the so-called 'Annales School', of which Bloch was cofounder, also began to be translated at this time, notably Fernand Braudel's great work, The Mediterranean (published in French in 1949, and in English in 1972-73). In the light of these books, The Historian's Craft looks somewhat different. It is not quite the limpid, transparent and deceptively simple introduction to historical method which it appears to be. It is a personal essay rather than an academic treatise expressing the conventional wisdom of the historical profession (or as Bloch preferred to call it, with his habitual ironic detachment, the 'guild'). More exactly, the essay does not always express a consensus. On the contrary, this little book demands to be read in some sections at least as a manifesto for a particular style of history, the kind of history



with which the author was associated for most of his working life. In other words, Bloch's essay needs to be replaced in its intellectual context. Hence the following brief account of the author's life, his achievement and his influence, culminating in an attempt to re-evaluate The Historian's Craft itself. Marc Bloch liked to emphasise the importance of historical generations (below, p. 157£). His own life certainly bears out his observation. Born in 1886, he belonged to what he liked to call the 'last of the generation of the Dreyfus Affair' (p. 158). During the period 1894-1906, when Bloch was growing up, France was politically polarised between those who thought that captain Alfred Dreyfus had sold military secrets to the Germans and those who believed in his innocence. Roughly speaking, authoritarians defended the conviction of Dreyfus for treason while liberals campaigned for his acquittal. Bloch's family supported Dreyfus, who was, like them, of Jewish descent, while the opponents of Dreyfus were often antiSemitic. Bloch also belonged to a generation which was involved in two world wars. In the First World War, he served in the trenches and rose to the rank of captain. In 19 3 9. he rejoined the army. Following its defeat, he was active in the Resistance until he was captured and shot by the Germans in 1944. Bloch's professional career, on the other hand, was successful and almost uneventful. The son of a distinguished ancient historian, Gustave Bloch, Marc studied at the one of the most famous schools in Paris, the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, and at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure. After a year in Germany, at the universities of Berlin and Leipzig, he began research on the decline of serfdom in the Paris region in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries while teaching in schools in Montpellier and Amiens. After the war he taught at the university of Strasbourg (1919-36) and at the Sorbonne (1936-39) and published a series



of major studies, centred on medieval France. In the academic sphere, his only defeat was in the competition for a chair at the College de France, for which he was a candidate in 1933-35. Bloch's failure to be elected to this chair may be a sign of the strength of anti-Semitism in France in the 1930s, but it also reflects the view among the more traditional historians of the time that this man was dangerous. His outwardly uneventful career was in fact a series of battles for a new kind of history. In his years at the Ecole Normale, Bloch did not study history alone. He attended lectures on sociology by Emile Durkheim, lectures on linguistics by Antoine Meillet, and lectures on geography by Paul Vidal de la Blache. The effects of this multidisciplinary training are already visible in Bloch's historicogeographical study of the Ile de France, published in 1913, when the author was twenty-seven, and arguing that local historians needed to draw on the skills of archaeologists, palaeographers, specialists in law, and so on. These effects were to become still more apparent in his years at Strasbourg. On his appointment as lecturer at the University of Strasbourg after the First World War, Bloch made the acquaintance of a number of gifted colleagues. These colleagues included the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the ancient historian Andre Piganiol, and - most decisive for Bloch's later development Lucien Febvre , a historian of wide interests and strong enthusiasms. Eight years older than Bloch, Febvre had also studied at the Ecole Normale. Like Bloch he was interested in a local history (in his case that of his native Franche-Comte), which would draw on the insights and methods of other disciplines, especially the 'human geography' associated with Vidal de la Blache. At this time he was indeed completing a general study of the relation between the environment and the history of mankind. Febvre was fiercely critical of most of his



fellow-historians. He believed that the young were turning away from history to study the other social sciences because too many historians were no more than 'butterfly collectors', who amassed facts without thinking about their significance. For many historians, Febvre wrote in his aggressive style, 'history meant learning, if not all the details, at least as many details as possible about the mission of M. de Charnace [one of Louis XIV's diplomats] to the courts of the North'. Febvre was opposed to the study of political events as an end in themselves, without relating them to their economic, social or cultural context. Indeed, he was opposed to the study of any aspect of human behaviour in isolation, arguing that there was no such thing as the history of philosophy, or literary history, or even economic history. There was only history, 'total history', as his follower Fernand Braudel would later call it. Febvre wanted a history without frontiers or compartments. It is not hard to see why Bloch and Febvre formed such an effective team. The two men worked in neighbouring fields, on medieval and early modern France, and shared a vision of a wider and more human history, 'une histoire plus large et plus humaine'. Bloch was quiet, calm and moderate in his expression of their joint ideas, while Febvre was more expansive, loquacious, and aggressiv~ . Febvre was more interested in historical individuals and less interested in sociology than Bloch, but the similarities of approach between them far outweighed their differences. For thirteen years, until Febvre was elected professor at the College de France, the two men worked together at Strasbourg, engaging in almost daily discussions. Out of these discussions came the idea of a new historical journal, to act as a forum for a new kind of history. The journal was founded in 1929, with an editorial committee drawn from different disciplines, and the



title Annales d'histoire economique et sociale. Under a slightly different name, Annales: economies, societes, civilisations, it remains one of the leading journals in the world of historians. As the number of French historians interested in this new kind of history increased, the group became known as the 'Annales School'. Like Febvre's, Bloch's own work gradually became less and less conventional. His thesis on serfdom and emancipation was in the mainstream of medieval studies, but his later works were not. His reflections on method included an article on the spread of rumours at the front during the Second World War ( 19 2 1); an extended book review discussing the ideas of his friend Halbwachs on the social framework of memory (1925); and an article stressing the importance of ·comparative history' ( 192 8). The new approaches which Bloch preached in these articles he practised in two substantive studies, The Royal Touch (1924) and French Rural History (1931). The Royal Touch [Les rois thaumaturges] was very far from the mainstream of historical writing at this time. Indeed, an English colleague went so far as to describe the study as that 'curious by-path of yours'. Why did Bloch devote years of research and a substantial book to the belief that the kings of France and England were able to work miracles? Essentially because these beliefs threw light on contemporary ideas of kingship. 'The royal miracle,' he wrote, 'was above all the expression of a particular conception of supreme political power.' A charge frequently levelled against members of the so-called 'Annales School' of historians is that of rejecting or neglecting politics. In the case of Bloch, in particular, it is clear that the charge is false. His aim (or more exactly, one of his aims) was to examine central problems of political history from an unfamiliar angle, or series of angles. Bloch's book remains exemplary for at least four features of its approach. In



the first place, the concern with what Bloch (following Durkheim) called 'collective representations' and his successors tend to call 'mentalities' - in other words, attitudes and assumptions rather than consciously held ideas. Secondly, the use of concepts taken from social anthropology, including the work of Sir James Frazer and others on sacred kingship in different parts of the world. Thirdly, the systematic comparisons and contrasts between France and England. Finally there is Bloch's choice of period. Instead of writing about the Middle Ages alone, as the majority of professional medievalists would have done, he chose -to follow his central problem wherever it would lead him, into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries or even beyond. The book is a study in change over the long term, in what Fernand Braudel would later call la longue durc~e. At first sight, at least, French Rural History [Caracteres originaux de l'histoire rurale fran~ais J is a more conventional study, but this essay too includes some features remarkable for its time and imitated since. One such feature is Bloch's attempt to utilise sources other than written documents, notably estate maps. Another, still more famous, is his use of the so-called 'regressive method', in other words working backwards in time rather than forwards, on the grounds that it is only prudent to work from the better-known to the less well-known rather than the other way round (cf. p. 42 below). Once again Bloch was concerned with la longue duree. The best-known of Bloch's books is probably the one he worked on in the 1930s, Feudal Society [La societe feodale]. It is a work of synthesis and limited to the Middle Ages, hence more conventional - at least in appearance - than the author's studies of rural history and royal miracles. All the same, the book is unmistakably Bloch's. It is not confined to economic, political and social structures, like earlier works on feudalism, but



includes chapters on 'modes of feeling and thought', discussing such topics as the medieval sense of time. It is also a study in comparative history, concerned not only with 'neighbourly' comparisons (France and Germany, France and Spain, and so on) but also with remote ones, as in the famous pages on the similarities and dissimilarities between feudalism in Europe and the equivalent forms of social organisation in Japan. By the time that Feudal Society was published (in two volumes, in 19 3 9-40), France had been invaded and Bloch was again in uniform. Not for long: following the German Blitzkrieg, the French government was forced to sign an armistice in June 1940 . Once the fighting was over, Bloch set down his reflections on the disaster in a manuscript now known as Strange Defeat [L 'etrange defaito]. It was then, despite his worries about his future as a Jew in occupied France, and his abortive plans to take his family to the United States, that Bloch turned to The Historian's Craft, on which he spent a substantial part of 1941 and 1942. Before the manuscript was complete, however, the author joined the French Resistance. He was captured and shot by the Germans in June 1944, a few days after the Allied landings in Normandy. The unfinished manuscript was published by Lucien Febvre in 1949. Bloch was already an influential historian before his death. He was well known abroad, from Oslo to Vienna. Among British historians, R. H. Tawney and Michael Postan in particular appreciated his work. Some prominent members of the Annales group learned from Bloch directly or indirectly. Pierre Goubert, the historian of rural France, and Henri Brunschwig, the histori~ of Prussian Romanticism and colonial Africa, were once students of Bloch's, while Georges Duby and Maurice Agulhon were taught in school by two of his pupils. The Russian Aaron Gurevich, the American Natalie Davis, and the



Italian Carlo Ginzburg are among the foreign historians who owe most to Bloch's inspiration. Among practitioners of other disciplines, the sociologist Tom Bottomore and the anthropologist Jack Goody are among those who have admitted their debt to Bloch's work. Some sense of what made Bloch so inspiring a teacher can be gained from a close reading of The Historian's Craft [Apologie pour I'histoire, ou Metier d'historien]. To begin with, it is beautifully lucid and easy to read. The book is also extremely wideranging in time, space and discipline. A single page on forgery, for instance, takes us from Caesar's Commentaries to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The author's interest in the history of science and technology is apparent in paragraph after paragraph, whether he is discussing types of plough or making a casual reference to a Crookes tube. All the same, Bloch carries his learning lightly. The tone is quiet and cool - it is easy to imagine that one is listening to the author lecturing - but the exposition is enlivened by frequent shafts of irony. As he says himself, Bloch is not writing 'exclusively, or even chiefly' for professional historians, 'the guild', but for a wide public. The text is fragmentary, lacking the sections which the author planned to devote to the importance of the individual and to the limits of generalisation and predictability in history. However, his long discussion of the crucial issue of evidence and source criticism is complete. There is no point in summarising the text of a book which readers already hold in their hands. On the other hand, it may be worth saying a few words about the 'sub-text', in other words about some of the allusions, more or less between the lines, to debates among historians which were topical at the time when Bloch was writing. One might begin by reflecting on the individuals and



examples which Bloch chose to discuss, all the more revealing because he was writing without access to books and so was forced to choose whatever came to mind. In an introduction to historical studies one might have expected a number of references to Leopold von Ranke, the great nineteenth-century German historian. In fact, apart from a casual remark about ' the venerable Ranke' (p. 118), he is conspicuously absent, surely because he represents the kind of history from which Bloch and Febvre were trying to escape. Ranke's French disciple Charles Seignobos, who taught Bloch, appears twice (on pp. 18 and 3 2) but only to demonstrate what historians ought not to do. On the other hand, Henri Pirenne, who worked closely with Bloch and Febvre, receives two extremely favourable references, and the English legal historian Frederick William Maitland receives one. The historians Bloch cites most frequently are Michelet and Fustel de Coulanges. Jules Michelet (1798-1874) was the great historian of the age of romanticism, combining scholarship and imagination to produce studies of French history which were concerned with ordinary people as well as captains and kings, and with art literature and ideas as well as with institutions. Numa-Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89) belonged to the next generation. He was trained as a classicist and made his reputation with an essay The Ancient City ( 18 64) in which he made use of what Bloch called the 'regressive method' to demonstrate the relations between the history of the family, the history of religion, and the history of the state. Fus tel' s students included Emile Durkheim and Gustave Bloch, Marc's father. What Marc Bloch learned from Fustel and Michelet alike, as he makes clear below (pp. 154-5) was above all a sense of 'total history', of the connections between religion, law, geography and so on. It is for its emphasis on connections of this



kind that the Annales school is famous . It is therefore no surprise to find that among the few names Bloch cites in his essay the professional historians are in a minority. He refers, for example, to a philologist, Lachmann; to a literary critic, Sainte-Beuve; a geographer, Vidal de la Blache; a specialist in art , Henri Focillon; two students of religion, Ernest Renan and Gabriel Le Bras; two sociologists, Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel (though not, curiously enough, Max Weber); three economists, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and Franc;:ois Simiand; and a whole galaxy of mathematicians and scientists, including Galileo, Newton, Pasteur, and Kelvin. These references indicate not only the range of Bloch's culture but also the breadth of his conception of history. The passages in which Bloch defends the Annales position most vehemently are concerned with politics and with origins. The famous section in Chapter 1 entitled 'the Idol of Origins' (pp. 28ff below) , mocks the tendency of historians to explain the present in terms of the remote past rather than by more recent events. In his choice of metaphor Bloch was echoing not only Francis Bacon's famous critique of the 'idols of the tribe' but also that of Franc;:ois Simiand. In 1903, Simiand published an article on 'Historical method and the social sciences', in which he attacked the historians of his day for their devotion to three 'idols', the last of which, the 'chronological idol ', he defined as 'the habit of losing oneself in studies of origins'' Like their master Emile Durkheim , Simiand and Bloch both believed that ideas and institutions, however old, are best explained not by the past but in terms of the social functions they perform in the present. It should be added that among the examples Bloch cites of the idolatry of origins, he includes two 1

F. Simiand , 'Methode historique et sciences sociales', Revue de Synthlse Hi.storique 6 (1903), 1-22; English trans. in Review 9 (1985-86) , 163-213 .



right-wing anti-Semitic French intellectuals, Maurice Barres and Charles Maurras. He is telling us that the stress on origins is not only wrong but also dangerous. A second idol attacked by Simiand was 'the political idol', in other words the exaggeration of the importance of political events at the expense of economic, social or cultural structures or trends . This rejection of the dominance of politics - not the complete rejection of politics, as critics sometimes suggest was of course a major plank in the platform of the Annales School. In the fourth chapter of The Historian's Craft (pp. 1SOff below), Bloch reaffirmed his commitment to this view, mocking the emphasis on reigns and regimes in textbooks for schools and universities alike and suggesting that periodisation should depend on the phenomena being studied. The examples he chose in the course of his essay follow these guidelines. They range from the history of science to the history of French villages, and they return to a number of themes dear to the author , from the history of mentalities (pp. 5 6, 13 0-1) to the history of rumours (pp. 93£!) and the history of language (pp. 108-9£!). These examples lead to the conclusion that - contrary to a recent claim - Bloch never repudiated the new kind of history for which he and Febvre had been working since the two men first met in Strasbourg after the First World War. On the contrary, The Historian's Craft may reasonably be described not only an apologia for history but also as an apologia for Annales. 2 In conclusion, a few words about the state of the text which follows . The note prefixed to the first edition by Lucien Febvre (p. 2 below) describes the form in which Bloch's manuscript survived, in three variants, and his notes for the chapters which were still unwritten at the time when he joined the Resistance. ' Lyon (1985) .



More recently, two historians, one Italian and one Dutch, have returned to the study of Bloch's manuscripts. They have pointed out a number of small errors and a few omissions in the published text. 3 It is to be hoped that critical editions of The Historian 's Craft will be published in French and English before too long. Meanwhile , it is a pleasure to introduce this seventh English edition of a classic work to a still wider public.

Further Reading H. Atsma and A. Burguiere, eds., Marc Bloch Aujourd'hui (Paris , 1990). D. Chirac, 'The Social and Historical Landscape of Marc Bloch', in Vision and Method in Historical Sociology, ed . T. Skocpol (Cambridge, 1984) , Chapter 2. Davis, 'A Modem Hero ', New York Review of Books , 26 April 1990 , 27-



30. C. Fink , Marc Bloch: a Lift in History (Cambridge, 1989). C. Ginzburg, 'Marc Bloch ' (196 5), English trans. in his Clues (London , 1989). B. Lyon, 'Marc Bloch: did he repudiate Annales History?', Journal of Medieval History 11 ( 19 85), 181 -9 1. B. Lyon, 'Marc Bloch ', French Historical Studies 10 ( 198 7), 195 . M. Mastrogregori, ' Nota sul testo dell'Apolo gie pour l'histoire di Marc Bloch', Revista di storia della storiografia modema 7 (I 9 8 6) , 5-3 2. M. Mastrogregori , 'Le m anuscrit interrompu: Metier d 'historien de Marc Bloch', Annales 44 ( 198 9), 147- 59 . J. A. Raftis, 'Marc Bloch's Comparative Method and the Rural History of Medieval England', Medieval Studies 24 ( 1962), 349-68. W . Sewell, 'Marc Bloch and the Lo gic of Comparative History' , History and Theory 6 ( 1967), 206- 18. M. Wessel, 'Woord vooraf , in M. Bloch, Geschiedenis als Ambacht (Nijmegen , 1989), 9-2 5


Masuogregori ( 19 86 , 19 89) ; Wessel (1989) .


by Lucien Febvre

It is a delicate task, to be undertaken with many scruples, to prepare an unfinished manuscript for publication, especially when even those parts that had been g(ven to the typist would certainly have received a last polishing from the author before going to the printer. But such scruples are outweighed by the satisfaction of making public, even in mutilated form, a notable book. Marc Bloch long dreamed, as I have done, of putting down his ideas on history in an organized way. I often think with bitter regret, that while there was yet time we should have collaborated to give our younger generation a kind of new Langlois and Seignobos, 1 to be the manifesto of another generation and the embodiment of an entirely different spirit. It is too late. At any rate, Marc Bloch , w hen events had deflected him from his path, attempted on his own to realize a plan which we had often discussed together. I have elsewhere related how, serving as a staff officer in Alsace, and restless under the idleness of the "phony war," he one day went to a storekeeper at Molsheim and bought a schoolboy's notebook, no doubt just such a one as that in which Henri Pirenne, interned in another village in the heart of Germany in the First War, wrote his history of Europe. On

the fust page, Bloch wrote a title: History of French Society in the Structure of European Civilization. Somewhat later, he composed the dedication: To the memory of Henri Pirenne who, at the time his country was figh ting beside mine for justice and civilization, wrote in captivi ty, a history of Europe. After which, according to his custom, he drafted an introduction: Reflections for a Reader Interested in 1 [Translator's note: This refers to the famous Introduction aux Etudes Historiques, long us