Bloch, Marc

views updated May 11 2018

Bloch, Marc



Marc Bloch, French medieval and economic historian, was born at Lyons, July 6, 1886, the son of Gustave and Sara Ebstein Bloch. It was near Lyons, at Trévoux, that he and some of his companions in the Resistance were killed by the Gestapo only a few days before the German defeat.

Bloch’s father came from an Alsatian family that was deeply attached to France; he was a student at the École Normale Supérieure and the French schools of Athens and Rome and was a professor in the faculty of letters at Lyons at the time of his son’s birth. In the following year he was appointed maître de conférences at the École Normale and then professor of Roman history at the Sorbonne in 1904. He was the author of many articles and books, the best known being La république romaine, 1913, and L’empire romain, 1922. One of the most brilliant historians of his time, he was the first and most effective of his son’s teachers.

Marc Bloch grew up in Paris in a highly intellectual, highly cultivated milieu. His older brother, a prominent physician and a talented musician, who died prematurely after World War i, had an undoubted influence on him. I have it from Lucien Febvre that it was from this older brother that Marc Bloch got the idea that he later developed in his book Les rois thaumaturges (1924). Still more important was the influence of his wife, Simone Vidal, whom he married in 1919. She relieved him of all the material and domestic cares for which, according to friends, Bloch was not very well fitted, and, acting as his secretary and assistant, enabled him to devote himself entirely to his intellectual tasks.

Bloch received his secondary education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he was an outstanding student. He entered the École Normale in 1904, leaving it as agrégé in history and geography in 1908. He took courses not only at the École Normale itself but also at the Sorbonne, the École des Hautes Études and the Collège de France, namely the courses of Christian Pfister, Gabriel Monod, Lucien Gallois, Gustave Lanson, Antoine Meillet, Charles V. Langlois, Charles Seignobos, and Alfred Croiset. At the École Normale, he was the friend of the mathematician Paul Lévy, of the future diplomat Louis Massigli, of the philosopher and grammarian Paul Etard, and of the sociologist Georges Davy, who later became dean of the faculty of letters and human sciences at Paris. Davy was at that time the closest of his comrades [seeDavy]. Without doubt, Bloch’s years of apprenticeship were unusually rewarding, both in the fields of classical culture and of history proper. From 1909 to 1912 he held a scholarship from the Fondation Thiers in Paris and was free to begin his first researches; the papers he wrote at that time, which have come down to us, are among his best.

It was during these student years that Bloch came into contact with Henri Berr and the Revue de synthèse historique; both appealed to him very strongly. Also, he spent quite a long time at the University of Berlin, where he attended the remarkable lectures of Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and enjoyed their theatrical qualities as well as their content.

Following the usual career pattern of the French university system, Marc Bloch’s initial appointments were as professor at the lycée of Montpellier in 1912 and at the lycée of Amiens in 1913. But his career did not really begin until after World War i. In 1919 he was appointed chargé de cours of medieval history in the faculty of letters at Strasbourg and professor in 1921. He remained there until his appointment in 1936 as maître de conférences of economic history at the Sorbonne. He was made titular professor in 1937. In 1940, forced to give up his post in Paris because of the German anti-Semitic measures, he became professor at Clermont-Ferrand (where the University of Strasbourg had withdrawn) and at Montpellier in 1941–1942. Finally, suspended from his position by the Vichy government, he declined the chance to go abroad that was officially offered him and went underground into the Resistance.

Bloch was already a master of his specialty, medieval history (even technically he was the foremost medievalist of the time) when he was turned toward general history and the economic and social sciences as a result of meeting Lucien Febvre (1878–1956), his senior colleague at Strasbourg. The great turning point of his intellectual life came in 1929, when he and Febvre founded the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, which in the next ten years completely transformed French historiography. In this common achievement it is hard to distinguish the particular share of each; individually, neither Bloch nor Febvre was the greatest French historian of the time, but together both of them were. Their joint battle had a pattern: if history was to be revitalized, it would have to relate to itself and, as it were, conquer the other sciences of man: geography, political economy, demography, political science, sociology, ethnography, anthropology, social psychology, and so forth. Bloch and Febvre received decisive help from geographers like André Siegfried and Albert Demangeon, from economists like Frangois Simiand, from sociologists like Maurice Halbwachs, and from historians like Georges Lefebvre, André Piganiol, and Ch. E. Perrin [seeHalbwachs; Siegfried;Simiand.]

Bloch’s kind of history, like Febvre’s, had its roots in the Revue de synthèse of Henri Berr, who was the first to maintain that history is the sum total of all the specialized histories, those of the political sector, of the economic sector, and so on. The Annales, too, sought to regroup these traditional areas of historical work and to draw on the related human sciences, making them, in effect, auxiliary sciences to history. That, at least, is how the present author construes the conception of history of the Annales (and perhaps somewhat distorts it). Bloch was inclined to be less aggressive and more prudent (as well as more practical and less romantic) than Febvre; thus, Bloch spoke of collaborating with “the observers of the present” and patiently became an economist, a sociologist, and a psychologist, as Huizinga did also [seeHuizinga]. But his goal for history was clear: “History is not the accumulation of the events of all kinds that have taken place in the past. It is the science of human societies.” These two statements, with which Fustel de Coulanges once concluded a lecture, constitute not a method but a program—an open declaration.

From 1929 to 1938, the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale were the focus of all of Bloch’s intellectual activity and passion. The best of his thought went into the many articles he contributed. It is impossible to decide what is most important in this “volume” of over a thousand pages; everything in it is worth reading and rereading. Bloch’s best-known articles are undoubtedly “Le problème de l’or au moyen âge” (1933) and “Avènement et conquête du moulin à eau” (1935). Even though the conclusions of the latter article have been called into question by subsequent research, to this day any discussion of the subject must refer to Bloch’s views and closely reasoned arguments.

Bloch’s relatively limited articles are especially revealing of his approach to history, more so even than his books. They permit one to surmise, as it were, what he might have said and written had he not died prematurely. Two characteristic terms emerge in these articles: synthesis (the term he borrowed from Henri Berr) and comparative history (a phrase more peculiarly his own and better suited to his intellectual temper). Indeed, Bloch always tried to avoid language that was unnecessarily antagonizing. For example, instead of saying agrarian system he used the term agrarian regime. (Bloch’s disciples and those of Lucien Febvre like to refer to global history, but that lofty term does not add anything to the more modest comparative history.)

To understand Bloch’s approach it is particularly important to note what he said in his paper “Les transformations des techniques comme problème de psychologie collective”: “An historian cannot afford to ignore the teachings of the psychologists. But the opposite is equally true. The early Middle Ages, for example, with their proliferation of forged documents, are an instance of collective mythomania that no psychologist dealing with truthfulness or lying has, I believe, the right to neglect” ([1948] 1963, p. 792). Comparative history is the bringing together of history and contiguous disciplines, the exchanging of services between them, and their convergence on selected problems, whether these be problems in toponymy or geography, in sociology or psychology, or in political economy. Bloch explained his approach at the Institut Français de Sociologie in 1932, in connection with the “problem of agrarian regimes,” and even better in 1939, in connection with the problem of the settlement of the Beauce: “We are working here under the banner of synthesis … in the convergent interplay of disciplines …” (p. 638).

Bloch’s innumerable articles and reviews are, therefore, an invaluable supplement to his few, classic books, but these of course are the essential part of his work. Les rois thaumaturges, a study that is at once history, sociology, and social psychology, since it deals with the supernatural powers attributed to the kings of France to heal scrofula by the king’s touch, is a highly original work, admirably executed. The greatest of Bloch’s books is no doubt his analysis of Les caractères originaux de I’histoire rurale française (1931), based on the examination of the patterns of fields and the interpretation of rural landscapes. A whole series of studies by geographers and historians of the European peasantry have followed in the wake of Bloch’s Caractères originaux. The last volume that Marc Bloch himself published, Feudal Society (1939–1940), refocuses and integrates many hundreds of earlier studies in the perspective of a new conception of history; it is a book that seeks to distinguish common patterns, diversities, and the general direction of development in European society of the Middle Ages. Two books found among his papers were published posthumously by his friends: Strange Defeat (1946) and The Historian’s Craft (1949). The former is a strong and bitter polemic on the French defeat, made all the more bitter by Bloch’s feeling that he shared responsibility for the catastrophe of 1940; the second was written rapidly during his enforced leisure and should be regarded as the first draft of a larger work he hoped to write.

Marc Bloch is undoubtedly one of the most widely read French historians, both in France and abroad. His work has been widely translated and diffused and, except on details, has not been challenged. There are many reasons for this: the breadth of his knowledge, his prudence in statement, the aversion he always felt for grandiose explanations. (Although he was a friend and admirer of Henri Pirenne, he was not inclined to formulate such brilliant but debatable theories as that concerning the opening and closing of the Mediterranean to the Latin Occident.) His curiosity was matched by his love of careful scholarship. His students Robert Boutruche, Michel Mollat, Pierre Goubert, Paul Leuillot, and Henri Brunschwig show the same prudence, or the same wisdom.

His political position was in a sense similar to his intellectual one. He hesitated to make any extreme commitment. The war had already begun when he wrote to Lucien Febvre on September 17, 1939: “Like you, I should abhor a propaganda task. Historians must keep their hands clean” (Hommages … 1945, p. 16). And yet he felt deeply the defeat, “the strange defeat,” of France. After miraculously escaping execution as a prisoner in 1940, he was at Dunkirk, got to England, returned to Brittany, and then resumed his life as a professor. After 1940 the Vichy government treated him with respect, as they had treated Bergson. They suspended him but offered to let him leave the country: Marc Bloch could have gone to an American university or to the Algiers faculty, which invited him. He preferred to stay where he was. “The French people is our people and we have no other,” he wrote. In the Resistance he played an exemplary role. On March 8, 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo. After being mistreated and tortured, he and his fellow prisoners were shot several months later.

Fernand Braudel

[See alsoHistoriography; History. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofFebvre; Huizinga; Vidal de laBlache.]


(1911–1948) 1963 Mélanges historiques. 2 vols. Paris: Service d’Édition et de Vente des Publications de I’Éducation Nationale. → A bibliography appears in Volume 2, pages 1031–1104.

(1924) 1961 Les rois thaumaturges: Étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale particulièrement en France et en Angleterre. Paris: Colin.

(1931) 1952–1956 Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française. New ed., 2 vols. Paris: Colin. → Volume 2, Supplément établi d’après les travaux de I’auteur: (1931–1944), was written by Robert Dauvergne.

(1932) 1963 Le problème des régimes agraires. Volume 2, pages 648–669 in Marc Bloch, Mélanges historiques. Paris: Service d’Édition et de Vente des Publications de 1’Éducation Nationale.

(1933) 1963 Le problème de I’or au moyen âge. Volume 2, pages 839–867 in Marc Bloch, Mélanges historiques. Paris: Service d’Édition et de Vente des Publications de 1’Éducation Nationale.

(1935) 1963 Avènement et conquête du moulin à eau. Volume 2, pages 800–821 in Marc Bloch, Mélanges historiques. Paris: Service d’Édition et de Vente des Publications de l’Éducation Nationale.

(1939) 1963 Les problèmes du peuplement beauceron. Volume 2, pages 638–647 in Marc Bloch, Mélanges historiques. Paris: Service d’Édition et de Vente des Publications de 1’Éducation Nationale.

(1939−1940) 1961 Feudal Society. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as La société féodale: La formation des liens de dépendence and La société féodale: Les classes et le gouvernement des hommes.

(1946) 1949 Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published as L’étrange défaite.

(1948) 1963 Les transformations des techniques comme problème de psychologie collective. Volume 2, pages 791–799 in Marc Bloch, Mélanges historiques. Paris: Service d’Édition et de Vente des Publications de 1’Éducation Nationale.

(1949) 1964 The Historian’s Craft. New York: Knopf. → First published as L’apologie pour l’histoire, ou métier d’historien.

1954 Esquisse d’une histoire monétaire de I’Europe. Paris: Colin.

1958 La France sous les derniers Capétiens: 1223–1328.Paris: Colin.

1960 Seigneurie francaise et manoir anglais. Paris: Colin.


Boutruche, Robert 1947 Marc Bloch vu par ses élèves. Pages 195–207 in Strasbourg, Université de, Faculté des lettres, Mémorial des années 1939–1945. Publication No. 103. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Febvre, Lucien 1964 Marc Bloch et Strasbourg: Souvenirs d’une grande histoire. Pages 171–193 in Strasbourg, Université de, Faculté des lettres, Mémorial des années 1939–1945. Publication No. 103. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Hommages à Marc Bloch. Annales d’histoire sociale, Nos. 7–8. 1945 Paris: Colin.

Perrin, Charles E. 1948 L’oeuvre historique de Marc Bloch. Revue historique 199:161–188.

Raftis, J. Ambrose 1962 Marc Bloch’s Comparative Method and the Rural History of Mediaeval England. Mediaeval Studies 24:349–365.

Marc Bloch

views updated May 14 2018

Marc Bloch

The French historian Marc Bloch (1886-1944) was the leading French medievalist of the 20th century. He inspired two generations of historians through his teaching and writing.

Marc Bloch was born at Lyons on July 6, 1886, the son of Gustave Bloch, a professor of ancient history. Marc studied in Paris at the École Normale and the Fondation Thiers, in Berlin, and in Leipzig. During World War I he served in the infantry, winning four citations and the Legion of Honor. When the French University at Strasbourg was revived in 1919, Bloch went there to organize the seminar on medieval history. He remained until 1936, when he was called to the Sorbonne to succeed Henri Hauser in the chair of economic history.

In 1920 Bloch presented his thesis Kings and Serfs, in which he tried to discover what freedom and servitude meant in the Middle Ages. It was a question he pondered throughout his career, continuing his investigations in major articles of 1921, 1928, and 1933 and in the pages of his Feudal Society. The thesis was symptomatic of Bloch's interests and sympathies. He saw the problem of liberty and servitude as one involving economic structures and systems of belief as well as legal norms and institutional practices. From then until his death he continued to affirm that history must concern itself with the whole man, that the economic or legal historian must be first of all a historian of civilization.

Bloch's interest in men and their beliefs inspired his second major work, The Magic-working Kings (1924), a study of the supernatural character attributed to kings in the Middle Ages, in particular the belief in their miraculous powers of healing. His interest in men and their works inspired a series of articles on the spread of labor-saving inventions in the Middle Ages, medieval monetary problems, rural land distribution, and many other topics. In all of these, as in a series of lectures, The Original Characteristics of French Rural History (1931), he insisted that the economic and technical questions he was discussing were also questions of "collective psychology."

In 1929 Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the Annales d'histoire économique et sociale to provide a place for innovative historians to express their views. The two editors made themselves the champions of "history as one of the sciences of man" which the resources of sociology, psychology, economics, medicine, and all other disciplines that study man should be used to serve. Bloch also contributed to the Revue de synthése, whose objective was to overcome the barriers between academic disciplines. His last historical work was Feudal Society (2 vols., 1939-1940), in which he described the legal institutions of feudalism in their broad cultural setting.

In 1939 Bloch was called back to the army. Avoiding capture in the defeat, he found refuge at Guéret, where he wrote a memoir of his war experiences, The Strange Defeat (1946). In this time of forced repose he also set down his reflections on his vocation, The Historian's Craft. The anti-Semitic laws soon forced him to leave the University of Paris for Clermont-Ferrand and then for Montpellier. When persecutions increased, he disappeared into the Resistance. In 1943 he reappeared briefly as "Blanchard," then as "Arpajon," "Chevreuse," and "Narbonne." Captured by the Germans in 1944, he was tortured and, on June 16, shot by a firing squad at Saint-Didier-de-Formans, near Lyons.

Further Reading

A moving personal memoir of Bloch by Lucien Febvre appears in Joseph Lambie, ed., Architects and Craftsmen in History (1956). John Higham and others, History (1965), and H. Stuart Hughes, The Obstructed Path: French Social Thought in the Years of Desperation, 1930-1960 (1968), contain extensive material on Bloch. A useful background study is Michel François and others, Historical Study in the West: France, Great Britain, Western Germany, the United States (1968).

Additional Sources

Fink, Carole, Marc Bloch: a life in history, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. □

Bloch, Marc

views updated May 23 2018


BLOCH, MARC (1886–1944), French historian. Bloch was professor of medieval history at the University of Strasbourg from 1919 to 1936 and then at the Sorbonne. He fought in both world wars and after the fall of France in 1940 was a leader of the Resistance. He was arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. One of Bloch's most significant works was in the field of French medieval agrarian history, Les caractères originaux de l'histoire rurale française (1931; French Rural History, 1966). A further contribution to economic historiography was his founding (together with Lucien Febvre) of the important review, Annales d'histoire économique et sociale. Bloch's La société féodale (1939–40; Feudal Society, 1961) became a standard work on feudalism. He did not accept the identification of feudalism with military service, the view held in England and Germany, still less the Marxist oversimplification of feudalism as exploitation of peasants by landlords. Instead, he analyzed the structure of feudal society and the relationship between history and economics during that period. In a posthumous work, L'étrange défaite (1946; Strange Defeat, 1949) Bloch affirmed his detachment from the Jewish faith and from all other religious dogmas. Nevertheless, he acknowledged his Jewish descent and his admiration for the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. His other works were L'Ile-de-France (1913); Rois et serfs (1920); Apologie pour l'histoire, ou métier d'historien (1949; The Historian's Craft, 1954).


L. Febvre, in: Les Cahiers politiques (March, 1945), 5–11. add. bibliography: C. Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (1989); S.W. Friedman, Marc Bloch, Sociology and Geography (1996); E. Bloch, Marc Bloch (18861944): Une biographie impossible (1997); O. Dumoulin, Marc Bloch (Fr., 2000).

[Avrom Saltman]

Bloch, Marc

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bloch, Marc (1886–1944) A distinguished French medieval historian, co-founder of the prominent Annales School, and therefore important influence on the historical sociology of such work as the world-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. Bloch was an enthusiast of ‘totalizing’ approaches which emphasized the underlying movements in whole societies rather than either the activities of particular individuals or the chronology of specific events. His major works were French Rural History: An Essay on its Basic Characteristics (1931) and Feudal Society (1939–40). His comparative (and as he saw it scientific) approach to history, and his enthusiasm for the use of as wide a variety of data-sources as possible, is evident in his text on The Historian's Craft (1949). See also FEUDALISM.