Annales School 1943

An Appeal, An Investigation: The Associations of the Ancien Régime

By Fernand Braudel and Lucien Febvre

Source: Mélanges d’histore sociale, 1943, Vol 4, No. 1;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

Since 1940 our “Investigations” rubric has been impoverished. How can we do things differently? Who says investigation says organized work. But how can you organize work in a disorganized world? Everything is lacking, everything gives way under us – except for the spirit, and its ardor. That it is alive, that it is yet awake will be proved by the following appeal. It’s not at all a matter of an initiative of the “Annales,” I mean of its editors. Two historians who there is no need to present, Georges Espinas and Gabriel Le Bras have conceived a project. They spoke of it to the “Annales.” And the “Annales” will gladly assist in its realization. Here is the project:


Much is said of associations, much is said of corporations. Sometimes without rhyme or reason: this has for a long time been my personal feeling and I have said this here. I have said it as a historian, since it is in the same way that contemporary facts are placed under the cover of a distant past, the medieval past. But in fact, Georges Espinas writes, “Do we know with precision what an association was, what a corporation was?” And for his part Gabriel Le Bras: “These medieval associations have, until now, only been the object of general works and particular monographs. Few institutions are as neglected by scholars.” For these two excellent historians there grew from this the idea for the sort of investigation that can only succeed through the collaboration of professors from our universities, archivists from our departments, and scholars and researchers from our provinces.

We will leave aside both urban communities (cities and parishes) and “bodies” (parliaments, universities, academies). But the realm to be prospected will include pious associations (devotional brotherhoods); assistance associations (charities); professional associations (which are called corporations) – without prejudice towards military associations (archers, crossbowmen, etc.) and cultural associations (theatrical, literary, etc.). All of which can, as a whole, and to use a juridical definition that is familiar to us, be classed under the rubric of “non-profit.” But in principle I don’t like the imposition of modern juridical frameworks onto ancient realities. In any event, in the past there were also profit-seeking unions which remain within the framework of the investigation: for example, associations of commercial intermediaries, of currency agents, or stockholding societies of mills, salt works, etc., and which are found at the origin of stockholder societies. It would be a serious methodological error to not undertake their study in order to concentrate our efforts only on “non-profit” societies. If we wish to study the fact of association in the Middle Ages and the ancién régime, we must take it in its totality and all its variety. Failing this means prejudicing the results of the investigation, and once again going around in circles.

What chronological framework should be adopted? Here too we mustn’t arbitrarily shrink the field of investigation. G. Espinas and G. Le Bras propose: “From their origins to their suppression by the Revolution.” They are correct. But it is obvious that it is especially the period and problems of origin that must draw our attention, in particular in the matter of professional associations: the study of crafts that preceded the associations, the study of their relations with the latter and the influences that the craft might have exercised on the corporation and the corporation on the craft. This study above all, which has not been carried out, calls for the attention of historians. At the other end, beyond the Revolution, throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, the associations doubtless have a history, a long and very strange history. It is both too vast and too particular; it unfurls within too modified a framework not to be the object of a special investigation, and we have thought about doing this for some time. As has been said, classify questions if we want to succeed.

In conclusion, G. Espinas and G. Le Bras ask our readers and all workers to respond to their appeal. They should report for their region, their city, or their archive:

  1. Those studies already published which they deem useful;
  2. The papers and files they consider instructive;
  3. The works in progress they are aware of.

This will allow for the elaboration of a kind of abridged, selected inventory of the works undertaken or to be undertaken. They will thus perhaps give ideas to good local workers or doctoral candidates to undertake that research apt to reveal a nearly unknown grand realm of our social history.


P.S. – Responses can be addressed either directly to one or the other of the two directors of the investigation or to the Annales (13, rue du Four, Paris VI), who will forward them.