”…history has its peculiar aethetic pleasures. The spectacle of human activity which forms its particular object is, more than any other, designed to seduce the imagination – above all when, thanks to its remoteness in time and space, it is adorned with the subtle enchantment of the unfamiliar…let us guard against stripping our science of its share of poetry.” - Marc Bloch, The Historians’ Craft, trans. P. Putnam (NY: Vintage, 1953), p. 8.
French historian and authority on medieval feudalism. Born in Lyons, France on Jul. 6th, 1886. His early studies were history and geography in Paris, Leipzig and Berlin. After graduating he taught at Montpellier and Amiens. Bloch then served as a soldier in the First World War and in 1919 became Professor of Medieval History at Strasbourg University. Later he became professor at the Sorbonne in 1936, as Professor of Economic History, and was cofounder of the ground-breaking journal Annales d'histoire economique et sociale.
”…behind the features of landscape, behind tools or machinery, behind what appears to be the most formalized written documents, and behind institutions which seem almost entirely detached from their founders, these are men, and it is men that history seeks to grasp. Failing that, it will be at best an exercise in erudition. The good historian is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies.” (p. 26)
Most of Bloch's research concerned medieval history and the relationship between freedom and servitude. Books by him included Kings and Serfs (1920) and Feudal Society (1939). On the outbreak of the Second World War, at age 53 and with a wife and six children, Bloch joined the French Army for the second time, after being ousted from his tenure by pressure from the Vichy Administration. He then served as a captain until the French surrender in July of 1940. A book on his experiences, Strange Defeat, was published after the war.
”…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.” (p. 38)
When Henri-Philippe Petain negotiated the armistice with Nazi diplomats, Bloch intuitively knew that as a Jew he would be a target for the Gestapo. Bloch tried but failed to get his family to the United States – and soon the last desperate course of honorable fighting men led him into the French Resistance (just as the Germans streamed into unoccupied France and North Africa). By 1942 he was a leader of the famous Francs-Tireur group. However, after two years of sabotage, Bloch was captured by the Gestapo in the spring of 1944, and on 16th June, after prolonged torture and interrogation, he was executed with 27 others in an overgrown pasture just outside Lyons.
”A historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This is true of every progressive stage, our own and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’” (p. 35)
Among Bloch's major works, published posthumously, are The Historian's Craft (tr. 1953) and French Rural History (tr. 1966). The Historian’s Craft (or Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d'Historien), was begun in 1941 and written largely while Bloch was leading his guerrilla cell in the Resistance, and so separated from his home, notes and family. The work is therefore more reflective than analytical – and dedicated to the memory of his fellow historian and mentor, Henri Pirenne (who also wrote and died in German captivity, as a POW during the First World War). The conclusion of Bloch’s work, a lucid appraisal of contemporary historiography resulting in a resounding condemnation of over-specialization and arbitrarily rigid periodization; ”There is no waste more criminal than that of erudition running, as it were, in neutral gear, nor any pride more vainly misplaced than that in a tool valued as an end in itself.” (p. 86)