The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie discusses J.H. Hexter’s book reviews

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

  • On Historians by J.H. Hexter
    Collins, 310 pp, £6.95, September 1979, ISBN 0 00 216623 2

To write a review of a book of reviews is no simple task. It is like looking at a mirror in a mirror, as in The Lady from Shanghai, where the revolver shots are lost, finally, in the splintering glass: by dint of looking at themselves in mirrors which reflect other mirrors, neither the gunman nor his human target any longer has much idea of what exactly is going on. It was in this doubting frame of mind that I approached J.H. Hexter’s On Historians, a collection of major book reviews. The moment I began reading the list of contents I was made aware of my own provincialism. Of the seven historians studied in the book, I was familiar with only three: Fernand Braudel has been my mentor for more than quarter of a century; Lawrence Stone guided my first steps into the maze of Anglo-American historiography; Christopher Hill accompanied, a long time ago now, the infant squawks of my early Marxism, which today is much eroded. Though if I still preserve some traces of my belief in that doctrine, I owe it to the high abilities of such ci-devant Marxist historians as Hill.

The other heroes of Hexter’s book, Carl Becker, Wallace Ferguson, Hiram Hayden and J.G.A. Pocock, were, I have to admit, infinitely less familiar to me. Thus it is thanks to Hexter that I have learnt that, around 1930, Becker was a relativist, just as Raymond Aron was to become one on our side of the Atlantic a few years later. In the aftermath of the crisis of 1929, Becker came to acknowledge the truism that historical research only answers the questions one has prepared in advance to put to it. The 18th century can be made to display its mysteries, but the historian who uncovers them has his roots chronologically in the 20th century, and in the problems specific to our own epoch. I shall add, with all the respect which is Becker’s due, that that is either an assertion so obvious as to be trivial, or else an affirmation that is only half true. ‘Our own epoch’ is not alone in posing for the historian questions relating to the exploration of the 13th or 14th centuries. Similarly, a document from some past epoch resists a good many of these questions, and shows them to be anachronistic, half-baked or banal. And so, not content with dispensing answers, our good old document starts posing questions in its turn. (Ten years after this, around 1940, in his alarm at the cynicism of the Nazis, Becker moved back towards an absolutism of values; and became more and more impermeable to the relativism which, on the eve of the Roosevelt era, had so strongly attracted him.)

Hexter’s article on Becker is also a timely reminder of what every American historian knows, but most European historians do not know: that the annual meeting of the American Historical Association is surely the most formidable job exchange for historians in the world. But it is also a place where ideas are exchanged, over and above the learned communications on specialised subjects. The presidential address even, which in a French institution of the kind would all too often become bogged down in somewhat empty generalities, remains, thanks to men like Carl Becker, a serious intellectual occasion. For which bravo, Messieurs les Américains.

Of the second essay in the book, there is little more to be said than what Hexter himself says in the introduction: that the notion of a ‘counter-Renaissance’ introduced by Hiram Hayden was no more than a tiny wave, a ripple soon to vanish from the surface of historical debate. As for the concept of the Renaissance itself, to which, as we know, Jacob Burckhardt gave such lustre, here is Hexter in 1951 wondering whether it would survive much longer the irreverent scepticism he himself professed for it. Well, yes, it has survived, unhappily for Hexter, and not only, as our author claims, because of the work of Hans Baron and Paul Oskar Kristeller. I will go so far as to say that the idea of the Renaissance was big enough and strong enough to do without the rejuvenating serum administered to it, with the best of intentions, by these two excellent historians. In fact, it is economic history that has given the Renaissance a new vigour. It now appears, after 30 or 35 years of intensive research, that there was certainly an economic Renaissance between 1480 and 1580 and from 1560 to 1600, during a long and prodigious century of expansion. And thus Burckhardt’s brilliant, but purely cultural or political intuitions have been confirmed.

Which is the moment, necessarily, to cast a topical eye on the work of Braudel. Hexter’s essay on Braudel constitutes, together with his comments on Stone, one of the plats de résistance of this book. Perhaps this is because here he has to do more with facts than with pure ideas. And everyone knows that historians, be their name Hexter or Tacitus, are men of the concrete, and ill at ease with disembodied concepts.

The starting point for Hexter’s fine ‘Braudelian’ meditation is a reflection on the social sciences. In America, Hexter says, these first took shape, and have evolved over a long period, in total disdain for history, which is (wrongly) held to be a purely humanistic discipline. Conversely, in the English-speaking world, Clio’s affections long went to ‘battle history’, or diplomatic history, or what French historians call l’histoire évènementielle. In this respect, the situation has changed completely in our own day: America and Britain have been converted in strength to structural history, though the change is only recent.

In France, on the other hand, as the result of what has long been seen as a sort of miracle, attributable to the personalities of such men as Lucien Febvre, Braudel, Ernest Labrousse, history and the social sciences have developed in close symbiosis since 1933-45. Historians like Febvre, Braudel, Jacques Le Goff and François Furet have presided successively over the École Pratique des Hautes Études (now the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), through which have passed many men of account in the social sciences in France: Aron, Lévi-Strauss, Alain Touraine, Pierre Bourdieu, Serge Moscovici ... In French, what is more, we do not talk of the ‘social sciences’ so much as the ‘human sciences’, which, simply on the lexical plane, establishes a bridge between the young sociology (for example) and the old, but still valid, Humanities of our grandparents.

On the whole, Hexter’s positive assessment of this French superiority (for once!) seems to me pertinent, though pleasantly flattering too to my tricoloured chauvinism. But here I shall try, all the same, to be more royalist than the king, and more pro-American than the Americans (not that they would want me to be). However brilliant French historians may indeed have been in the past half-century (or more precisely since the founding of Annales in 1929), they seem to me to be inferior to their North American colleagues in one respect, and that is in the geographical scope of the research which is undertaken in the two countries. One can try an experiment: go into the History Department of a great American university, Princeton or Michigan, or even in the depths of Minnesota or Kansas. There you will find historians of Asia, of Africa, of Europe, of South America, and even specialists in the history of North America, though the latter in general enjoy a lesser prestige than their colleagues. And now visit a History Department in a French university, where for the most part you will meet with historians of France, and – which is scandalous – not a single historian of the United States (bar local exceptions). You will meet too, unsurprisingly, with the sacrosanct quadripartite division of Time and of Chairs: into Ancient History, Medieval History, Early Modern History and Contemporary History. True, Braudel and his allies abolished this division into four periods by a stroke of the pen at the EHESS, but their example is far from having been followed on all our campuses.

Amusing and relevant also is the way Hexter caricatures the quantitative and diagrammatical style of the Annales historians of 15 years ago. (In this respect, they have now been thoroughly outdistanced by the seductive trapeze artists of the New Economic History, those great jugglers with equations before the Lord.) Hexter, with the help of his wife, has counted the number of pages in Annales and compared them, from this point of view, with other journals such as the Revue Historique. He has also calibrated, in terms of years, the length of office of editors of Annales such as Burguière, Marc Eerro Robert Mandrou. (His conclusion? ‘If at first you don’t succeed ... ’) He has carefully mapped out – in the style of Jacques Bertin, the admirable draughtsman of Annales – the geographical origins of the contributors to the Mélanges Febvre of 1953 and the Mélanges Braudel of 1972. The results show that the Mélanges Febvre were fairly narrowly French or European, the Mélanges Braudel genuinely international. Were those in France who saw these maps and graphs in 1972, when they were first published, conscious of the strong element of irony which Hexter had injected into them? With the passing of time, the rather grating element of Anglo-Saxon humour contained in the diagrams has evaporated, and what remains is an interesting contribution to the history of the Annales school. More relevant, in my view, are Hexter’s studies of the distribution of seminars given at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, from which it emerges that economics have gradually given ground to the other social sciences, while history, the discipline-in-chief, has consistently maintained its position.

When Hexter published his essay, in 1972, in the Journal of Modern History, Braudel’s work was still centred on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. This large book described History as a house of three storeys: structures – in other words, long-term developments, geographical factors, Islam, or the everlasting movement of flocks of sheep from the low ground to the high, between winter and summer, from the plains to the mountains; conjunctures – or the influx of Mexican silver and the rise in prices in Europe in the 16th century; and events – the battle of Lepanto. This triptych corresponds exactly to the three major divisions of Braudel’s Mediterranean. The last part, that which treats of ‘events’, its author found greatly tedious; unlike the first two parts, it was not changed at all in the second edition of the book, although in a good many places this edition represents a considerable development on the first.

Braudel’s work steers a middle course between ‘problem history’ and ‘total history’. It is problem history in that it seeks to resolve a question rather than to describe an event or a scene; total history in that it seeks to say everything about an age or a continent, while striving, naturally, not to be submerged by the inevitable detail. Braudel’s magnum opus has had many critics, Hexter first among them. (And let me say, a posteriori, that the criticisms seem to me fairly pointless.) In it, the Master has indulged in global ‘weighings-up’ that are approximate (he had himself confessed as much beforehand). He has transformed seas, islands and peninsulas into living personages – and why not? The fact remains that this prodigious book has shaped generations of young historians. A third of a century after it first appeared it has acquired, thanks to the paperback editions, tens of thousands of readers. It displays a global, almost incredible erudition, sufficient to make us provincial historians go pale with jealousy, buried as we are in a single ethnic group, a single half-century or a single nation. In his new book, Économie, Vie Matérielle et Capitalisme, which came out in 1979, Braudel takes an even wider view of world history, and considers those great spinning, voracious nebulae which are – or were – the capitalist ‘world-economies’ of Venice, Amsterdam and New York.

After Braudel, Lawrence Stone; after King Philip II, the Earl of Northumberland. If Braudel is a sort of historiographical Gargantua, joyfully swallowing down the immense quantities of archives available to him, Stone is a Pico della Mirandola of the human sciences, feeding on sociological plankton. Having transferred from Oxford to Princeton, he discovered that the sociologists and other social scientists of the English-speaking world – immigrants, frequently, from Germany, Russia, Poland or Austria – have demonstrated an extraordinary inventiveness, an inventiveness in contrast with the lack of ideas that has too often characterised, in our own century, the Cartesians of France and the empiricists of England.

Openness of mind, a permanent disponibilité; Stone was clearly marked out as the man to unravel the increasingly tangled skein into which the Marxists had helped to turn the problem of the English Revolution of the 17th century. This is the subject of his admirable ‘slab’ of a book on The Crisis of the Aristocracy. Here Hexter renders Stone a notable but not altogether unambiguous service: for all those who are too lazy or too hard pressed to read the 840 pages of the Crisis (which may be an English book but has the dimensions of a grosse thèse from the Sorbonne), he provides a compact and necessarily simplified summary of 75 pages – a reduction of more than nine-tenths, but one which respects the proportions of the original.

From this it emerges that the English Revolution was not the one-dimensional link in the chain to which a linear interpretation of Marxism had reduced it in the Thirties. It was not, in short, a Stalinoid transition from feudalism to capitalism: it represents, rather, if Stone is to be believed, a sort of great historical accident, which at the same time set in train irreversible processes in the direction of modernity. During the 16th century, the English aristocracy had successfully guided the island’s destinies, under the auspices of the Court and the monarchy. But at the beginning of the 17th century it was already suffering from both a state of languor and an economic crisis, though the latter came to an end in the 1620s, well before the Revolution. Even more was the British aristocracy the victim of religious crises, which delivered it up to the attacks of the Puritans. It suffered, too, from a breakdown of communications: as in France in the 1780s, the links between the Court and the country, the royal nation and the real nation, became distended after 1640. Once the crisis, and the revolution to which it gave rise, had been overcome, the aristocracy returned to the head of affairs at the end of the 17th century, and experienced thereafter no insurmountable problems. Not that the ‘positive overall’ gain of 1640-50 was lost. Puritanism was asked to provide its stimulus on the other side of the Atlantic, and it answered the call.

Between them, Hexter and Stone thus initiate us into a more nuanced version of the Revolution. No longer is it the epiphany of a radically new system, the birth of a divine child: its function is rather that of an immense incident along the way, though a historically fertile incident. It is only a short distance, therefore, from Stone to Christopher Hill, and Hexter wastes no time in covering it. He admires Hill’s luminous abilities, of course, but he does not carry reverence to the point of identifying Puritanism, as the English historian temporarily does, with the tendency to capitalism. In point of fact, observes Hexter, the Puritans were not interested in money. They may have presaged the effectiveness of the liberal economy, but what counted for them, in the event (as Max Weber had said earlier), was not their vulgar relationship to their wallets but their solidly shaped personalities and wholly internalised morality, which made them (in principle) much superior to the Papists, at least in terms of their actual conscious performance. It is true that, from this point of view, Jansenism was not unworthy of the strictest Calvinism.

Hexter upbraids Braudel for his lack of interest in religion: but he himself does not like religion to be reduced, through some simplifying set of equivalences, to a purely social entity such as capitalism or feudalism, to the point where the transcendence of the divine has been banished.

Hexter has provided a very useful volume for anyone who wants to make the acquaintance of the work of important historians like Braudel or Lawrence Stone. The collection has its dead moments, for scarcely anything ages faster than history books: who would know anything of them fifty years after their first appearance were it not for the splendid deep-freezes, or giant necropolises, of our university libraries? Hexter’s book, which is based on publications themselves not all of the newest, already wears a few wrinkles, but that is part of its charm. What he has done is to attach himself to, or to attack, and vigorously, a number of works – like The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and The Crisis of the Aristocracy – which should certainly defy erosion by time.