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Marc Bloch and his Historian’s Craft

Time and human beings are the two sides of the same coin-History
12:00 AM Mar 21, 2024 IST | Guest Contributor
marc bloch and his historian’s craft
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Marc Bloch (born July 6, 1886, Lyon, France—died June 16, 1944, near Lyon) was a French medieval historian, editor, and Resistance leader known for his innovative work in social and economic history. During World War II he joined the French Resistance and was captured and killed by the Germans.

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Among his major works are The Royal Touch (1924), French Rural History (1931), Feudal Society (1939) and the Historian’s Craft (1944). As the founder of the Annales school of historiography, with its wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach, Bloch exerted a huge influence on the study of history.

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The “Historian’s Craft” was posthumously published in 1944, by Vintage Books. The book is translated into english by Peter Putnam and the introduction of the book is written by Joseph R. Strayer. The book consists of five chapters spanning over 224 pages.

In the first chapter, “History, Men and Time” Marc Bloch argues that there are two fundamentals of history, one is time, and another is human beings. Time and human beings are the two sides of the same coin-History. Bloch argues that any of the sciences cannot afford to treat time as a mere abstraction and when it comes to History as science, it has its own concept of time-Historical time.

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This Historical time is “concrete and living reality with an onward irreversible push.” Marc Bloch advocates that Historical time has two characteristics one is continuum and another is perpetual change. Here Historical time is like the cloud which we always see in the sky but the cloud we saw yesterday is not the same we see today.

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In any of the knowledge systems, Marc Bloch argues that involvement of history is dictated by appearance of human element in it. He emphasizes upon the “Humanity of History” as per him the good historian knows “that wherever he catches the scent of Human flesh, there his quarry lies.”

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In the second chapter, “Historical Observation”. Marc Bloch agrees with many others that historical observation is indirect and direct observation is the prerogative of present studies. So, the knowledge system in history is indirect. “Indirect Knowledge” is generally taken to mean which arrives to historian’s mind through other human minds.

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Marc Bloch here expresses his disagreement by saying only humans cannot be the agency of this indirect knowledge, there is non-human agency also which methodologists of history has had ignored. Marc Bloch says that this apathy of Methodologists to the methods of archeology pushed history to the dependent method of observation.

In this chapter Marc Bloch says that “past” and “Knowledge of the past” are two different entities while former being the objective and later the subjective. The past is constant and unchangeable but knowledge of the past is progressive and self-perfecting process, the historians of the last century have left no stone unturned to liberate it from the shadows of subordination by learning how to “probe more deeply in the analysis of social developments”.

Furthermore, Marc Bloch argues that historical evidence is of vast magnitude, but he broadly categorizes it in two categories i.e., intentional and non-intentional evidence. The intentional evidence is the source which is “consciously intended to inform the reader”.

The non-intentional source is unwillingly left over by past, and which is of great aid to the historian, who by the method of Cross Examination, “which is prime necessity of well conducted historical research”, makes these evidence to speak by the questions which earlier generations of historians have neglected to pose.

The third chapter is “Historical Criticism” in which Marc Bloch argues that fraud and forgery in history is as old as History itself. The job of the historical criticism is look beyond the scenes of the text and evidence and locate things in their correct context. It is never enough to just locate the forgery in any historical account but historical criticism demands that its motivations should be discovered and explored.

Marc Bloch argues that “criticism of historical evidence”, from doubt to methodical doubt, like that of Cartesian science, “makes tabula rasa of its beliefs”, to make sure that new certainties and probabilities are brought to fore. Bloch argues that publication of “De Re Diplomatica”, by Mabillon in 1681 led to the establishment of critical method on scientific basis. In short Marc Bloch says that the Method of Historical Criticism has enabled historians to “expose and to explain the imperfections of evidence” and thereby enabled History as science to, “pioneer for mankind a new path to truth and, hence, to Justice”.

The fourth chapter is Historical Analysis. Marc Bloch says doing Historical Analysis is the subtle art of making comparison, which enables us to arrive at the understanding, which, he says is “the beacon light of our studies” rather than making Judgements which, “leads to a loss of taste for explanations”, and this “mania for making judgements” is “the satanic enemy of true History”. Here Marc Bloch suggests that the best approach to understand history is “from a sympathizer’s eyes rather than that of Judge”. Marc Bloch himself made comparison of many historical events in Europe to arrive at their true understanding.

The chapter five which is unfortunately the incomplete chapter, “Historical Causation”. Marc Bloch says that causality in history is to be approached with conscious criticism, and not through our instinct and we should not accept any explanation in history as a priori. Even though one can put together a probable chain of things in a causal relationship, does not mean that that particular chain really occurred in the past, but it is a possibility among other possibilities. Therefore, the best way to deal with causality is to test it as Marc Bloch wrote in the last lines of his unfinished book, “the Causes cannot be assumed, they are to be looked for……”

The book, “Historian’s Craft”, not only offers the methodological information but also provides a model for History writing with magnitude of examples from pre-modern to modern period. It is the simple way of presenting to the students of History an introduction to their craftsmanship. Had the manuscript been completed by the author the book would have further enhanced our understanding of the History as a craft.

By Mohammad Asif

Mohammad Asif is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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