The Evolution and Influence of the “Annales” School on Modern Historiography

Nineteenth Century historiography was dominated by the Empirical Model espoused by German historian Leopold von Ranke in which history was a narrative based on documented facts. Historians wrote volumes on wars, battles, great men, leaders, political institutions, and the rise of nations. Very few works were produced on the poor working class or peasants – the faceless little people on whose backs great nations and economies were built. The histories that were produced were published by a handful of educated men in highly developed societies with largely the same interests and conception of what history was. However, at the onset of the Twentieth Century a new school of thought began to emerge in France that would eventually challenge the established Rankean historiographical methods. These historians believed that history was far more complex and should encompass a wide array of sources beyond written and oral documents.[1] Those who ascribed to this view of historiography coalesced around the French journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale founded by University of Strasbourg professors Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) and Marc Bloch (1886-1944) in 1929. The Annales School became, and remains today, one of the most influential in modern historiography. It broke down barriers between various social sciences, gave birth to new ideas such as the analysis of quantitative data, and produced some of the most eminent historians of the Twentieth Century, including professors Febvre and Bloch, and Fernand Braudel.

The pioneer Annales historian was the Frenchman Henri Berr (1863-1954) who played a central role in shifting French historical enquiry away from traditional methods.[2] Berr founded an academic periodical in 1900 that sought to bring together all disciplines. He planned to commission a giant 100 volume history of the evolution of mankind that would incorporate all of the social sciences such as economics, geography, and sociology to explain human society.[3] His work also influenced two young historians, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch.[4]

Both Febvre and Bloch were opposed to the way that history was practiced at the time. Through their journal Annales they sought to “break down the barriers among the social sciences.”[5] They eventually replaced Berr as the pioneers of a new kind of history and wrote works that influenced other historians. Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft is one of the most well-known works on Annales historiography and was published shortly after World War II when memories of the Nazi occupation were still strong. It is worth noting that Marc Bloch was executed by the Nazis for his involvement in the French Resistance. In a review of his late colleague’s book Lucien Febvre summarized what could be considered the ideas of both men on historiography:

Definitions – do not the most precise definitions, the most carefully thought out and most meticulously phrased definitions run the risk of constantly leaving aside the best part of history… Definitions – are they not a kind of bullying? ‘Careful, old chap, you are stepping outside of history. Re-read my definition, it is very clear! If you are a historian, don’t set foot in here, this is the field of the sociologist. Or there – that is the psychologist’s business. To the right? Don’t dare go there, that is the geographer’s area… and to the left. The ethnologist’s domain.’ It is a nightmare, madness, wilful mutilation! Down with all barriers and labels. To the frontiers, astride the frontiers, with one foot on each side, that is where the historian has to work.[6]

Both men’s work reflected the concept of a frontierless narrative, a wide-open approach to history. Bloch wrote influential works that focused on various aspects of medieval life. In French Rural History he examined the evolution of rural French society over a period of 1,000 years using previously unexamined sources revealing that many of its characteristics had remained virtually unchanged. His most influential work, Feudal Society, sought not only to define feudal institutions but to understand the psyche that led to their rise.[7] Febvre also wrote several influential works. In his 1911 thesis Philip the Second and the Franche-Comté he studied the geography, environment, and life of the region providing what many consider a very accurate portrayal of the time in question. Febvre and Bloch influenced other historians but none perhaps so much as Fernand Braudel (1902-1985).

Braudel was particularly influenced by Febvre who encouraged him to write his 1947 thesis The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II which was later published in 1949. The work consists of three sections, each dedicated to a different type of historical period. In the first he examined the history of Mediterranean geography, in the second the economies of the Mediterranean and things that influenced them such as population, and lastly the politics of the period which he asserted were shaped by influences beyond the control or understanding of men at that time. Reflecting on his work shortly after the publication of The Mediterranean Braudel described his thoughts on writing history as follows:

For us there are no bounded human sciences. Each of them is a door open on to the entirety of the social, each leads to all the rooms, to every floor of the house, on the condition that on his march the investigator does not draw back out of reverence for neighboring specialists. If we need to, let us use their doors and their stairways.[7]

Three Volume Set of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel

This comprehensive view of a history where no discipline is off limits has led historians to explore and interpret many new sources of data and examine past events from various perspectives that were not previously considered. This has led to the creation of various sub-schools of thought. One of the most intriguing of these is quantitative history and the incorporation of statistical data and figures in order to show that a particular version of history was not conjecture. Historian Pierre Chaunu’s eight volume work on Spanish trade between 1504 and 1650 is a perfect example. Chaunu used the customs records of import and export duties and ships’ cargo registers at the port of Seville to recreate the pattern of trade for the Iberian Peninsula. This new trend, which first became popular among economic historians, is now relevant for any historian that is working with evidence that lends itself to being counted and wants their work to be taken seriously. The use of quantitative data in U.S. history has led historians to re-evaluate conventional views of historic events. It can also be used to shed light on various aspects of social history by determining things like who owned the most property, types of property that various groups owned, who filed the most lawsuits, who won the most lawsuits, who married whom, or who had the most influence. The possibilities are endless.

While history will never be a completely exact science, the Annales School has demonstrated that it is probably the most important among the humanities because it is the most complex. In order to study the whole of the past, historians must utilize all the methods used by all other social sciences including the most recent. In this way, history has been transformed from a simple timeline of great events into a complex narrative in which everything that happened in the past becomes a relevant detail of the timeline regardless of how small or insignificant. The greatest accomplishment of the Annales School was to demonstrate this by breaking down the barriers between social sciences and giving historians the tools necessary to do “total history.” The Annales School without a doubt will continue to serve as an inspiration to historians in the digital age as new methods and sources of historical research become available.

End Notes

[1] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 345.

[2] Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction (London: Taylor and Francis, 2005), 107.

[3] Breisach, Historiography, 277-278.

[4] Bentley, Modern Historiography, 104.

[5] Robert Forster, “Achievements of the Annales School,” The Journal of Economic History 38, no. 1 (March 1978): 58.

[6] Lucien Febvre, Peter Burke, and K. Folca, A New Kind of History: And Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 31.

[7] Breisach, Historiography, 345-346.

[7] Hexter, “Fernand Braudel and the Monde Braudellien,” 498.