the historian’s craft

February 28, 2005

The grim esoterism, in which even the best of us sometimes fall, the preponderance, in our current writing, of those dreary textbooks which bad teaching-concepts have put in place of true synthesis, the curious modesty which, as soon as we are outside the study, seems to forbid us to expose the honest groping of our methods before a profane public – all these bad habits, derived from an accumulation of contradictory prejudices, compromise the essential nobility of our cause. They conspire to surrender the mass of defenseless readers to the false brilliance of a bogus history, in which lack of seriousness, picturesque rubbish, and political prejudices are supposed to be redeemed by shameless self-assurance…. A misunderstanding between historical inquiry, such as it is or hopes to be, and the reading public unquestionably does exist. The great debate about footnotes is not the least significant ground upon which the two parties are engaged in their absurd duel.

For a great many scholars, the lower margin of the page exerts a fascination bordering upon mania. It is surely absurd to overcrowd these margins, as they do, with bibliographical references which might largely have been spared by a list drawn up at the beginning of the volume; and worse still, through sheer laziness, to relegate to them long explanations whose proper place was indicated in the main body of the text, so that the most useful part of these works must be looked for in the cellar. But when certain readers complain that a single note, strutting along by itself at the foot of the page, makes their heads swim, or when certain publishers claim that their customers, doubtless less hypersensitive in reality than they would have us believe, are tortured by the mere sight of a page thus disfigured, these aesthetes merely prove their imperviousness to the most elementary maxims of an intellectual ethic. For, apart from the free play of imagination, we have no right to make any assertion which cannot be verified and a historian who in using a document indicates the sources as briefly as possible (that is, the means of finding it again) is only obeying a universal rule of honesty. Corrupted by dogma and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification. On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day.

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (87-8; emphasis added)

As part of my ongoing attempt to get a better perspective on the history of history – or rather, the history of the practice of history – I recently read Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (written during the 1940s, and translated into English in 1953). As I am neither a medievalist nor a historian of France I don’t know how Bloch’s research is currently regarded in those fields, but I have to say that as both a description of, and a guide to, how historians actually go about their work much of what Bloch says in this book still seems quite relevant today.

This is not to say that he was, as the saying goes, “ahead of his time”; indeed, at one point in the book he even explains why it is a mistake to say that any historical figure was not of that figure’s particular place and time. (Besides, Bloch’s faith in progress and the “forces of reason” quoted above clearly marks him as a man of his time.) But it does show that many of the ongoing debates about history and its various crises – too specialized! too disconnected from the public! too empirical! not empirical enough! – that are often treated as recent (usually meaning post-1950s) developments have actually been going on for a much longer period of time. The fact that many of us (myself included) have often forgotten about, or perhaps never even knew of, the earlier rounds of these debates does not mean that they never happened, or that they are no longer relevant today.

Take, for example, the problem of the division between professional, academic history, and the history most popular with the reading public. Considering the fact that Bloch was writing in France in the 1940s, does it really make sense to blame the current unpopularity – from a sales standpoint – of academic history in the US solely on recent changes in academic history writing? Are we really facing some kind of unprecedented situation here? Certainly some of the historians of the 1950s gained wider readerships than those now, but can we really be certain that that situation was the norm, rather than an exception?

On a related note, the question of epistemology and history was the cause of quite a discussion/debate/”furore” (follow the links and the links’ links to get the full picture) among history bloggers over the last couple of weeks. Often these debates over how historians can “truly” “know” (quotation marks required) anything of the past are cast as the result of the great theoretical advances of the past half-century or so. Before then, supposedly, historians unquestioningly applied naive empiricist methods to their research and were quite content simply to try to know the past as it actually was/happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen (German quotation required – but don’t we need the auxiliary “sein” for this to make sense gramatically?).

Bloch, however, does engage this issue (along with related questions) quite clearly in his book. His discussions of historical criticism and historical analysis are still worth reading today. While his conclusions can certainly be debated, and likely would not satisfy many philosophers, theorists, and perhaps even some historians, the fact is that he – like many historians of the past century – was not at all ignorant of the problems of attaining historical knowledge.

He also did not lack a sense of humor. Consider this passage about the problem of “certainty”:

To what extent, however, are we justified in mouthing this glorious word “certainty”? Mabillon, long ago, admitted that the criticism of charters could not attain ‘metaphysical’ certainty. He was quite right. It is only for the sake of simplification that we sometimes speak of evidence rather than of probabilities. But we are more aware today than in Mabillon’s time, that that convention is not peculiar to us. It is not ‘impossible,’ in the absolute sense of the term, that the Donation of Constantine is authentic, or – according to the whim of some scholars – that the Germania of Tacitus is a forgery. Nor is it, in the same sense, ‘impossible’ that a monkey might accidentally reconstruct either the Donation or the Germania, letter for letter, simply by striking the keys of a typewriter at random. ‘The impossible physical event,’ Cournot has said, ‘is nothing but an event whose probability is infinitely small.’ So far as it finds certainty only by estimating the probable and the improbable, historical criticism is like most other sciences of reality, except that it undoubtedly deals with a more subtle gradation of degrees. (133)

Now of course someone could step in here and argue that Bloch cannot justifiably, in a metaphysical sense, talk about degrees of probability any more than he can talk about absolute certainty: that point can be debated. But the broader accusation that gets thrown around – not always, but often enough to become annoying – that historians have been, until recently, largely ignorant of these kinds of problems simply does not match up with how many historians have gone about their work.

As Bloch writes:

“For there is one precaution which the ordinary detractors of history seem not to have heeded. Their words lack neither eloquence nor wit, but they have, for the most part, neglected to ask themselves exactly what it is they are discussing. The picture which they have formed for themselves of our studies has not been drawn in the workshop. It savors rather of the debating platform than of the study. Above all, it is out of date.” (11-12)

%d bloggers like this: