The Battle for the History of France Chapter 1, Fortune Favors the Bold

By Dean Alexander

A war of scholarship

The political, societal, and personal circumstances behind the formation of the world’s most influential historical journal

Just as the annals of historical thought serves to explain the content of written history, the history of the Annales Journal can explain the written history of France – so powerful an influence was this single historical journal. Yet, this says nothing of how its editors, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, men who profoundly impacted written history, build the foundation for this academic juggernaut.  How exactly did these two junior academicians, in the face of an entrenched historical tradition, advance their outlying methodologies and historical philosophies during one of the most chaotic and socially divisive periods in French history? What follows is both the how and why Annales scholars came to so dominate French historiography, a historiography which continues to reflect their influence and contributions.

While these essays will address the academic debates of the day and the aggressive strategies which the founders of the Annales Journal used to break into the upper-echelons of academia, equally critical to this understanding is the social and emotional tenor of France. The confrontations and intolerances which existed within academia were directly reflective of the political and social crises which plagued the nation as a whole. Thus, the societal mentalities which grew increasingly reactive and angry in the early twentieth century, are key to understand the rise of Annales.

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“It is impossible to write ancient history because we do not have enough sources, and impossible to write modern history because we have too many.” Charles Péguy (Clio, 1909)

In a single sentence, Péguy was able to distill the problems of historical scholarship and shed light on what was at the core of the divide which separated the Methodological historians and the Annalistes who followed them. If we are to strip away all of the arguments, Péguy’s statement is probably the single issue which remains: many younger historians wanted to study early histories and sought to introduce sociological, historical inputs, but more senior historians – those who chaired the nation’s greatest universities, rebuked such historical writings. They insisted that these earlier periods had too few reliable texts to definitively establish those histories, never mind that they were skeptical of the ‘contributions’ of the fledgling field of sociology.

Péguy’s distillation, for all of its worth, makes light understanding needed to conclude such a sentence. The path to reach the conclusion is far longer and much more interesting than the sentence belies. The following essays concern that circuitous route through the three-plus decades of French societal upheaval and literary and scholarly expansion which lead to the sea change in the 1930’s how history would be written going forward, both methodologically and philosophically. Historians would come to embrace the openness allowed by Annales to approach history by way of new, innovative avenues, cross-pollinating history with various other academic fields. While this was a crusade championed and led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the editors of the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, the roots of this pan-academic historical inquiry began in earlier decades. This is that story.

For the half century prior to the first publication of the Annales Journal on January 15th 1929, the field of historical study in France had been dominated almost solely by historians of the methodological school. This demanding approach to history, which was already being pursued by some historians in order to catch up to the historical professionalism already being practiced in Germany, was adopted fully by the French in response to their humiliating French defeat by the Germans in 1870. The defeat was so complete that Emperor Louis Napoleon had surrendered himself and his surrounded army at Sudan, leaving Paris open to besiegement and ultimately its capitulation.

For many French, it was inconceivable that France was no longer Europe’s greatest power. However, the crushing military military defeat was felt deeply within the French Army and it was concluded at the highest levels that France could no longer hope to fight Germany alone. France’s population had become significantly smaller than that of Germany’s; her industry had lagged well behind the capabilities of Germany, and she did not possess a rail network capable of moving sufficient troops to battlefields quickly. Still, despite these admitted inequities France had in relation to its neighbor to the east, three generations of French nationalists, repeatedly and haphazardly, demanded that the military exact revanche (revenge) upon the Germans – regardless of its improbable success.

Others, however, had a more practical perspective. In lieu of a militaristic resurrection of French pride, the much of France felt compelled to compete with Germany on every other point of comparison, which included, not incidentally, the field of historical scholarship. This, however, was problematic.

The German research universities were widely regarded as the best in the world, while the French educational system had been neglected during a decade of repression, intended to firmly establish Louis Napoleon as Emperor, following his overthrow of the Second Republic. Once some tolerance was permitted, French academicians started complaining of the conditions at the universities, then emboldened, became to be openly critical of the Empire’s administration of the university system (i.e. Collins 2005, Kelley 2008, Weisz 2014), the condition of which Georg Iggers describes as “moribund” (Iggers 2011). In confirmation of this assessment, a study conducted in 1868 by the minister of education, Victor Duruy, found the physical condition of many provincial universities were “deplorable” and that it was imperative that higher education is reformed (Weisz 2014). George Weisz goes on to write that during the 1860’s, the chorus of voices denouncing the condition of French academia was growing and included “academic superstars like Ernest Renan and Louis Pasteur” (Weisz ibid.).

Even before the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, there were those who either understood the importance of German’s “advances” in the field of history or independently saw the scientific method as a tool in the historian’s arsenal. 

In 1862, as calls for the reform of the French educational system would begin, the historian Fustel de Coulanges, famously lectured that “history is, and should be, a science” (de Coulanges, 1862 via Fritz) and historians, who were studying the confluences medieval of peoples of central Europe, found themselves in contact with German scholars and jointly referencing works on their common Frankish and Carolingian past (Kelley 2008). Donald Kelley writes, that this “scientific history” of the German Geschichtwissenschaft being picked up early French adaptors like Michelet and Quinet, was a world apart from the “science” of French-born, Auguste Comte’s positivism and followers of his work(*) (**) (Kelley ibid.).

After the conclusion of hostilities of France’s first war with Germany in 1870, there came a concert of voices which implored that France must catch up to the level of scholarship Germany had already achieved. The best method, many argued, to achieve this academic parity, was by using the German’s own techniques of research and scholarship (Collins ibid.).  Thus, a number of France’s best students, like Charles Seignobos, would purposefully study at Germany universities, in order to bring home these professional methodologies.

Click here for an expanded explanation of the political and philosophical components that led to the development of Germany’s school of scientific methodology and France’s methodological school.

(*) Kelley does not elaborate on these differences in positivism.

(**) Comte’s positivism will come into play in the next part of this series, as the ultra-nationalist/Fascist Charles Maurras wrote often of the influence Comte had upon his thought. His well-known adherence to Comtian positivism would make a moniker of the term positivist and cause Comtian thought to fall out of favor. It is no accident then, that “positivist” a label that Lucien Lebvre leaned on to discredit his chosen enemy, Charles Seignobos.

There were those in France, however, who saw scientific history as a Germanification of French scholarship. Amid this criticism, though perhaps not because of it, Seignobos and his peers chose to eliminate a central component to the holistic German approach to scholarship, the consideration that humanities were an essential aspect of human history. The German approach was one which connected all related fields of academic study, including literature, psychology, and philosophy; all studies which contained aspects which these French historians considered unknowable, unreliable, or unprovable. Instead, French historians chose to decouple history from the other fields. They instead would center their entire historical world upon what only could be reliably established as true, dictated solely by the authentication of historical accounts which were contained within archival texts. Audrey Levray explains this rationale of history, she writes, because history “can only be constructed by indirect observations of past facts, it unintentionally induces an element of subjectivity” (Levray 2014); and it is this indeterminacy, she writes, that necessitates that these texts be scrubbed for authenticity.

Like a court of law, methodological historians saw these archival  ‘witnesses’ to essentially gave ‘testimony’ through the examination of historical accounts and official documents. The historian became the judge, who compared one testimony to the next, in order to establish a reliably true written history. This was a positivist approach to history, where the historian did not allow himself to use deduction or reasoning. Thus, with the elimination of all a priori knowledge, only the consideration of a posteriori knowledge – solely utilizing empirical (witnessed) documentation, history was reconstructed. For the methodologist, it was essential that historical documentation is interconnected and validated by another separate, original source. This inter-connectivity of empirical data, in which one witnessed account was to be corroborated by other witnessed accounts, led methodological historians to come to the ideological viewpoint that “all knowledge was interconnected” (Weisz ibid.).

It stands to reason, the methodologists must have also believed that sum of all human knowledge could be found within the texts of man. However true, the methodologists position regarding such an a priori conclusion, even if they agreed with it, would be that until such a statement could be located within one text and verified by another, such an extension of thought would be not permitted. Seignobos, as he was known to have said, “It is useful to ask oneself questions, but it is dangerous to answer them (Lyon 1907, Bloch 1944). History, thus, was defined by, and the exclusive domaine of, events which were documented and corroborated within a minimum of two reliable sources of information. An event with only a single documentation could not be known to be reliably true until a second source had been located and validated. Such history, without reliable archival accounts, was considered to be unknown. To this Febvre would glibly convert a statement made within Seignobos’ contribution to the 1932 book,  Histoire de Russie, into this mocking question: ” ‘The history of ten centuries is unknowable’?” (Febvre 1933).

It was the positivist’s proclaimed interconnection of all knowledge which would ultimately cause the methodologists to find that their approach was in conflict with the needs of a variety of other academic fields. If the “scientific” historical method was the only acceptable way to find true history, it became impossible to accept fields of study which required a more sociological-historical context. This put these historians in an ideological bind because they had confined themselves to this strict a posteriori methodology, while simultaneously insisting that all knowledge was inter-connected. When confronted with academic fields which traded in humanistic a priori logic, historians, like Seignobos, felt compelled to attempt to discredit the methodologies of those fields rather than concede that their life-long methodologies to history had a serious flaw.

The most high-profile conflict came from emerging field of sociology, but other fields also put pressure on French historians to open up their methods of inquiry. As economists tired of the mathematical boundaries of marginal economics, they once again expanded into the philosophical realms of reason. Additionally, there had been a revival of interest in classical economics and its derivatives – likely due to increasing numbers of those who followed Marx’s work – but also the cyclical popularity of Laissezfaire economics, à la Adam Smith and David Ricardo. It was becoming increasingly inescapable that the ideological conflicts between the archival historians and the burgeoning studies of cultural and physical anthropology – fields which examined artifacts and real-world societies as the basis of their research, yet also relied on archival texts for context to their finds and findings. Lastly, historians felt pressure by those who employed studies of regional geography upon humanity and culture – an area of study which became an integral aspect of Febvre’s work, having written a book on geography’s confluence with history titled, A Geographical Introduction to History (1925). All of these studies required approaches to historical work that came into direct conflict with the methodologists. Despite this onslaught of academic challenges, the historians at the Sorbonne and Collège de France resisted these intrusions on the field of history, holding their course.

But it was the sociologist, Émile Durkheim, who mounted the earliest and most persistent challenge the methodological historians(1)  and to whom, despite their wide philosophical differences with Durkheim, the Annalistes owed him their greatest debt. Not only did Durkheim’s challenges to the methodologists inspire the social history of the Annalistes, but demonstrated precisely how, thirty years later, Febvre and Bloch could effectively challenge the well-established scientific-historical methodologists.(2)

Durkheim’s work, as a product of its day, was in many ways more akin to the methodologists than the work produced later by Bloch, Febvre. and the other Annalistes. Like the methodological historians, Durkheim was a dedicated positivist, with his work being greatly influenced by Comte (Lukes 1981). This was a period in which the scholars of the harder sciences, whose fields were exploding with innovation through the application of scientific methodology, were becoming increasingly dismissive and critical of what they considered the over-generalized and insufficiently documentation of liberal studies. The result of this was that many other academics, including Durkheim and Seignobos, came to believe it was critically important to apply the scientific method as diligently as possible.

To combat such criticism, Durkheim challenged writings which contained sociological aspects for breaches in the application (or lack of) the scientific method, and these criticism included figures not just within the budding field of sociology, but other academic specialties including those in the historical field.  If articles or books lacked objective and accurate observation, did not perform controlled experimentation, was not vigilant in data collection, analysis, and ultimately experiment replication, he called them out for these breaches. Durkheim’s challenges, more often than not, were in the form of peer review work, published primarily in his own journal, L’Année sociologique, which specialized in the critique of sociological aspects which appear in other academic fields; philosophy, economics, history; and in this way Durkheim opened his sociological concepts to a broader audience, greatly benefiting the spread of sociology.

Today, Durkheim’s techniques are often written about as a “sociological imperialism,” the idea that Durkheim, and those closely associated him, attempted to annex and control the intellectual territory they had staked out for sociology, (Lukes 1985, Besnard 1998, via Mergy 2004). This may have been the impression of Durheim’s contemporaries, but connecting the word imperialism to sociological tactics doesn’t readily apparent until nearly a decade after Durkheim’s death in 1917. In 1926, the psychologist Henri Piéron would complain from his column of the Journal L’Année psychologique: “Are they still obstinately trying to annex the whole of the psychology of the individual?” (Piéron via Hirsch 2015). In his review, Piéron, who held the chair of psychology at the Collège de France, was speaking of the post-Durkheimian sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs. Piéron called Halbwachs’ work both “daring” and “ingenious,” attempting as Piéron writes, Halbwachs’ attempts what is the paradoxale jusqu’à la gageure, – the impossible or the extraordinarily difficult (Piéron via Hirsch 2015). Ultimately, however, Piéron concludes that Halbwachs work reduces itself to a “fetishism of sociology” something which is “typique de l’impérialisme sociologique” and “constitutes a danger for psychology of the individual” (Piéron via Hirsch ibid).

Many historians have taken this view that Durkheim’s strategies, which I would classify as parasitic, were ultimately designed to, as Jennifer Mergy writes, “rule over the neighboring social sciences on which it partially relied” (2004). This I find an unnecessarily negative view of Durkheim as the poacher, the usurper, the conqueror. Robert Nye, however, saw Durkheim “as a child of his times, rather than the iron-willed rebel the is often made out to be” (Nye 1982 via Fournier 2005). I believe that Nye was far closer to the truth; that in a simple case of naïveté, Durkheim saw his work as a benefit all humanistic academic fields rather than as a threat to them. Was Durkheim surprised when many academics shunned him when he suggested that sociology’s ability to explain other academic fields placed sociology hierarchically above them, or was he, as Lukes writes, this was all part of Durkheim’s “subversive” plan? (Lukes 1985).



 Next in this series… Chapter 1, part 2: 

Seignobos and the Durkheimians (click here)

Sources for Chapter 1: war of scholarship

The Durkheimian movement in France and in world sociology, Randall Collins, The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Philip Smith, Cambridge University Press2005

Scientific Durkheimianism and the Durkheimianism of Action[*]François Simiand and the International Labour Office (1920–1930)Marine Dhermy-Mairal, Institut National d’Études Démographiques (INED)

Durkheim’s life and context” something new about Durkheim?, Marcel Fournier, The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Philip Smith, Cambridge University Press2005

Contributions to L’Année SociologiqueEmile Durkheim, Simon and Schuster2008 

Une lecture de Langlois et Seignobos Laurent Mucchielli, Espaces Temps, les Cahiers, 1995

Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing DisciplinesSusan W. Friedman, Cambridge University Press, 2004

Contributions to L’Année Sociologique, Emile Durkheim, edited by Nash Nandan, Simon and Schuster, 2008

Emile Durkheim, Kenneth Thompson, Psychology Press, 2002

Emile Durkheim, His Life and WorkA Historical and Critical StudySteven Lukes, Stanford University Press, 1985

Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 1edited by Kelly Boyd, (entry François Simiand) by James Millhorn, Taylor & Francis, 1999

Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, Volume 7, Xavier Léon, 1907

Introduction to the study of History, Charles V. Langlois and Charles Seignobos, 1898, translated by G.G. Berry, Henry Holt & Co. 1904

Teamwork across disciplines: Durkheimian sociology and the study of nationsJennifer Mergy, La sociologie durkheimienne: tradition et actualité2004

Maurice Halbwachs and Religious Sociology From Elementary Forms to The Social Frameworks of Memory, Thomas Hirsch, 2012,

Maurice Halbwachs: La Psychologie collective, Introduction, Thomas Hirsch, Numilog, 2015

Robert A. Nye 1982 via Marcel Fournier, The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim, Alexander, Smith Cambridge University Press 2005

Scientific Durkheimianism and the Durkheimianism of Action: François Simiand and the International Labour Office (1920–1930) Marine DhermyMairalInstitut National d’Études Démographiques (INED), 2014

Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography: Encountering Changing DisciplinesSusan W. Friedman, Cambridge University Press2004

La méthode historique appliquée aux sciences sociales, Charles Seignobos, 1901 Lyon, ENS Éditions, coll. Bibliothèque idéale des sciences sociales, 2014

Charles Seignobos, The historical method applied to the social sciences Audrey Levray, Lyon, ENS Éditions, coll. Bibliothèque idéale des sciences sociales, 2014

Causalité en Histoire, M. Simiand 1906 Journal de Philosophie, Psychologie et Méthodes Scientifiques

Marc Bloch: A Life in HistoryCarole Fink, Cambridge University Press1991

The Emergence of Modern Universities In France, 1863-1914George Weisz, Princeton University Press, 2014

Fortunes of History: Historical Inquiry from Herder to HuizingaDonald R. Kelley, Yale University Press, 2008

Ethos of a Scientific Historian Fustel de Coulanges, lecture 1862, translated by Fritz Stern,  The Varieties of HistoryFrom Voltaire to the Present, Fritz Stern, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011

The intellectual Foundations of the Nineteenth-Century “Scientific’ History: The German Model, Georg G. Iggers, undated, The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 4: 1800-1945, Stuart MacintyreDaniel R. WoolfAndrew FeldherrGrant Hardy, OUP OxfordOct 27, 2011

Birth of a National Icon: The Literary Avant-Gardeand the Origins of the Intellectual in FranceVenita Datta SUNY Press, 1999

The American Historical Reviewedited by John Franklin Jameson, Henry Eldridge Bourne, Robert Livingston Schuyler, American Historical Association, 1902

Bad FaithA Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France, Carmen Callil, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008

A l’Origines des Réformes de l’Education National; Gustave Monod, Pierre Guiral, Les directeurs de ministère en FranceXIXe-XXe siècles, Librairie Droz, 1976 

Une amitié motrice Lucien Febvre et Anatole de MonzieGilles Candar, Cahiers Jaurès , 2002

Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985Elisabeth Roudinesco, University of Chicago Press, 1990

About Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.
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