And now we pause for a Marc Bloch moment

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tory Historian, as regular readers of this blog know, is a film fan (would like to be a film buff but there is a long way to go). For any conservative film fan the American blog Libertas is compulsory reading, what with the main blogger, a complete film buff as well as screen-writer and convinced conservative, calling himself Dirty Harry and that great picture of Orson Welles as Harry Lime.

Every now and then there is an entry entitled “And now we pause for a …… moment”. The latest was a Tyrone Power moment. Not long ago there was a Helen Mirren moment and a Lauren Bacall moment. (This is an equal opportunity blog and there are links to cheer both male and female readers.)

Of course, it is very difficult for Tory Historian to come up with anything equally glamorous by way of historians. Lord Acton? Dame Veronica Wedgwood? Sir Geoffrey Elton? Our own Andrew Roberts is the only one who comes anywhere near the mark.

So let us pretend that historians might be made glamorous by their achievements in life and in the writing of history. Let us, therefore, pause for a Marc Bloch [in French with English-language pages under construction] moment. He is something of a hero to Tory Historian, despite the very difference in political views.

There is an excellent intellectual biography of Marc Bloch around, by Caroline Fink, which seems to pay less attention to his private life than to his work as an historian. As this reviewer, Tory Historian applauds that.

Bloch was both a highly influential historian, founding with Lucien Febvre the journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale and the Annales School of historical study, which has been debated over since then by historians inside and outside France. (Tory Historian is hoping for some debates in the Comments section of this posting.)

He was also the author of three highly important books on mediaeval history, the greatest one of which, “Feudal Society”, was Tory Historian’s textbook at university.

In actual fact, it was Bloch’s unfinished “The Historian’s Craft” that particularly influenced Tory Historian at an even earlier educational stage. The book is unfinished because one fine morning in June 1944 as Marc Bloch was preparing for another day’s work, the Gestapo came to arrest him. As a Jew and a member of the Resistance he stood no chance. He was imprisoned, tortured and shot.

Apart from “Historian’s Craft” Bloch left another posthumous book: “Strange Defeat”, an account of the French army’s collapse in 1940. Bloch was in the army and experienced the defeat, the subsequent shame and bewilderment and the panic in the country.

Tory Historian was particularly impressed by one particular poing in “The Historian’s Craft”. Everyone on this blog knows full well that there can be no understanding of the present without a knowledge of the past but how many, one wonders, thought of the opposite? That is what Marc Bloch affirms and it is worth thinking about.

In his case, as he explains, it was participation in the 1940 debacle that made huge devastating defeats of the Middle Ages more comprehensible.

Similarly, one could argue that the reason sixteenth and seventeenth century with their, to the nineteenth century mind incomprehensible, wars and massacres caused by finer points of theology, became more popular in the twentieth century when wars and massacres were caused by finer points of ideology. That people should kill each other because of differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation is no mystery to those of us who have known people who lived through or participated in ferocious killings because of differences between permanent revolution and socialism in one country.

No pause for an historian’s moment would be complete without a quotation or two. So here are a couple of pithy comments by Marc Bloch:

The good historian is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies.
History is, in its essentials, the science of change. It knows and it teaches that it is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.
Tory Historian cannot recommend “The Historian’s Craft” highly enough. In fact, another re-read might be in order.

1 Responses to And now we pause for a Marc Bloch moment

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Sad that there are no comments to reinforce your view of Bloch. Like you I was introduced to the Historains Craft at an early age and still rate it, and Strange Defeat should be a minor classic. I could never suucumb to the passion for the Annales school, but that did not prevent sincere admiration for Bloch's Feudal Society. I hope all three are still in print. They deserve to be.

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