One of the historians whom I most admire is Marc Bloch. He was one of France’s most important medieval historians in the first half of the twentieth century, and he died at the hands of the Gestapo while serving in the Resistance in Paris in 1944. (Carole Fink’s biography is an outstanding treatment of his thought and life; Marc Bloch: A Life in History; also important is Marc Bloch, l’historien et la cite.)
Here I am primarily interested in the substantive contributions Bloch brought to the writing of history. Bloch was one of the founders of the Annales school of history, along with Lucien Febvre, and he left a deep impression on subsequent historical imagination later in the twentieth century. In particular, he gave a strong impetus to social and sociological history, and he brought a non-Marxist materialism into the writing of history that represented a very important angle of view. The largest impact of the Annales school — Febvre, Bloch, Ladurie, Braudel, Le Goff — is the set of perspectives it forged for the understanding of social and cultural history — looking at the structures and experiences of ordinary people as one foundation for the formation of history. This required the invention of new historical vocabulary and new sources of data. And Bloch was central in each area.
A couple of Bloch’s books are most significant. Feudal Society is a very important contribution to our understanding of the institutions and social relations of feudalism — the manorial system, vassalage, and kingship. And his writings about French agricultural history are of special interest (French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics). These books document quite a few important aspects of French rural social life — both high and low. But even more importantly, Bloch brought several distinctive ideas into historical writing that continue to serve as illuminating models about how to understand the past. One is a version of materialist historical investigation — Bloch provides great insight into the forces and relations of production in rural medieval France and the material culture of the middle ages. A second is an adept ability to single out and scrutinize some of the forms of political structure and power that defined French feudal society. And a third is a subtle way of characterizing the social whole of medieval society and mentality that owed much to Durkheim. In a curious way, then, Bloch’s work picked up some of the themes that constituted modern social theory in Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.
Bloch’s materialism is most evident in French Rural History. Here Bloch gives a detailed and scholarly treatment of the social and community consequences of the diffusion of the heavy wheeled plough. He provides a careful technical analysis of the advantages and exigencies of the heavy plough, which was most suited to the heavy soil of northern France. And he works out the social prerequisites of this technology — basically, a degree of community organization that could successfully coordinate land use consistent with ownership and the turning radius of the heavy implement and its team of horses. The technical requirements of the plough required certain social arrangements. And the social structure of the northern French village satisfied these conditions — in striking contrast to the looser coordination found in southern French villages. “Only a society of great compactness, composed of men who thought instinctively in terms of the community, could have created such a regime. The land itself was the fruit of collective labour” (French Rural History, 45).
This is materialism; but it is not especially Marxist materialism. It doesn’t give primacy to class relations. And it doesn’t support any kind of teleology in historical development. But the central point was clear. Bloch sought to demonstrate that a major technology — for example, cultivation with the heavy plough — incorporates and implicates a whole complex social and cultural system. And a major part of social history is to discover the sequence of adjustments through which the technology system is incorporated.
The Durkheim part of the story is also an important one. Durkheim was a major influence on French social thought in the teens and twenties, and the vector to Bloch was particularly direct. The journal Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale was created by Bloch and Febvre as a vehicle for inviting a more sociological approach to economic history and to encourage interdisciplinary research in this field, and Bloch and Febvre were deeply influenced by the debate that surrounded history and Durkheimian sociology in the period 1890-1910. R. Colbert Rhodes has written a good essay on Durkheim’s influence on Bloch. Rhodes writes: “Bloch’s essentially sociological approach to historical writing is responsible for some of the most distinctive and useful features of his work. Bloch reflects the Durkheimian social realist metaphysic by reaching behind individuals to the social group considered in its broadest aspect, the collective mentality. Bloch acknowledges in the Historian’s Craft his dominant interest in the study of man integrated into the social group. In the Craft, Bloch borrows a citation from Lucien Febvre to state his own interest as ‘not man, again, never man.’ We are interested in “human societies, organized groups” (47).
The final feature of Bloch’s thought I want to highlight is his vocabulary of structure and power in his treatment of French feudalism. There is a parallel with Weber in this body of thinking. Bloch spent a year studying in Germany and was presumably aware of Weber’s thought, but there is no clear evidence of direct influence. But there are several ways in which some of Bloch’s thought parallels Weber’s. One is in his use of ideas about historical concepts that are similar to Weber’s concept of ideal types. And the other is his careful analysis of the historical realities of relations of power and social structures that embody power.
Bloch’s writings repay a careful reading — both for their importance as first-rate historical scholarship and for the light they shed on the problem of historical knowledge and conceptualization. And it is highly relevant to find that all the strands of classical sociological theory find a counterpart in his thought.