The Historian’s Craft

On the initiative of two colleagues (Brilliant Colleague #1 ; Brilliant Colleague #2), Birmingham historians are putting together a kind of Christmas reading list for our students. The idea is not to draw up yet another bibliography (“How to impress examiners in your Finals”), but simply – and most importantly – to share with them some of the works which have had a particular significance for our work or our choice of a career in history.
It took me a while to settle on just one book but I eventually did. I chose March Bloch’s Apologie pour l’Histoire. Here is why in a few words:

Marc Bloch, The historian’s craft (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).

Not much of a surprise here, is it? Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft hardly seems a radical choice for a French historian. The great medievalist is after all known as one of the founders, and the main inspiration, behind the Annales school of history; a historiographical movement so dominant that the immense majority of French historians would claim some affiliation with it. Bloch too pioneered comparative social history and his military service in the First World War led him to offer a set of remarkably insightful reflections on the experience of life in the trenches. So far, so predictable then, coming from a comparative historian of the Great War who learnt and first plied his trade across the Channel…

I read The Historian’s Craft at the beginning of my postgraduate studies, as I stopped dabbling in a range of social sciences to concentrate on history. Bloch’s text has none of the pretentious tone of many methodological treatises and his focus on history as a craft continues to appeal to me for its pragmatism and his insistence that history is first and foremost an exercise in critical thinking. Grounded into source criticism, history is defined by the quality of the questions it raises, not by the antiquarian obsession of the positivists of old.  Only the historian’s questions can transform a document into a source; a story into a study.

Yet, it is the original French title of the book – Apologie pour l’histoire – which tells us why this book should be on the Christmas reading list of every budding historian. It is indeed the contemporary significance of history that Bloch intended to reassert in the face of the critique of intellectuals like Paul Valéry. The Apologie offers a powerful and convincing argument for the ethical and political necessity of history as a method. Defending a critical engagement with the public at large, Bloch argues that the historian is not merely meant to speak truth to power; history has a wider social function in that its method paves the way for the critical exercise of the rights and duties of the citizen. The moral and political urgency of the book obviously stems from the context in which Bloch was writing. Composed between 1941 and 1943 in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, Apologie was written soon after Bloch had produced Strange Defeat, a contemporary analysis of the fall of France, of the collapse of the Third Republic, and a fierce critique of its elites. Bloch, the scholar, did not merely profess; his intellectual pursuits informed the political commitment of Bloch, the citizen.

Bloch, who embodied the republican patriotism of the French Jewish community, never saw any of these two books in print. A senior member of the anti-Nazi Resistance, Bloch was arrested, tortured, and executed on 16 June 1944.

The intellectual legacy of Bloch’s work is immense. His contribution to modern historiography can hardly be overestimated. Yet, as historians continue to be called upon to make sense of the contemporary world, one would be remiss to ignore the profound ethical implications of the method he imparted to us.

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