One of the most important texts on historiography and historical method in the 20th century, it is difficult to call The Historian’s Craft a “book” in the conventional, marketed sense. It was a fragmentary piece, one Bloch was working on when the Nazis caught up to him in 1944. In its printed form it has been left fairly intact and is relatively faithful to the original — manuscript, that is.
Bloch begins by asking a worthwhile question, one perhaps asked even more frequently today: “What is the use of history?” He seeks rationales for studying history in his world — a practical and pragmatic place. There is the seeking for a sense that history can be “scientific”. But as a humble student of post-Newtonian physics, Bloch understood that scientific could mean many things. His science was uncertainty, relativity, doubt — a challenge to the concrete solidity of the 19th century bourgeois mind. There is a clear distinction here between the positivistic, sociological Durkheimian approach and the skeptical, inconclusive historicism that seemed a necessary palliative.
A historian above all, Bloch suggests, must be guided by sources. And here’s the rub. For sources need careful and considerate examination, when they’re available…He talks of closed sources too, using examples like the Society of Jesus and the Bank of France. Here, like any true historian, he puts forward the notion of secrecy as a fundamental impediment to historical investigation and even entertains the idea of concealment as a bourgeois value. It’s a tough sell.
What he comes to is criticism. Bloch reminds us of the rise of a type of skepticism and doubt — or more precisely the implementation of these virtues as instruments of knowledge — and, always historically minded, links its development to a particular time (for him, it’s the mid-17th century — as a historian of science, I see some strength in that claim…). There is a cautionary tale of forgery and deception here, as he recounts stories of papers allegedly written by Pascal anticipating Newton’s theories of gravitation, and even of feigned correspondence between a young Pascal and Galileo. Bloch urges us to be vigilant, on every front. Sometimes, he confesses, there is a deep problem of deception in sources, intentional or otherwise. Then there are the vagaries of memory and even rumor…
And yet he does not allow this to quell his belief in the fantastic in human nature — in its ultimately unpredictable quality. A quality he as a historian seeks to understand, or at least appreciate (and, in writing, celebrate). At a point, he quotes the late 19th century French mathematician, economist and philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot: “The impossible physical event…is nothing but an event whose probability is infinitely small.” (p. 133) Bloch’s historian is patently non-Newtonian and conscious that everything doesn’t always fit the neat categories science has found fit to fit them in. They can give you a real fit, I’ll tell you…
He finally turns to a beautiful description (p. 154) of the inherent “strangeness” of history by the 19th century medievalist Jules Michelet. I won’t reproduce it here, only in so far as I hope this ersatz review gets all you non-historians running to the nearest used bookstore or library…
He concludes wistfully, with a final nod to the importance of understanding language and meaning — historically…Reminding us of the power of etymology to unearth deeply covered bits of the psyche. There is a sense, finally, of the peculiarities of historical causation, a parting shot across the bow at the ordered Enlightenment edifice of predictability and progress: “Is not man himself the greatest variable in nature.” (p. 197)
Despite the fact that Bloch was probably killed by that variable, his method lives on. We live in a swanky, swishy, fast-moving post-modern world of spin doctoring and unmitigated bull, but with patience and a little digging, everybody can learn the historian’s craft. Just don’t believe the hype.
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954).