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Lucien Febvre by George Huppert

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Volume IV, Number 3

On Lucien Febvre
by George Huppert

I have admired the writings of Lucien Febvre steadfastly, ever since I was a senior in college. That was in the late 1950s on the Berkeley campus. I still remember the particular afternoon when I came out of the sunshine into the university’s library and reached for the latest issue of Annales, E.S.C. The French journal, newly dressed up in its red and white cover, was just then achieving a degree of acceptance in the English-speaking world. Lucien Febvre, the guiding spirit of Annales, had died recently. I started reading his essays in earlier volumes of his journal, and I was soon hooked. I had stumbled upon my vocation. I would become a historian, the kind of historian Febvre imagined—had to imagine, because the kind of history he had in mind did not exist as yet. No doubt this was part of the attraction for the young poet manqué that I was: history was not quite what I had been taught it was. If one believed Lucien Febvre, it was something rare, very difficult, and supremely important. It was still in its infancy as a discipline: “l’histoire est à faire”—history has yet to be invented, said Ernest Labrousse, one of Febvre’s close collaborators.[1]

Actually, I thought Febvre had already come pretty close to inventing that new kind of history with the publication, way back in 1912, of his dissertation under the title of Philippe II et la Franche-Comté.[2] Hiding under the appearance of a dutiful academic exercise, the book was in reality a triumph of subversion. It was lively and interesting, its tone both lyrical and personal. At the same time, the narrative was founded on the most profound and wide-ranging erudition. To his exhaustive exploitation of the rich archival sources, the author added a vision so broad, so far removed from the ordinary, that I have always wondered how his thesis committee let it pass.

The conventional, Sorbonne-approved way of writing history was to produce a compilation of data presented in colorless clichés. At least this is how the young Febvre saw it. In later years he would not hesitate to excoriate the older generation of historians as “the losers of 1870,” unimaginative, defeated imitators of the German historiographical tradition. He went so far as to declare that he could not countenance the notion of scholarship for scholarship’s sake: “et disons: l’érudition pour l’érudition, jamais!”[3]

In his Philippe II, he was thumbing his nose at his mentors. The book was not really about Philip II. It was about the Franche-Comté, that odd province, French in language and institutions, but ruled in the name of a Spanish monarch.

The book is experimental in every way, especially in its ambition to create a total analysis of what the author referred to as “the interior life of a province.” He scoured this farther, mountainous Burgundy , this frontier region of exceptional strategic importance in the 16th century, from the depths of its geological formations to the expressions of its distinct folklore, neglecting nothing along the way, scrutinizing its dense economic activity and capturing both the immutable realities of soil and climate and the fast-moving social changes. Somehow he achieved a miracle: in spite of its encyclopedic scope, the book is full of real people speaking to us through their letters, diaries, and souvenir albums.

Already in the very first years of the 20th century, Febvre had found his distinct voice. It was attuned to the new sciences, the new music, the new art, the new ideas that circulated with such force in Paris on the eve of the great catastrophe of 1914. In Henri Berr’s Revue de Synthèse, the work of young intellectuals like Febvre could be found side by side with the newest work in sociology, psychology, or anthropology. The ideas of Marx and Freud were discussed there and all this was to make up what Febvre called his “âme de papier”—his paper soul, his reading, the influences that made him what he was.

An eclectic anarchist since his student days, he refused to adhere to any of the movements and ideologies that flourished all around him. He was able to dismiss Marxism, together with all other “isms,” as early as 1920, when, back from the war, he began teaching at the University of Strasbourg .[4] He claimed to despise the bourgeoisie, even though he was, after all, a sterling specimen of that particular species. He felt a deep kinship with the oppressed multitudes of Africa and Asia , who were free of the taint of the bourgeoisie (“ces peuples si peu bourgeois”).[5]

Febvre could count on a remarkable network of friends within and especially outside of the university world. With thei r h elp, he was able, together with his Strasbourg colleague, Marc Bloch, to found a new journal in 1929. I have had occasion to read through every page of Annales published from 1929 to 1939, in preparation for an essay commissioned by an Italian editor.[6] In those crisis years especially, Febvre vigorously reiterated his belief in a history that could serve the needs of the present. The ominous rumblings of colonial independence movements were in the background of a series of reports from Egypt , Morocco , and Tunisia . Mussolini’s successes, and, soon, Hitler’s, forced Febvre to look for someone who could explain the appeal of the new mass movements to the readers of Annales. Febvre reached the conviction, earlier than most, that the emergence of totalitarian movements, including the Soviet variety, was the most critical issue of his time. “Right next door to us,” he wrote, “a world has ended. A new world has taken its place.” To explain this development, new conceptual tools would have to be found, replacing obsolete theories, including Marxism: “the old keys do not turn in the new locks.”[7]

At this point, in the 1930s, Febvre found the ideal collaborator in Lucie Varga, as adventurous a spirit as he himself had been in his youth. Trained as a medieval historian, this young Viennese intellectual understood the new world that perplexed Febvre. She and he r h usband, Franz Borkenau, knew the Nazi world at first hand, and Borkenau, who had just broken with the Comintern, had operated inside the international Communist network. He was about to leave for Spain to observe the Civil War.

Lucie, meanwhile, prepared a series of articles for Annales. She reported on her ethnographic field work among Alpine villagers. She brought her experience as a student of medieval religious cults—as well as Freud, Marx, and Malinowski—to her analysis of the oral histories she collected with remarkable speed and aplomb. She set out to explain what it was that prompted young people to discard the worldview of their parish priests in favor of the gospel preached by the black- and brown-shirted purveyors of a different sort of salvation. Those essays are now easily accessible, both in French and in German, thanks to Peter Schöttler’s remarkable work.[8]

Since Febvre’s masterpiece, his 1912 study of Franche-Comté, has never been translated into English, and since this is the case with most of his writings, except for a fine popular life of Martin Luther and the better-known Religion of Rabelais, the time has come, it seems to me, to draw attention to Lucien Febvre’s persistent, lifelong, radical engagement in devising a new way of writing history. This is of particular interest to those of us who hope to rejuvenate historical scholarship and to stop historians from jumping aboard every ideological bandwagon heading for oblivion.

George Huppert , former president of the Historical Society, is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago . His Les Bourgeois Gentilshommes: An Essay on the Definition of Elites in Renaissance France (University of Chicago Press, 1977) has been translated into French and Italian.

[1] Cited in George Huppert, “The Annales Experiment,” in Michael Bentley, ed., Companion to Historiography (Routledge, 1997), 873-888.

[2] The original edition, complete with its enormous critical apparatus, was published by Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris , 1912. The 1970 paperback reprint in the series “Science de l’histoire,” Philippe II et la Franche Comté (Flammarion, 1970), omits the critical apparatus entirely.

[3] Cited in Huppert, “Annales Experiment,” 877, note 8.

[4]In his inaugural lecture at the University of Strasbourg , published in the Revue de Synthèse 30 (1920): 1-15.

[5]Writing in Annales E.S.C. (1948): 388.

[6] Huppert, “Storia e Scienze sociali: Bloch, Febvre e le prime Annales,”in Il Mondo Contemporaneo (La Nuova Italia, 1983), volume X, number 2, 734-750.

[7] See Peter Schöttler’s excellent monograph, Lucie Varga: les autorités invisibles (Les Editions du Cerf, 1991). Schöttler reprints Lucie Varga’s articles from Annales.

[8] For an introduction to Lucie Varga’s world, see my review essay in History and Theory 33 (1994): 220-230.

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