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A Modern Hero

Marc Bloch: A Life in History

by Carole Fink
Cambridge University Press, 371 pp., $29.95


This October the Institute for World History in Moscow held an international conference to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the French scholarly journal, Annales, which had been founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch, who was killed by the Gestapo in 1944, and Lucien Febvre, who died in 1956. A Soviet historian, once much criticized for his attachment to “bourgeois science,” spoke of how Febvre and Bloch had taught him that past societies had to be understood through their basic mental categories, not through the false distinction between material structure and superstructure. A Mexican historian recalled how Marc Bloch had taught him to look for the connections between historical phenomena instead of breaking the life of the past into fragments. A Chinese historian said with some irony that the history of his land had provided the Annales school with an example of very slow change, of what the French call “la longue durée.”

In my own case, I recalled how I decided to become a historian after reading Bloch’s Feudal Society, and there are other historians of my generation who would say the same. What is it about the work of Bloch and Febvre that continues to inspire historians and give new direction to historical interpretation?

First there is their joint project to reform the way history was studied, taught, and written about. History’s central subject, for them, was not political events, statesmen, and institutions, but “l’homme,” human beings seen through their experience. The historian found them in fields, forests, huts, craft shops, chapels, and counting rooms, as well as in libraries, courtrooms, and palaces. When the evidence was in, the historian was not satisfied, as the positivists were, “to let the facts speak for themselves.” Rather, the historian arranged the material so as to integrate, say, economic practices with social forms, and probed the evidence collected to discover the assumptions and perceptions distinctive to the age. These made up its “mentalité“—an “absurd word,” Febvre admitted in 1934, but what else could it be called?1 Meanwhile, Bloch stressed the uses of comparison: to verify and deepen one’s understanding of French rural organization, what better way than to compare it with English or German, or even West African?

With reforming zeal, Febvre and Bloch put people from different disciplines on the editorial board of the Annales. They published book reviews that were celebrated for their sharpness and raised large questions of how history should be written. The two men were not, in fact, without predecessors: their vision owed something to the sociologist Emile Durkheim, to the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, and to Henri Berr’s Revue de synthèse historique, among others. But their collaboration was original, adding breadth to their arguments and allowing “the mission of the Annales” to grow beyond the ambition of a single person.

Second, there are their own original works of history. Febvre’s concerned the sixteenth century. He took up seemingly enigmatic figures such as François Rabelais and Marguerite de Navarre and he tried to resolve the apparent contradictions in their thought by reconstructing the cultural world in which they lived. Bloch’s published work ranged over centuries and subject matter. Les rois thaumaturges of 1924 was a study of the miraculous power of English and French kings to cure the disease of scrofula. In Bloch’s hands, old anecdotes about “the king’s touch” turned into a history of the origins, meanings, and demise of ritual kingship. Of his books, Les rois thaumaturges, which anticipates current work on political ceremonial, has stayed the freshest in its entirety.

Bloch’s next major work was Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française of 1931 (translated as French Rural History in 1970). There Bloch explored the basic patterns of French agriculture—with peasants in some regions farming across open fields, and in others farming within enclosures—as well as the long history of the seigneury and collective village ownership. Inspired in part by German and English precedents, he showed that present-day landscapes could teach us about the past, and he found fresh social meanings in old manorial charters. Superseded in some details, Les caractères originaux still makes a persuasive synthesis of French agricultural history.

Finally, there were the two volumes of La société féodale, which appeared in 1939–1940 just as war broke out in Europe. Bloch’s goal was to analyze the social structure characteristic of medieval times, to portray what gave distinctness to those centuries while at the same time suggesting a social typology useful for other places and times. He found the distinctive element in lordship, the subordinating of one person to another from the top of society to the bottom, and showed its power to shape thought, prayer, and gesture into expressions of dependency. Though his chronology and other points were later to be challenged, Bloch formulated the issues in medieval studies that are central for historians today: the origins of nobility and of servitude, the relation of kinship ties to feudal ties, and the nature of collective memory and consciousness at a period when most people could not read.2


For the originality of his scholarship alone, Marc Bloch would have deserved a biography, and, indeed, studies exist on one or another book and on the Annales. But that is only part of the story. Marc Bloch was also a patriot who served in the French army in both world wars, and who wrote an account of his experiences in the first war and a book of recollections on France’s “strange defeat” in the second. Excluded from French professional life as a Jew during the German Occupation, he became an important figure in the French Resistance and was finally captured, tortured, and murdered by the Gestapo near Lyon in June 1944. If the historian’s calling has a modern saint and hero, it is Marc Bloch.

Carole Fink has written the first fullscale biography of Marc Bloch with thoroughness, sympathy, and perceptiveness. She has unearthed Bloch’s voluminous correspondence in diverse collections; she has followed his publications from the early notes he made through reviewers’ reactions; and she has reconstructed his diverse activities from archives on both sides of the Atlantic. She has sought out Bloch’s friends, relatives, and former students and, where possible, interviewed them. Carole Fink has compressed her results into an absorbing book; her balanced approach to the fiercely controversial issues of the 1930s and 1940s may come more easily to a foreign scholar than to one of Bloch’s compatriots.

Fink considers the interconnected themes of Bloch’s life—his academic career, family, political engagement, and intellectual achievement. In France Bloch was referred to as an “Israelite” (the courteous term for Jews of fairly high status who had adapted to French life) who was making his way in the cultural and political world of the Third Republic. Marc Bloch was the descendant of generations of Alsatian Jews. His great-grandfather was a rabbi of Fegersheim; his grandfather was the rector of the Jewish school in Strasbourg. His father Gustave was the first to cross the line of assimilation, leaving behind Hebraic and Talmudic learning for a career as a distinguished scholar of the history of Rome. He taught in Lyon at the Faculty of Letters and then was called to the University of Paris, where Lucien Febvre was among his students.

In the Paris in which Marc Bloch grew up in the last years of the nineteenth century the celebration of the civic and open values of republicanism provoked a narrow anti-Semitic reaction against those who, like Gustave Bloch, had made the “leap from the synagogue to the Sorbonne.” Marc Bloch was twenty in 1906 when Alfred Dreyfus was finally reinstated as an officer in the French army. The Dreyfus Affair had shown him the face of reactionary France, but its outcome confirmed Bloch’s belief in the resilience of republican democracy.

Marc Bloch’s education and academic career in most ways resembled those of other talented men of his generation: he attended the Ecole Normal Supérieure, did research for his thesis, and was granted the prestigious Thiers Foundation fellowship; he taught in Lycées at Montpellier and Amiens, was awarded medals for bravery under fire while serving in the French army during the war, and in 1919 he became a professor at the University of Strasbourg, now reopened under French control with a remarkable new staff. The career of Lucien Febvre, who also joined the Strasbourg faculty in 1919, followed much the same path, except that Bloch studied in Germany for a year before the war.

Their paths diverged in the 1930s, partly, it appears, because Bloch was a Jew. Both men hoped to move from Strasbourg to the Collège de France, so as to be nearer the center of things in Paris and to enjoy the greater freedom for scholarly action allowed to professors at that august institution. Febvre was finally elected in early 1933, and Bloch started his own campaign to be nominated at the end of the same year. Complicating the usual competition among candidates as well as among different fields of study, Fink writes, was what Bloch recognized as

a serious recrudescence of anti-Semitism, a “curious social phenomenon” that had penetrated the frontier from the east, aimed not specifically against himself but at his name and his ancestry. According to Bloch, there were two types of anti-Semites, those who wished to “exterminate” or expel the Jews, whose excessive and repugnant manner rendered them less dangerous than the second, the “numerous clausus” types, who established a fine, impenetrable quota on outsiders. This second category included many assimilated Jews, eager to guard the gate for their own self-aggrandizement and self-defense.

Bloch was basing his views here on rumors afloat at the Collège that had been passed on to him by Febvre. The worries of some of the Jewish professors may have been less self-serving than Bloch suspected. One of them, who said to Febvre that Bloch should conduct a “calm” campaign so as to avoid anti-Semitism, was Sylvain Lévi, a distinguished Indianologist but also the President of the Society for Jewish Studies in France during those years.

As Nazi strength grew in central Europe and fascist demonstrations troubled the streets of Paris, Bloch proposed himself for a chair in the comparative history of European societies; in 1935 he lost to candidates who were specialists in national antiquities and experimental psychology. A year later Bloch was elected to the chair in economic history at the Sorbonne, but he still expressed bitterness to Febvre about his defeat at the Collège de France. An unofficial understanding about a Jewish quota had in his view won out over considerations of merit. Nor was this the last time in the 1930s that Bloch had to defend his right to seek academic advancement and responsibility as a French citizen like everyone else, regardless of his name.

Exactly what it meant to Bloch to be Jewish is not fully explained by Fink. For French Jews who called themselves Israelites, religion was a private affair, a family matter, and the subject seems an intrusive one when Fink raises it. Bloch was an “absolute atheist,” according to his eldest son Etienne, an important witness throughout the biography. He introduced the Old Testament to his children, but gave them no religious instruction. Still, there was a Jewish funeral for old Gustave Bloch in 1923, and a Jewish wedding when Marc Bloch married the talented Simonne Vidal in 1920. Since Simonne’s mother was a practicing Jew, Bloch’s three eldest sons were circumcised, and until his mother-in-law’s death in 1929 his children went to eat honey at her house on the Jewish New Year.3 When Bloch came in 1941 to write a credo to be read at his own burial (reproduced in the biography in his beautiful clear hand), he explained that the Hebrew prayers would not be chanted because they did not give expression to what he truly believed. He refused to deny he was born a Jew:

  1. 1

    Lucien Febvre to Etienne Gilson, 1934 (Etienne Gilson Archives, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto)

  2. 2

    Marc Bloch’s works are available in the following translations: The Royal Touch, translated by J.E. Anderson (McGill-Queens University Press, 1973); French Rural History, translated by Janet Sondheimer, with a foreword by Bryce Lyon (University of California Press, 1966); Feudal Society, translated by L.A. Manyon (University of Chicago Press, 1961); Memoirs of War, 1914–15, translated by and with an introduction by Carole Fink (Cornell University Press, 1980; reprinted by Cambridge University Press, 1989); Strange Defeat, translated by G. Hopkins (Hippocrene Books, 1967); The Historian’s, Craft, translated by Peter Putnam, with an introduction by Joseph R. Strayer (Knopf, 1953). Recent French editions with interesting introductions are Les rois thaumaturges (Gallimard, 1983), with a preface by Jacques Legoff and Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française (Armand Colin, 1988), with a major introduction by Pierre Toubert.

  3. 3

    Etienne Bloch, “Ce que mon père nous racontait,” interview with Maurice Olender. Le Nouvel Observateur, 981 (August 26–September 1, 1983), pp. 67–68.

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