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? 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 …

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