01 September 2009

What is History?

Notes from reading the first chapter of Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (1953)

"How ... can one make of phenomena, having no other common character than that of being not contemporary with us, the matter of rational knowledge?" (Bloch, 22)

The word history applies to any study of change through time (Bloch, 23)

"In any study, seeking the origins of a human activity, there lurks the same danger of confusing ancestry with explanation." (Bloch, 27)

" the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs." (Bloch, 28)

"...a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time." (Bloch, 29)

"Some, who consider that the most recent events are unsuitable for all really objective research just because they are recent, wish only to spare Clio's chastity from the profanation of present controversy....In truth, whoever lacks the strength, while seated at his desk, to rid his mind of the virus of the present may readily permit its poison to infiltrate even a commentary on the Iliad or the Ramayana." (Bloch, 31-32)

"It is therefore advisable to define the indisputable peculiarities of historical observation in terms which are both less ambiguous and more comprehensive."
"Its primary characteristic is the fact that knowledge of all human activities in the past, as well as of the greater part of those in the present, is, as Francois Simiand aptly phrased it, a knowledge of their tracks. Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a 'track,' as it were--the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind?" (Bloch, 45-46)

"...we have no other device for returning through time except that which operates in our minds with the materials provided by past generations." (Bloch, 47)

The past cannot change. "But the knowledge of the past is something progressive which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself." (Bloch, 48)

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