Annales d’histoire économique et sociale (1928—)

(The Annales School )

In 1929, a new journal called Annales d’historie economique et sociale appeared in France, featuring the work of a new generation of historians: Lucian Febvre, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, and Ernst Labrousse. Until the turn of the century, traditional history was built around the acts and facts of "great men", political and military personalities who became the stuff of legends: Alexander and Caesar, Gengis Khan, Louis XIV and Napoleon. These exceptional individuals defined the scale of history; their deaths signalled a change of era and also of books and authors. The movement was in search for “a larger and a more human history,” by its rejection of the predominant conceptions of writing history, namely:

  • a focus on political-military history
  • concentrated on the analysis of short periods
  • a narrative style of events
  • what they called a “stamp collecting” mentality in collecting facts and events

The Annales wanted to integrate insights and methodologies from anthropology, geography, sociology, economics and psychology. It was interested in longer timespans, the social history of everyday life, and “mentalites” (modes of consciousness). In essence, it was an analytical history which looked at economic and social history in a long-term perspective, departing from a traditional event-based historiography. These historians rebelled against traditional historians' obsession with wars and states, the “great” men of history, and looking at development as linear. Annales school historians examined phenomena and their underlying causes in depth with a particular attention to long stretches of time. Peter Burke has divided the movement in three phases or generations:

Phase 1 (1920-1945): the movement is very radical and subversive and strongly opposes the tradition of political history. [Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre]

Phase 2 (1945-1968): the movement becomes a school of thought, with its main concepts (structure-conjuncture) and method (serial history of changes over the long term). [Fernand Braudel, Ernst Labrousse]

Phase 3 (1968-1989): the school becomes more fragmented and shifts its concern from the socio-economic to the socio-cultural. [Ariel, Bourdieau, Goffman, etc.]


Marc Bloch (social psychology)
Bloch started with a study of what he called ‘collective illusions’. In The Royal Touch he looked at the belief that the king’s touch could cure people from diseases. He compared France and England on a long term scale and analysed how such collective illusions survived after the Middle Ages. His aim was to problematize the fact that people believed such improbable things for a prolonged period in time, and to point to possible causes of such a phenomenon. A survey of this kind could be regarded as a psychological history, and Bloch partly applies Durkheim’s ideas on collective beliefs and mentalities.

In 1931 Bloch published French Rural History. This work is important for the Annales school because it uses a regressive method (lire l’histoire à rebours). Bloch believed that it was better to proceed from the known to the unknown, hence he reads history “backwards”. His study on feudal society examines the culture of feudalism, its sense of time, forms of collective memory, and the structures of feeling and thought. Bloch here and elsewhere attacks the “idol” of origins arguing that historical phenomena ought to be explained in terms of their own time, rather than of earlier periods.

Febvre (linguistics, human geography)
In 1922, Lucien Febvre published La Terre et l'évolution humaine (translated as A Geographical Introduction to History, 1932). His work on religion is an example of a historical linguistics of the impossibility of atheism in the 16th century.


Ernst Labrousse (conjuncture and structure)
He was an economic historian who largely used quantitative methods. He also introduced the idea of conjuncture (which can be translated as “trend”), i.e., the connection between diverse yet simultaneous phenomena. Conjuncture came to be contrasted with the idea of structure, in the sense that conjuncture identified the short-medium term whereas structure concerned long-term.  Conjuncture and structure were however complementary to one another in Labrousse. He also adopted demographic models and mainly wrote regional history.

Fernand Braudel (methodological structuralism)
Braudel became a crucial figure of the Annales movement, and is reckoned by some to be the greatest historian of the 20th century and the father of modern historiography. His most famous work, Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II, made him an international reputation. The next generation of historical scholars were brought up to believe in the words of its preface: the old history of events was indeed dead, “the action of a few princes and rich men, the trivia of the past, bearing little relation to the slow and powerful march of history . . . those statesmen were, despite their illusions, more acted upon than actors.” Beneath human history, Braudel attempted to describe deeper unities and lengthy rhythms of material life relating to the geographical environment and the structures that shape societies such as technology, trading, sailing routes, and mentalities.

In their place Braudel offered not “the traditional geographical introduction to history that often figures to so little purpose at the beginning of so many books, with its description of the mineral deposits, types of agriculture and typical flora, briefly listed and never mentioned again, as if the flowers did not come back every spring, the flocks of sheep migrate every year, or the ships sail on a real sea that changes with the seasons,” but a whole new way of looking at the past, in which the historian re-created a lost reality through a feat of historical imagination based on detailed knowledge of the habits and techniques of the ploughman, the shepherd, the potter, and the weaver, the skills of the vintage and the olive press, the milling of corn, the keeping of records of bills of lading, tides and winds. It began to seem as important for a historian to be able to ride a horse or sail a ship as to sit in a library. Only the third section of Braudel's book returned to the events of history which are merely “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.” According to Braudel, historical time is divided into three forms of movement:

  1. geographical time
  2. social time
  3. individual time

But beyond all these froms of movement, the past was really a unity: “history can do more than study walled gardens”—this was the ultimate expression of the intellectual ambitions of the Annales school.

Braudel also demonstrated that history does not exist independently of the historian's gaze. As in all knowledge, the historian intervenes at every stage in the making of history; indeed history per se does not exist. All that exists was past phenomena submerged under the cloak of all-consuming time. Braudel introduces the social sciences (esp. geography, political economics and sociology) to history.

In Mediterranée, Braudel is interested first and foremost in the environment in which the peoples of the Mediterranean basin used to live: the mountains and the plains, the sea and the rivers, the roads and the towns. He combines the almost fixed rhythm of “geographic time” with the rapid rhythm of “individual time” and the movement of peoples and their ideas. Mediterranée, is divided in three parts. The first part is in fact a geohistory and a history of the environment. In the second part, he looks at the general trends of the mediterranean people, writing a kind of history of structures, the economic, the geographical, the technological, etc. In part 3, Braudel is concerned with undermining the history of events. He poses individuals and events in such a broad context, that they become fundamentally unimport. The longue durée cannot serve as the loci for any individual subject. In so doing, he tries to demonstrate that a history of events can only provide a superficial reading of society’s development (cf. Foucault's decentering of the human subject). The most relevant factors are actually the slowly altering material conditions (e.g., geography, climate). Within the context of human history Braudel emphasises two themes: 1) technology and 2) exchange.

1) Human history is a history of technological mastery and the development of the skills basic to ancient civilisation: fire and water technology, pottery, weaving, metalworking, seafaring and finally writing. This emphasis on the physical realities of early civilizations brings out the actual quality of life with a vividness that no amount of reading other books can achieve;

2) As to the importance of exchange, especially long-distance exchange: “Our sea was from the very dawn of its protohistory a witness to those imbalances productive of exchange which would set the rhythm of its entire life.” It is imbalance that creates exchange and therefore leads to progress. These two ideas, first formulated in The Mediterranean, and subsequently explored in depth in for the preindustrial world in Civilization and Capitalism, are applied in the Memory and the Mediterranean to the ancient Mediterranean with great effect.

In Civilisation materielle et capitalisme, Braudel divides his object of study into:

  1. material civilization (where production takes place, immobile).
  2. economic life (the place of trade and distribution).
  3. capitalist mechanism (the realm of consumption, where change is more rapid).

Here again in the first part, “The structures of everyday life”, he takes a global and long-term approach. His concern is with what sustains life as a whole, as well as habit. There is no reference to symbolic structures, nor to the history of meaning. The second, “Wheels of commerce” is about the market economy and the ways it co-existed with the non-market economy in early modernity. In the third part, Perspective of the world”,  he takes a systemic approach which is heavily influenced by the world-system theory of Wallerstein. Braudel introduced crucial concepts to the school and helped linking it to the currents in anthropology and linguistics in vogue at the time. Braudel was dismissive of two important tools of the Annales school, viz. quantitative history and the history of mentalities. His method was primarily structuralist.

Memory and the Mediterranean begins with the history of the Mediterranean seabed itself—the layers of clay, sand, and limestone from which the Egyptians carved their tombs and built their temples. What follows is the epic story of how the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, the Greeks and Romans, and the great river civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt struggled and thrived in this demanding but gloriously beautiful world bordered and shaped by the Mediterranean.

Braudel’s main contribution lies in his insistence on writing total histories: “Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life.” Unlike Febvre and Bloch, Braudel says very little about the history of mentalities. His main priority was to show that time moves at different speeds, and he divides time into geographical, social, and individual. He also examines long stretches of time, introducing into historiography the notion of la longue durée.

Lucien Febvre died in 1956, and Braudel inherited the direction of both the VIe section de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études and the journal Annales. He fostered one of the most extraordinary collections of talent in the 20th century through his appointments including Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Maurice Aymard; the philosophers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault; the psychologists Jacques Lacan and Georges Devereux; the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu; the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; and the classical scholars Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Braudel worked hard to create a separate institution or building where all his colleagues could work together, and where a succession of foreign visitors could be invited as associate professors; this idea, begun about 1958, did not achieve physical shape until the opening of the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in 1970.


The new Annales history of the 1960’s turned away from the factual/quantitative economic and descriptive social history, and reaffirmed the Durkheimian idea of the “history of mentalities.” It held that the historical world was created out of perceptions, not out of events, and we needed to recognise that the whole of history was a construct of human impressions.

Roman Jakobson transmitted the linguistic theory of Saussure to Lévi-Strauss. This led to structural anthropology which influenced the later Annales School. The third generation reasserted the anthropological realm, especially through cultural anthropology, to reemphasize politics proper, and to return to history as narrative. Bourdieau for instance replaced the notion of social rules with that of habit and strategy. Other studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s ceased to question the causal relationship between events and structures and opted for an understanding of them as mutually reflecting.

Braudel's reply to this development was his last great projected work, The Identity of France, three volumes of which were published before his death, including sections on geography, demography and economy. Braudel took the view that the peasant was the key to the history of France, and a true history of mentalities could only be written in the longue durée and from a long perspective.