Marc Bloch’s philosophy of history

Marc Bloch wrote The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. after the defeat of France in 1940. The title suggests that the book is a “how-to” manual for doing historical research, authored by one of the great historians of the twentieth century. But this would be to misunderstand the book. It is something better, more ambitious, and more important than a “users’ guide” to becoming a historian. Instead, it is a thoughtful, innovative historian reflecting on fundamental questions in what we can correctly describe as a philosophy of history. It is a reflective book that considers and reflects upon some of the great historians of France and Belgium, often praising but also often criticizing and correcting.

Bloch begins with a fundamental question: what is history? And of course, this is not an easy question to answer. Is history no more nor less than “the past” — everything that happened? This is not a particularly informative answer. Or more selectively, is history the sequence of important events, kingdoms, leaders, wars and revolutions, inventions, literary innovations, all set within a chronological framework? Even more abstractly, is history the study of great epochs — feudalism, ancient Rome, the absolutist French state, the Industrial Revolution? 

Bloch does not like any of these answers to the fundamental question. Instead, he offers a simple answer of his own: history is “human beings in time”. He chooses this answer for several reasons. History is not simply “temporal sequence”; rather, it is the actions, creations, meanings, and life experiences of concrete human beings. Further, human beings are themselves historically conditioned; medieval serfs were different in deep ways from American farmers or contract software coders. They are different, in particular, in their mentalities, their mental frameworks through which they understand themselves and their relations to others. These differences are profound; they involve differences in beliefs, dispositions, ways of framing the world, attitudes towards neighbors, strangers, the gods, and their families. Their “histories” have shaped them into different sorts of human beings.

So for Bloch, the study of history is the study of individuals and groups in social settings in the past, striving, interpreting, and cooperating or competing with each other. Further, it is the study of some of the practices, structures, institutions, belief systems, and inventions that emerged from these forms of human action and interaction. There is no fundamental break between “the past” and “the present” — rather, human beings and their actions and social relations create and propel change, whether in the year 1000 or the year 1940. And distinctively, Bloch underlines the fact that human actions influence the physical environment; for example, the silting of the river port of Bruges changed the nature of water-born commerce in that great market town.

If human beings and their actions are the key stuff of history, then Bloch is also dismissive of the importance of traditional “periods” of history. Periods are created by historians, not by the ebb and flow of historical events themselves. In Bloch’s view of history, change is of fundamental interest to the historian; words change their meanings, place names change, patterns of habitation change, social relationships change, and it is a central task of the historian to chart and seek to understand these various processes of change.

Also of special interest are the creations of human beings throughout our histories. Ideas and ideologies; religious beliefs; social practices; technologies and scientific methods; social structures; and even wars and revolutions are all creations of human beings that the historian is especially interested in probing and investigating.

Bloch links the past and the present in an especially intimate way. The historian needs to be deeply immersed in the ordinary processes and activities of the present, if he or she is going to be ready to understand the actions and thoughts of the actors of the past. Bloch’s own experiences of war in 1917 and 1940 provided him with forms of knowledge and understanding that enhanced his ability to understand the medieval world.

Another key question posed by Bloch is whether history is “useful”. Can we “learn from history”? Can the study of history improve our chances for a happy and peaceful future? Bloch’s view is that the central value and use of history is its intellectual interest for us as human beings, and the significance we human beings attach to our histories. We are historical beings, in the sense that we understand ourselves in terms of the stories and narratives we tell about ourselves. We understand ourselves in the present in terms of the ways that we have constructed and interpreted the steps of human action and meaning that led us to this point. So the key values of history include the intellectual interest we take in understanding the past and the meanings we create for ourselves by discovering and interpreting aspects of our history.

We want to understand the past. And in fact, this is what Bloch regards as the central challenge for the scientific historian: to understand and explain aspects of the past. Historians should discover the pathways and causes through which various historical features came to be. Why did the actors behave as they did in the circumstances? What were they trying to accomplish? What social structures or circumstances influenced their choices, and thereby caused some aspects of the outcomes we are interested in?

Bloch’s philosophy of history is an inclusive and open-ended one. He encourages the historian to be multidisciplinary; not confined by periods or places; not focused on “great events and great persons: and to focus historical research on the circumstances of ordinary human beings. His approach is a “human-centered history”. And of particular importance, Bloch argues for a wide range of kinds of evidence that are relevant to historical inquiry. He doubts the privileged position of “contemporary documents and narratives,” and points as well to the value of non-text sources of historical insight — ruins, inscriptions, monuments, archeological discoveries, place names, and other apparently mundane and unremarkable “markers” of historical meaning.

Bloch was a founder, along with Lucien Febvre, of the Annales school of historical writing and research. It is not surprising that The Historian’s Craft captures eloquently some of the most important and innovative commitments of the Annales school in this important testament of the great historian.

Generalizations in history

Historical generalizations are often suspect: “The Renaissance encouraged innovative thinking,” “The Qing state stifled independent commercial activity,” “The open frontier created a distinctively American popular culture.” The problem with statements like these is their sweep; among other things, they imply that the Renaissance, the Qing state, or American culture were essentially uniform social realities, and they erase the forms of variation that certainly existed — and that often constitute the most interesting of historical discoveries.

So grand generalizations in history are problematic. But then we have to ask a different sort of question. Specifically — what kinds of generalizations are possible in history? If we can’t answer this question constructively, then historical research loses much of its interest and purpose. If historical knowledge were limited to statements about specific actors in concrete local circumstances, it would have roughly the interest of a police report. Rather, the historian needs to aggregate his/her understanding of the available evidence into statements about larger agglomerations: villages, towns, and cities; crowds, classes, and professions; assemblies, riots, and movements. Moreover, we would like to be able to make something larger of the historian’s findings — something that sheds light on broader social realities and trends. And each of these requires generalization: statements that extend beyond the particular instances that are presented by the historical record.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s micro-history of the tiny village of Montaillou (Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324) is worth considering in this context. His opening lines raise the question of generalization:

Whoever wishes to know the peasant of the old or very old regimes, does not aim at grand syntheses — regional, national, or continental: I think of the work of Goubert, Poitrineau, Fourquin, Fossier, Duby, Bloch … What is always missing is the direct aspect: the witnessing, without intermediary, how the peasant presents himself.

Le Roy Ladurie gives a treatment of the history of a very specific, small place — a specific group of village actors in a short time period. Their stories are told through the records of Inquisition investigations. So you might say — it’s all very particular knowledge about this specific time and place. But if so, what makes it historically meaningful or valuable? How does it extend our historical knowledge and imagination? Why does it have greater historical significance than an ethnographic study of the graduates of a particular high school in rural Illinois in 1967, for example? We could imagine the latter study making for interesting reading — the valedictorian ended up as a small-town insurance agent, the class clown became a well-known agricultural expert at the university, 60% of the graduates still lived within 20 miles of their high school location in 40 years. But would this latter study constitute a significant piece of “American social history”? And what more would we ask of the author of this study, in terms of relating his/her findings to larger historical settings and contexts, before we would call it a contribution to social history?

There appear to be several different ways in which a concrete micro-study can achieve the broader significance that it needs to qualify as a genuine contribution to historical understanding.

One possibility is that the micro-study is somehow “representative” of larger social realities at the time. One might read Montaillou as being representative of many other remote places in fourteenth-century France — so the description of this place might serve to generalize to other parts of France. And what does this mean? It means, presumably, that the historian arrives at true statements about Montaillou that are also true of other villages at other times. (Though the author’s cautions against “grand synthesis” seem to count against this use of his findings.)

Another possibility is diachronic generalization: the historian may have identified, under the “microscope” of detailed study of these decades in Montaillou, the crossing and emergence of historical patterns and changes that themselves have broader significance over time. The mental significance of Catholicism for rural people, for example, may have been undergoing change over a period of centuries; we might take the Montaillou snapshot as one instant in time of the larger historical trend. (Our historian of the small town high school class imagined above, for example, might relate her findings to changing attitudes towards universities or the government in small-town America.)

A third possibility is at the level of concepts of behavior and agency. The historian may grapple for ways of extending his/her vocabulary of action and thought for actors in the past; the micro-study may suggest a new set of categories in terms of which to understand the forms of action and thought that were possible for fourteenth-century common rural people. It is certainly an important question for the historian, to ask “why do people act as they do?” in specific historical settings — the outposts of the Roman empire, village India, or sixteenth-century London; and the micro-study may serve to broaden the range of answers we have for this fundamental question. This intellectual task is not one of “generalization”, but rather one of “speciation” — specification of the broad range of variation that is possible within historical reality.

This may all come down to a truism: there is an irresolvable tension for historians between “specification of the local” and “generalization over trends”. Too much generalization, and you lose the point of historical research — you lose the tangible granularity of real people and social settings in history, and the surprising singularities that historians like Le Roy Ladurie or Robert Darnton are able to put in front of us. Too little generalization, however, and the research becomes pointless — just a specification of a collection of actions and outcomes for which the existing historical record happens to provide some information. We want both from good historical writing: an adequate attention to specificity and some degree of projectability and insight into broader questions.

Longue durée

Image: Making dikes on the Yellow River

Many historical changes take place on a human scale — the Great Depression came and went within the lived experience of many millions of people, and they were able to tell comprehensible narratives of the beginning, middle, and end. Likewise with periods of political transition and upheaval — the Vietnam war protests, the Reagan revolution, the Cold War. So these events can be scaled within the historical sensibilities of individuals who experienced them. But what about changes that are so extended and so gradual that they are all but imperceptible? How is history of the longue durée to be understood? (This posting picks up the thread from an earlier post on “historical tempo”.)

The sorts of changes I have in mind here run along these lines: a long, slow increase of population density relative to available resources; a gradual shift in the gender ratio or age structure of a population; the gradual silting of a river system and estuary; a slow erosion of a traditional system of values; and an extended process of increasing or decreasing tolerance between intermixed religious groups. In each case it is possible for the changes to be slow enough to defy recognition by historical participants; and yet each of these slow processes may have very important historical consequences.

Paul Pierson addresses many of the issues raised by slow pace of historical processes in Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. But in a somewhat different theoretical setting the topic was also of particular interest to some of the historians of the Annales school — Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in particular. We might say that these are examples of historical processes working “behind the backs” of the participants.

The question here is a simple one: what are the methods of observation and inference through which historians can identify and investigate these sorts of long, slow processes? And what is the standing of such processes insofar as they stand outside the scope of events of ordinary historical experience? Given that participants have no basis for identifying the long, slow processes within which they swim, what is the status of the historian’s hypotheses about such processes?

As for the question of how historians can identify these kinds of century-long processes: this task is really no more challenging than the problem of arriving at hypotheses about unseen processes in other areas of science. It takes ingenuity and imagination to hypothesize how a gradual increase in local violence might relate to slow demographic trends; but once the historical demographer turns her eye in this direction, it is no great leap to hypothesize that a rising male-to-female ratio may be a part of the cause (as Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer argue in Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population). What is necessary, though, is a fairly rigorous ability to measure variables of interest at different points in time and to discover trends among these observations. In other words, the turn to cliometrics — quantitative observation of historical trends — is more or less essential to the history of the longue durée. And it is not too surprising that the Annales historians were deeply interested in demographic history, price series, and historical measurements of economic activity.

So this answers part of the question: a history of long processes requires careful observations of quantities over time, and it requires the formulation of causal hypotheses about how these trends influence other historical circumstances of interest. Jack Goldstone’s efforts to link the occurrence of revolution to slow demographic processes falls in this category (Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World). And Mark Elvin’s treatment of the centuries-long struggle between officials and rivers in China to gain control of flooding and silting illustrates the historian’s ability to take the long perspective (The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China; see this posting on Elvin’s work).

And what about the other question — the status of historical conceptions of these long, slow processes? They are not abstractions from the historical self-understandings of participants. By hypothesis, participants cannot perceive these sorts of processes. Instead, they constitute a more hypothetical historical structure that may nonetheless play a future role in the narratives participants tell about themselves. A slow process of climate change may be imperceptible at a given point in time. But once it is identified and articulated by the analytical historian the construct may come into popular consciousness; what was previously invisible may become part of the furniture of the popular narrative.

So if we conceptualized historical episodes along the lines of life events, then the longue durée would be forever outside of history. If, on the other hand, we include in our definition of history all the structures and trends that can be identified by analytical history, then the history of the longue durée is entirely comprehensible. Moreover, it is apparent that ordinary historical apperception can itself incorporate the theories of historians. And in this sense, the longue durée can enter back into ordinary historical experience.

Great structures?

The scholars of the Annales school of French history characteristically placed their analysis of historical change within the context of the large structures — economic, social, or demographic — within which ordinary people live out their lives. They postulate that the broad and enduring social relations that exist in a society — for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system — constitute a stable structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure create the conditions that set the stage for historical change in the society. (The recently translated book by André Burguière provides an excellent discussion of the Annales school; The Annales School: An Intellectual History.)

The Annales school also put forward a concept that applies to the temporal structure of historical change: the idea that some historical changes unfold over very long periods of time and are all but invisible to participants — the history of the longue durée. So large enduring structures, applying their effects over very long periods of historical time, provided a crucial part of the historical imagination of the Annales school.

Marc Bloch’s own treatment of French feudalism illustrates a sustained analysis of a group of great structures enduring centuries over much of the territory of France (Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties of Dependence), as does Le Roy Ladurie’s treatment of the causes of change and stasis in Languedoc in The Peasants of Languedoc. Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life represents another clear example of historical research organized around analysis of great structures. And though not a member of the Annales school, I would include M. I. Finley’s treatment of the ancient economy as another important example (The Ancient Economy); Finley attempts to trace out the features of property, economy, and political and military power through which ordinary life and historical change proceeded in the ancient world. But there is an important difference among the several works: Bloch, Braudel, and Finley represent an analysis of these structures as a whole, while Le Roy Ladurie’s work largely attempts to explain features of life over a very long time that show the imprint of such structures. One is macrohistory, while the other is microhistory.

What are some examples of putative “great structures”? There are several that readily come to mind: a nation’s economic system, its system of law, legislation, and enforcement; its system of government, taxation, and policy-making, its educational system, religious organizations and traditions, the composite system of organizations that exist within civil society, and the norms and relations of the family.

The scope of action matters here; the background assumption is that a great structure encompasses a large population and territory. (So we would not call the specific marriage customs that govern a small group of Alpine villages but extend no further a “great structure.”) And it is further assumed that the hypothesized structure possesses a high degree of functional continuity and integration; there are assumed to be concrete social processes that assure that the structure works in roughly the same way throughout its scope to regulate behavior.

The idea of a “great structure” thus requires that we attend to the contrast between locally embodied institutions showing significant variation across time and space, and the supposedly more homogeneous workings of “great structures.” We need to be able to provide an account of the extended social mechanisms that establish the effects and stability of the great structure. If we cannot validate these assumptions about scope, continuity, and functional similarity, then the concept of a “great structure” collapses onto a concatenation of vaguely similar institutions in different times and places.

To fit the bill, then, a great structure should have some specific features of scope and breadth. It should be geographically widespread, affecting a large population. It should have roughly similar characteristics and effects on behavior in the full range of its scope. And it should be persistent over an extended period of time — decades or longer.

The most basic question is this: are there great structures? On the positive side, it is possible to identify social mechanisms that secure the functional stability of certain institutions over a large reach of territory and time. A system of law is enforced by the agents of the state; so it is reasonable to assume that there will be similar legal institutions in Henan and Sichuan when there is an effective imperial government. A system of trading and credit may have centrally enforced and locally reinforcing mechanisms that assure that it works similarly in widely separated places. A normative system regulating marriage may be stabilized by local behaviors over a wide space. The crucial point here is simply this: if we postulate that a given structure has scope over a wide range, we need to have a theory of some of the social mechanisms that convey its power and its reproduction over time.

So the existence of great structures is ambiguous. Yes—in that there are effective institutions of politics, economics, and social life that are real and effectual within given historical settings, and we have empirical understanding of some of the mechanisms that reproduce these structures. But no—in that all social structures are historically rooted; so there is no “essential” state or economy which recurs in different settings. Instead, political and economic structures may be expected to evolve in different historical settings. And a central task of historical research is to discover both the unifying dynamics and the differentiating expressions which these abstract processes take in different historical settings.

Tempo of change

Think of some of the gradual processes of change that have important effects on human society: soil erosion, water pollution, loss of jobs, inflation, diffusion of innovation, a firm’s decline in market share, and a nation’s decline of naval power, to name a heterogeneous list. And think about the very different time scales associated with large processes of change, from days to months to years to decades and centuries. Think finally of the ability and readiness of human communities and leaders to recognize and address these processes of change through policy and change of behavior.

We like to imagine that organizations and states have at least an imperfect ability to perceive threats to important interests and to design appropriate actions that may reduce threats or ameliorate consequences. (Likewise, of course, for opportunities.) “Nimble” organizations are able to perceive threats or opportunities and take corrective actions to avoid harms or achieve gains, while other organizations simply lumber on towards ever-deeper problems. Does the scale over which a change unfolds make a difference in the ability of an organization to respond? It does, at both ends of the spectrum.

Changes that take place extremely slowly present special challenges for human societies. Examples include soil exhaustion, water pollution, and silting of waterways. First, there is the problem of visibility — it may be difficult for individuals to recognize the small differences that accrue over a period of several years. Individual policy makers and office holders may simply not see enough of the process of change during their time of service to allow them to perceive the change and its likely consequences. Second is the problem of the perceived lack of urgency — since the process is so slow, there may be an inclination to disregard it as unimportant. And third is the chronic problem of inter-generational planning — the fact that longterm consequences will primarily only affect other people, not the current generation. Global climate change appears to fall in this category. The signs of harmful change were masked to some degree within the noise of random variation in climate and weather; the consequences are several generations in the future; and many states, including especially the United States, have found it difficult to come to grips with the scientific realities and design policies that ameliorate the negative consequences. (An interesting example of long, slow processes and social response is that of water control, silting, and flooding in Imperial China. This situation is discussed in an earlier posting.) So long, slow processes are difficult for a society, firm, or government to address effectively and prudently.

But almost as disabling to effective policy reaction are changes that occur very rapidly. Some processes of change move more quickly than the “reaction time” of the state or other policy-making bodies — with the result that policy responses are designed for the situation at time T but are already out of date when time T+1 comes along. (This may be the case with the current financial crisis.) The familiar metaphor of “guiding an aircraft carrier through a narrow twisting strait” works pretty well here; the reaction time of the ship is longer than the interval between bends in the waterway, so it is all but impossible to steer the ship successfully. The fiscal crisis of Louis XIV may fall in this category; financial and social institutions were unraveling in 1787-89 more rapidly than state officials and political advisers could successfully react. So here again, the time scale of a process of change makes an important historical difference; very long and very short scales make it substantially more difficult for human and social agents to ameliorate harmful processes.

There is one other complication created by the tempo and scale of historical processes: the possibility of a damaging “harmonious vibration” of social processes. If there is a business cycle of eight years and a grain production cycle of five years, then every forty years the troughs of the two cycles will coincide — with more harmful consequences than created by either cycle separately. (It was this kind of unanticipated harmonious vibration that brought down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.) In this case it is the intersection of two tempos of change that creates the possibility of more severe social crisis and important historical consequences.

Paul Pierson’s Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis raises some of the challenging research questions that are raised by the time scale of an historical process. He provides a very useful taxonomy of events in terms of “time horizon of cause” and “time horizon of outcome”. This creates four categories of events around “long” and “short”; illustrations of each category include tornado (short-short), earthquake (long-short), meteorite (short-long), and global warming (long-long). And he points out that much research in the social sciences focuses on examples from the “short-short” category — events with discrete causes and time-limited effects. The issue of time scale is also invoked in the history of the longue durée, including particularly writings by Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, where the historians of the Annales school paid particular attention to the long, slow changes in structures that influenced European history.


Is there such a thing as a “mentalité” of a people, group, or nation? Take these young people at an Iowa potluck supper, or the traders pictured below at the Chicago Board of Trade — is there a midwestern mentalité that they can be said to share? What factors might be comprised by such a concept? What forms of variation must we expect within a group sharing a mentalité? And what are the social mechanisms through which these hypothesized forms of shared experience and thought are conveyed?

First, what does the concept mean? Most basically, a mentalité is thought to be a shared way of looking at the world and reacting to happenings and actions by others, distinctive from other groups and reasonably similar across a specific group.

This characterization folds together a number of things: cognitive frames for understanding the world, values and norms around which one organizes one’s actions, and a repertoire of reactions and responses to scenarios in the world. And all of this comes together in the form of a signature form of consciousness and behavior. A mentalité shapes the individual’s experience of the world, and it provides a specific foundation for one’s choices and actions as events in one’s world unfold. And a mentalité is thought to be shared across a social group, so it is not simply a set of individual and idiosyncratic mental attitudes.

Historians of the Annales school (see an earlier posting) gave special attention to the task of reconstructing the mentalité of people and groups of the past. Durkheim’s ideas about the social world seem to be in the background in the focus offered by Marc Bloch or Jacques Le Goff on this aspect of history’s tapestry — though the Annales approach seems to be more psychological than Durkheim would have preferred. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, for example, sought to capture the mentalité of the peasants of Montaillou in his book of that title, offering substantial commentary on their attitudes towards death, sex, and religion. Lawrence Stone writes of Le Roy Ladurie’s “sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village” (review in the New York Review of Books by Lawrence Stone of Le territoire de l’historien, The Territory of the Historian, and Carnival in Romans). And the sorts of features of “worldview” that are often invoked in describing a mentalité include superstition and magical beliefs. A fundamental clash of mentalités arises in the conjunction of traditional, magical thinking and modern, scientific thinking in the nineteenth century. (Relevant snippets from The Annales School: Critical Assessments can be found here.)

Several questions are pressing when we consider this concept. First, is the governing idea of underlying variation of worldviews across cultures and times valid in any non-superficial sense? Trivially, of course, we recognize that tastes and morés vary across places and cultures. This was one of Montesquieu’s insights. But is there a more fundamental way in which Scots experience the world differently from Basques or Yoruba? Or are the differences associated with tastes and manners simply an overlay that sits on top of a more fundamental human similarity? This question pushes us towards the debate between advocates of “human nature” against the “historicists,” according to whom the most basic features of human cognition and action are contingent and historically shaped.

Let’s go out on a limb here for the moment and postulate that even fairly deep aspects of cognition and behavior are historically and culturally variable. Deep aspects of “human nature” are plastic and subject to historical construction. This leaves it open that there may be elements of common human experience while postulating a deep-running plasticity as well. And this leaves it open, in turn, that there is a useful place in historical analysis for the idea of a mentalité.

Second, we need to reflect upon the ways in which adherence to a mentalité should be expected to vary across individuals, places, and cohorts. And, of course, we should expect variation, since every human attribute comes in a range across a population — and even more so for learned traits. So if we think that a mentalité comprises a cognitive framework, a value system, and a set of expectations about behavior — we should also expect that there will be a range of ways in which these items are instantiated in different people within the same group.

Third, we need to attempt to trace out some of the mechanisms through which a mentalité is reproduced and maintained across generations and places. We need an account of the microfoundations of mentalité, along the lines of an earlier posting on social practices. We’ve already sketched some of these mechanisms in prior postings. But the fundamental idea is that there is a range of institutions through which children and young people acquire mental skills and content, both formal and informal — schooling, religious education, family practices, and local traditions, for example. So for there to be a persistent mentalité for a population, there must be a reasonably consistent delivery system across the population that transmits this ensemble of items. And sociologists and historians need to be able to uncover some of the specifics of these institutions.

And, fundamentally, how would we confirm the notion that a population possesses a mentalité? How would we support a claim like this: “medieval villagers of the Vosges possessed a mentalité that distinguished them from their modern counterparts and their contemporaries in other regions”? There are several answers we might give: Robert Darnton used some of the tools of ethnography to get at the thoughts of the agents of the great cat massacre in 1740. Or we might imagine a contemporary sociologist using some of the many-country surveys of values (World Values Survey) as a basis for judging that French and Italian people in 1960 possessed significantly different moral frameworks with respect to certain subjects. Or we might rely on our own acquaintance with multicultural friends — perhaps certain Danish people and certain Nigerians — and simply remark internally, “How differently they seem to perceive and react to the world.”

Finally, we might at least consider the idea that the globalization of communication, transportation, and education has substantially reduced the variability of worldviews and cognitive frameworks, so that modern consciousness is much more uniform than medieval consciousness and thought.

Marc Bloch’s history

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.

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