Friday, 12 October 2012

The Craft of History

I have several connections with Marc Bloch, the French historian who was shot in 1944 for being in the Resistance during the war.  My great-uncle studied briefly with him in Paris in 1938 just after Bloch moved from to the capital from his position as Professor of Medieval History at the University of Strasbourg and who always proclaimed he was the ‘best’ historian he’d ever worked with.  His La Societe feodale was one of the first books I read at university in the late-60s though in a translation that betrayed the elegance of the original and several years ago I acquired a copy of a book on medieval France that Bloch had signed and which, presumably came from his own library.  Although medieval history had come a long way in the past seventy years, Bloch remains an important historian who is still worth reading even if some of his conclusions are now open to question.  Very few academics revolutionise the way in which History is studied, but Bloch did that, helping to create the hugely influential Annales school, which argued compellingly in favour of the study of ‘history from below’—of everyday life, that is, studied in the context of geography and the social environment and over la longue durée, the long term: typically a thousand years or more.


His Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien was first published in England as The Historian’s Craft in 1954, an American edition had appeared the previous year.  Written between 1941 and 1943 ‘as a simple antidote by which, amid sorrows and anxieties, both personal and collective’, it was never completed and was ‘reconstructed’ from three draft copies by his friend Lucien Febvre.  It lacks any references –Bloch intended to add these later—and whether what we have is what Bloch would have ultimately published is debatable.  It was a work in progress but despite this it has proved a popular and widely read study that has been translated into eight languages.  In 1952, Italian and Spanish translations appeared,  soon followed in 1953 by an English translation. Other translations have appeared: in Germany, Estonia, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. The total circulation of the book is over 450,000 copies worldwide.

The Historian’s Craft  was a response to Bloch’s son’s question ‘What is the use of history?’ and is divided into an introduction and five chapters: the past and history, evidence, historical criticism, historical analysis and causation.  For Bloch, history is the science of men in time.  Time is a continuum and the past can only be explained in terms of the present and the present in terms of the past.  This was echoed several decades later by Arthur Marwick when he called history ‘a social necessity’.  The reciprocal relationship between past and present, Bloch argued, can be penetrated by the use of tools of the historical dialectic such as observation, criticism, analysis and the concept of causation.  Observation was a complex search for ‘tracks’ often partially obliterated or wholly destroyed while evidence changes its character and meaning and can only be interpreted by rigorous criticism.  Perhaps the most important chapter is on historical analysis.  For Bloch, if historians are to fulfil their real function, they must be able to see what is behind the record, to fathom what is never recorded in so many words.  There must be a victory of mind over material.

Bloch’s focus is on professional practice based on a division of labour and specialisation and cooperation of all those who practice’ .  The originality of the work lies in the consideration of the new developments in the history of epistemology and philosophy of science. Bloch placed considerable emphasis on communication issues: communication with the community of historians demanding a common language and communication with the public through a language accessible to everyone. Bloch was convinced that the historian’s function was to strive to enrich the collective memory, not simply in the service of a country and that historians alone were willing to serve all humanity. 

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