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Febvre, Lucien

Febvre, Lucien



Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) was born in Nancy, the capital of Lorraine, where his father was, at that time, teaching at the university. Both his father and his mother, however, came from Franche-Comté, and it was to this province that Febvre was deeply attached. He spent all his vacations there; he taught at the lycee at Besancon from 1897 to 1911; he was always interested in the life, the scenery, and the people of Franche-Comté; and he died there and was buried at Saint-Amour, on the border of Bresse and the Jura. Just as Michelet, to whom Febvre liked to compare himself, was a child of Paris, so Febvre might well be called a “peasant” of Franche-Comté–this, indeed, is what his friend, the novelist Leon Werth, called him.

Febvre’s studies took him from the Iycee at Nancy to the faculty of letters there, then to the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and finally, from 1899 to 1902, to the Ecole Normale Superieure, from which he was graduated as agrege in history and geography. His closest and most influential friend during these formative years was Henri Wallon, philosopher, psychologist, and physician, who later became his colleague at the College de France.

Febvre attained full intellectual maturity very early, well before 1911 when he defended his thesis at the Sorbonne. This brilliant thesis, Philippe II et la Franche-Comté(1911a),is a broad historical and geographical, as well as economic and social, study of this province in the second half of the sixteenth century. The work may be compared to the volumes of the Histoire de Belglque that Henri Pirenne was then writing: while the Franche-Comté “route” was certainly not as important as the “crossroads” of the Low Countries, Febvre’s study is more profound and more erudite than Pirenne’s and, since it is in the mainstream of historiography, has not dated as much.

At the Ecole Normale Febvre came into contact with Paul Vidal de la Blache, who had established geography as an autonomous discipline in France, and with Lucien Gallois, another geographer. From the beginning of his scholarly life Febvre, in effect, had two professions, history and geography. His enthusiasm for geography was great, as is shown by the geographical preface to his thesis, by his numerous reviews of geographical books, and by his masterly work, A Geographical Introduction to History(1922). This volume is a long, vigorous, and brilliant argument against narrow determinism and in favor of a subtle possibilism that encompasses human evolution and history.

Geography was his first love, but he soon gained familiarity with all the sciences of man by spending time in the office of the new Revue de synthese historique, founded in 1900 by Henri Berr and edited by him. Berr’s editing communicated his own outgoing spirit: he tried to bring together in a kind of continuous conversation all the different kinds of history–intellectual, cultural, social, economic, institutional, political, and so forth–and the new human sciences, especially sociology. During his stay in Paris at the Fondation Thiers, from 1903 to 1906, Febvre established close ties with Berr and his group, soon becoming a key contributor to the Revue de synthese and later to the other undertakings that arose out of it: the Semaines de syntheses and the vast series, L’évolution de l’humanite. Thus, when Febvre wrote in 1911 on the Franche-Comté, he was already something of a historian, a geographer, a sociologist, an economist, a psychologist, and a linguist.

Given this background, there is nothing surprising either in the appearance in 1922 of his Geo-graphical Introduction to History, a book which had a tremendous impact on the small world of French historians and geographers, or in the founding in 1929 of the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, which marked a decisive turning point in French historiography. It may seem that these achievements came relatively late in Febvre’s career, but for five solid years he had been involved in World War I, always in the front line, ending up as captain of a machine gun company. In 1912 he had been appointed professor in the faculty of letters at Dijon and in 1919 he moved to the University of Strasbourg. There he and Marc Bloch became close friends, and it was with Bloch that he was to found, edit, and, indeed, to a large extent write the Annales.

The effect of the Annales was to establish a kind of hegemony of history over the other human sciences: while in general barriers were eliminated between disciplines, these disciplines were not considered equal in importance, history being accorded a preferred position, especially vis-à-vis social psychology and sociology and even more so vis-à-vis economics. This intellectual position might be labeled “historicism” if this term did not have such pejorative connotations and particularly if it were not so easily confused with the Historismus of German thinkers. The essential point is to make clear the differences between the Revue de synthése, whose theme was the colloquy of the human sciences, and the Annales, which constituted a sort of Common Market, with history as the preponderant power.

Yet great as is Febvre’s contribution in the Annales, it does not represent the true scope of his intellectual role. The key to this scope is his generosity, his deep-felt need to share his knowledge. Just as Paul Langevin, 1872-1946, was the “banker” for the physicists of his generation–that is, the lender, the disseminator of ideas, what Diderot had been for many of the writers of his time, so also was Febvre a banker: he never became tired of having people come in to see him, of listening, of guiding. When conversation did not suffice he wrote what he called his “letters of guidance.” It was in this way that he trained Marc Bloch, his junior by eight years, and the present author as well. Often his “guidance” consisted of simply surrendering his own projects to others, especially after 1929, when work on the Annales became his principal activity. Himself a “peasant” and a marvelous historian of the land, he turned over this subject to Bloch, who produced Les caractéres originaux de l'histoire rurale française(1931); later, after 1946, he turned over to the present author the task of establishing relationships between historical and economic studies. His own relatively brief writings on the work of François Simiand, Earl J. Hamilton, Giuseppe Parenti, Frederic C. Lane, and others, show how receptive he was to new ideas in economics.

Although Febvre thus abandoned some of his favorite topics to others, he does seem to have found, outside his primary field of intellectual activity, even outside the Annales, a kind of subject that delighted him: the history of art, of religion, or even, in the broad sense, of culture. History was one for him and whatever his particular concern, he surveyed the entire landscape. In 1928 he published Martin Luther: A Destiny, a book that he clearly enjoyed writing and that is written beautifully. Luther was not for Febvre simply a problem in biographical research, nor even a difficult subject made attractive by its very difficulty; Luther represented the problem of the unique individual in history and of the unpredictable power of such an individual.

All his life, indeed, Febvre liked to consort with the great minds of “his” century, the sixteenth. He was wonderfully well acquainted with them; to hear him read Rabelais was a pleasure. His excellent humanist education (which he received from his father and from an uncle rather than in school) explains his delight in writing his charming little book, Autour de l‘Heptamêron (1944), or that masterpiece of classical erudition, Origêneet Des Périers(1942a).

Increasingly, he fought for one kind of history while writing rather a different kind himself. In 1942, with the publication of Le problême de I’incroyance au XVIe siêcle: La religion de Rabelais(1942b), he seems to have emerged victoriously from this conflict: this time he had all the reins in his hand, and the book is his best one. In the first two parts of the work he treated Rabelais in the traditional way, using evidence from his life and his works, but he devoted the third part to the “mental apparatus” of the period–the words, the feelings, the concepts that are the infrastructure of the thought of the century, the basis on which everything was constructed or could be constructed, and which may have prevented certain things from being constructed.

Although the book was much praised, its originality limited its appreciation by historians. Febvre’s work was ahead of its time, and it is only recently that the structuralists of the new literary criticism (for example, Michel Foucault, in his Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines,1966) have done similar research into the culture of a society.

Yet Febvre did not pursue his ideas, and his work remained incomplete. As he worked in the area of psychological, social, and cultural history, he seems to have had difficulty in stating problems, fixing bench marks, and drafting a methodology. Thus he was always uncertain about the nature of civilization, to use that convenient term. Often he insisted that civilization must be located in a particular time, that its changeful nature must be pinned down, and he protested against the frequent assertion that “man is always the same.” But at the same time his Rabelais presupposes the long continuation of what he aptly called the mental apparatus of men, something beyond the individual or the unique. He might have stressed this transcendence more had he not been excessively impressed, as laymen tend to be, by the implications of the concept of relativity as formulated by Einstein. He was tormented by the perennial problem of the objective status of the “observer” — the historian—and of the events being observed—history.

He did not doubt, however, that history provides an understanding of one’s own time and that such an understanding is indispensable to the historian. This is why to the very end of his life Febvre never left the intellectual battleground. It is no accident that he entitled the first volume of his collected articles Combats pour l’histoire(1953).

In 1947 he created the section of economic and social sciences of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études, serving as chairman of this section until his death. He also revived the Annales, whose publication had been hampered by the war; he even tried, without any real success, to revive the project of publishing the Encyclopédic française, begun in 1933 by Anatole de Monzie and himself. And once again he did whatever he could to help other scholars. Really to appreciate the intellectual force of Febvre one must read not only his books but also his many articles and reviews and his marvelous letters. Those who were privileged to enjoy his informal conversation are certain that he is among the greatest of modern French historians.

Fernand Braudel

[See alsoHISTORY; and the biographies ofBLOCK; PIRENNE; VIDAL DE LA BLACHE.]


1911a Philippe II et la Rranche-Comté: £tude d’histoire politique, religieuse et sociale. Paris: Champion.

1911b Notes et documents sur la Réforme et I’lnquisitionen Franche-Comté: Extraits des archives du Parlement de Dole. Paris: Champion.

(1912) 1922 Histoire de Franche-Comté.7th ed. Paris: Boivin.

(1922) 1925 A Geographical Introduction to History. New York: Knopf. → First published as La terre et lévolution humaine.

(1928) 1929 Martin Luther: A Destiny. New York: Dut-ton. → First published as Un destin: Martin Luther.

1930 FEBVRE, LUCIEN et al. Civilisation. Paris: Renaissance du Livre.

(1931) 1935 DEMANGEON, ALBERT; and FEBVRE, LUCIEN Le Rhin: Problèmes d’histoire et d’economie. Paris: Colin.

1932 L’individualité en histoire: Le personnage en his-toire. Paris: Renaissance du Livre.

1942a Origène et Des Periérs: Ou, iénigme du Cymbalum mundi. Paris: Droz.

(1942b) 1962 Le probléme de I’incroyance au XVIe siecle: La religion de Rabelais.2d ed. Paris: Michel.

1944 Autour de l’Heptaméron: Amour sacré, amour profane. Paris: Gallimard.

1946 Introduction. In Jules Michelet, Michelet. Paris: Éditions des Trois Collines.

1953 Combats pours l’histoire. Paris: Colin. → A collection of previously published articles.

1957 Au coeur religieux du XVIe siécle. Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N. → A collection of previously published articles.

1962 Pour une histoire à part entiére. Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N. → A collection of previously unpublished articles.


Bloch, Marc (1931) 1952-1956 Les caractéres originaux de I’histoire rurale française. New ed., 2 vols. Paris: Colin. → Volume 2, Supplément établi d’apres les travaux de l’auteur: (1931–1944), was written by Robert Dauvergne.

Foucault, Michel 1966 Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Gallimard.

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