Natalie Zemon Davis
President of the Association, 1987
A paper read at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, December 28, 1987. Published in the American Historical Review 93, no. 1 (Feb., 1988), pp. 1-30.
History's Two Bodies
Historians will catch in my title a reworking of The King’s Two Bodies, the title given by Ernst Kantorowicz to his great study in medieval and Renaissance political theology. Kantorowicz’s curiosity had been aroused by Frederic Maitland’s essays on the English “corporation sole”: how intriguing it was that sixteenth-century lawyers had invented a corporation with just one person in it and had talked of the king as having “ a body natural and a body politic together . . . in one person,” the one “subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident,” the other “utterly void of Infancy, and old Age.” Deepened by Kantorowicz’s exploration of the long Christian past behind this “mystic fiction” and by more recent scholarship on royal funerals and other ceremonial, the concept of the king’s two bodies generates questions about power and about succession. How is the tension maintained between the decisions and acts of the ruler’s natural body and his eternal body politic? How does the natural king envisage political continuity after his death, and how is the transition to his successor realized? How are these processes affected not only by changing historical contexts but by the circumstance of the ruler’s person—if, for instance, the ruler is from a new royal house or the ruler is a queen?1
The categories of the king’s two bodies have been so fruitful for analyzing the responsibilities and potentialities of office that historians have gone on to apply them to non-dynastic cases, such as the Catholic papacy and the American presidency.2 I would like to extend them even further to the case of a scholarly field, our field of history, and democratize them beyond the persons of mere officers to ordinary practitioners. Kantorowicz himself prepared the way for such a leap when he talked about Vergil crowning Dante with the eternal dignity of Humanitas;3 if “Man” can have two bodies, at least, in thought, why can’t History? I want to consider how historians have conceptualized the body of historical knowledge and have placed their own life’s work within it. I want to see how they maintained the rightful tension within their bosoms between the field that endures and their own brief embodiment of its claims, a tension usually expressed in relation to other historians, past, present, and future.4 Several issues can be in play here: property, reputation, riches, politics, sometimes prophecy, sometimes reform. When we debate what the subjects and methods of history should be, we are usually debating at the same time what the shape of the historical community should be and where we stand in it. So let us consider how history’s two bodies were mediated by five historians in different settings, one from the sixteenth century, two from the eighteenth century, and two from the twentieth century.
Outside the area of law, of the Corpus juris civilis and the Corpus juris canonicus sixteenth-century scholars rarely employed the word “body” to refer to all the existing findings and texts in a given field. The French royal historiographer felt somewhat experimental in 1587 when, after talking of the body politic, he said that he was “reducing” many chronicles and annals into a universal history “as in one body or harmony.” The wider usage of the “body of knowledge” would await the republic of letters of the eighteenth century; in the meanwhile, Renaissance historians who wanted to write about the state of their subject entitled their books, as did Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History or, as did La Popeliniere, L’Histoire des Histoires.5 History was a “discipline” but not one taught as such in the schools. The books in history’s “treasure house” did not have listeners (“discipuli”) in a classroom or become printed university textbooks but had readers in the wider world.6 History was an “art”—not one of the seven arts that made up the Trivium and Quadrivium, but, like poetry, drama, and song, one of the nine arts to which the Greek world had given a Muse.
These goddesses, after a shadowy existence during the medieval period, burst forth with Apollo at Parnassus in Renaissance dictionaries and images to preside over the high disciplines where intelligence, memory, and inspiration were required. The graceful Muse embodied eternally in her female form the arts that men practiced. They could not be the Muse; she favored them from without and represented their activities and the qualities to which they must aspire. Clio, with her trumpet and laurel, sang of glorious deeds and events of the past and promised renown to the historians themselves. She also had her instruments of work: her books, pen, and tablet. In Hendrik Goltzius’engraving of 1592, Clio looks down at what she has written with a faint smile, perhaps ironic, certainly detached. From this picture, it is only a short step to some Renaissance representations of History as a winged woman writing, her white garb signifying that she bears witness to truth as well as to renown.7
Etienne Pasquier did not represent himself with laurel in the portrait of the author that accompanied the edition of his historical studies in 1607, Les Recherches de la France ; the face that peers out at us is capped by his proper lawyer’s bonnet. Even in his poetic works, he distanced himself from the “fury” of a Tasso and told readers he did not much care how his poems fared in the risky course of immortality. So, too, years before in publishing Book I of his Recherches, he said it was most often the “chance of the moment, like a blind person playing cards” that determined the rewards won by a book, not its actual value.8 Nonetheless, credit was important to Pasquier, if not renown, and credit in connection with just those issues raised by the pioneering features of his Recherches.
For Pasquier, history was in no state to be “reduced to one body or harmony” (as in the royal historiographer’s Bibliotheque historiale) or to be organized into a comprehensive philosophy about climate and ethnic character (as in Bodin’s Method ).9 The historical sources themselves were what needed attention, no longer to be accepted at face value but to be judged by internal and external evidence and understood in terms of the period in which they were produced. As legal humanists were taking apart the laws in the Corpus juris civilis to get at their original meaning, so he would sift the claims of past historians and authors, both those that “by the long passage of time have insinuated themselves among us and are reputed to be true” and those that were challenged on every side. What real evidence was there for the Trojan origin of the Franks or, indeed for the ancient beginnings of any nation? How to assess the differing theories about the origins of fiefs: Roman? Gallic? Frankish? an overlay of different institutions?
Pasquier argued that one had to learn to read known texts for their contradictions and silences and to find new texts close to the events “as guarantees.” On gypsies and on tennis games in the fifteenth century, Pasquier could quote from “an old journal, fallen into my hands, written on paper by a Paris Theologian, who was careful to collect all the things he saw”; on Jeanne d’Arc, he could cite not only copies of her trial in two libraries but the original record itself, with all its seals and signatures, in his possession for four whole years.10 The resulting Recherches were not organized in a single chronological narrative but in Books, each held together by a common theme—political, ecclesiastical, literary, or cultural. Like Montaigne with his Essais , Pasquier kept revising and adding to them after his first edition of 1560, a project continuously in motion over the years.11
How strong did Pasquier make his own claims to truth? Was History incarnate in the disjoint Books of the Recherches ? His tone varied from the absolute certitude with which he condemned the Jesuits and their cabals against the Gallican church (“I [write thus] not for hate vowed against them . . . but for the love I bear my country”) to the balanced weighing of the probabilities for competing interpretations with good “guarantees” behind them. At his most vehement, Pasquier could still stand back and reflect upon himself: for instance, he knew he sounded as if he were praising “our old Gauls” too much, but he did not mind so long as everything he said “conformed to the truth” and shook up accepted views.12
But Pasquier had a grievance against certain historians of his day. It stemmed from his efforts to redefine his relations to authors and sources from the past. He cited and quoted them at length in French translation or in Latin and French both—at length, not by our standards but by those of sixteenth-century readers of history books. Some found this practice lacking in grace: “They said that most of those who have taught us to write history simply distilled from antiquity all they wished to communicate to people, without amusing themselves with such confirmation, which was more in keeping with the shadow of the School Room than with the light of History. Time refines works like gold: what today lacks some credence will tomorrow authorize itself, as has happened with the writings of ancient historians.” Others thought it a wise policy to confirm little-known antiquities by quotations, but was not Pasquier carrying it to “superstitious excess”?13
Pasquier was aware of the costs of quotation. For one, it left the writer vulnerable to challenge by readers: letting them know the sources and the basis of your reasoning gave them room to argue another view. This discomfort the author of the Recherches was willing to put up with. What bothered him was that fellow historians were taking the documents he had laboriously discovered and published in the first two Books of the Recherches—about the origins of parlements and of royal offices, for example—and using them as if they were their own finds. When reproached, they replied that “ancient books belonged to them as much as to me, forgetting . . . that, when gold has been purified from a mine, it is much easier to put to use.” He had no ill-will against those who acknowledged his enterprise, so he wrote to his friend Pierre Pithou, but those who were silent about him had committed “true theft” (“un vray larcin”). To prevent further theft, Pasquier withheld the rest of his Recherches from the printers for decades, allowing only trusted friends to see the growing manuscript. Meanwhile, he told the world his complaint by publishing his letter to Pithou, along with another one exposing the antics of self-styled “authors” who use the printing press to copy, abbreviate, or patch together the work of others and put their own names on the cover.14
And then he changed his mind. In 1596, after thirty years and in a time of new hope that followed the end of the Wars of Religion, Pasquier ordered the printing of a fresh edition of the Recherches , many times its former size, to be followed by an even larger one a decade later. He had rethought his sense of property in his historical findings. An old man of seventy-eight, he informed his readers that people had followed in his footsteps and used his material. To those who “had him done the honor to recognize it came from him, he gave it willingly and wanted it to be thought that it belonged to them, as if it were part of their own estate” (“de leur tréfonds”). As for those who, out of “ungrateful ambition, borrowed from him, even transcribing whole phrases word for word without accounting it,” he pardoned them, for, no matter how much they took, he had much left for his private delight. Besides, “I am writing only for my France, not for myself.” May my gift bring France profit and delight.15
In a century when the joys and risks of printing were more and more apparent, Pasquier decided his independent labor had created a text in which he had property rights; he was willing to let others appropriate his work so long as they gave him credit for it but would rather limit its use than let it go to thieves. Once he had redefined his Recherches as a labor of delight, done for the higher cause of “our France,” he could give it away without too many pangs, even to the ungrateful. Some 160 years later, in 1764, two British historians were politely and formally corresponding about their strong differences over the interpretation of events in seventeenth-century England. By now, David Hume had published the final volumes of his History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, while Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay had just brought out the first volume of her History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line and had sent a copy to the Scottish philosopher-historian with her compliments.16 He thanked her for “the agreeable present,” noted with some irony how often he seemed to be at issue in her narration, and remarked, “I flatter myself that we differ less in facts, than in our interpretation and construction of them.” They disagreed, he said, “in some original principles,” and went on to state his in a way that could only confirm Macaulay’s belief in his Tory partiality: all forms of government, from monarchy to democracy, were “equally legal if established by custom and authority” and that meant there were “obligations to obedience and allegiance” toward the lawful monarchies of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I. Macaulay was indeed a noble defender of liberty, but the seventeenth-century “partizans of that cause ... disgraced it by their violence, and also by their cant, hypocrisy and bigotry.”17
Macaulay’s answer, while expressing “all imaginable esteem for so great an ornament to the republic of letters,” spelled out their divergence in a way that must have read to Hume like more “senseless clamour” from the Whigs. “Your position that all governments established by custom and authority carry with them obligations to submission and allegiance does, I am afraid, involve all reformers in unavoidable guilt, since opposition to established error must needs be opposition to authority. . . . I think the arbitrary princes of the Stuart line took an effectual way to secure themselves from female opposers, since cropping off ears close to the head, slitting of noses, and branding of foreheads must needs be as formidable to women as Caesar’s attack on the face was to the Roman petit-maîtres.”18
Hume and Macaulay were to differ in their views about the English revolutions and the crown until the end of their lives, but in several ways their careers as historians resemble each other.19 Neither practiced their historian’s art within the university walls: true, the University of Edinburgh had just instituted its first chair in history as Hume began his student years there in 1723, but when he applied for a professorship twenty years later (in philosophy, not history), he was refused for suspicion of “Heresy,” “Skepticism,” and “Atheism.” As for Macaulay, women were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, which she dismissed in return as mere “seminaries,” where “the study of history is little cultivated.”20
History was still primarily a literary rather than an academic discipline and one which the flourishing business of printing and the expansion of readers’ markets could make into a profitable venture. Hume’s History of England, after poor sales for the first volume, had enormous and enduring success within a decade: as he phrased it, “the copy-money given me by the booksellers much exceeded any thing formerly known in England; I was become not only independent, but opulent.”21 Macaulay’s History of England did very well from the start, accorded a reception, in the words of one review, “not less flattering to the ambition, than satisfactory to the interest of the writer.” Booksellers vied to publish the volumes that she wrote between 1763 and 1771, and, although the response toi later volumes was cooler, in the early years of the revolution her History went into French, just as Hume’s had three decades before.22
Both Hume and Macaulay had been touched by the “frenzy of renown” (to use Leo Braudy’s apt phrase) in a century in which market sales and literary criticism were effacing the historic role of the patron.23 The European Magazine said in 1783 that Macaulay had “experienced more of the extremes of adulation and obloquy than any one of her own sex in the literary world.” Hume lived in the same see-saw climate. For Macaulay, the obloquy was associated perhaps with her radical political tracts but certainly with her second marriage in 1778 to a man twenty-seven years her junior: she was greeted with a charivari of pamphlets and remarks.24 For Hume, the wrath was especially directed against the alleged godlessness of his philosophical writings and was spread over decades; at his very end, zealots were claiming he lied when he reported tranquillity in the face of death.25 The question is how, in the theater of history publication, with its own back and forth between fame, obscurity, and abuse, Hume and Macaulay constructed their relation to Clio.
Hume approached history with skepticism: “The study of history confirms the reasoning of true philosophy.”26 Past events, known with at least middle-level certainty, were needed as evidence for political and moral principles. And what an opportunity history offered for developing critical methods! One could take, for example, the opinion of a Mr. Carte that Perkin Warbeck was a true Plantaganet rather than a royal impostor in the late fifteenth century and refute it by rigorously evaluated testimony.27 Of course, Hume ultimately had to admit that his own prior views influenced his interpretation of the evidence, if only as he changed his mind and altered what he had said in early editions. He had initially prided himself on the impartiality of his History, uninfluenced by “present power, interest, authority, and the cry of popular prejudices,” but, rereading his historical authors, he realized that his criticism of James I and Charles I for levying taxes without consent of Parliament smacked of “Whig Rancour.” He went through his text making, so he said, “above a hundred alterations . . . all of them invariably to the Tory side.” At least he did this while the Whigs were in power, so he could not be accused of seeking patronage or place.28
Macaulay approached history with belief, religious and especially political—indeed, Caroline Robbins has shown her to be an important figure in republican circles in the reign of George III.29 A righteous God had planned a world of ultimate human perfectability through the use of reason. Macaulay took up her pen to defend “the cause of liberty” against those who, out of neglect, party prejudice, or selfish ambition, had falsified the past and insulted the memory of the illustrious resisters of Stuart tyranny.30 The historian served liberty by digesting “voluminous collections” and giving the public a “true and accurate report of their sense.” It was in gathering sources, rather than in a critical assessment of authors, that Macaulay saw her rightful labor: she intended to provide a “just information of facts,” “uncontrovertible argument, founded on fact.” Her footnotes contain references to manuscripts and tracts in the British Museum, to which Hume, reading mostly in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, came late, if at all.31
Although Macaulay did not share Hume’s worry about deciding what a fact was, she did care as he did about being “impartial” and “disinterested,” that is, not yielding to party spirit in interpreting events and characters. Her treatment of Charles I was, she thought, a case in point. She had made convincing and justifiable the reasons of those who put him to death yet had tried “to do justice to that part of his conduct which [she] thought truly great.” And then, echoing a phrase of Hume, she wrote, “I shed many tears whilst I was writing his catastrophe.”32
Skeptic and believer—how did Hume and Macaulay respond to other historians, to rivals, or to those with whom they disagreed? Hume’s reactions were a combination of sarcasm, jealousy, and good sportsmanship—ultimately allowing a relatively unimpeded flow of history books as his friend Adam Smith wanted a relatively unimpeded flow of commodities.33 Hume characterized John Dalrymple’s Memoirs of Great Britain in letters to his publisher as “ranting, bouncing,” full of “Antitheses and Rant and Whiggery”; since the publisher had paid Dalrymple so much for the Memoirs, he would have to pay “the equivalent of a parliamentary Subsidy” to get another history volume from him, Hume.34 As for William Robertson’s History of Scotland, Hume found the work of “uncommon Merit” and helped its author demand a high price from the publisher, to whom he also wrote, “it will be an Amusement to the Reader to compare our Method of treating the same Subject.” He praised the book wherever he went, dealing with his envy when Robertson’s History did much better than his own latest volume by defining him as a friend and protégé and by periodic teasing: I saw a pound of raisins wrapped up by a grocer in “a leaf of your History,” he wrote Robertson, or “Here I sit near the historical summit of Parnassus . . . and you have the impudence to squeeze yourself by me.”35
And what of Hume on Macaulay? He was better prepared than most to have a woman for a serious rival. Had he not said in an early essay that “there is nothing which I would recommend more earnestly to my female readers than the study of history”? Had he not already found the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu “a lady of great distinction”?36 Thus, when Macaulay sent him her first volume, he could close his letter to her in 1764 “expressing my great esteem of your history” and then could find himself troubled by her success. As one observer wrote: “Nothing ever gave Hume more real Vexation than the Strictures made upon his History in the House of Lords by the great Lord Chatham [William Pitt]. They were indeed carried to an extraordinary length when Mrs. McCauly, as an Historian was preferred to him, and her constitutional Writings, were declared to be the only Antidote to his Poison.”37 Hume published no answer to her writings, for he had long before determined never to answer anyone in print. Instead, he wondered to his publisher about the high sales of her History despite its “Whiggery”; he commented with some satisfaction to Robertson that “the Sanhedrim at Mrs. Macaulay’s condemns you as little less a friend to government and monarchy than myself”; he noted, not long before his death in 1776, that “her Muse now seems to be mute.”38
In fact, Macaulay’s Muse was not silenced—she had recently published two political tracts—and before long, new volumes of her History appeared, in which she again played herself off against Hume.39 Macaulay’s public reactions to him and to other historians with whom she disagreed were efforts at transcendence, that is, efforts to stand above private rivalry and speak only of history’s higher goals. (Indeed, the private was a dangerous arena for her: she knew what happened “when personal invective supplies the place of argument, and the reputation of authors are attacked in order to decry their works.”40) In a preface published in 1781, with Hume in his grave for several years, she gave her assessment. Hume was a man of “genius and profound sagacity,” who could have stood “at the head of all our historians.” But, either because he feared the enemies he would rouse if he wrote an impartial history or because, as she thought more likely, of the “prejudices he had entertained,” his history, “whilst it serves as an elegant pastime for the hours of leisure or idleness, leaves the reader perfectly ignorant as to characters, motives and often facts.” His work was enjoying “an unrivalled popularity,” with dire consequences for the principles of the revolution and the public cause.41 Yet was this really her final image of Hume? How else did the polite exchange of 1764, memorializing a mutual esteem between her and the philosopher-historian, get published in a 1783 journal if not by her hand?
When it came to their own fame and renown, Hume and Macaulay pictured themselves and their presence in their historical writings rather differently. Hume was very frank about his desire for renown, never felt it was compromised by his simultaneous desire for income from his publications, and relativized both appetites by light self-mockery. He could joke with Robertson about being crowded at Parnassus and insist that the fight between their history books would make less brouhaha than a current boxing match. When beseeched by his publisher to do a final volume for his History (“it is the only thing wanting to fill up the Measure of your Glory as the Great Historian and Philosopher of the Eighteenth Century”), he could decline, “I’m too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich.”42 Similarly, he resisted for some time his publisher’s urging that the History include his portrait: “a superfluous expense,” he thought, the money better spent on print and paper. When the portrait finally appeared in the 1770 edition—eighteen years after the first volume—it had few traditional symbols of renown but just two books, marked History and Philosophy, and two quills.43
Not long before Hume died, he recorded his sentiments about reputation in a brief autobiographical text— My Own Life —which he wanted appended to all future editions of his works.44 A self-portrait worthy of the author of the Treatise of Human Nature, it presents Hume as seized early on “with a passion for literature,” which shifts to “my love of literary fame, my ruling passion.” But the narrative is mostly made up of disappointments and mortifications: books “deadborn from the press,” fallen, ignored. The first volume of the History “sinks into oblivion” after an initial outcry of indignation. The second does better, but the third is greeted with hostile “clamour,” the reign of Elizabeth being found “particularly obnoxious.” Hume refuses to be discouraged and the story moderates into some success, as he finds he is making money from his books. He ends asking the reader to decide if his vanity is misplaced.45 My Own Life is one of Hume’s most characteristic performances: his posthumous reputation is assured each time a reader picks up an edition (and his publisher added laurel to the portrait), but that edition will always carry with it his ironic tale about the love of Fame.
Catharine Macaulay presented her desire for reputation as undiluted by hope for material gain and as wholly given over to the cause of liberty. Her first volume included verses taken from the Scotsman James Thomson, in which the poet says his Muse must serve the Goddess of Liberty. Should she sell her work (Thomson had written “song,” Macaulay changed it to “WORK”) to Liberty’s foes, may it sink into oblivion.46 When Macaulay’s volume is then given “favorable reception,” she tells readers she is grateful on behalf of the “friends of Liberty.” That she drove a hard bargain with her publishers and lived with some extravagance led one of those radical friends—the eminent Thomas Hollis—to comment privately, “It would be a sad case to write of Liberty . . . at a price.” But Hollis respected her enough to help her plan a frontispiece for her third volume in 1767, associating her renown with republicanism. She is depicted in elegant Roman profile as Libertas, a replica of an ancient Roman coin in honor of the revolutionary Lucius Junius Brutus, and framed by a Roman victor’s wreath of oak leaves. Underneath her portrait is the reverse of the coin, showing Brutus’s own sons being led off to execution because they conspired with the deposed king, Tarquin.47
A dozen years later, another portrait of Macaulay appeared, more daring in its representation of her relation to her subject. The frontispiece to her volume about the eighteenth century, The History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time in a Series of Letters to a Friend, it depicts her standing erect against a classical landscape. Next to her, a stone is engraved with worthy sentiments: “Government a power delegated for the happiness of mankind, conducted by wisdom, justice, and mercy.” Her hand holds her quill; her elbow rests on the five existing volumes of her History of England.48 She is Clio, her own muse; she is Liberty; she is Catharine Macaulay. These elisions, which have important precedents in self-representation by artistic and literary women,49 have a double potentiality. On the one hand, they can obscure the tension between the living historian and the eternal body of history, making her prophetic or indignant rather than self-correcting. On the other, they can internalize that tension in a creative way, reminding the historian of a transcendent task and personal responsibility. Catharine Macaulay practiced sometimes one mode, sometimes the other.
On the stage of eighteenth-century historical production, Hume and Macaulay each helped relieve “the frenzy of renown,” Hume by showing its roots in the passions and laughing at its vicissitudes, Macaulay by insisting it be linked to a high goal beyond the self.
Let us move forward once again 160 years. We are in the familiar landscape of history as a university subject, of history as a profession, of history journals, learned societies, and the rest. We are going to pause in the 1930s, when Marc Bloch esd publishing reviews of the work of Eileen Power in the journal he edited with Lucien Febvre, the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale . As always with his reviews, Bloch used them to talk about the general shape of historical endeavor and where it might go. In 1933, a new volume of the Cambridge Medieval History was at issue, along with other recent works of a synthetic nature. Bloch remarked that the Annales , with its stress on comparative history, was not going to complain about “a taste for large horizons,” but he hoped that good national histories, which were essential for comparison, would not be lost sight of along the way. Eileen Power’s chapter, “Peasant Life and Rural Conditions (c. 1100 to c. 1500),” he found “solid and elegantly presented,” but, “constructed rather like a great painting, it perhaps does not do sufficient justice either to the great transformations common to all of the West or to regional contrasts.”50
In 1934, it was the turn of Studies in English Trade in the Fifteenth Century, edited by Power and Michael Postan. Here Bloch had no reservations. He liked the fact that the volume emerged from the collective endeavor of a London seminar and wished that the organization of higher education in France allowed scholars to work in similar groupings. He liked the way the customs accounts had been put to use to give a precise and wholly new picture of the character of the exchange economy. He thought Power’s essay on “The Wool Trade” and Sylvia Thrupp’s on “The Grocers of London” provided a remarkable portrait of the local structure of economic life at the end of the Middle Ages.51
From the other side of the Channel came a similar response to Bloch. Power was on the editorial hoard of the Economic History Review, in whose pages R. H. Tawney marveled at Bloch’s new book, Les Caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française, at its combination of “mastery of specialist research with the ability . . . to elucidate the significant problems of agrarian history.” By 1936, Bloch was collaborating with the Review, sending over bibliographies on the economic history of France, and, not long after that, Power helped arrange his Cambridge lectures on feudalism and won Bloch’s cooperation for the new Cambridge Economic History of Europe. When the first volume appeared in 1941, Eileen Power was dead, snatched away the year before at fifty-one, but, despite the war, Bloch’s chapter titled “The Rise of Dependent Cultivation and Seigniorial Institutions” had reached her hands in time, as had an essay on English villages by American historian Nellie Neilson. When the second volume came out after the war, Bloch, of course, was also gone, but, as Postan said, “His last letter to the editors, sent through clandestine channels a few months before he was shot by the Gestapo, contained enquiries and suggestions about [the project].”52
It is these two figures, Marc Bloch and Eileen Power, who make up my last pair, to be looked at as they moved through their careers and staked their positions within their discipline. Since both were innovators and reformers, the issue of historical succession is a central one: how did they relate to their teachers, against whom they may have rebelled? whom did they define as co-reformers? what kind of heirs did they expect?
Descendant of an old Jewish family from Alsace and Lorraine, son of a professor of Roman history at Lyon and Paris, Marc Bloch was no newcomer to the university world. He studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and heard Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos, those eminent figures, lecture on history as a science of documentary criticism and classification of social facts; he studied at Leipzig and heard Karl Bücher talk about the distinctive characteristics of primitive economies.53 After this, it was research in Paris for his thesis, lycée teaching, war service, and then Bloch was given a post at the Faculty of Arts at Strasbourg, where he forged the friendship with Lucien Febvre that was given expression in 1929 in their new journal, the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale. Rejected in his candidacy at the Collège de France—due to anti-Semitism, so Bloch always believed—he was in 1936 named professor of economic history at the Sorbonne, the institution from which his father had retired years before.54
Eileen Power was the first in her family to be part of the university world.55 Her mother died when she was young, her father was cut off from the family much of the time, and she was the responsible oldest of three sisters. Educated at Girton College Cambridge during the years when new stress was being placed on advanced research, she received a first class in her historical examinations in 1910 and went off to Paris for a year at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Chartes, including study with Charles-Victor Langlols. After two years on a research scholarship at the London School of Economics, she was back at Girton as director of historical studies from 1913 to 1920. Her mentor at Cambridge during those years was George Gordon Coulton of St. John’s College, that energetic gatherer of data about medieval life, religion, and customs, who thought “clearer facts” and the denunciation of error the historian’s main charge. It was for his series, the Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, that she prepared her great economic and social monograph, Medieval English Nunneries.56
Her manuscript on the nuns finished, she had an adventure that had as much impact on her thought as Bloch’s experience in World War I had on his, and more impact on her career. She spent a year in 1920–1921 on a traveling fellowship in India, Burma, China, and Java. In India, she had a shock of recognition: here was the medieval society in all its complexity that she had been studying for the past twelve years. In Java, she began to see how a dance or puppet show could compress within it a whole cultural style and how old and new historical forms lived in tension. China, to which her heart was “irrevocably given,” was striking for its imperviousness to economic change (although its farmers, she said, were “the most skilled in the world”) and the rationality of its intellectual life.57
She returned with a deepened sense of what civilizations are and how to describe them, and with a commitment to comparison as a historical tool. She resigned her post at the women’s college, accepted a lectureship at the London School of Economics, an institution with both men and women on its staff and as its students since its beginnings, and became a close collaborator of one of the School’s new readers, R. H. Tawney.58 In the next two decades, as lecturer and then professor of history at the School; as leader with Postan of a celebrated economic history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London; as secretary of the new Economic History Society; as author, reviewer, and editor; and as Ford’s lecturer in English history at Oxford (“the only woman so far to hold that position,” Tawney reminded people), Eileen Power was one of the creators of a new kind of social and economic history in England.59
The historical practice that Bloch and Power wished to inspire was in many ways alike, in a few ways different.60 To begin with, they had similar targets to attack: both were critical of a rural history that confined itself to establishing authentic charters and grants, describing the legal relations between lord and serf, and adding a bit of local color, rather than moving on to agriculture, estate management, rural trade, social domination, and peasant communities. Both thought history must be comparative if it was to have any hope for establishing causes, repeatable connections, and modifying conditions. For Bloch, comparison undermined our assumptions about what was “natural,” for Power, about what was socially “habitual.” Both thought the past and the present should be in constant exchange, generating questions for historians and perspectives, if not judgments, on the contemporary world. Both thought history needed strong interdisciplinary connections to offer new source material, or relevant factors (like climate and soil), or modes of interpretation with which historians were not familiar. Power’s links were especially with the economists and sociologists at the London School of Economics; she hoped that in return historians could furnish evidence that, combined with theirs, might lead “to the establishment of laws of social behavior.” Bloch’s interdisciplinary links were informal rather than institutional and stretched beyond hers to matters of language and ritual; since history for him was, rather, “a science of change, of differences,” it suggested possibilities, not laws.61
Here we come to a final contrast in their hopes for renewal. If both wanted to tell the history of social groups, Power’s aims extended to the history of one group that Bloch never considered: the women of different social estates, who had interested her since her first research days at the London School of Economics. Moreover, Power was concerned (as Febvre was to be as well) about a social history that seemed too abstract, vague, and general. Her solution was Medieval People— a book in which the richly documented cast of characters, men and women both, mediate between Max Weber’s ideal types and G. G. Coulton’s everyday peasants.62
With these programs for change, how did Bloch and Power deal with their own teachers and with those who would come after them? To one group of forebears Bloch felt easily akin. His thesis, Rois et serfs, he dedicated to his father: “A mon père, son élève.” Old Gustave Bloch, at seventy-two, was then finishing his last book, a study of the Roman empire. But, in the acknowledgments to Rois et serfs, a second name emerges, Christian Pfister, which, Bloch remarked, “would have been inscribed at the opening of these pages if . . . I had not felt I should dedicate my thesis to another of my masters who has been teaching me for an even longer time.” Pfister was his professor at Paris and then his dean at Strasbourg: “How much I owe to his advice, to his inexhaustible goodness, and to his method and precision.” When Pfister died some years later, Bloch once again placed him in the status of a father—Pfister and Gustave Bloch had taught courses in the same ill-lighted Paris classroom—adding that Pfister was one of those who had the right to have inscribed on his tomb “Veritatem dilexi” (“I loved the truth”), the very phrase that Bloch wished in 1941 might be engraved on his own (“Veritatem dilexit,” “He loved the truth”).63
This doubling of historical collaboration and family ties occurs elsewhere. Les Rois thaumaturges of 1923 had no dedication—perhaps Bloch thought a book on the royal touch for scrofula would not make a good gift—but his two prefaces acknowledged, first, the contributions of Lucien Febvre and another Strasbourg colleague, “who will find so much of themselves in these pages,” and, next, the aid of his physician brother and of his late father.64 In many ways, the interdisciplinary team of the Annales appears to be a sodality of French brothers. (The main exception for Bloch was his wife, who served as his secretary, assistant, and reader of all his manuscripts. Even though numerous books by French women were reviewed in the pages of the Annales, only one female historian contributed an essay to it in the seventeen years of its existence.65) They were not always brothers who agreed: Febvre found Bloch’s Feudal Society too sociologically deterministic; Bloch found Febvre’s Rabelais too preoccupied with the scholarly thesis it was trying to refute rather than attending directly to “the historical reality” of the Renaissance writer. Nonetheless, in 1941, Bloch could write to Febvre about his manuscript on The Historian’s Craft in the language that Montaigne had used about his dear friend La Boétie: “W the many ideas [in this book], I wouldn’t know how to decide in all honesty which come from you, which from me, and which from the two of us.”66
Bloch also expressed gratitude toward forebears whose historical practice he did not follow in all regards, as in his dedication of Feudal Society to Ferdinand Lot,67 but the real test for his relation to elders was in what he had to say about Langlois and Seignobos, that is, those whose systems he had been trying to supplant. His appreciation for Langlois had been courteous but restrained in the acknowledgments for his thesis, and in his obituary for his former teacher in 1929 are already the reservations (somewhat unfair ones, we may note) that Bloch later developed in The Historian’s Craft. That enormous erudition, all those useful studies of royal documents and summaries of medieval tales, and yet an ironic detachment from discovering the great and varied “currents of human life” hidden within them. Numerous implications for social structure and economics in his source materials, yet always a political angle, even when he was talking about the origins of the nobility. Outwardly a rigorous judge of fact, Langlois carried a well of skepticism inside, so Bloch thought; history had become for Langlois “an aesthetic game” of sorting documents, and he had renounced the delicate task of interpreting them.68 In a 1942 letter to Febvre, Bloch put the contrast more simply. Certainly, poor Father Seignobos was no imbecile, or Charles V either. “But how far we are from them! If it were only in our solutions or efforts at solutions, that would be nothing. But it’s even in our problems!”69
In The Historian’s Craft, Bloch found a good way to state that difference. The query with which it opens—“Tell me, Daddy, what is the use of history?”—is identified as a question that Seignobos had found “idle”; Seignobos’ view that “it is useful to ask oneself questions, but very dangerous to answer them” is found lacking in courage before the challenge of discovering what kind of a “human science” history might be. Still, he calls Seignobos his “cher maître,” says how much his education owed to the teaching and scholarship of both him and Langlois, and goes on: “But they not only taught us that the historian’s first duty is to be sincere, they also did not conceal the fact that the very progress of our studies is based on the inevitable opposition (‘la contradiction nécessaire’) between generations of workers. Therefore I shall be keeping faith with their teaching in criticizing them most freely wherever I deem it useful, just as I wish that one day my students will criticize me in their turn.”70
This is the stance—asserting the dialectic of change and his own fallibility—that allowed Bloch to maintain the distinction between history’s two bodies. Thus he could demolish 900 pages of pretentious publication on the Abbey of Saint Denis by archivist Germaine Lebel as careless reporting of a small number of note cards—“and this is how one puts books together!”—partly because he felt he had been frank about the limitations of his own work. He told readers of his Rois thaumaturges that he was publishing it with its omissions rather than keeping it forever in folders and would be grateful if they would send him corrections and additions. His Caractères originaux he presented as a set of hypotheses about French rural history, adding that, “when the time comes for my own work to be superseded by studies of deeper penetration, I shall be well rewarded if confrontation with my false conjectures has made history learn the truth about herself.” Feudal Society brought with it a reminder of “the uncertainty of our state of knowledge”; but, since history was “a science in movement,” he hoped he would whet the appetite of some young researchers.71
Bloch’s actual word here was not “researchers” but “workers,” “travailleurs.” It was a word he preferred, a word used by Febvre and Bloch in the first number of the Annales, a word he used against Friedrich Meinecke in his review in 1939 of Die Entstehung des Historismus. “‘Historicism’ or historians’ work?” Bloch asked, and, while admiring some of Meinecke’s characterizations, he expressed astonishment at a view of historical thought that saw it reaching perfection in Ranke’s day with nothing to come after, and at a presentation of the “spirit” of historical science that did not consider the development of its techniques. It was, of course, as an artisan that Bloch was to present himself in The Historian’s Craft, a carpenter’s journeyman, who knew his tools and had thought about his tasks.72
It is harder to uncover Eileen Power’s self-image as historian, for in print she was reserved about herself and her connections. She seems to have saved her own voice for commenting directly on her wool traders, nuns, and peasants, while her discussions of scholarly method were impersonal. Surely, it is significant that from the first she called herself Eileen Power on her title pages, rather than following the contemporary English practice of using only initials; E. E. Power might have led her to be referred to, as was Dr. S. Thrupp in some of her first reviews, as “he.”73
In regard to her two teachers, Coulton and Langlois, she was less directly critical of them than was Bloch and slyer in letting them know that she had struck off on her own path. Coulton, who was thirty-one years her senior, she teased: “I observe,” she wrote to him in 1922, “that The New Statesman in its Autumn Booklist has entered to be what I presume to be my nuns under the title G. G. Coulton, Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: a view of the comparative importance of mother to obstetrician, which looks like ‘another injustice to women!’” Her later reviews of his work were favorable on the whole, spelling out what he did and did not do, and chiding him lightly for “the bee in his bonnet,” that is, the polemical concerns that sometimes got in the way of his honey. In her inaugural address on social and economic history, she praised his “illuminating studies,” noting that they had different goals from those she was advocating, but “social history is a wide subject.”74 As for Langlois, who must have thought her Medieval People departed too far from the intention of its sources and was too much of a popular “history book,” in 1928 Power dedicated to him her English translation and annotation of a fourteenth-century text, saying that she would “always be grateful for having been his pupil.” But what was the text? Le Ménagier de Paris, the domestic instructions of a Parisian householder to his young wife—a far cry from the sober moral treatises that Langlois had summed up in his collections.75
As for her women teachers, Power did not mention them, and one wonders whether she did not feel as motherless in the university world as she had been in her childhood. The forebears that emerge in her writing are distant ones: Madame Eglentyne, Chaucer’s worldly prioress, whose equivalent she kept finding in her sources, and the learned and independent Christine de Pizan, who often serves as her commentator on the situation of medieval women.76 Close at hand, however, she had sisters, not only the biological sister with whom she wrote a book on children but her friends from Girton, whom she thanked in Medieval English Nunneries and in later books for “faithful criticism.” Medieval People was dedicated to “my colleagues and students at Girton College Cambridge, 1913–1920,” followed by a quotation from Piers Plowman, in which William Langland celebrates the cloister and the school as places for ease of soul, books, “buxomnesse,” and love for those who learn.77
In transferring Langland’s male “hevene on this erthe” to Girton, Power carried within her an idealized past that presumably had a role to play in her transformative life in London. A sustaining role, perhaps, as she knit her solidarities with Tawney and then with Michael Postan, ten years her junior, who started as her research assistant, was later her collaborator, and for the last three years of her life her husband.78 But, more important, the idealized Girton past may have had a relativizing role: it may have helped remind her that, although she could rightly condemn, for instance, A. Birnie’s Economic History of the British Isles for being hopelessly out of date, misleading, full of exploded views about “the manor” and medieval loans, nonetheless, she could never speak as History incarnate. As Bloch’s view of history as changing through generational conflict qualified the absoluteness of his own scientific claims, so Power’s loyalty to different settings for producing history added capaciousness to her vision.79 “Social history is a wide subject”; so is history more generally.
Eileen Power died so unexpectedly that she had little occasion to reflect on her succession. Michael Postan carried on the projects they had shared, and many younger historians in England and abroad mourned her. One was Sylvia Thrupp, who dedicated her Merchant Class of Medieval London to her memory. Thrupp recalls an exchange they had in London. Power said, with perhaps some unease, “You want to follow my example.” Thrupp answered, “We’re moving in the same direction.” What better tribute to a historian than that she could elicit such an independent response?80
Marc Bloch wrote in his last years under the shadows of war, occupation, anti-Semitism, and death. He had his moments when he wondered whether his work would have an issue. Then, in late 1942, we hear that core commitment of the historian that goes beyond credit, beyond renown, and beyond succession. Several months before he joined the Resistance, he wrote a letter to his son Etienne, the one who had once asked him what history was for: “Afternoons I’m working especially on my book (Historian’s Craft seems to me a better title than Apology for History. What do you think?).It’s going very slowly, but at least it’s going, and though I have my usual doubts, it doesn’t seem without interest. When will it ever be finished? When will it ever be able to appear? Really, to work now is to work for the Muse.”81
I am sure that fellow historians have recognized here the feelings and struggles of these forebears: the desire for rightful credit and indignation against thieves, the resentment of rivals and the appetite for renown, the anxiety of influence—both the influence of one’s teachers and the influence over one’s students and successors. To practice as historians, in a discipline committed to finding and making truthful sense of the past, they had to moderate these claims or at least put them to work for a higher cause. And so do we as well. Some of their strategies are deeply embedded in their own time: none of us, in our contemporary frenzy for publication, would seek revenge like Pasquier through withholding our works. But it could help to imagine one’s work as a gift, taken from a plentiful storehouse. Macaulay’s oak wreath and Roman poses are out of fashion, as is her ardent belief in perfectibility, and few of us would dare append the passions of Our Own Lives to every posthumous edition of our works the way Hume did. But laughing at ourselves does help to undermine any pretentions to sovereignty, as does recalling the larger concerns of an international historical community. Power and Bloch offer us overlapping models for critical innovation, a generosity of vision, and an admission of fallibility, Bloch reminding us finally of that bedrock of loneliness when we write only for our inner muse.
I have been thinking how I might give an image to History that would suggest the complexity, commitment, and multiple vision that I believe must be at its heart. For a time, I considered adopting the Angelus Novus, the new angel of Paul Klee’s watercolor, which Walter Benjamin acquired in 1921 and kept with him until he fled from Paris in 1940. You will recall that Benjamin, in one of his last aphorisms, made this the angel of history: “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. . . . His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise. . . . [It] irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”82 What I like about the Angel of History is that, unlike the Muse, an angel has no sex in theology, even though the German language gives it a gender; and Benjamin’s aphorism puts at the core of history an eternal tension—between wholeness and fragmentation—and a multiple vision: ours, the Angel’s, and that of the wind from Paradise. But the New Angel is not quite right; it is too unchanging, too sober. My image of History would have at least two bodies in it, at least two persons talking, arguing, always listening to the other as they gestured at their books; and it would be a film, not a still picture, so that you could see that sometimes they wept, sometimes they were astonished, sometimes they were knowing, and sometimes they laughed with delight.
Natalie Zemon Davis is a historian specializing in social and cultural history of France, as well as other parts of Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. She has taught at Brown University, the University of Toronto, the University of California, Berkeley, and at Princeton University, where she was Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies. She has been awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize and National Humanities Medal, and been named Companion of the Order of Canada.