The Annales Paradigm

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Peter Burke

The phrase "the Annales Paradigm," coined by the American historian Traian Stoianovitch in 1976, implies that the French journal currently entitled Annales: histoire et sciences sociales (but long known as Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations), offered or offers a model for a revolution in historical writing along the lines of the scientific revolutions whose structure was studied by Thomas Kuhn. To speak of a single model or paradigm, rather than a set of different paradigms, is something of a simplification. To identify a single journal or even the movement associated with it with the series of innovations described as "the new history" (la nouvelle histoire) is something of an exaggeration. All the same, the editors of the journal (which was founded in 1929 under the title Annales d'histoire économique et sociale and has continued to publish important studies of social history in the wide sense of that fluid term) have always encouraged their readers to experiment with new approaches.


The founders of the journal, Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1886–1944), colleagues at the University of Strasbourg after World War I, were also collaborators in the project of reforming, if not revolutionizing historical writing in France and elsewhere. Their goal was a broader, "more human" history that would be less concerned with narrating political events and describing institutions. The new history would be problem oriented rather than story oriented. It would be particularly concerned with the analysis of economic and social structures and trends.

The new historians, as Febvre and Bloch envisaged them, would be consciously interdisciplinary, drawing ideas and methods from geography, psychology, sociology, social anthropology, linguistics, and so on. The editorial in the first issue of Annales (as it is generally known) amounted to a declaration of war on the artificial divisions between history and the social sciences and between the medieval and modern periods. "The walls are so high that they often impede the view." The editorial committee included a geographer, an economist, a sociologist, and a specialist in political science, and contributors were encouraged to write economic or social history in the broad sense of those terms. From the start, Annales was no ordinary journal but the flagship of a movement.

To understand the aims of Febvre, the senior partner and the movement's charismatic leader (one is tempted to say "prophet"), and Bloch, his more moderate and constructive colleague, it is necessary to look at what they themselves had produced before the foundation of the journal. Febvre, a specialist on the early modern period, had written his doctoral thesis on his native province of Franche-Comté in the age of its ruler Philip II. He had worked on the French Renaissance but was best known for two interests,the history of religion and historical geography, on which he had published a lively textbook, La terre et l'évolution humaine (The Earth and Human Evolution; 1922), arguing strongly against the determinism particularly associated at that time with the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904). As for religion, Febvre had published studies of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Franche-Comté, a biography of Martin Luther (1928), and in 1929 itself, a typically aggressive and path-breaking article on the origins of the Reformation in France, castigating his colleagues for practicing a hidebound ecclesiastical history focused on institutions rather than what he advocated, a history of religion informed by social history and psychology.

Bloch, on the other hand, was a historian of the Middle Ages. Like Febvre, by 1929 he had produced two rather different kinds of history. He was best known as an economic historian specializing on the problem of serfdom and working more generally on French rural history—on which he would publish a major monograph in 1931. However, he was also the author of a remarkable study in what would later be known as "the history of collective mentalities," a book about the long-lasting belief in the healing powers of the kings of France and England, Les rois thaumaturges (The Royal Touch; 1924). Bloch too had recently published an important article on historical method, "A Contribution towards a Comparative History of European Societies" (1928).

Annales d'histoire économique et sociale was an appropriate title for the journal in the 1930s. Economic history predominated, making the journal a French equivalent of the German, Vierteljahrsschrift für Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte (founded in 1903), with which it deliberately competed, and the British Economic History Review. However, "economic history" was understood by the Annales group in a wide sense of the term, as two classic articles in the first volume show: one by the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne (1862–1935) on the culture of medieval merchants, and the other by Georges Lefebvre (1874–1959) on the French Revolution as an event in agrarian history. In any case, the editors intended from the start to cultivate what they called "the almost virgin territory of social history." In the 1930s they singled out three themes for particular attention: urban history, the family, and the comparative study of nobilities.

The publication of the first issue of Annales in 1929 was an important event in the history of historical thought, but the books and articles already mentioned suggest that Bloch and Febvre had begun their intellectual innovations much earlier. Nor were they completely isolated in their critique of the historical establishment of their time or in their attempt to renew historical studies. Economic historians in Germany, Britain, and elsewhere were rebelling against the traditional dominance of political history. A senior colleague who was something of a model as well as a friend to both of them was Pirenne, whom they had invited to edit the new journal. Another was the Frenchman Henri Berr (1863–1954), a historical entrepreneur whose editorship of the interdisciplinary Revue de synthèse historique, as well as of a series of book-length studies entitled Évolution de l'humanité (The evolution of humanity) gave Febvre, Bloch, and other historians of their persuasion the opportunity to make their ideas known to a wider public than that of their students and colleagues.

Among the books published in Berr's series, two especially deserve a mention here. Bloch's La société féodale (Feudal Society ; 2 vols., 1939–1940) is an unusually original work of synthesis. It moves away from the traditional legal conception of feudalism, in terms of land tenure on condition of military service, toward what would later be described as a "total history" of a type of society dominated by warriors, which came into existence as a response to invasion. It was a history of social structures and collective attitudes (or "historical psychology") as well as economic and political institutions. Febvre, who reviewed the book, found it a little too sociological for his taste in the sense that it privileged structures over individuals. Febvre's own contribution to the series, planned in the 1920s but published only in 1942, was Le problème de l'incroyance au XVIe siècle: La religion de Rabelais (The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais). The book focused on a single individual in order to explore the problem of the limits to thought in a particular period of history. In this study, reacting with his usual vehemence against an earlier interpretation, Febvre argued that Rabelais was not an unbeliever. He could not have been an atheist because, according to Febvre, atheism was literally unthinkable at this time. There was no place for this idea in the mental structures of Rabelais and his contemporaries, or as Febvre preferred to say, in their outillage mental, which he understood in terms of the "pre-logical thought" that had been described by his former teacher, the philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939).


World War II was a watershed in the history of the Annales movement. Bloch was shot by the Germans in 1944, while Febvre effectively became part of the establishment after 1945, as a member of the Institut de France, French delegate to UNESCO, and founder of the Centre des Recherches Historiques (1949) at what was then the École Pratique des Hautes Études. Aged sixty-seven in 1945, Febvre gradually left the direction of both the journal and the movement to his intellectual "son," Fernand Braudel (1902–1985).

Braudel, who was already working on his doctoral thesis in the 1930s, was among the early contributors to Annales. Drafted in prisoner-of-war camps in Lübeck and Mainz, and defended as a thesis in 1947, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II; 1949) is viewed as one of the most important products of the Annales movement, as well as one of the most outstanding and original historical studies published in the twentieth century. The change of title, encouraged by Febvre, from "Philip II and the Mediterranean" to "The Mediterranean and Philip II," was extremely significant. To the surprise of its early readers, this large volume began with some three hundred pages of historical geography, moving on to a description of economic, political, and social structures and trends (notably refeudalization and the "bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie"). Only in the third and final section did Braudel offer a relatively conventional account of the major events of Philip II's long reign.

The division of the volume into these three sections was justified in the preface by what might be called Braudel's historical sociology of time. In the first place, he distinguished what he called "unconscious history" or "the long term" (la longue durée), from the relatively superficial short term, the time of events and experience (histoire événementielle), which he described in one of his most famous phrases as "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs." Within the long term, Braudel went on to distinguish the time of social structures, changing gradually over the centuries, from geo-historical time, profoundest and slowest of all, which was measured in millennia.

Braudel's ideas about time became paradigmatic, at least in certain circles in France, especially after their elaboration in one of his most important articles, "Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée" ("History and the Social Sciences: the Long-Term;"1958; Trans. in Baudel, 1980). The effect of these ideas can be seen in a series of French doctoral theses, beginning with those of Pierre Chaunu (b. 1923) on Spain's transatlantic trade (1955–1960) and Pierre Goubert (b. 1915) on the Beauvais region (1960). These theses were generally divided into two parts, under the headings "structures" and "trends" (la conjoncture).

This adaptation of Braudel, which virtually eliminated the events to which he had devoted the third part of his own dissertation, owed a good deal to the example and teaching of his older colleague, Ernest Labrousse (1895–1986). A Marxist, Labrousse had published two important studies in economic history in 1933 and 1944, at a time when Braudel was virtually unknown. He later turned to social history, including that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, and became a kind of "grey eminence" of the Annales movement, a major influence not only on young historians working for their doctorat d'État—among them Maurice Agulhon (b. 1926), Pierre Chaunu, François Furet (1927–1997), Pierre Goubert, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (b. 1929)—but also on Braudel himself, whose increasing interest in quantitative history (most visible in the second edition of his Mediterranean, published in 1966) owed much to Labrousse's example.

The young historians mentioned above formed the second generation of the Annales group, together with the medievalist Georges Duby (1919–1997), the agricultural historian Jean Meuvret (1909–1971), best known for his emphasis on the recurrent "subsistence crises" of the old regime, and, on the edge of the group, the Marxist historian of Spain, Pierre Vilar. Duby, Goubert, and Le Roy Ladurie established the pattern of regional histories of the Maconnais, the Beauvaisis, Languedoc, Provence, Savoy, Brittany, and so on. Their studies began with geographical structures and ended with economic and social trends, which were usually studied over a century or more. They wrote what the French call "serial history" (l'histoire sérielle) and distinguished phases of expansion ("A-phases," as the French economist François Simiand called them) from phases of contraction ("B-phases"). The trends this group of historians analyzed were social as well as economic. Indeed, one hallmark of the new generation was the interest it showed in a new subdiscipline, historical demography, virtually founded by Louis Henry (b.1911) and established at the Institut National des Études Démographiques but involving historians from the very beginning.

As for Braudel, his second major work, Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme (Capitalism and Material Life 1400–1800 ; 1967), originally commissioned by Febvre, was a highly original work of synthesis, joining economic to social history in the study of material culture and everyday life as well as placing preindustrial Europe in comparative context by its frequent references to the Americas, China, and Japan. Braudel, ably seconded by Clément Heller, and partially supported by American funding, also reorganized historical research at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), and created and controlled an interdisciplinary Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.


In 1968, when Braudel was sixty-six and expected, if not exactly ready, to retire, the students of Paris went onto the streets. "The events" (les événements), as they were known, had their repercussions even on event-despising structural history. Braudel decided that the committee running Annales required new blood, and brought in Marc Ferro (b. 1924) and Jacques Revel (b. 1942). In the longer term, looking back from the end of the century, the movement of 1968, with its slogan "the imagination in power," now appears to be related to a major shift of emphasis in Annales history (as in historical writing elsewhere), the so-called "cultural turn."

In France this turn had two successive phases. First was the attempt to apply quantitative methods to the study of the "third level"—as Chaunu called it in a memorable article published in Braudel's Festschrift in 1973—or what Marxists call the "superstructure," in other words, the realm of culture and ideas, viewed as less "fundamental" than economic and social structures. What Chaunu preached, Michel Vovelle practiced in his Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au 18e siècle (Baroque piety and de-Christianization in Provence in the 18th century; 1973), a study of attitudes toward death and the afterlife based on the analysis of some thirty thousand wills, comparing and contrasting the attitudes of rich and poor, townspeople and country people, males and females, and so on. The historical sociology of religion practiced by Gabriel Le Bras (1891–1970), a former colleague of Febvre's at Strasbourg, is a still earlier example of the serial history of culture, based on the statistics of confessions, communions, and vocations to the priesthood, which the Church itself compiled. A similar approach was followed in studies of literacy in France based essentially on the evidence of signatures and published in book form as Lire et écrire (Reading and Writing; 1977) by François Furet and Jacques Ozouf.

Attempts to write the history of mentalities in a quantitative style reached their culmination, or their extreme, outside the Annales group in the so-called "Laboratory of Lexicometry," which counted the occurrences of keywords in newspapers and other texts during the French Revolution. However, the revival of the history of mentalities or the historical psychology of Bloch and Febvre came to be associated with the second phase of the cultural turn, the reaction against quantitative methods. On the margin of the Annales group, the amateur historian Philippe Ariès (1914–1982), despite his training as a demographer, became increasingly interested in cultural variations in attitudes toward childhood and death. Alphonse Dupront (1905–1990), who like Labrousse supervised many doctorates and so exercised considerable influence on the next generation, studied the history of religion as a form of historical psychology, concerning himself in particular with crusades and pilgrimage and with viewing these phenomena over the longue durée. Georges Duby, turning away from his earlier work on agrarian history, examined the idea of the three estates of the realm as part of the history of the collective imagination in the Middle Ages. Jacques Le Goff (b. 1924) made a similar study of the development of the idea of purgatory.

Like Duby, Le Roy Ladurie turned from the study of agriculture to the study of culture in his best-selling Montaillou village occitan (1975), in which he used Inquisition records to reconstruct the mental as well as the material world of some peasants in the south of France at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The book owes its fame and its many translations to the author's gift for bringing some forgotten individuals back to life, but it is important for other reasons as well. Like Febvre, Bloch, and Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie draws frequently on the ideas of scholars working in other disciplines, from the peasant studies of Alexander Chayanov and Teodor Shanin to the social anthropology of Edmund Leach and Pierre Bourdieu. Montaillou is also one of the most famous examples of what would be known a little later as "microhistory," the attempt at the historical reconstruction of a small community, in this case on the basis of Inquisition records that had long been known and utilized by historians of heresy but had never been employed as the basis of a community study.

The return of the history of mentalities and the reaction against economic and social determinism of the 1970s and 1980s went with a rediscovery of politics and to a lesser extent with a rehabilitation of the history of events so strongly rejected in earlier phases of the Annales movement. Marc Ferro, for some years the secretary to the committee directing the journal, was at the same time a historian of the Russian Revolution and World War I. Le Roy Ladurie worked on the court of Louis XIV and the politics of the regency. Maurice Agulhon concentrated on the nineteenth century, examining political history at the village level and analyzing the political meaning of "Marianne," the personification of France.

As for events, even Braudel believed that they were worthy of study as evidence for the history of structures, and Duby, who wrote a book on changing perceptions of the thirteenth-century Battle of Bouvines, followed him in this respect. Vovelle and Furet, who studied not only the old regime but also the French Revolution, took events still more seriously. Breaking both with tradition and his Communist past, Furet reinterpreted the Revolution in a controversial essay, not in social but in cultural terms, viewing it as a change that took place at the level of political culture and even of discourse.

Later developments in the movement are illustrated by the work of Roger Chartier (b. 1945), and Bernard Lepetit (1948–1996). Chartier approached cultural history, more especially the history of reading, as a history of practices and representations. In so doing he was indebted not only to the Annales tradition of the history of mentalities and the "book history" of Henri-Jean Martin (b. 1924; whose mentor was Lucien Febvre), but also to the social theory of Michel de Certeau and the new approach to bibliography developed by the New Zealand scholar Don Mackenzie. Lepetit was equally innovative. Making his name with a study of French towns, which awoke an interest in transport networks and urban systems, Lepetit went on to study social structures as networks of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Bruno Latour.

The change in Annales's subtitle from "Économies, sociétés, civilisations," to "Histoire, sciences sociales" in 1994 may be interpreted as an attempt to return to the origins of the movement. In similar fashion, over the long term the historian of Annales may detect a circular tour from the stress on agency (especially in the work of Febvre) to an emphasis on structure (in Bloch, and still more in Braudel) to the rediscovery of agency by Lepetit and others. Through all these changes, the Annales group maintained a distinct identity, thanks in part to the journal, and in part to the concentration of historians following the paradigm in one institution, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where they have the opportunity for daily contact with workers in neighboring disciplines such as anthropology and sociology.


It would be a mistake to identify French historical writing since 1929 with the Annales movement, however warm its reception has been in some quarters in France. The paradigm has always had its critics, from Charles Seignobos (1854–1942), against whose approach both Febvre and Bloch liked to define themselves, to Henri Coutau-Bégarie and François Dosse (b. 1950), who launched attacks in the 1980s on what they described as "the new history phenomenon" or the "fragmentation" of history.

The interest in the Annales outside France owes a great deal to the perception of the movement as offering some kind of "third way" of writing social and cultural history between Marxism on one side, with its emphasis on the economy, and traditional political history, in the style of the German, Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), on the other. However, the reception of the French paradigm and of the historians who contributed to it varied a great deal in both timing and temperature according to local interests and traditions. In Poland, for example, the movement was received with enthusiasm almost from the start by historians such as Jan Rutkowski (1886–1948). Later, when Poland was ruled by the Communist Party, it was precisely the difference between the Annales paradigm and Marxism that made the former so appealing. In Spain, on the other hand, the interest in the work of Bloch, Febvre, and, above all, Braudel, on the part of Jaime Vicens Vives (1910–1960) and his followers was associated with crypto-Marxism and with opposition to the Franco regime.

In Britain and the United States, as in Germany (where historians were long committed to the primacy of the political), the interest in Annales flowered relatively late. In Britain, it was above all the left-wing historians associated with Past and Present, notably Eric Hobsbawm and Lawrence Stone, who expressed sympathy for the French paradigm from the 1950s onward (Marc Bloch had long been appreciated by medievalists, but more, perhaps, for his substantive conclusions than for his innovations in approach or method).

In the United States in the 1970s, sympathizers with the movement, especially the work of Braudel, ranged from the world historian William McNeill to the Marxist economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein. In a kind of intellectual leapfrog, Wallerstein learned from Braudel, while Braudel derived ideas from Wallerstein. It was Braudel, for example, who first used the term "world economy" (économiemonde) in 1949, but it was Wallerstein who analyzed this economy as a system of three interrelated parts, a "core," a "periphery," and a "semiperiphery."

Another important distinction to make when speaking of the reception of Annales is between the periods studied by different groups of historians. The concentration of leading Annales historians, especially Febvre and Braudel, on the early modern period has meant that specialists on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have always been unusually interested in the French paradigm. Again, thanks to Bloch and Pirenne, medievalists were interested in the movement from the first and in the age of Duby and Le Goff they continued to find it inspiring. The Russian scholar Aaron Gurevich is a good example of a scholar who developed his own ideas in dialogue with the French.

On the other hand, relatively few members of the Annales group have written about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The principal exceptions to this rule are Agulhon, Ferro, and Alain Corbin, who is close to the group in his concern to explore new territories, such as the lure of the sea and the history of smell and sound, even if he is not part of the Annales network. Conversely, foreign historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to be relatively little aware of the Annales paradigms. When they are aware of these paradigms, like Henk Wesseling, a Dutch scholar specializing on colonialism, these historians are often critical of the dismissal of the history of events, considering it inappropriate, if not completely misguided, for the period in which they are interested.

In the last few years, one of the most important channels of diffusion of the Annales paradigm has been via the multivolume collective histories of private life and of women, edited by Ariès, Duby, and Michelle Perrot. These histories appeal to ordinary readers as well as professional historians, they have been translated into a number of languages, and they have inspired similar projects on a national scale (for example in Brazil). At the same time as this diffusion, however, we have seen a proliferation of alternative paradigms for social and cultural history. Innovation is no longer identified with Paris. For their part, French historians associated with the journal remain open to ideas from abroad. For example, when the English classical scholar Geoffrey Lloyd published his Demystifying Mentalities (1990), criticizing some features of l'histoiredes mentalités collectives, it was welcomed by the leading Annales historian Jacques Revel and was quickly translated into French. The "cultural turn" of the last generation of historians developed in France, the United States, and elsewhere, in part independently and in part as a result of two-way exchange rather than one-way influence.

Although the founders of Annales emphasized interdisciplinary cooperation, the impact of the French paradigm on the social sciences is relatively recent. Even in the age of Braudel, who debated with Claude Lévi-Strauss and the sociologist Georges Gurvitch, the intellectual traffic was mainly in one direction. Michel Foucault surely learned something important from the historians associated with Annales—from the history of collective mentalities for example—but he did not acknowledge this in public. Indeed, he was a severe critic of what he perceived as the exaggerated empiricism of the historians. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the situation changed.

In the English-speaking world, for example, scholars inspired by the Annales paradigm—or at any rate, by part of it—included the sociologist Charles Tilly, the social anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, the developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner, the geographer Alan Pred, and the archaeologist Ian Hodder. Bruner, for example, was attracted by the idea of "mentality," and Hodder by serial history and the long term, while Sahlins was concerned with the interplay between events and structures (starting out from Braudel but going beyond him). Terms such as mentalité, conjoncture, and longue durée, whether they are translated or left in the original French, whether they are quoted with approval or disapproval, are no longer confined to the vocabulary of historians.

As might have been expected, it is not always the same part of the paradigm, or the same paradigm, that appeals to different scholars, and the relative importance of (say) the econometric and the mentalities approaches is not easy to assess. In similar fashion, it is difficult to measure the historical importance of the journal itself compared with that of the monographs by leading historians associated with it. On this point, two suggestions spring to mind, one chronological and the other geographical. It is likely that the journal performed an indispensable function in building an intellectual tradition in the early years of the movement. However, it is probable that Annales gradually lost this function to exemplary works such as The Mediterranean or Montaillou. As for the geography of influence, it may well be the journal that has made the greatest impact within France itself. Outside France, on the other hand, the Annales "school" is widely identified with the monographs, some of them translated into six or more languages.

The placing of the term "school" in quotation marks is more than a whim or a sign of indecision. The hesitancy reveals a recurrent tendency in the history of intellectual movements, the fact that its followers sooner or later diverge from the ideas and ideals of its founders (hence Marx was not a Marxist, Luther was not a Lutheran, and so on). In the case of the Annales movement, one might argue that the intellectual distance between the generations has been unusually great. Braudel was close to Febvre in many respects, but his geographical determinism is in striking contrast to Febvre's voluntarism, his emphasis on the capacity of humans to use their environment for their own purposes rather than letting it shape them. In similar fashion, the so-called "third generation" of Annales, with their cultural turn, rejected Braudel in their historical practice while continuing to respect him. That these major intellectual shifts should have taken place with relatively few personal conflicts suggests that the movement has been characterized by a style of leadership that is pragmatic rather than dogmatic. However authoritarian Febvre and Braudel may have seemed on occasion, they generally allowed their followers the freedom to diverge. The lack of a climate of orthodoxy helps explain the truly remarkable capacity for self-renewal that the group demonstrated.

See alsoThe Population of Europe: Modern Demographic Patterns (volume 2);The Early Modern Period (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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