Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Annales School of History

The Annales School of History

The writings and methods of history in the 20th century, in many ways, underwent a paradigmatic shift due in large part to a group of French scholars who are now universally identified as belonging to the "Annales school" of historians. This new shift in historical writing centered around the journal Annales d'Histoire Economique et Sociale, founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929, both professors at the University of Strasbourg. In later decades, names like Braudel, Le Goff and Ladurie came to represent both a crystallization as well as, subsequently, a fragmentation of the Annales school of historical interpretation.

More contemporary scholars like Iggers and Hunt have insisted on reducing the Annales historians' revolutionary ideas to a proper definable school, one that like any other, can be periodized and therefore be made historically fashionable - or not- depending on the moment in time we find ourselves in. I believe that interpreting the Annalistes in such a rigid fashion - which is itself symptomatic of the rigidity of the historical status quo - is to ultimately deny their greatest contributions to the field; namely, the ability to free ourselves from our own paradigmatic constructs and in doing so, remove any limit to historical imagination in serving a shared historical end.

The methodological imperatives of the Annalistes framework is best exemplified by analyzing the many classical texts produced by the historians themselves. In many respects, Lucien Febvre's History and Psychology (1938) solidified the themes that came to preoccupy the future Annalistes. It helped delineate between the history of the past and that of the future by identifying what he considered to be the maladies of the status quo and by proposing for the historian a new set of tools.
Febvre believed that traditional historians unknowingly projected their own beliefs and psychological peculiarities onto the subjects of their historical research and hence, misinterpreted historical figures. Given His belief that "an individual is only what his period and social environment allow him to be," Febvre argued for a re-application of a personal psychology - one that was part of a larger interdisciplinary approach to research - in order to enlighten the "mental processes" of the social groups in their own time. This was done by reassembling the physical, moral and intellectual existence of every generation that represent the object of our study, which could only then give credibility to the historical application of psychology.

Based on this recognition of the changeability of particular historical times, Fernand Braudel picked up the mantle of Febvre and further expounded a set of tools that the historian must utilize to better tell the story of history. Braudel sought to remove the impediments of "generational" history that his predecessor had described by introducing the concept of the Long Duree: a history of centuries, of the long-time span, of the more permanent realities that constrained a particular society. Braudel gave the example of Mercantile Capitalism, a coherent societal-level and structural paradigm that both defined and restricted the potential for action of that generation, notwithstanding the "ruptures and reversals" inherent in time. In this sense, Braudel argued for the predictability of history and time and thus represents, in my view, a strengthening of the historians profession: it begins to describe in concrete terms a larger set of goals for historians than simply describing the facts of the past.

By the 1970's, with Jacques Le Goff and others, the concept of Mentalites was introduced - or one can say reintroduced. Mentalites represented the unconscious patterns that guided the actions of individuals in society. This can be related to Braudel's three-tiered conception of time: the short-term events-oriented level of time, equivalent to the mentalites; the medium-length time span or the Conjenctures; and the Long Duree already discussed. These conceptual tools allow any historian to open new roads into historical research and represent a timeless contribution by the Annalistes to our field.

One example of the effectiveness and indeed, necessity, of such tools can be found by referencing Jacques Le Goff's 1982 work Merchant's Time and Church Time in the Middle Ages. In it, Le Goff uses Annalist conceptions of the multi-layering of time to explore the impact that medieval historical actors - the merchant class and the church - had on society, in view of their new conceptions of time. Le Goff is able to provide a feasible alternative explaining the rise and strengthening of the merchant class: by virtue of their new conceptions of time, they were able to free themselves from the restraining and "unpredictable time" of the natural environment imposed on them by the Church. Therefore, Le Goff's analysis managed to put into practice the Annalistes tool of time-dimensions in order to pioneer a new explanation of the fundamental changes taking place at the base of Medieval society, changes that from a modern vantage point, arguably have come to symbolize a new Long Duree, that of merchant capitalism.

Iggers and Hunt correctly outline the developments over time of the Annalistes and give concise summaries of their basic constituents and beliefs. The problem with their analysis, especially Hunt's, is their insistence on formalizing the Annalistes' diverse conceptions of historical methodology into a school of thought. A school involves specific common doctrines and methodologies, an inherent level of rigidity that certainly the Annalist thinkers never sought to enforce. One can only accuse the Annalist of failing to give institutions a central role in history (Iggers) if one defines them as a particular school of history, such as Marxism or any other. Historical interpretations can only disintegrate under their own weight (Hunt) if they are initially defined as a rigid and cohesive set school of ideas.

For the Annalist, then, we should only view them as a group of disparate historians and scholars who used a particular methodology for historical research as put forth by the likes of Braudel and others before him. A school is by nature constraining; the Annalistes put forth a set of tools that many historical schools can utilize in pursuit of their own interpretations. Therefore, these tools are timeless, beyond the limiting boundaries of any school. This, of course, is best reflected in the historical outputs of the Annalistes themselves. The constant shift over time in the emphasis of different social science disciplines; the variety in the subject matter; the emphasis on methodology; all these should discredit the attempts of the revisionist scholars at collapsing the Annalistes into a predictable school of history.

Herein lies the danger to the profession of History: in our haste to revise and discredit, the useful tools of writing history are lost to us and succeeding generations, until a new batch of enterprising historians learn, that they too, necessitate a new way of thinking in their profession, and the tools to make this happen. Otherwise, history will remain a simple compendium of fact, one that is written by the powerful and victorious.

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