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Historiography’s Horizon and Imperative: The Legacy of Febvrian Annales and Library History as Cultural History

From: Libraries & Culture
Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 2004
pp. 293-312 | 10.1353/lac.2004.0055

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Libraries & Culture 39.3 (2004) 293-312

The Legacy of Febvrian Annales and Library History as Cultural History

Jean-Pierre V. M. Hérubel

Lucien Febvre, lecteur et critique. By Bertrand Müller. Paris: Albin Michel, 2003. 467 pp. €26. ISBN 2-226-13282-1.

Were Clio to descend upon the shoulders of academic historical effort, she would undoubtedly discover that the historian's sense of reflection upon his or her enterprise approximates the very problem many academic historians seem loath to entertain. Reflection upon the historical enterprise is often neglected for the actual work of historical research and scholarship. What little concerted reflection occurs is sufficiently grounded neither in historical theory nor in philosophy of history. Epistemological reckoning is not within the purview of most practicing historians, other than as a seriously defended belief in the veracity of their profession. Questions pertinent to the raison d'être of such practice necessarily assumes a lessened priority.

Reflexivity demands a certain centered position replete with an introspective willingness to undertake a continuously examined approach to one's profession. Pierre Bourdieu has accomplished this for sociology and the study of academic disciplines within the French university context. His penetrating examination, given its purpose of laying bare the culturally determined conditions of academic activity and its professionalization, offers a viable orientation for historians. Soul-searching among scholars is generally practiced by those nearing the end of their careers, not unlike major scientists reflecting upon their courses taken, especially those possibilities left unchallenged. If there was ever such an example as the self-reflexive historian, Lucien Febvre offers up quite the paragon. Emblematic of the attempt to reorient historical studies along its entire spectrum, Febvre soared beyond the rigid definitional considerations of the historical profession in the first half of the twentieth century.

With Marc Bloch, the great medievalist, Lucien Febvre declared that the entire spectrum of the past was open to historical examination, leaving no stone unturned, no path not taken. His purview, known as Annales historiography, was to be the entire range of history as a field of historiographic examination. Academic history was too narrow, too event oriented, and certainly dominated by political and diplomatic history. Narrative and, ensconced in the Sorbonne, history as a discipline was highly structured and deeply suspicious of its prerogatives. It was necessarily tied to geography by traditional affiliation, but it refused to accept those disciplines emanating from the social sciences. Febvre and Bloch embarked upon a systematic assault upon the Sorbonniste ramparts, declaring open intellectual warfare. Febvre's career started at the provincial University of Strasbourg, where he remained long enough to inaugurate a new history and founded the now-world-famous and influential journal Annales d'Histoire Economique et Sociale (Yearbook of economic and social history).

Emphatically and unmistakably pugilistic, Febvre assumed the position of avant-garde warrior bent upon transforming the horizon of historical practice—but, more importantly, he waged an exclusively nuanced, historiographically focused criticism of historical scholarship, hoping to extend both its purview and its capacity to lay open the epistemologically rich future that awaited historical studies. Bertrand Müller, a specialist in historiography and historical theory, brings an exceptionally deep knowledge to bear upon Febvre's life and work. Informed by a rich understanding of the Annales tradition, Müller frames Febvre's intellectual adventure within the greater concerns of what constitutes the richness of historiographical inquiry. Lucien Febvre, lecteur et critique constitutes a treasure trove of information and seasoned historiographical knowledge. The entire sweep of Febvre's intellect and interest is integrated with an equal respect for the larger issues inherent in Febvre's thinking. To accomplish this, Müller concentrates on Febvre's enormous corpus of reviews, for it is precisely in the reviewing process that one can savor the intellect at its penetratingly best. Unlike articles per se and monographs in general, reviews were seen as instrumental in the questioning and redefinition of scholarly perspectives and prerogatives. Unquestionably, reviews assumed the spearhead of a sophisticated phalanx, capable of assaulting without mercy or simply eviscerating a monograph's thesis. This usage of the reviewing process was designed, whether consciously or not, as a necessary realignment of historical...

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