Cite ourselves!

Richard J. Evans

As a graduate student in the 1970s, looking around for new approaches to history that would enable me to do something different from my teachers’ generation, I spent a lot of time with my fellow students discussing the relative attractions of British Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, German neo-Weberians such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jürgen Kocka, American students of social inequality like Stephan Thernstrom, advocates of a social-anthropological approach such as Keith Thomas, partisans of a politically committed history of everyday life like Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop, and more besides. The world of history seemed then to be not just expanding but exploding, into areas undreamed of by the political and diplomatic historians on whose work we had been brought up.

Among the most exciting of the new approaches was that of the school of French historians associated with the journal Annales: Economies, sociétés, civilisations. What made their work exciting was, first of all, the sense they conveyed that nothing was off-limits for the historian, no aspect of life too obscure: everything, from birth, death and disease to time, space and distance, from fear, hatred and anxiety to faith, fanaticism and delusion, was open to historical investigation. Then there was the way they ranged across huge stretches of time, crossing conventional barriers of epochs and periods, looking at an enormous variety of aspects of societies in the past. Some, Fernand Braudel among them, took vast geographical areas as their subject, and showed how key structures of human existence transcended the conventional boundaries of the state; others took one province or town and linked together in a complex but convincing causal web, underpinned by painstaking statistical research, the history of its economic, demographic, social and (often rather sketchily) political structures. Like others of my generation, I became fascinated by all this, and ended up doing my own version of a regional study, linking what the Annales historians called structure and conjoncture in a book on cholera in Hamburg in 1892. The city was the only one in Western or Central Europe to fall victim to an epidemic in that year, the causes and consequences of which I traced in the economic, demographic, social and political history of the city across the 19th century.

A quarter of a century or more later, writing about Annales and its history has become a minor scholarly industry. We now know a great deal about where it came from, what it has done and how it developed. The private correspondence of its founding fathers has been published, conferences have been held about them, introductory surveys to their work and that of their successors have been written, dissertations and monographs have poured off the academic presses. Is there anything new to say? In The Annales School: An Intellectual History, André Burguière, the long-serving administrative secretary of the journal, surveys the history of Annales once more. As an insider who knew many of the protagonists from the 1960s on, he has a distinct advantage over many of his competitors. But seeing the journal’s development from the inside has disadvantages too. True to his allegiance to Annales principles, he tells the reader sternly: ‘Do not expect to find in this book a history of events.’ This alone makes the book extremely difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the basic history of the journal and the historians associated with it. More seriously, Burguière is unable to stand outside the history he is analysing and break free from the many myths with which it has become encrusted.

These begin with the journal’s foundation in 1929. Edited by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, both professors at the University of Strasbourg, it was entitled Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, and from the beginning proclaimed its ambition to play a leading role in the field of economic and social history in France. Bloch and Febvre advocated a broadening of the historian’s vision to encompass not only standard topics of economic history such as trade and currency, agrarian society, transport and technology, but also values, sensibilities and feelings. Their aim was to create a new style of thought, as they announced in 1937, that would present new research, publish lengthy critical analyses of other people’s work and, crucially, gather a group of much younger collaborators dedicated to what soon became known as the ‘spirit of the Annales’.

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