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, which embodied their historical ideals. (There was then, and there is now, nothing like it in the United States, and it is a fair guess that the morale of historians here would measurably improve if there were.) The Annales, with its arguments and spirited reviews, its reports on inquiries in progress, survived the war, and made a fresh start after the Liberation, with a shortened subtitle but no change in policy. Febvre was still there, elderly but as combative as ever, but Marc Bloch was gone—he had been shot by the Nazis in 1944.

The men around the Annales, among whom Duby and Mandrou have long been prominent, have always combined an engaging independence toward their profession with an equally engaging piety toward its giants, and much of their admiration for Bloch and Febvre stems from their conviction that these two exemplified to perfection this mixture of reverent respect and revisionist verve: in the current issue of the journal, Fernand Braudel, himself a distinguished historian of sixteenth-century Europe, remembers Marc Bloch twenty years after his heroic death as a historian who knew, “better than anyone else, that erudition, that indispensable instrument, is not an end in itself; he knew that the essential center of research is the problem,” and that we come to understand the past only by passionately living in the present. Marc Bloch accepted his obligation “to live in his time to the full, and he paid for it with his life.” The historian, as Febvre had reiterated without pause, must be concerned above all with the “human problem”; he must use his techniques as precision instruments designed to guide him to life. Only that man is worthy of being called a historian—he had written in his manifesto opening the new, old, Annales in 1946—who plunges into life, bathes in it, and “lets himself be penetrated by living humanity.”

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This is heady doctrine, and not without its risks: it invites small men to haste, to contempt for care and precision as “mere” technique, and, with its passion for the present, to the abuse of history for unhistorical purposes. But Febvre, Bloch, and their heirs were not small men. They were superb technicians, and what they learned from the present was not that the past could be used, or that it was like the present, but that it had once been alive, a confusing organic whole electric with contradictions and stabilized by underlying continuities that so often escaped later historians anxious to impose rigid categories on the past. Yet there was a lesser risk that the men of the Annales did not always wholly avoid: determined to portray life in lively fashion, their style sometimes became breathless, impressionistic, nearly, but never quite, vulgar.

While Duby and Mandrou sometimes show traces of this breathlessness, in general their dependence on the Annales is pure gain. Their impressionism is not the so-called “vivid writing” that mars so much popular history in our time: rather, they place their details with the sure sense of relevance, the severe self-discipline characteristic of the pointilliste. They are unconventional only for the sake of their subject, not for the sake of unconventionality. The arrangement of the book, in fact, and the periods it covers, is conservatism itself: A History of French Civilization begins with a broad survey of French life around the year 1000, a time when the invasions were over and population stabilized itself. It continues with a survey of feudalism and the Capetian monarchy, then moves in strict chronological order to the French Renaissance, the Wars of Religion, the Age of Louis XIV, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, Napoleon, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—nothing could be more conventional, safer, than this.

It is only in its selection of material that the book is radical. Around the year 1000, French life was dominated by the peasant and the Church, hence it is these two subjects that make up the bulk of the first chapter. Feudalism, is a complex system of social relations, hence it is social relations that dominate the second chapter. And so on through the book: changes in mentality, influx of foreign ideas and goods, religious fanaticism, population growth, romanticism, positivism, science, all have their place in the proper spot.

It would be too much to expect all interpretations—and the book is a chain of interpretations—to be beyond challenge. I for one find the authors excessively inclined to paint eighteenth-century Europe as a “French” century (neither Locke nor Newton, whose impact on the France of Louis XV was immense, is mentioned); and again, I think the authors are surprisingly staid in their interpretation of the French Revolution, which they treat as the triumph of the bourgeoisie (a view that has recently been persuasively disputed by Alfred Cobban). Other readers will no doubt find other questionable views in other parts of the book. But while A History of French Civilization is not conclusive, it is an incentive to similar work, which may differ in some of its conclusions, but will have to be like it in its control of detail. Let one instance of this control, from the first chapter, stand for many: “The miserable accoutrements” of Frenchmen in the eleventh century “do not protect them against cold or night. They live outside; the dwellings without fireplaces or windows are mere dens in which they entrench themselves only to sleep. The rhythm of life is wedded to the seasons. Winter is a long sleep; the days are short, for nothing is known about lighting. Men and animals grow sleepy rather than use up the inadequate food supply. In winter there is a huge Christmas blaze, sacrifices of hogs and bellyfuls of pig meat. Spring comes as a deliverance: the entire Middle Ages are illuminated by the lightheartedness of May, that brief respite in agricultural work, when begin, for the rich, the pleasures of military expedition. Summer is feverish, a time of consuming work and fatigue. Because of its subservience to natural cycles, such an existence is brutal and one in which time, as duration of fluctuating value, is not measured.” Here it is, eleventh-century society, in vivid detail: “People move about on the rivers in little boats, or on foot accompanied by beasts of burden. In all these slow movements, distances are vast beyond measure; even the routes are useless in the absence of resting places.” These men must have been half-starved: “The effects of chronic undernourishment are conspicuous in the skeletons exhumed from Merovingian cemeteries; the chafing of the teeth that indicates a grass-eating people, rickets, and an overwhelming preponderance of people who died young.” I could have chosen dozens of similar examples; the whole book is a model of specificity. To write this kind of history—so concrete, so alive, so sympathetic, so much to the point—one must not only know a great deal. One must also know the right things.

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This Issue

January 28, 1965

  1. *

    It should not be a matter of surprise, but I continue to be surprised to see how much difference translation still makes, even in the academic profession. Two of Marc Bloch’s lesser works, Strange Defeat, and The Historian’s Craft (both moving essays, the one on France in 1940 the other on the historical discipline) have long been available in English, and now that his masterly Feudal Society has been translated, he is acquiring the reputation he deserves. His stature would grow even more were someone to translate his fascinating Les rois thaumaturges, the history of the superstitious belief in the King’s touch for scrofula and related diseases, or even better, his Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rural française, which is a supreme piece of historical detective-work, a brilliant synthesis of patience, learning, and intuition. In the same manner, Febvre would be better known in this country if someone were to collect his reviews in the Annales, or render into English his Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle, a model of historical understanding; by placing Rabelais into his times, it shows how much a historian may contribute to the understanding of literature.