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’.

In his introduction, Burguière writes that he has confined his book to French historians, mainly because ‘most historical debate continues to unfold within a national framework’. He does point to parallels between theoretical debates in different countries, but fundamentally he believes there has always been, and continues to be, a ‘national isolation of historiographical issues and trajectories’. This would have surprised me and my fellow students in the early 1970s. And we weren’t unique: the generation of German historians who came of age immediately after the war was strongly influenced by American history and sociology; the debates around E.P. Thompson’s work had a profound resonance among American historians during the 1970s; there was a strong German influence on historical method across Europe and America in the second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. International conferences and cheap foreign travel have long since broken down the national isolation Burguière speaks of, except, apparently, in France. Moreover, historians have never worked solely on their own country’s past; a majority of historians in the US devote themselves to the history of other countries, and not far off half the historians in the UK do the same. All this has brought them into contact with debates and methods pursued in the countries they work on; the fact that fewer than a quarter of historians in France work on the history of other countries may help explain Burguière’s restricted field of vision.

Bloch and Febvre had many international connections and shared a broad, cosmopolitan vision. Bloch himself declared that historians should ‘base their plan, the treatment of the problems they raise, even the terms they use, on the knowledge gleaned from work carried out in other countries’. He had studied in Germany before the First World War, and read and spoke German; he had also visited England and met English economic historians; and he was the author of a major, synoptic analysis of Feudal Society, first published in 1939 and finally translated into English in 1961, as well as a study of the ‘royal touch’ believed to heal scrofula in England and France in the medieval and early modern periods. Among Febvre’s books were a biography of Martin Luther and a book about the Rhine. The first issue of Annales included studies of the price of papyrus in Ancient Greece, German industry in the First World War, the population problem in the Soviet Union, and the theories of Max Weber. Articles and reviews in subsequent issues ranged widely across a variety of countries; in 1937 there was even a special issue on Nazi Germany.

Annales was launched at the International Congress of Historical Sciences in Oslo in 1928, and Bloch and Febvre used this and similar events to carry on a dialogue with colleagues in other countries. The journal’s early collaborators included the Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne, the Swedish economic historian Eli Heckscher, and others from outside France. In his youth, Bloch had been an avid reader of the German social and cultural historian Karl Lamprecht, and had clearly been influenced by his ideas. The model for Annales was the Vierteljahrsschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, a long-established German journal, though Annales soon went well beyond the limits of its German counterpart, just as Bloch went far beyond Lamprecht (not least because he was a much better historian).

The founding of Annales was not in any case the product of exclusively French influences and circumstances. Far from it. The Economic History Review was founded in Britain at around the same time, as was the Journal of Economic and Business History in the US, and not long afterwards similar journals began publication in Poland and Italy. Clearly, the emergence in this period of the study of economic and social history reflected to some extent troubled economic circumstances which seemed to call for long-term explanations. It also, perhaps, pointed to a belief among some historians that the study of the political history of the nation-state, which had developed a nationalist thrust during the previous decades, had reached or even exceeded its limits with the First World War. It was time for a more neutral, more scientific, more objective approach – a feeling evident in many countries other than France. In Germany during the 1920s, for example, the social sciences were coming together in the manner envisaged by Bloch and Febvre, as sociologists such as Weber and Karl Mannheim began to exert an influence on historical studies, and students of Friedrich Meinecke started to pursue the history of ideas. In the Netherlands, Johan Huizinga had already published his classic cultural history, The Waning of the Middle Ages, in 1919. Seen in this light, Annales and its programme do not seem particularly startling.

What made the journal French was not so much its prehistory as the changes that took place in the international scene shortly after it was founded. The cementing of the Fascist regime in Italy, the advent of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the Nazi seizure of power, and the collapse of democracies all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Poland and Lithuania, meant that in most countries economic and social history was forcibly co-opted into the service of state-sponsored ideology. International dialogue, particularly with German historians, who in many ways were closest to the founders of Annales, became more difficult. Only in Britain and the US – and perhaps also, at least until the Second World War, in the Scandinavian and Benelux countries – did economic and social history continue on the same basis as Annales, largely separated from contemporary ideological struggles, dedicated to the idea of a more or less neutral concept of social science.

But while economic and social history in the UK, for example, co-existed quite happily with mainstream political and diplomatic history, insulating itself by creating a separate department in virtually every university where it was represented, things were very different in France. There the centralisation of higher education provided it with a different goal: the conquest of the commanding heights of academia. Until 1945, political and diplomatic historians remained in charge, but with the end of the war and the reconstruction of French academic life and institutions, Febvre got his chance. Self-publicising was part of the plan. ‘Cite ourselves,’ he commanded around 1950, ‘don’t lose the opportunity to cite ourselves, to propagate what is essential, that is to say, our keywords. The threefold division of Braudel: milieu, collective destinies, events, L.F.’s notion of mentalities, the notion of probabilism.’ The classics to be cited were, he said, ‘L.F.: Land and Human Evolution; Martin Luther; Belief and Unbelief in the 16th Century; Marc Bloch: The Royal Touch; French Rural Society; Feudal Society; F. Braudel: The Mediterranean; L. Febvre: Philippe II and the Franche-Comté’. (Clearly, Febvre had a higher opinion of his own work than he did of his colleagues’.)

Just as important as the self-conscious creation of a canon, however, was the conquest of the institutions. In 1947, Febvre became president of the newly created Sixième Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, covering the social sciences, and director of its Centre des Recherches Historiques. He placed his young collaborators in key positions, most notably Braudel, whose huge book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, in gestation for nearly two decades, was published in 1949. Equipped with funds, posts and prestigious institutional bases, the Annales school could now move towards dominance.

With the death of Bloch at the hands of the Gestapo in 1944, and the arrival of Braudel, a marginal figure in the school before the war, the intellectual style of Annales began to change. Burguière emphasises the school’s continuity and dismisses the conventional division of its leading figures into different generations. He seems to regard his mission as proving its continuing allegiance to the basic principles established by the founding fathers. This is another myth. It is certainly true that Braudel’s work cemented the focus of the Annales on the medieval and early modern periods, and strengthened still further its concentration on social and economic history, but he also introduced much that was new. His book on the Mediterranean world divided historical time into three levels, using the metaphor of the sea that was its subject: the ocean depths, whose permanent features of climate and geography stamped themselves on human existence, especially in a world where the vast majority of people were dependent on agriculture for their survival; the middle level of ocean currents, where social and economic structures operated; and the surface froth of events, politics and individuals. By emphasising the importance of the longue durée, Braudel effectively dismissed what the Annales historians contemptuously called histoire événementielle, ‘event-based history’, as of little consequence. The human beings of the 16th century appeared in his work as incapable of determining their own fate. Braudel himself characterised the vast majority of people in the period he was interested in as ‘human insects’.

It is hard not to see in this a reflection of the fact that he drafted his book while in a German prisoner-of-war camp: looking at the longer term must have provided a form of consolation for the disastrous turn events had taken in the present. More broadly, it could also be argued, the school’s focus on the underlying continuities in history had its origin in disillusionment with the febrile instability of politics in the Third and Fourth Republics, when government followed government in rapid succession but little real change seemed to result. Bloch, Febvre and their successors claimed to have removed themselves from the political partisanship that had characterised so much French historical scholarship in the past and continued to do so in their own day. History, they asserted, was a value-neutral social science, not an instrument of political ideology.

There were international influences at work here too: the 1950s to the early 1970s was the age of quantification, when statistics, increasingly processed through computers, seemed to many social and economic historians to offer the possibility that intellectual certainty could be attained in a world dominated by the cultural clash between the self-proclaimed scientific principles of Marxism-Leninism and the search for a credible alternative by the social sciences in the West. Not in fact apolitical but left-liberal, the Annales historians held themselves aloof from the Marxist historiography that still dominated studies of the French Revolution under the leadership of Georges Lefebvre, despite his earlier association with the school; they were as much a part of the social-scientific reaction to it as the econometric historians then emerging in the US.

On Febvre’s death in 1956 Braudel succeeded him as director of Annales and the Sixième Section, and brought in a new generation, among them Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Jacques Le Goff and Georges Duby. The enterprise was based in new premises on the boulevard Raspail, where Braudel founded yet another interdisciplinary research centre, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, in 1963. The search for social-scientific approaches to history had now driven the school towards an almost messianic enthusiasm for quantification. The leading figure here was Ernest Labrousse, whose Marxism was less important in this context than his technical mastery of quantitative history; he produced two major statistical studies, on the movement of prices in 18th-century France and on the crisis of the French economy on the eve of the Revolution. Virtually every book on Annales states that Labrousse has been unjustly neglected, and Burguière’s is no exception. At the same time Burguière complains that Labrousse marginalised the history of mentalities pioneered by the school’s founders, when in fact Braudel’s own work has remarkably little to say about belief systems, despite their importance in the Christian-Muslim conflicts that raged across the Mediterranean in his period.

Braudel tended to back new research projects with a heavily quantitative emphasis. A leading role was taken by demographic historians such as Pierre Goubert, whose study of the Beauvais region in the 17th and 18th centuries appeared in a new series of monographs on demography and society published from 1960 on. These dealt with real people as well as with statistics, though often the people were seen as corks bobbing about on the waves created by structure and conjoncture in the local or regional economy. Goubert’s study constructed price indices and linked them with records of births, marriages and deaths; these in turn were related to key data about geography and the natural environment, and analysed with reference to different social groups. This study, and the cohort of regional and city-centred monographs that followed it, resting as they did primarily on the statistical analysis of long runs of serial data, again had relatively little to say about beliefs and mentalities except insofar as they too were susceptible to a quantitative approach.

One of these regional studies, however, did do more than quantify: Le Roy Ladurie’s Les Paysans de Languedoc included, along with geographical and climatic data and demographic and social statistics, coverage of religion, literacy and, above all, popular movements and revolts, whose occurrence he related to the effects of economic depression. Although he was initially the arch-apostle of quantification, it was Le Roy Ladurie who led the turn back to the anthropological with his study of the medieval community of Montaillou, a centre of Cathar heretics, published in 1975. Suddenly, individual human beings were back in the picture, revealed in all their individual and collective complexity in the Inquisition records, which were Le Roy Ladurie’s main source. The limits of the statistical approach were becoming clear. The Braudelian emphasis on the power of the unchanging environment seemed too constricting after the liberating experiences associated with 1968, as well as incapable of explaining the historic, cultural and social changes that were clearly underway.

Other historians associated with Annales began to write about cultures and mentalities, encouraged by the contributions of the self-styled ‘Sunday’ (or part-time) historian Philippe Ariès on the history of childhood and the history of death; it was one of the features of the school that was most attractive to younger historians outside France in the 1970s and 1980s. This was the era in which the school and its leading members finally reached international prominence. A number of them, from Duby to Le Roy Ladurie himself, revealed a talent for writing for a broad readership that placed them in a tradition of French historiography going back to Michelet and Taine, and gaining them a readership in other countries. Several of them became public figures, writing for newspapers and broadcasting on radio and television. Their victory thus seemed complete.

Ironically, it had been achieved at the expense of the cosmopolitanism that was such a feature of the school in its early years. Braudel’s pupils overwhelmingly devoted themselves to the study of French history, bringing about a narrowing of focus that Burguière faithfully reflects in his book. Apart from Braudel’s work, the books that gained international prominence were almost all about France. The refocusing on national history paved the way for the reintroduction of politics into Annales, which once more changed its subtitle to reflect this change – it now became Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales. But, as Peter Burke remarked two decades ago, as the Annales approach became identified with the French historical profession in general, it lost what coherence it had possessed. In the wake of 1968, French academic institutions had in any case become less centralised and intellectual culture more pluralistic, and the expansion of the universities and of academic life in the late 20th century made it impossible for any single school of thought to achieve either institutional or intellectual dominance.

André Burguière does not want to admit this. For him Annales remains a cause to fight for. But his book will do the cause no good at all. It is written seemingly without any knowledge of the wider historiography. Lutz Raphael’s Die Erben von Bloch und Febvre, the best and most comprehensive account of the school, is mentioned in the bibliography, but there is no sign that Burguière has read it. Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy.