The Return of the Longue Durée

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto

Cambridge University Press, 166pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781139923880

reviewed by James Everest

It may not have been what they intended, but in The History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage have, in fact, produced two manifestos. The first of these is a call for historians to play a more active role in contemporary society. The second argues that the proper way of doing this is through narratives of long-term historical change: what they, using a term first popularised by French historian Fernand Braudel in the 1950s, refer to as the ‘return of the longue durée’. The second point takes precedence in their short and punchy book, which is something of a shame, since the first seems both more convincing and more urgent.

The History Manifesto’s opening gambit is this: we live in an era of short-term thinking and long-term challenges. In politics, business, and even the third-sector, planning for the future typically looks no more than five years ahead. Yet the issues that are increasingly dominant – issues like climate change, international governance and social inequality – clearly call for perspectives spanning centuries.

The study of history should be ideally placed to help. Yet, over the last 50 years, the focus of professional historical writing has been getting smaller and smaller. Guldi and Armitage are astute about some of the reasons for this trend, in particular the specialisation that can result from trying to stand out in a competitive intellectual market-place. Their case for a re-engagement with longer time-scales is attractive: not only, they argue, is this what historians should be doing; they are also now better able to do it, thanks to technological developments in the handling of ‘big data’.

Yet the return of the longue durée surely isn’t the only way of making the past relevant for the present. In fact, sometimes historical writing is at its most valuable when it doesn’t fit into large-scale narratives. Sometimes the best thing about history is its capacity to stand out and surprise. Guldi and Armitage devote a couple of pages to the relationship between the longue durée and counterfactual thinking (what would have happened had Hitler had been assassinated in 1942, and so on), but I’m thinking less about counterfactuals and more about factuals. That is to say, I’m thinking about the wonderful moments where people in the past reveal themselves to be stranger and more inspiring (or duller and more humdrum) than you could possibly imagine.

An instructive example can be drawn from the genre known as ‘microhistory’: in 1983, Natalie Zemon Davis published the story of a man, Martin Guerre, who left his rural community in 16th-century France, returning after some time to live peacefully with his wife. Or did he? After a number of years, his wife Bertrande announced that it wasn’t the same man. The subsequent court case went to the wire (was this an interloper or not?), until the decisive re-appearance of the real Martin Guerre.

Guldi and Armitage are careful not to disparage microhistories like this one. They are clearly sympathetic to the virtues of archival sleuthing and close attention to detail, pursuits that reach their highest form in microhistorical research. All the same, my sense is that they view the genre principally as offering material for the kind of writing that they are advocating – as stepping-stones whose value becomes greater within a longue durée narrative.

In some ways, a case like The Return of Martin Guerre could easily be situated within a context of long-term change. It tells us something, for example, about attitudes to marriage among the early modern French peasantry. Indeed, Natalie Davis argued in her introduction that her work sheds welcome light on the lives of an often poorly-documented stratum of society. But the most obvious aspect of the tale is its strangeness. How typical of the period are the actions of those involved? It’s difficult to know. If they were unusual, does that make them negligible? I don’t think so. As Davis noted in her epilogue: ‘The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible.’

Going into depth on things that aren’t really discussed in a book is perhaps a mean-spirited way of engaging with it, particularly when the book in question bills itself as a ‘manifesto.’ My point is that, in terms of speaking to the present, short-form history can do some exciting and important things that long-form history can’t. And this is why Guldi and Armitage’s first argument – that historians should play a more active role in society – is more successful than their second. Whatever else it is, The History Manifesto is a refreshing reminder for historians that the power to articulate the value of their work lies in their own hands.

Much ink has been spilt about the pressures currently facing researchers in the humanities. Unfortunately, a lot of it has taken the form of hand-wringing pieces in the London Review of Books, in which academics are portrayed as the helpless victims of blind government officials. A few years ago, I went to a roundtable entitled ‘What is to be done?’ The grammatical passivity of that question said it all.

This context clearly informs The History Manifesto. Guldi and Armitage begin with a discussion of the ‘bonfire of the humanities’, and round off with a call for ‘the public future of the past’, envisaging a world in which historians are seconded to Downing Street and consulted by the World Bank. In their vision, the significance of the longue durée lies precisely in its capacity to address what they view as a pressing societal problem. But the broader point is that historians have the capacity, as well as the responsibility, to articulate the value of their work for the societies in which they live. We can and should be pointing out why people who don’t care should care. And that holds, whether the subject is the long-term development of wealth inequality or a single marriage in 16th-century France. That is a manifesto that I can sign up to.
James Everest is a PhD researcher at University College London's Centre for Editing Lives and Letters.