The Annales School of History

The development of French historiography, particularly the Annales school of historical thought, continues to affect history in the trans-Atlantic community.  The Annales movement-“the attempt by French scholars to adapt economic, linguistic, sociological, geographical, anthropological, psychological, and natural science notions to the study of history to infuse a historical orientation in the social and human sciences” has arguably been the most significant development in historiography in this century.  Although often misunderstood and steeped in controversy, the Annales methodology has been criticized for going beyond traditional documentary history, but in fact it does not replace traditional methods but rather, “The point lay not in deriding documentary scholarship but in transcending it by extending the subject’s comparative and disciplinary base.”

In addition to the floodgates of “multi-disciplinary” history the Annales school opened, the other significant post-war development has been the migration of historical talent from Germany and Italy, first to England and then to the United States.  Besides bringing their own historical talents to the U.S., these historians, many of them Jewish refugees, helped inculcate Annales thinking within American historical teaching.

The Annales methodology continues to influence American history today.  All of the trendy “new” subfields of ethnic, gender and cultural history clearly show their lineage back to France.  Overall, this new integration of geography, anthropology, economics, archeology, and other fields has been a positive influence on historical thought and writing.  This can particularly be seen in ancient history, where documentary evidence may be lacking or suspect.  However, like all trends in historiography, this effort at “multi-disciplinary” studies can be carried to extremes, as Keith Windschuttle described in The Killing of History.
On a personal note, I found it fascinating that integrating history and geography was controversial.  Trying to read history, particularly my field of interest in military history, without understanding geography seems almost absurd.  The fields of history and geography, either natural or man-made, seem inexorably linked, as it seems history and archeology should be.
The Annales school, in the proper context, really seems to make history more multi-dimensional rather than strictly multi-disciplinary and offers additional perspectives to better understand historical events.