‘La nouvelle histoire’ or the French historical revolution

The French historical revolution (500:1.c.201.120) is a book by the Cambridge Professor and historian, Peter Burke, about the École des Annales, also known as Annales, a historiographic school which marked a turning point in the study of history. They focussed on social history rather than the previous predominance of political history and the power elites. Despite the fact that it had had some precedents (for instance Henri Berr), this school represented a radical change, undertaken in the first half of the 20th century by a small group of French historians –particularly Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre– that set the basis of the methodological and theoretical approach of historical writing that was hegemonic from the 1930’s to the 1960’s; although its influence went much further and is embedded in the contemporary practice of history.

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Volumes of the Annales’ journal at the UL (P220.c.57)

The school started with the foundation of the academic journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale in 1929. It is worth clarifying that the school was not fully homogeneous in its ideas from the start, and we can see differences among its members, called Annalistes. In addition, several generations of scholars followed this historiographical movement, adding ideas and changing their approach to the historians’ job. After the war, the movement was associated with the Sixth Section for economic and social sciences of the École pratique des hautes études in Paris (EPHE –precedent of the École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales– EHESS). A key concept of the school was the longue durée history, that is to say, they were keen on studying long-term historical structures. The school has also contributed to the history of mentalities, especially in the generations that followed. In general they were opposed to the class analysis of Marxist historiography. Interestingly, although Annales was not meant to cover a particular time in history, most of their members were experts in either Middle Ages, or early modern period.

Let us examine briefly the mayor figures involved in the beginnings of the ‘French historical revolution’, starting with the two founders of the movement and mentioning some of their most well-known works.

Bloch-FebvreMarc Bloch (1866-1944): He came from an Alsatian Jewish family. His father was Gustave Bloch, historian and professor of ancient history. He defended his thesis Rois et serfs in 1920. Nine years later he founded with Lucien Febvre the academic historical journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, the origin of the Annales school. Both Bloch and Febvre were teaching at the University of Strasbourg in 1919 –when the province was returned to France– and moved in the 1930’s to teach in Paris. Marc fought in both the 1st and 2nd World Wars. He was a member of the Resistance during the German occupation and was executed by the Gestapo in 1944.

  • The royal touch: sacred monarchy and scrofula in England and France (1973) 531:1.c.95.117. (Les Rois traumaturges… Doctoral thesis, published in 1920).
  • Feudal society 532:26.c.95.8 (La société féodale, 1929-30)
  • The historian’s craft 9000.d.8387 (Apologie pour l’histoire ou métier d’historien, 1949).

Lucien Febvre (1878-1956): Son of a philologist, he studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. After graduating he taught at a secondary school and worked on his thesis Phillip II of Spain and the Franche-Comté (1911) until the outbreak of the 1st World War. After the war, he met his colleague Bloch at the University of Strasbourg. He was the first editor with Anatole de Monzie of Encyclopédie française (R900.F4) an important French reference work published between 1935 and 1966 in 20 volumes. He became professor at Collège de France in 1932 and first president of the Sixth section at the EPHE in 1948.

  • A geographical introduction to history. C202.c.9275 (La Terre et l’évolution humaine, 1922)
  • Martin Luther: a destiny. 61:22.d.90.1 (Un destin: Martin Luther, 1928)
  • The problem of unbelief in the sixteenth century: the religion of Rabelais 738:27.c.95.30 (Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle: la religion de Rabelais, 1937).

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The Annales school had several generations of historians, each larger than the last, seeking new approaches to historiography. For instance, the second generation brought an interest in quantitative history and regional history. Among its members, we can find: Fernand Braudel, Ernest Labrousse, Pierre Chaunu, Georges Duby… The main historians of this generation were the first and the last. Fernand Braudel (1982-1985) took the lead of Annales with Febvre and Charles Moraze during the 50’s and 60’s. He obtained funding to create the Sixth Section for economic and social sciences at the École pratique des hautes études. He co-created with Gaston Berger the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH) and was its director from 1970 until his death. His most innovative work was The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Phillip II (1949. 533:15.c.95.61). Georges Duby (1919-1996), Professor and Chair of History of medieval society at Collège de France. Duby gets credit for being one of the most influential medieval historians of his century. For example, one of his most well-known titles is The three orders: feudal society imagined (1978. 560:48.c.95.21), which was a bestseller.

The third generation focussed on the history of mentalities and cultural history; we should mention two remarkable historians that belonged to this generation: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (b. 1929), who had an anthropological approach to history; and the medievalist Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014), head of the École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (1972-77) who wrote The birth of Purgatory (1981. 50:2.c.95.4), an important contribution to ‘the medieval imagination’ according to Burke. Some Annalistes from the third generation appeared frequently on TV and contributed regularly to newspapers. As a result, the French public became interested in history during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

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Despite the internal differences, Traian Stoianovich speaks about ‘the Annales paradigm’ (500:1.c.95.274). A different approach to the topic can be found in the book Opponents of the Annales school by Jospeh Tendler (500:1.c.201.71). Speaking of which, one of the criticisms that the Annales school received was that some of their members gave too much importance to political history; something that at first they were trying to avoid. Those historians that returned to politics belonged to the third generation. The quantitative approach to history, or to cultural history on its own, was also regarded as reductionist. In addition, the control Annalistes had over French academia was criticised by their opponents.

Although the Annales works were in general well received in other countries (in Europe & America); this was not the case for Britain and Germany, where its reception and acceptance took many years. Summing up, their main achievements were to expand considerably the topics covered by historians –particularly by connecting the social sciences with history– and to introduce a problem-solving approach towards historical research.

We finish quoting the first lines of Professor Burke’s book (500:1.c.201.120):

A remarkable amount of the most innovative, the most memorable and the most significant historical writing of the twentieth century was produced in France. La nouvelle histoire, as it is sometimes called, is at least as famous, as French, and as controversial as la nouvelle cuisine.

Manuel del Campo

 

Further reading

-Aguirre Rojas, Carlos Antonio. L’histoire conquérante: un regard sur l’historiographie française. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2000. 560:15.c.200.21

-Bloch, Marc; Febvre, Lucien. Correspondance: Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre et les Annales d’histoire economique et sociale. Ed. by Bertrand Muller. Paris : Fayard, 1994-2003. 500:5.c.95.125-127

-Burguière, André. The Annales school: an intellectual history. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. 560:15.c.200.62

-Burke, Peter. The French historical revolution: the Annales School 1929-2014. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity, 2015. 500:1.c.201.120

-Iggers, Georg G. Historiography in the twentieth century: from the scientific objectivity to the postmodern challenge. 500:1.c.95.955

-Stoianovich, Traian. French historical method: the Annales paradigm. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976. (500:1.c.95.274) Also available on ebook.

-Tendler, Joseph. Opponents of the Annales school. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 500:1.c.201.71

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