Introducing the Annales Approach to History

They were heady days when the first issue of a new history journal was published. The cataclysmic disruptor, the Great War, had ended and many people in the western world were revelling in the moment on a giddy ride skimming the crests of a sea of change. Others were churning the waters in their desire to shed the old ways, to think and do differently. Everything was challenged.

While momentous change is flung in the face of people through stupendous events, the stirring of the sea that leads to such an upset can be seen in retrospect to have been developing long before the event. The publication of the new history journal, Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, in January 1929 formalised a profound change in the way history was written that can be traced back years before.

Western history was political history for much of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. In the halls of cultural power, the history of important, dead, white men was the only history that mattered. But challengers were emerging, among whom were the Marxists. They shone the light on the mass of people previously ignored, and the social and economic structures that shaped their lives. Yet the traditional accounts of history still held sway in the late 1920s when the Annales journal emerged from the University of Strasbourg.

The editors, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, went beyond the scope of the Marxists to look at the total context of the history they were examining. Histoire totale was their aim. This led them to seek from other disciplines that which would enable them to examine the whole world in which people lived in the past. Geography, psychology, sociology, religion were all within their remit.

It was a student of Febvre that produced another surge in the Annales approach to history. Fernand Braudel published an ambitious book, The Mediterranean and the mediterranean world in the age of Philip 1 in 1949. From this book the concept of the longue durée emerged – “of man in his relationship to the environment, a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles” (p. 20). However, what is regarded as longue durée today is probably more akin to Braudel’s medium durée, which Braudel described as the “swelling currents”, the forces of “economic systems, states, societies, civilizations” (pp. 20-21). This view of history looks at the social structures encompassing society rather than the minutiae of a domino of events.

Braudel described the traditional history of political events and those dead, white men as “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.” In a passage that I love reading Braudel writes:

A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions.”

p. 21

Braudel categorised this history as l’histoire événementielle – ephemeral history.

In the post-war period a group of Annalistes became absorbed in quantitative history. Green and Troup (p. 147) describe the work of Vovelle who examined the wills of the eighteenth century to draw out changing attitudes towards death. Other historians explored economic statistics. Sometimes this approach produced bad history, but this does not mean the language of numbers and the computer is at fault. Rather, it is a lesson in how important it is that the historian becomes skilled at using the appropriate tools and languages for the research question at hand.

The third surge of Annales history brought renewed attention to the inner lives of people in the past. It seeks to tap into the conscious and subconscious thought that formed the pulse of the age, that dictated the patterns of everyday life. To understand the mentalités of the past is to understand the past on its own terms. Thomas Dixon explains the importance of the work of Lucien Febvre to anyone researching the history of the emotions on the blog of the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions.

Annales d’histoire économique et sociale was launched eighty-five years ago, but the approaches to history pioneered by the Annales historians is a matter of lively discussion among historians today. An open-access book called The History Manifesto is the subject of a vigorous debate about the benefits of writing about the longue durée. This post is preparatory to my next post in which I will review The History Manifesto.

Further Reading

  • Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the mediterranean world in the age of Phillip II, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
  • Goldman, Hal, ‘Marc Bloch: Isralite de France’, History Review, 6 Dec. 1994, published on the University of Vermont website.
  • Green, Anna & Kathleen Troup, The houses of History: A critical reader in twentieth-century history and theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).

If your French is up to it and you are so inclined you can read the early issues of Annales online.

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3 thoughts on “Introducing the Annales Approach to History

  1. Thanks, Yvonne, that is an excellent synopsis, although the phrase, ‘dead, white men’, is somewhat puzzling. After all, Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel are just that, ‘dead, white men’. It is not that gender, or even ‘transgender’, histories, and histories outside Eurocentric perspectives, do not, or cannot, offer just as traditional ‘minutiae of a domino of events.’ Gender and race politics equally gets caught up in that ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam.’

    The Annals historians were very much about sociology and history; history explained in the social and economic structures. They did go further than the Marxists, including, as you mentioned, geography, psychology, sociology, and religion. What is missing from the list is the traditional discipline of philosophy. I am currently reading Anthony Padgen’s The Enlightenment and Why it Matters. The observation he makes is the way the philosophes challenged traditional folk and national histories, generating in a cosmopolitan perspective in their critical idea of history and political theory.

    I think that those philosophical ideas are important because they explain the context of repulsion to The Great War, which you mentioned, and the impetus to the longue durée innovation of the late 1920s. The militarist ethos 1890-1920, and the mesh of treaty obligations arising from the Congress of Europe, intellectually held-together in the nationalist historiography of the nineteenth century. The push for internationalism began formally in 1919, and it needed Annals for its 20th century historiography.

    I agree entirely about the problems in history which is narrowed to economic statistics. It is bad history, however, someone who does economic statistics brilliantly in their history, and still keeps a well-balanced narrative, is Niall Ferguson. Ferguson recently said that the major difference between history and things like sociology is that historians do not look to one model, but are looking at a large range of factors, somewhat in very complex and piecemeal arrangements (http://bigthink.com/videos/historians-can-predict-the-future).

    I think that Ferguson’s insight here picks put the limitation of the Annals historiography – the tendency to impose model-like structures upon historical explanations. It tidies up what ought to be described as messy and incomplete. It also can fall into a hard determinist view which does little to consider the agency of historical players. The idea of agency is very important in relation to ideas of predicting the future from knowing the past. This is something that Ferguson picks up in his podcast.

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    • Thanks for your comment Neville. You were quite right to pick up on my use of the phrase “dead white men”, Perhaps I should have said “important dead white men” to convey that it was only rulers who mattered in the old style history.

      I also agree with the critical importance of recognising the free will of people in the past., limited though it may have been for some.

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