Historiography - The Annales School of Thought Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Historiography - The Annales School of Thought

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The Annales school of thought is one of the most famous methods of researching and recording history. The movement has changed through time and the different incarnations are called 'generations'. The first generation was founded by Lucien Febvre and Mark Bloch in 1929, and the third generation is still active and personified today by the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie1.

The First Generation

The Annales movement was named after the scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale2, an inter-disciplinary collection of articles edited by Mark Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929. The journal was intended to promote a new approach to history by rejecting the traditional study of history, which was concerned with politics and government, and focus more deeply on social and economic history.

The Founders

The leaders of the Annales movement, Febvre and Bloch, attended the University of Strasbourg, where they were immersed in the works of other university disciplines, such as anthropology, economics, geography, psychology and sociology. The inter-departmental cooperation during their university years led them to the idea of studying history using a holistic approach. Bloch was interested in social psychology, and focused his work on the feudal system in medieval France, while Febvre examined the geographical background and social, cultural and political features of early-modern French history. This holistic approach separates the Annales movement from the empiric approach to history.

A New Historiography

The Annales movement was distinctive for its stance against the established empiric school of thought. Instead of focusing on politics and individuals, the historians of the first generation of the Annales school of thought focused on social groupings, collective mindsets and long-term continuities and changes. They did not only rely on primary documents, but made use of a wide range of sources, including maps, folklore and literature.

An example of the way a wide range of disciplines can be used to investigate history can be seen in Mark Bloch's The Royal Touch. Bloch wrote The Royal Touch in 1924 about the medieval and early-modern belief that the French king could cure a skin disease known as scrofula simply by touching sufferers with his hands. Bloch discussed the mentalities towards kingship, religion and miracles between the 13th and 18th Centuries in both France and England, drawing on sociology, anthropology and psychology in his holistic study. The study of the beliefs over such a long period of time, rather than limited to a preconceived period of time, was revolutionary. Bloch believed that prolonged beliefs should be investigated in terms of the time they were actually believed, not in the terms of the period of history that the belief first originated.

Opposition to Empiricism

Annales historians criticised positivism, which 'concentrated on the analysis of short periods, adopted a traditional narrative of events and analysed history almost exclusively from the political-military point of view'3 and rebelled against empirical history which focused on politics, great individuals, and chronological events. The Annales historians found fault with the formulaic structure of empiricist, and especially Rankian,4 method of historiography, and 'philosophically outline conditions of possibility in the light of an unrepeatability of the past as well as an intervention in the present'. They believed the rigid rules of Ranke's method of historiography were too restrictive because the past is too far away in time and perspective for historians to be able to be completely objective.


The Annales movement was also distinctive for the increased attention paid to the mindsets of entire groups, known as mentalités. Lucien Febvre was the first historian to call for a study into the history of emotions in 1941. He believed that 'the emotional life [is] always ready to overflow the intellectual life'5. The entire Annales movement was revolutionary, entailing methods of studying history that had never been considered before.

The Second Generation

Fernand Braudel studied history at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, then wrote his signature work, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen á l'époque de Philippe II 6 from memory while in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War Two. He continued the Annales movement, widening its focus to include long-term history and economic history.

The Third Generation

The distinction of the third generation of Annales historians as a group started after 1968 when the members of the original school of thought began branching out in their interests and approaches to the study of history. The third generation 'breaks with Braudel's methodological structuralism and reaffirms the Durkheimian7 idea of history of mentalities'8. The movement now shifts the focus of the study of history further towards the discipline of anthropology, especially cultural anthropology, and returns some attention to political history. The members of the third generation also return some of the narrative voice to the publication of history.

The third generation of Annales historians continue to critique some of history's earlier schools of thought, claiming that events cannot be explained using the reference points and cultural background of the time because the exact mind-frame of those involved cannot be known for certain, only speculated upon.

No single historian (or group) controlled the third generation of Annales historians in quite the way Bloch and Febvre headed the first generation, and Fernand Braudel led the second. Instead, some have commented on the fragmentation of the group into different areas of study. Some Annales historians returned to what the first generation shunned - the history of events and politics; some continued the founders' programme, expanding the study of history to include such subjects as the body, childhood and dreams.

Gender Studies

While one of the criticisms levelled at the Annales school of thought was that the study of gender was ignored, and women of history were sidelined in favour of men, the third generation of the Annales movement included the female historians Christiane Klapisch, Arlette Farge, Michelle Perrot and Mona Ozouf, who studied a wide range of subjects including family, labour and women.

Global History

The third generation was not only less male-oriented, it was also less French-oriented. Many members of this school of thought tried to link the traditional Annales historiography to the American trends of economic history, popular culture, psychohistory and symbolic anthropology. The movement continued to grow and expand, and not only carried on the original ideas behind the Annales movement, such as the history of mentalities and cultural history, but also revived some of the aspects of Ranke's empiric historiography, namely the study of politics, and the more positivist narrative style of history. It also forged new approaches to history, such as the study of the history of childhood, introduced by Phillipe Ariés.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

One of the foremost historians of the latest generation of Annales historians is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. He is famous for his work Montaillou, Village Occitan, a study of the 14th Century French village Montaillou. Le Roy Ladurie used the records of interrogations during witch trials to reconstruct the village, its society and culture. He focused on housing and the villagers' 'perceptions of space, time, nature, God and religion, family life, childhood, sexuality and death'9. Le Roy Ladurie also wrote about rural history and peasants of the early modern period, and the last thousand years of climatic history. This wide range is typical of the scope of the work carried out by historians of the Annales school of history.

A Criticism

While the wide range of interests and the differing methods of approaching history used by different members of the third generation of Annales historians combine to produce an effective method of historiography, one criticism levelled at the group is that the long-term view of history is ineffective when it comes to studying fast-paced modern history.

The Evolution of Historiography

As different as the first, second and third generations of the Annales school of thought are to each other, the evolution of historiographical thought is typical of the progression of history as a discipline over the centuries. Each generation of the Annales school of history made important contributions to the study of history and each branched into innumerable sub-sections which assist in covering a wide range of human history. The Annales movement was revolutionary in its time and took a radical new approach to the study of history.

1However, unlike Febvre and Bloch, Le Roy has never led other Annales historians.2Annals of economic and social history3Annales d'histoire économique et sociale: The Annales School.4Leopold von Ranke (December 21, 1795 – May 23, 1886) is frequently to be considered the founder of 'scientific' or source based history. Ranke was committed to writing history 'wie es eigentlich gewesen'; as it essentially was. 5Lucien Febvre, quoted in Barbara H Rosenwein, 'Worrying About Emotions in History', The American Historical Review.6The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World during the Age of Philip II7Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist and the founder of the sociology journal L'Année Sociologique which was a major influence on the Annales School.8Adrian Worsfold, 'Historiography: Annales Approaches'.9David Moon, 'Fernand Braudel and the Annales School'.

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