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The goal of the Annales

Discussion on The Annales School

The goal of the Annales

The discussion on The Annales School — its establishment, evolution and the core themes it epitomised — with the young colleagues at the History Department of GC University Lahore, proved to be quite an academic exchange. A question as to why such school(s) of history could not be founded in Pakistan twisted the whole trajectory of the debate.

The overall academic nonchalance that has overtaken Pakistani universities is a standard answer to the question. Delving deep into that simple yet multi-layered query of young scholars took the conversation to distant past, as it happens with historians. They hark back to the context, whether the issue is theoretical or otherwise. Thus, the focus of the debate switched to ancient Europe when Myth, Legend and Epic were the standard genres, used for weaving any narrative. These constituted the modus vivendi for any serious articulation whether literary or historical.

Then the epoch changed and Herodotus and Thucydides changed the character of the narration of the events. However, in Christianity with an elaborate system of monasteries having assumed the charge of imparting instruction, the human quest for God became the central postulate that mediated social relationships. Human relationship with God mediated by the clergy remained the solely important lens, through which questions both sacred as well as mundane were framed and answered.

The age of reason brought about a radical change particularly in the mediatory role performed by the clergy and the Church. The epistemology thus produced was ecclesiastical as well as scholastic in which philosophical argument was deployed to prove the veracity of the extra-terrestrial. In the wake of age of reason, the new social setting established a matrix in which man to man relationship was of fundamental importance.

That exactly was the context in which a new historical sensibility was formed and articulated.

The mutual relationship among humans without any mediation from the extraterrestrial was the main constituent of history and the awareness it afforded to humans. Descartes accorded primacy to ‘human’ thought and Cartesian formulation relegated history to the position of insignificance as against physical sciences. However, Kant, Hegel and then Karl Marx brought in history to the very core of their respective philosophies. The latter two particularly made history as the main constituent of their theoretical paradigm(s). Therefore, history became central to intellectual/academic endeavours from the 19th century onwards.

Marxist theory of history (Historical Materialism) cast a phenomenal spell on scholars striving to make sense of socio-political evolution of human society. Even the scholars from colonial as well as post-colonial world acquired motivation from Marxist ideology in their fight against colonial powers.

But it will be equally important to look at the flip side of the situation with Marxism at its core. In administrative and institutional terms, Max Weber came up with the counterpoint to Marxist analysis of human society, and Annales School (a’nal, in French) challenged the class analysis of Marxist historiography.

In Pakistan, Marxist historiography has never had its resonance. Some of Sibte Hasan’s books like Pakistan mein Tahzib ka Irtaqa being a few exceptions. All such schools like Annales or Subaltern could not be established in Pakistan, which either were the offshoots of Marxist history or they came up as its antithesis.

These historians were associated with a style of historiography fostered by French historians in the late 1920s to establish long-term social history. It was named after its scholarly journal Annales D’histoire Economique Et Sociale which had been the main source of its scholarship. Annales School deals primarily with late medieval and early modern Europe, with little interest in later themes. It profoundly influenced not only French social history but also historiography in Europe and Latin America. Lucien Febvre (1878-1956), Henri Hauser (1866-1946) and Marc Bloch (1886-1944) were the first generation of Annales School which was constituted in 1929. At that time they were teaching at the University of Strasbourg and later in Paris.

They pioneered an approach to a study of long-term historical structures (la longue duree) over events and political transformations. These historians broke radically with traditional historiography by underscoring the importance of taking all levels of society into consideration and emphasised the collective nature of mentalities, or the psychology of the epoch. In the discourse of history that they initiated, Geography and its connection with history was emphasised. These scholars viewed events as less fundamental than the mental frameworks that shaped decisions and practices.

The goal of the Annales was to dispel the influence of Sorbonniste scholarship that championed the narrowly political and diplomatic history. Annales opened up new vistas in social and economic history. Marc Bloch was a quintessential modernist who studied at the elite École Normale Supérieure, and in Germany, serving as a professor at the University of Strasbourg until he was called to the Sorbonne in Paris in 1936 as professor of economic history. Bloch’s interests were highly interdisciplinary, influenced by the geography of Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845-1918) and the sociology of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). His own ideas, especially those expressed in his masterworks, French Rural History and Feudal Society broke new ground in modern method of history writing.

Bloch was shot by the Gestapo during the German occupation of France in World War II for his active membership of French Resistance, and Febvre carried on the Annales approach in the 1940s and 1950s. It was during this time that he mentored Braudel, who would become one of the best-known exponents of this school. Braudel’s work came to define a “second” era of Annales’ historiography and was very influential throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Read also: The goal of the Annales-II

Apart from Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), the second generation included George Duby (1919-1996), Pierre Goubert (1915-2012), Robert Mandrou (1921-1984) and Jacques Le Goff (1924-2014). Braudel was the editor of Annales from 1956 to 1968. Besides, his magnum opus two volume The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II was the path-breaking study which many opine as the biggest specimen of historical scholarship in 20th century.

(to be continued)

The writer is professor of History at GC University Lahore.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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