The Present in the Past

A History of French Civilization: From the Year 1000 to the Present

by Georges Duby, by Robert Mandrou, translated by James Blakely Atkinson
Random House, 626 pp., $8.95

This book is as modest in its pretensions as it is impressive in its achievement. It claims to be directed at students, foreigners, and the general public; scholars are warned off: “Specialists in each period will learn nothing from it, and will note strange lacunae.” True, a book of 600 pages, even 600 large pages, will not offer the specialist any surprises, and may annoy him with its unavoidable omissions. But even the specialist is likely to find A History of French Civilization—an extended essay rather than a formal history—liberating, for it is cultural history at its best. That is why scholars should disregard the authors’ disclaimer and read their book.

Duby’s and Mandrou’s conception of their craft—that history is history of culture—is one that the boldest of American historians are coming to make their own. But for most it remains a dubious venture or elusive ideal. Cultural history may be defined as history that employs whatever material may prove to be significant. This sounds like simplicity itself: what could be more obvious than to concentrate on the significant? But, as the historian knows, the significant is rarely obvious. This raw material is a mess, and he must therefore construct his own order. He creates evidence—not by inventing it, of course, but by looking at the past with eyes trained to be perceptive. Since in general he sees only what he seeks, he must know what to look for. Traditionally, from the seventeenth-century Benedictines and the Enlightenment historians down to Macaulay and Burckhardt, it has been the business of great historians to enlarge the sphere of available evidence, and to specify what kind of meaningful testimony the newly-discovered witnesses are best equipped to give. In our century, we have found meaning in population statistics, the circulation of magazines, fashions in literature and painting, changes in child rearing or in perceptions of space and time.

Enlarging the perspective and enriching the territory of historical inquiry has been the work of many men in many countries—the historical profession, for all its lapses into chauvinism, is at best a cosmopolitan discipline—but perhaps its most adventurous pioneers have been Frenchmen. Among these, the two most radical innovators were Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, whose names haunt the pages of this book, much to its profit; A History of French Civilization is an immense tribute to them. Marc Bloch, a brilliant economic and social historian of the Middle Ages, is slowly coming into his own in the English-speaking world. Lucien Febvre, equally brilliant in perception though less elegant than Bloch in expression, is known to the specialist alone; his essays on religious life in the sixteenth century, and his combative reviews—Febvre thought himself, not without reason, the conscience of his profession, and the champion of the new social history—have reached few readers outside France. In 1929, these two, lifelong friends and unsparing mutual critics, founded a journal, the Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale …

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