Educational History: Marc Bloch and the Historians Craft

Marc Bloch was born at Lyon on July 6th 1886 and died 1944.  He was educated at the Ecole Normale Superieure where he specialized in history and geography. He later taught these subjects at the Lycees of Montpellier and Agen. In 1919 he was appointed Professor of Medieval History at the University of Strasbourg until 1937 when he became Professor of Economic History at the University of Paris. His early carrier was interrupted by service in the French Army in World War I.

Marc Bloch
Marc Bloch


At the age of 53 and having fathered six children, he was again called up in 1939 where he served as a captain until his demobilization in July 1940, shortly after the fall of France. His book ‘Strange Defeat’ is an eyewitness account of the state of moral and physical prostration in which his country found itself at that time.


In 1942, he became active in the French Resistance. Two years later he was captured by the Germans, tortured and executed. The effect that the news of his death had is coined by D. W. Brogan:


“I remember vividly the day on which the news of Marc Bloch’s death reached us in Cambridge, and how eagerly we pounced on the rumor – false, alas ! – that he had escaped. When we learned beyond doubt that he was dead, we felt that a blow had been dealt to the whole world of learning”.


Marc Bloch was thus not only a veteran of the First World War but he was also called back into service at the age of 53 in 1939, witness to the occupation of France. Having Jewish ancestry, the possibility of returning to his Professorship at Sorbonne was omitted and he took refuge with the exiled University of Strasbourg at Clermont-Ferrand and then the University of Montpelier.


Vichy France was the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s regime during France’s occupation by Nazi Germany in World War II. From 1940 to 1942, while nominally the government of France as a whole, Vichy only fully controlled the unoccupied zone in southern France, while Germany occupied northern France.


Although having the opportunity to leave France, he chose to stay despite the hostile climate of the France of Vichy. He is reported to have attested that “he was so thoroughly French that he was impregnated with the spirit and tradition of France, that he did not think he could breathe freely in another country”.


At the Armistice of 22 June 1940 after the fall of France the French Demarcation line was created. It was the boundary between free France (the zone libre which became the Southern Zone in November 1942) and that occupied by the German Army (the zone occupée which became the Northern Zone in November 1942).


When the Germans crossed the line of demarcation after the landings in North Africa, Marc Bloch was forced from academic life. It was at this point Mr Bloch became a member of the French Resistance and a leader of the group centered in Lyons. In the spring of 1944 he was captured and imprisoned by the Nazi army. After being mistreated, in June 1916 as the Nazi hold on France was beginning to weaken, he was taken from his cell and shot in a field near Lyons with twenty six other human beings.


The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch

At the time he was writing The Historian’s Craft manuscript whilst in captivity. It was never finished but the parts were brought together to make the extant work we have access to today. As a piece of work created under such distinct duress, there is a notable objectivity and lack of vendetta. Instead what is found is an intellectual serenity and an obvious belief in the value of history as a discipline.


He used varied experiences from his life to illustrate attitudes and beliefs which he felt common to many people. Thus the book marks a long and cultivated life of study and reflection in his field which happens to have coincided with two wars. Marc Bloch dedicated his life not only to fighting for what he believed in but also in contributing to humanity in general through his discourse as an author and teacher.


What he is particularly attributed for is having put into practice a sort of ‘renaissance eclecticism in focus’. Joseph Strayer suggests that historians had long debated the problematic demarcation within the subject such as the narrowness of excessive specialization and the unrealistic nature of the periodization of history without quite managing to actualize the practice of their criticism.


Thus historical literature suffered from symptoms of the division of labor and knowledge suffered from being limited to its own field, ostensibly it suffered from decontextualisation; the loss of the macroscopic through study of the microscopic. These are some of the very problems which Aristotle dealt with in his collection of works known as Organon.


Bloch stated that history is a whole, that no period and no topic could be understood except in relationship to other periods and topics. He actualized his principles as practice and managed to break from a malaise not all manage to escape from. He did major work on medieval history but also did work on the development of the United States. Though being listed as Professor of Economic History, he never made the mistake of assuming that economic factors explain all human behavior.


He knew that humans are not entirely rational and that society is held together as much by beliefs and customs as by economic interests. He worked constantly for a “wider, more human history”, for a history which goes some of the way towards describing how and why people work together. He saw life in the whole and in describing it ascribed the existence of complex interplay of ideals and realities, of conscious innovation and unconscious conservation. In discussing institutions, they were not the petrified fictions of the lawyer, but the changing patterns which emerge from human life.


In discussing ideas his insistence was that they are not literary abstractions of doctrinal/doctoral dissertation but forces which go on to determine the behavior and structure of society. His work embodied careful attention to detail, and he always attended to the fact that the details only gained meaning in the larger framework.


This is illustrated in La Societe Feodale, a book which brings together a description of feudal institutions. Throughout the work he strived to understand and shed light on the state of mind and the habits of life which could produce and support feudal organization.


A strong emphasis has been made on historians using more than simply written record and that pursuit of varying source materials is necessary for enriching the field of history. In Bloch’s Les Caracteres Originaux de l’histoire Rurale Francaise, he gives an excellent example of utilizing multiple source materials. In using old maps, place names, ancient tools, aerial surveys, and folklore they contributed to an abundant description of French society during the centuries when agriculture was the predominant occupation.


Lucien Febvre
Lucien Febvre

He and Lucien Febvre founded the Review Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale in 1929. He seems to have demonstrated egality, freedom from provinciality and generosity to and among his fellow scholars. He produced an endless store of suggestions for further investigation, such that if all the books and articles he called for are written, we shall be much closer to the history of humanity of which he dreamed.


Special mention must be given to the work ‘The Historian’s Craft’ by Marc Bloch. The edition from which I make much of this digest is the 1953 copyright by Alfred A. Knopf with dedication to Lucien Febvre and introduction by Joseph R. Strayer. This also includes a note on Mr Bloch’s manuscript of by Lucien Febvre.


This book occurs to be one of the most remarkable that has been produced, having a history, life and soul all of it’s own. It seems to be a piece of history in artifact form as well as a book written on history. Knowledge of the story of the manuscript itself stirs the humane in my convenient slumber.


The Historians Craft is a testimony from Bloch as a historian in which he expresses the aims of his craft. Written under the harshest and most unforgiving of circumstances, there is not a note of this which infects the work taking it away from the true north of the discipline.


Here he set forth his conviction of the unity of all history and of the living connection between present and past which makes history something substantial on many levels. Indeed history as a field of knowledge may be conceptualized as a pure mode with a distinct ontology.


Francis Bacon made three distinct categorizations of knowledge: Science – knowledge born of the mind; Art – knowledge born of phantasy; History –knowledge born of memory. However, Bloch provides us with a much more nuanced interpretation of the discipline.


Lucien Febvre says about the job of bringing forward the work of someone else: “It is a delicate task, to be undertaken with many scruples, to prepare an unfinished manuscript for publication”. He said this in preparing the fragmentary text left behind as part of Bloch’s legacy into The Historian’s Craft. He goes on “…such scruples are outweighed by the satisfaction of making public, even in mutilated form, a notable book.”


Langlois and Seignbois refers to the famous ‘Introduction Aux Etude Historiques’, long used in courses in methodology both in France and the United States. This has been part of what has gone some way to setting out in an organized way ideas on history and it’s methodology. Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre discussed advancing and evolving a body of knowledge contributing a manifesto of ‘another generation’ and the embodiment of an entirely different spirit.


Henri Pirenne
Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne wrote a remarkable but incomplete work ‘A History of Europe: From the End of the Roman World in the West to the Beginnings of the Western States’ while he was imprisoned in Germany during World War I. It was later published by his son in 1936. Pirenne argued that profound social, economic, cultural, and religious movements in the long term resulted from equally profound underlying causes. This attitude greatly influenced Marc Bloch and ultimately the perspectives of the French Annales School of social history.


Restless under the idleness of the “phoney war” Marc Bloch started his composition: “History of French Society in the Structure of European Civilisation; To the memory of Henri Pirenne who, at the time his country was fighting beside mine for justice and civilization, wrote in captivity, a history of Europe”.


This auspicious beginning was to undergo a metamorphosis into the formulation of The Historians Craft carrying it’s dedication to Lucien Febvre; a friend and colleague who shared the noble desire to work for a wider and more human history in a collaboration that would be public and free.


Seven chapters were envisaged in his work:

  1. Historical knowledge: Past and Present
  2. Historical observation
  3. Historical analysis
  4. Time and history
  5. Historical Experience
  6. Explanation in History
  7. The problem of prevision


For a conclusion Bloch intended to write a study on The Role of History in Citizenship and Education. He also expected to devote an appendix to the Teaching of History. Bloch would still have had to deal with the problem of chance, the problem of the individual, the problem of “determinant” acts or facts; and finally of the problem of prevision; should he have had time to bring his work to its full and mature expression.

The latter part of the unfinished plan was sketched thus:


VI: Explanation in History

By way of introduction: the generation of skeptics (and scientists)

  1. The idea of cause. The destruction of cause and of motive (the unconscious). Romanticism and Spontaneity.
  2. The idea of chance
  3. The problem of the individual and their differential value. Supplementarily, the epochs, documentarily without individuals.  Is history only a science of men in society ? Mass history and the elite.
  4. The problem of “determinant” acts or facts


VII: The Problem of Prevision

  1. Prevision, a mental necessity
  2. The ordinary errors of prevision.  Economic fluctuations, military history
  3. The paradox of prevision in human affairs: prevision which is destroyed by prevision; role of conscious awareness
  4. Short term prevision
  5. Regularities
  6. Hopes and uncertainties


In the three copies of the manuscript which were left intact to bring together the available ‘The Historians Craft’; all three ended in exactly the same way in the same words: “In history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for….”


There is a dedication to his wife who died in the same cause as her husband and aided him in all his endeavors; both were victims of the war. This cannot be omitted as an important part of history, nor can the work of translators Peter Putnam, Robert R. Palmer, Durinda Putnam and Joseph R. Strayer for ‘freeing from the midden of humankind a treasure for all future generations’.


Here some of the introduction he gives to history as a subject is paraphrased:

People are living and making history. We are history, and what we record goes some way towards documenting history. Business organizations preserve an account for archive, military organizations move to document commands “while it is hot”.


As humanity gets more mature and the written word becomes more available both in all manner of its production along with the availability of it’s archives, the number of historians and historical documents increase. Naturally a discussion of quality and quantity is important in all situations where quantity has become a sufficient enough factor for quality to emerge in a categorisable spectrum. This involves the domain of analytical logic tempering and not submitting to the domain of heuristic development.


Accompanying older standards of broad historical categories such as political, economic and social histories, are further demarcated historys carrying forward the libraries which constitute part of our heritage. As things progress more is added to the debate about the value and nature of history as knowledge is analyzed and refined, reconfigured, appended and further archived. A pivotal question which gets asked in the pursuit of historiography and methodology is ‘What is the use of history ?’.




Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (Chapter 12, George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense: The Life of Reason, Page 92)


Values sometimes get discarded or modified, often history seems to repeat and iterate to our displeasure or delight; sometimes patterns or events are entirely indiscernible or of no apparent value. This question of understanding history and it’s uses is deep and rich and broad and invaluable. Even if we can write histories which can be used in certain ways, it is hard to apply values to them on many levels, not least against the contested backdrop of subjectivity.


The philosophical discourse which can accompany all areas of knowledge and its theorization are not the focus of this digest. More so what is aimed at is a simple primer exploring a practical and utilitarian discussion of history which hopefully will stimulate the mind…


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