Alexander Lee: Twilight of the History Gods: Jacques Le Goff, 1924-2014
History Today, 8th April 2014
It is not without reason that Peter Burke has described the Annales School as the harbingers of a ‘French Historical Revolution’. Established by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929, the journal from which it takes its name effected a genuinely revolutionary transformation in the way history is studied. Although it had until then been common for scholars – especially those working at the Sorbonne – to view the past through the lens either of political institutions, constitutional changes and intermittent conflicts, or of a pseudo-Marxist historical dialectic, those who rallied to Annales were committed to an entirely different approach. Rejecting the primacy of ‘events’, it instead set out to explore the long-term evolution of the socio-cultural structures that underpinned the rapidly-changing phenomena with which historians had previously been obsessed. As Bloch had argued even before founding the journal, this pursuit of ‘mentalités’ in the longue durée entailed an engagement with a number of other disciplines, many of which were only just beginning to assert themselves as distinct fields. Anthropology, ethnology, geography, and even psychology were brought into play and applied to ever more inventive forms of analysis. Ranging in scope from highly-localised studies of individual towns and regions to sweeping histories of immense areas, the works of the Annalistes drew evidence that went far beyond the ‘cult of the document’ indulged by more traditional scholars – including everything from the ritualism of ‘popular culture’ to weather and the environment – and thereby edged with increasing confidence towards an histoire totale of man and civilisation.
From its earliest days the Annales approach spawned studies which remain classics to this day and Bloch’s Les Rois Thaumaturges (1924) and La Société Féodale (1939-40) stand out as particularly pertinent examples. It was, however, only when Bloch and Febvre passed the baton over to later generations of Annalistes that the full potential of their innovations was made apparent. The appearance of Ferdinand Braudel’s magisterial La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II (1949) marked a watershed and it is a rare historian today who has not glanced through its pages to find himself feeling a little like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer. But while it is easy to believe that the superstar Braudel paved the way for the Annalistes’ triumphal entry into the scholarly mainstream, it was the more unassuming Jacques Le Goff who – more than anyone – was responsible for bringing the Annales School into the historical limelight.
A Toulousain medievalist who had been seduced by the rich, complex history of late antique and medieval Italy, Le Goff succeeded Braudel as the head of the École des hautes etudes en scienes sociales (EHESS) in 1972 and took over as an editor of Annales at roughly the same time. He was confronted with a daunting task. When he stepped into his role as unofficial curator of the school’s fortunes, the Annalistes were at a low ebb. In France itself the approach seemed to be on the wane. Since the early 1950s many were of the opinion that the school had lost both its intellectual energy and its sense of direction. It was under threat. By the mid-1960s French structuralist anthropology – spearheaded by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault – had begun to gain ground as a rival discourse, and used what purported to be a ‘scientific’ methodology to encroach upon the territory which the Annalistes had previously claimed for themselves. Outside France the Annales School was faring no better. Far from receiving the approval of the wider scholarly community, it was, in fact, far from popular. Especially in Britain, a great many historians were sceptical of the theoretical underpinnings of mentalités and were wary of the breezy insouciance with which documents and events were pushed aside in favour of less tangible sources and themes. With the possible exception of La Société Féodale, the Annalistes’ books were received with coolness and even derision well into the 1960s. Geoffrey Elton, in particular, was markedly critical of Braudel’s masterwork. While admiring of some aspects of the text, Elton denied that the Annales approach had any future. ‘In many fields of history,’ he claimed in The Practice of History (1967), ‘it is either clearly insufficient or has already done its work.’ More savage still were those reviewers of La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen who attacked the ‘intensely irritating Annales style’ and “the esoteric jargon which sometimes suggests that the authors … are writing only to be understood by each other’. Oblivion seemed to beckon.