What is the Use of History? Marc Bloch’s Methodological Answer
“What is the use of history?” Marc Bloch begins his book with this question. As a historian, it was personal—did I spend my life wisely? But he also thought it was central to the identity of Western civilization. The ancient Greeks and Romans were history writing peoples, and Christianity is a “religion of historians.” Not only are its sacred texts books of history, but also “it is in time and, therefore, in history that the great drama of sin and redemption, the central axis of all Christian thought, is unfolded.”
This observation implies the first answer to our question: historical methods can refute or validate claims of divine revelation. There are few, if any, questions that are so important and so uniquely and permanently anchored in the past.
History is also entertaining. It shouldn’t be ashamed of its poetry, for it is the seed that precedes the “yearning for knowledge.” Still, “the tedious minutiae of historical erudition, easily capable of consuming a whole lifetime, would deserve condemnation as an absurd waste of energy were they to end merely by coating one of our diversions with a thin veneer of truth.”
History should also help us live better. Bloch states two ways history can do so. First, there is its pragmatic use: e.g., a military general guided by past battles on the same terrain. Second, there is theoretical use: to help us understand people. While some argue that history can’t provide such understanding—it is “unprofitable and unsound”—the primary objective of The Historian’s Craft is to demonstrate how and why a historian practices his trade. “It will then be the business of the reader to decide whether this trade is worth practicing.” Thus the book is a methodological answer to our opening question.
Methodologies, however, evolve. Several generations earlier, the positivists claimed that all worthwhile intellectual endeavors should produce unfailing, immutable laws. Some historians reacted by searching for such laws. “Of course the early rigidity of principle was gradually softened in practice, though reluctantly, by men too intelligent not to yield before the force of things as they are.” Others became overly self-conscious and skeptical. Bloch takes a middle path: “We find it far easier to regard certainty and universality as questions of degree. We no longer feel obliged to impose upon every subject of knowledge a uniform intellectual pattern, borrowed from natural science.” This book, then, also includes some of Bloch’s opinions about how the historical method should evolve.
This article summarizes the book’s key points, briefly critiques it, and then discusses a few specific ideas that have impacted me.
Bloch fought in both world wars, and he started writing this book during the second one. After the defeat of France, he joined the underground resistance. The Germans captured him and, as they retreated in 1944, shot him, leaving this book unfinished.
Chapter 1 - History, Men, and Time
What is history? The founders of sociology favored a narrow definition, perhaps to make space for themselves. Bloch favored a broad definition. Still, he agrees that the historian must “carve out that particular area where his tools apply.”
A natural first definition is that “history is the science of the past.” Bloch dispels this idea with a question: “Can one imagine a complete science of the universe in its present state?” No, this is too broad.
More so than the past, it is the human element that makes history distinct. “Behind the features of landscape, behind tools or machinery, behind what appear to be the most formalized written documents, and behind institutions, which seem almost entirely detached from their founders, there are men, and it is men that history seeks to grasp. Failing that, it will be at best but an exercise in erudition.”
So history is the “science of men in time.” History’s central purpose is to answer this question: Given two consecutive periods of time, “to what extent does the connection which the flow of time sets between them dominate, or fail to predominate, over the differences born out of that same flow?”
While such connections exist, Bloch warns us not to seek origins since accumulating changes are often as influential, even when explanatory beginnings can be found. “It is very like the illusion of certain old etymologists who thought they had said all when they set down the oldest known meaning of a word opposite its present sense … as if the main problem were not to understand how and why the transition had taken place.”
How strong are these connections between periods of time? Technological progress may have widened the gaps, but social structures are persistent, giving the past explanatory power. This is true even among oral societies and must be more so among literary ones.
These historical connections also operate in reverse; the present can explain the past. “For here, in the present, is immediately perceptible that vibrancy of human life which only a great effort of the imagination can restore to the old texts … whether consciously or no, it is always by borrowing from our daily experiences and by shading them, where necessary, with new tints that we derive the elements which help us to restore the past.” Furthermore, since the present is better understood than the past, historical investigation should usually work backward from the effects to the causes.
If history is the “science of men in time,” what distinguishes it from journalism or politics? Some say our emotional connections to the present. “In truth, whoever lacks the strength to rid his mind of the virus of the present may readily permit its poison to infiltrate even a commentary of the Iliad or the Ramayana.” Others say the present requires different methods of study. Bloch disagrees with both arguments.
A science is defined by its object, but also by its methods. These are discussed in the following chapters. Although Bloch considers history a science, he admits that “human actions are very delicate phenomena, many aspects of which elude mathematical measurement.” Therefore, mathematical laws are not one of history’s central methods.
Chapter 2 - Historical Observation
It may seem that our knowledge of the “present” is essentially different than our knowledge of the past; some say the historian’s knowledge is always indirect. These assertions are exaggerated.
First, “the individual, narrowly restricted by his senses and power of concentration, never perceives more than a tiny patch of the vast tapestry of events, deeds, and words which he possesses an immediate awareness of only his own mental state, all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past.”
Second, many historical observations are direct in that they don’t pass through another human mind. “A linguistic characteristic, a point of law embodied in a text, a rite, as defined by a book of ceremonial or represented on a stele, are realities just as much as the flint, hewn of yore by the artisan of the stone age—realities which we ourselves apprehend and elaborate by a strictly personal effort of the intelligence. There is no need to appeal to any other human mind as an interpreter.”
Bloch admits that the physicist and chemists benefit by being able to experiment at will. The sociologists, however, are not much better off than the historian since group psychology is beyond reach. Only the elementary workings of the human mind can be studied in an experiment. “One can not—even if one could, one would dare not—deliberately produce a panic or a moment of religious fervor.” Like the historian, at best they have witness accounts.
“The variety of historical evidence is nearly infinite. Everything that man says or writes, everything that he makes, everything that he touches can and ought to teach us about him.” Interpreting these various forms of evidence requires technical expertise. Given the overwhelming variety, this requires teamwork among historians.
Documents, a key type of evidence, can be divided into two chief categories, the narrative and the accidental. Narrative sources were consciously written for readers. Historians rely on narrative documents less than they once did, although they remain especially helpful when forming chronologies. The accidental sources, while still liable to fraud and errors, are at least “not been especially designed to deceive posterity.”
Cross-examination is especially necessary when working with narrative sources. “Indeed cross-examination is the prime necessity of well-conducted historical research.”
It is naïve to think a historian reads documents and then merely reports what they say. The inquiry must be directed. (Perhaps this is analogous to the physicists’ hypotheses.) “In the beginning, there must be the guiding spirit. Mere passive observation, even supposing such a thing were possible, has never contributed anything productive to any science.”
Good historical works will explain the author’s methodology and the turning points of their investigation. A bibliography is not enough. “The sight of an investigation, with its success and reverses, is seldom boring. It is the ready-made article which is cold and dull.” Collecting the appropriate documents is difficult.
Negligence and the desire for secrecy stifle the transmission of documents. Surprisingly, catastrophe can sometimes preserve better than stability. Pompeii is a dramatic example of this. “The peaceable continuity of social existence is much less favorable to the transmission of memory than is sometimes supposed. Revolutions force the doors of safes and put ministers to flight before they have had time to burn their secret papers.” When the dust settles, the historian must accept the dictate of fate and chance.
Chapter 3 - Historical Criticism
Everyone knows that people lie, but what does a historian do with this information? One may be too skeptical as well as too credulous.
Likewise, common sense can not lead too far, for it “usually turns out to be nothing more than a compound of irrational postulates and hastily generalized experiences.” The application of common sense is particularly difficult when considering humans. “There are states of mind which were formerly common, yet which appear peculiar to us because we no longer share them.” A critical method, with consistently applied rules, is needed.
Once such a method is found, there may be the temptation to divide the labor of gathering evidence from critiquing it. (Perhaps analogous to how physics is split between experimentalists and the theoreticians.) Bloch discourages such division, believing it leads the analyst to “not only fail in their primary duty of the patient quest for truth, but, deprived of that perpetual renewal which only the struggle with documents can supply, they inevitably lapse into a ceaseless oscillation between stereotyped themes imposed by routine. But technical work suffers no less. No longer guided from above, it risks being indefinitely marooned upon insignificant or poorly propounded questions.”
The goal of the critical method is not to highlight any fraud or error in the Histories or the Exodus, but “to make them speak so we can understand them.”
Documents can claim a false author or they can have false facts. Usually the former is followed by the latter, but not always. Likewise, if the authorship is true that doesn’t mean the content is. In either case, the next step is to discover what motivated it. “Above all, a fraud is, in its way, a piece of evidence.” There are many possible motivations. “But the historian, who tends naturally to over intellectualize mankind, would do well to remember that all these reasons are not in fact reasonable.”
Some people enjoy lying; they enjoy the challenge of it. Furthermore, there have been “mythomaniac epochs.” For example, during the romantic decades, a desire for the primitive birthed many forged epic poems and ballads from ancient times.
Forgeries may not be isolated. “The experience of life teaches, and that of history confirms, that any offense against the truth is like a net that almost inevitably every lie drags in its train many others, summoned to lend it a semblance of mutual support.”
Some people like exaggerating. I empathize with this impulse, having observed and attempted to restrain it in myself; shocking people can be delightful.
Other errors are made of laziness.
“The act of inventing a lie presupposes an effort which is distasteful to the mental inertia common to the majority of men. It is much easier to accept with complacency an illusion, at first spontaneous, which gratifies the interest of the moment.”
Other times, many people deceive themselves in good faith. “There is no reliable witness in the absolute sense. There is only more or less reliable testimony. Two principle sorts of circumstances impair the accuracy of perception of even the most gifted person. The first depends on the condition of the observer at the time—such, for example, as his fatigue or emotion—the second upon the degree of his attention. With few exceptions, we see and really understand only that to which we devote our particular concentration.”
Likewise, entire societies may deceive themselves. “Nearly always, the nature of the error is determined in advance. More particularly, it does not spread, it does not take on life, unless it harmonizes with the prejudices of public opinion. It then becomes a mirror in which the collective consciousness surveys its own features.”
Bloch then provides a wonderful example how a soldiers in the trenches of WWI deceived themselves: “Everyone knows how productive of false news these four years proved to be, particularly among combat troops … The role of propaganda and censorship was considerable, but in a way exactly the reverse of what the creators of these institutions expected of them. As one witness very neatly remarked: ‘The prevailing opinion in the trenches was that anything might be true, except what was printed.’”
When presented with these many motives for fraud, one may become pessimistic. Fortunately, these errors “do not affect the fundamental nature of the past … it is a happy coincidence, long ago glimpsed by Voltaire, that what is most profound in history may also be the most certain.”
Historical criticism deals with the human mind, and therefore is a subtle art without fixed rules, yet it is rational. It “depends on methodical use of certain basic mental processes.”
Historical criticism originated from comparisons of the Gospels, and indeed all criticism is rooted in comparison. A document or object in isolation, without points of comparison, would be impossible to critique. The result of these comparisons are similarities and differences. “Depending upon the circumstances, agreement of one testimony with other testimonies may lead to opposite conclusions.”
Suppose a source is too dissimilar to contemporary examples. In that case, it is thought to be a fraud because “within a single generation of the same society there prevails a similarity of custom and technique too strong to permit any person to deviate sensibly from the common practice.” Forgeries are often betrayed by their inappropriate use of language, handwriting, tools, or materials.
On the other hand, if two contemporary sources are too similar, especially in the arbitrary details, then one of them is a copy, or both are copies of a third source.
If these rules for historical criticism are pushed too far, they will breakdown. One must be careful not to reject surprising findings out of habit. New evidence may alter old theories, and some individuals are truly unique. Still, an individual is not likely to use language from a later time. Contrarily, history has its freak coincidences.
When considering these complexities, Bloch notes, “like any self-respecting logic, historical criticism has its contradictions or, at least, its paradoxes.” This is one instance of an extended analogy between historical criticism and logic, which I think is inappropriate. Bloch himself admits, no fixed rules are possible for historical criticism, while such is not the case for logic.
The conclusions drawn from comparisons depend on probabilistic reasoning. But can we apply probability to events in the past? Yes, because we are deciding if an event did occur, given what we know of the precipitating situation. It is difficult to attach probabilities to most historical events. “For example, how are we to calculate the particular preference which a society accords to a word or a custom?” Despite this limitation, probabilistic reasoning can save us from various historical errors.
Bloch ends this chapter with comments on the effect of historical criticism, which I quote at length:
“Not long ago, unless there were very good reasons, in advance, for suspecting witnesses or narrators of falsehood, three-fourths of all facts stated were facts accepted. Nor was it very long ago. Nor should we say that such was, by nature, the attitude of that credulous throng whose ponderous mass—misled, alas! by more than one pseudo-savant—is constantly threatening even in our own day to sweep our fragile civilizations into the abyss of ignorance and folly. The steadiest minds did not and could not escape the common prejudices of the time.
“Now, if today we have been able to clear our picture of the universe of so many fictitious marvels, seemingly confirmed by the agreement of generations, we are doubtless primarily indebted to the gradual evolution of the idea of a natural order governed by immutable laws. But this notion itself could not have been established so solidly, the observations which seemed to contradict it could not have been eliminated, except by the patient labor of an experiment performed upon man himself as a witness. We are enabled henceforth both to expose and to explain the imperfections of evidence. We have acquired the right of disbelief, because we understand, better than in the past, when and why we ought to disbelieve. And it is by this means that science has succeeded in throwing off the dead weight of a great many spurious problems.
“Henceforth, far wider horizons open before historical criticism, and history may reckon among its most certain glories that, by this elaboration of its technique, it has pioneered for mankind a new path to truth and, hence, to justice.”
Chapter 4 - Historical Analysis
“Just the facts,” some say, “that’s all I want from a journalist.” You can say the same thing about historians. “Narrate what was.” Bloch partially agrees. The historian should not judge people. Such ethical judgments should only be made in preparation for action. It is too easy for the historian to judge from behind the desk, and too often, these judgments are a lazy replacement for understanding. “How much easier is it to write for or against Luther than to fathom his soul?”
Besides laziness, historical judgment is arrogant. “How absurd it is, by elevating the entirely relative criteria of one individual, one party, or one generation to the absolute, to inflict standards upon the way Sulla governed Rome, or Richelieu the States of the Most Christian King!”
Even so, judgmental language can be appropriate. E.g., if two generals with equal armies face off on a level field, and one is routed, then they may be called a poor tactician. It would be pedantic to avoid “the direct vocabulary of common usage” to sound objective in such cases.
It may sound like Bloch was a meek relativist, but he fought in both world wars. He knew that action is sometimes necessary. However, he felt that even in action, we often judge too quickly. One purpose of history is to diversify our perspective and slow down our judgments: “A little more understanding of people would be necessary merely for guidance, in the conflicts that are unavoidable; all the more to prevent them while there is yet time. If history would only renounce its false archangelic airs, it would help us to cure this weakness. It includes a vast experience of human diversities, a continuous contact with men.”
Bloch also partially disagreed with the idea that the historian should just “narrate what was.” A mere listing of facts is not helpful. Historians must “select and sort” the facts. Without this analysis, the facts are not intelligible. It is true that this sorting, and the use of language, abstracts away some details, but this loss of detail is necessary. Abstraction isn’t the enemy, only deceptive or useless abstractions.
Historical analysis is limited by the interconnectedness of the human mind. “To the natural sciences, the connections which our mind weaves between things appear arbitrary. For greater convenience, the biologist may indeed study respiration, digestion, or the motor functions separately; for all that, he is not unaware that there is a whole person for which he must account. The difficulties of history are of still another nature. For in the last analysis it is human consciousness which is the subject-matter of history. The interrelations, confusions, and infections of human consciousness are, for history, reality itself.” Society resists analysis for similar reasons.
Unlike the natural sciences, which invent their own symbols, history uses natural language. History studies humans, and humans makes up words to describe their own actions. Therefore, history naturally appropriates the symbols of its subject-matter.
Natural language complicates historical analysis. When reading old documents, one must grapple with the shifting meaning of words. Furthermore, the rate and direction of these shifts vary geographically, and sub-groups can create their own terminology. “A nomenclature which is thrust upon the past will always end by distorting it, whether by design or simply as a consequence of equating its categories with our own, raised, for the moment, to the level of the eternal.” Translation is a further difficulty. Many societies are bi-lingual, which means that ideas, often first thought in the common tongue, were awkwardly transposed into the language of the elite. Finally, most people’s ability to express their lived reality is limited.
The desire for neat chronological periods is another problem that historical analysis must overcome. Bloch was particularly concerned about the implicit value-judgment in the label “middle ages.” He also harps on demarcating along centuries, e.g., fourteenth-century Italian art, since critical turning points don’t align with them. When investigating a particular phenomena, “we should look to the phenomena themselves for their proper periods.”
When considering the overall development of society, Bloch proposes to use generations and civilizations. People born at the same time into the same environment are influenced by similar events and thus hold similar views. These groups form generations. Some generations are longer than others. Also, like all abstractions, generations don’t fully describe reality. Civilizations describe longer phases of time. He wants to use the term apart from any etymological value-judgments.
Chapter 5 - Historical Causation
Any event has many necessary antecedents, yet we don’t call them all causes. That term is reserved for the latest, least permanent, and most exceptional antecedent. “What military historian would dream of ranking among the causes of a victory that gravitation which accounts for the trajectory of the shells?” Antecedents can be placed on a graded classification. The most general are kept implicit, next are the conditions, and finally there are the causes.
Causation is an abstraction. “Reality offers us a nearly infinite number of lines of force which all converge together upon the same phenomenon. The choice we make among them may well be founded upon characteristics which, in practice, fully merit our attention; but it is always a choice.” The choices can vary depending on the type of analysis. What is to the doctor a cause may to the sociologist be a condition. Also, there are usually multiple causes. Since the historian studies man, many of their causes are psychological.
Given that The Historian’s Craft is incomplete, I’m impressed by its polish. Bloch’s organized his thoughts well, and a careful read revealed a logical progression of ideas. I also enjoyed his writing style.
Other than digging into a few contemporary political issues, I have not struggled enough pursuing historical questions to judge the validity of much of the book. Nevertheless, some of Bloch’s statements are so clear that I feel comfortable agreeing. For example, he says history should not be defined as “the study of the past,” and I agree. Is the big bang, an event eminently in the past, a proper subject for the historian? It seems pointless to list the many more examples of agreement.
There are also a few areas where I disagree. Bloch calls history a science, but I hesitate to apply the label. Historians don’t experiment, and they study unpredictable humans—both factors he admits. I feel the same way about economics. However, I don’t want to “conjure away a phantom.” My disagreement may be the result of shifting terminology—a topic he discusses in chapter 4.
Perhaps more seriously, Bloch makes an amateurish mistake when he discusses probability in his chapter on historical criticism. He says: “For all that, the mathematics of chance are based upon a fiction. From the outset, they postulate impartial conditions in all possible cases: a specific cause favoring a certain outcome in advance would be like a foreign body in the calculation.” Probability theory has no difficulty accounting for uneven cases. Within a book filled with so much insightful commentary about unfamiliar topics, it made me pause to read such a blatantly false claim about a familiar one. Still, Bloch admits that he is not a mathematician, and he asks pardon, in the introduction, for not having access to a library while he wrote this work.
Finally, I think Bloch is too extreme when he says the historian should never judge the ethics of the people it analyzes. I agree that such judgments should be made cautiously, but I think we must stand by our values.
Was the book worth reading? I thought so. Several of Bloch’s ideas are gems that have altered my thinking and will alter my actions. In what follows, I will discuss a few of them. I suspect other readers will extract different gems but that they would still find utility in the book.
I don’t foresee myself departing on any trying historical investigations, except perhaps along the well-worn roads to the reliability of religious claims. Despite this, I’ve found two applications for my new-found understanding of historical methods. First, to judge historical writing. Bloch urges historians not only to reveal their sources but also to describe the turning points in their investigation. I’ll seek these out when selecting historical books to read. Second, I hope to apply these methods to the news. Due to increasing dissatisfaction, I’ve already limited my reading, but I should also cross-check what I do read. To do this, I need to learn more about the “nearly infinite” types of evidence available. I also need to think more expansively about motives, starting with Bloch’s enumeration in chapter three. Perhaps these ideas are naive; their utility must be proved by practice.
Here is another gem: familiarity with the present is necessary to understand the past. I hadn’t considered this reverse dependency, but I think it’s true. When I read Homer, I project my own experiences onto his words. Words abstract reality; they omit details that are only reanimated by shared human experience. This observation should caution the reclusive scholar. Perhaps it is also a call to travel and visit museums. Some experiences can’t be replaced by words. This is especially apparent to me as I compare my recent experiences of having a child to my expectations from having read about it.
Another gem, which is certainly not original, is the recognition that causality is an abstraction. I’ve read and recognized that causation has no place in the laws of physics, but until I read Bloch’s extended example about the man falling off a cliff, I hadn’t incorporated it into my thinking. Instead of repeating his example here, I’ll provide my own: What is the cause of a baby being born? Is it the mother pushing during labor? Or the shift in hormones that triggered contractions or the growth of the fetus in the womb? It could also be that most localize process when the sperm fuses with the egg, or even one of the biochemical interactions this event is composed of. Or, as I suspect most would say, it could be the human interactions precipitating this event. But we can go back even further. Maybe the cause is the love of a woman and man, or maybe it is the return of soldiers from a war. The doctor, the parents, and the demographer may select differently. Furthermore, this is a more singular event than most. What caused you to marry or remain single? What caused your choice of profession? Causality abstracts out important, often anthropomorphic, steps from continuous processes. It is useful and worthwhile but must not be given ontological primacy. I appreciate that Bloch has so clearly outlined this for me as I’m sure it will be useful.
Generations are defined by the issues they care about, more so than the positions they take on an issue. E.g., we no longer seem to spend much time discussing nuclear proliferation as must have the generation before us. It is too easy to let the issues of today dictate what we think about; it is too easy to read about and study the issues most of our peers are thinking of. I suspect this tendency bubbles up from our desire for self-worth and relevance. We wouldn’t want to labor on an issue that nobody cares about. Perhaps reading history can highlight, through examples, this tendency and can remove this sort of peer-pressure from our thinking, letting us spend our thoughts on what is of most value. Maybe it will even lead us to original business ventures or political causes that, being neglected, allow for our greater impact.
Although the entire book is a methodological demonstration of history’s use, Bloch also gives a few direct justifications in the text. One of them has stood out to me, and I believe it will impact the types of history I decide to read moving forward. In his chapter on historical analysis, he cautions historians not to judge our ancestors. He then says history can help us with our unavoidable judgments in the present, by providing “a vast experience of human diversities, a continuous contact with men.” (I hope he used “men” to mean “human.”) In our day, there is no need to preach the promise of diversity, but diversifying our friendships and discussions is difficult in practice. Books, while passive, are patient and available acquaintances. Moving forward, I hope to diversify the types of history that I read.
After reading his book, I feel more confident than before that history can be worthwhile. His historical methodology outlines a reasonable middle path between the positivists’ exuberance and an overly skeptical view of history’s ability to teach us. I appreciate him for having written this book.