Book Review: The Historian's Craft
Short Paper: The Historian’s Craftby Marc Bloch
Following service in the French army in World War I, Marc Bloch held a post as professor of history and economics. He was called back into service during World War II and served until right before the fall of France. He joined the Resistance and was subsequently captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis in 1944. The book, The Historian’s Craft,was an unfinished manuscript which was compiled and edited by fellow historian, Lucien Lebvre. Written earlier than Carr’s What is History?, he explored many of the same themes including; the historian as individual, as a member of society, the role of judgement and observation, historical criticism, analysis, causation and finally, how history is necessarily a study of the past with the intention of grasping a better understanding of the present. Where Bloch differs from Carr, in in regard to the level of specificity in his explaination of the methodology of the historian. About documents, he said, “The historian collects them, attempts to weigh their authenticity and truthfulness. Then, and only then, he makes use of them.”Bloch then contradicted this simplicity and explained that documents “will only speak when they are properly questioned.”A historian must seek to corroborate his/her sources and not accept them at face value. This was a problem with earlier historians who reported false history or conceptions of divine order.
Bloch’s primary purpose in writing this book is this, “our primary objective is to explain how and why a historian practices his trade.”He pointed to two opposing schools of history in existence; one founded by Dunkheim which Bloch called “the sociological school” which he credited as raising the bar for historians and promoting a more scientific approach to the craft of history.The other school he identified was influenced by the romantic historians of the nineteenth century who were moralistic in their thinking and approach to the craft.Bloch opined that historians must be multi-disciplined in order to assess and validate historical facts. They must know the language, be it technical or cultural, about the people, events or places they are analyzing. Another interesting aspect that Bloch explored was that of language. He noted that in the absence of the critical method, society is must more susceptible to fraud and falsehoods.If this were true in 1940, how much truer it is today with the wide-spread use of social media and a 24/7 news cycle which makes the study of history and the historians craft essential to society.
Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.
Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft(New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 64.