Homage to Braudel

Geoffrey Parker

  • Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe – XVIIIe siécle by Fernand Braudel
    Armand Colin, 544 pp

This book, French readers were told one month before its publication last January, ‘is already the intellectual event of 1980’. As if in answer, the first printing of 9,000 copies of the three-volume set, each containing 1,751 pages and weighing ten pounds, sold out within three weeks. At almost £50 per set, Civilisation Matérielle seems likely to prove the commercial event of 1980.

The three plump volumes offer an ambitious survey of the economic and social history of the world from the early 15th to the late 18th century, with special reference to those changes in the market economy of Europe and her trading partners that led eventually to the Industrial Revolution. The format will remind many readers of the structure of Braudel’s other book, the celebrated Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.[1] In both works, the chronological account of what happened is left until last, coming almost as an anti-climax after a prolonged analysis of the parameters, preconditions and pressures which (according to Braudel) determined that particular chronology.

This approach, pioneered by French scholars and known in the trade as the ‘structure/conjuncture method’, is divided like its native Gaul into three parts. First come the long-term determinants of economic life. Volume I, entitled ‘The Structures of Daily Life’, deals with the history of the habitual, ‘that great absentee in History’: demography and family structure, food and drink, dress and housing, energy and technology, money and credit, towns. All are discussed with sympathy and insight, but the emphasis falls on their immutable character. Two illustrations on page 95 epitomise the approach: one, from a 16th-century Book of Hours, shows a man harvesting with a pick and sickle; the other, by Van Gogh, shows exactly the same instruments being used by a peasant three centuries later. Agriculture lay at the heart of the ‘histoire immobile’ of early modern Europe.[2] Volume II, ‘The World of Exchange’, deals with economic realities of a higher order which did alter over the period studied: markets and fairs, merchant organisations, investment policies, trading companies, the impact of state and society on capital formation. Finally, 1,140 pages later, the persevering reader is deemed ready to understand the mysteries of Time: Volume III, bearing the enigmatic title ‘Le Temps du Monde’, ranges over the various success-stories of early modern capitalism. The Hanseatic League, Venice, Antwerp and Genoa share a chapter; the Dutch Republic has a chapter of 90 pages all to itself; France and the British Isles share a third. After this comes an examination of the contributions made to Europe’s economic prosperity by her trade with the rest of the world and by her Industrial Revolution, leading Braudel to the not unreasonable conclusion that neither was as important as the gradual improvement of material life during early modern times brought about by the benign influence of capitalism.

Braudel’s massive survey thus has a didactic purpose: he wishes to demonstrate to the world, developed or developing, that true prosperity is based historically on a free-enterprise system that prefers plurality to monopoly. Braudel is the avowed enemy of nationalisation, public utilities and state interference aimed at the protection of large combines at the expense of small enterprise. Not for nothing is he proud of his childhood in a village.[3] He argues that the state’s role in economic life has been most beneficial when it sheltered small businesses against the effects of a sudden recession and persuaded the rich entrepreneurs to assist the weak, whether at home or abroad. The message ‘Small is beautiful’ is hardly new, but it will help the apostles of intermediate technology to have such powerful and well-researched support from the pen of Europe’s greatest living historian.

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[1] 2 vols, Fontans (1972/73).

[2] An earlier version of this volume was published in 1967, with an English translation (Weidenfeld) in 1973.

[3] See Braudel’s ‘Personal Testimony’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 44 (1972), pp. 448-9.

[4] Afterthoughts on Material Civilisation and Capitalism (John Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 116-17.

[5] C. Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli (New York, 1947), pp. 4, 24. See also G. Brenan, South from Granada (London, 1957), e.g. p. 45. French examples from the region in E. Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: the Modernisation of Rural France 1870-1914 (Stanford University Press, 1976), pp. 3, 110 and note.

[6] J. A. Pitt-Rivers, The People of the Sierra (Chicago, second edition, 1971); S. H. Brandes, Migration, Kinship and Community: Tradition and Transition in a Spanish Village (London and New York, Academic Press, 1975).

[7] C. G. Mota, ‘Conflitos entre Capital e Trabalho. Anotaçoes acêrca de uma Agitaçao no Sudoeste Ingles em 1738’, Revista de Historia, Vol. 33 (1966), pp. 347-66: Braudel cites both title and year incorrectly. See J. de L. Mann, ‘Clothiers and Weavers in Wiltshire during the 18th Century’, in L. S. Pressnell, ed., Studies in the Industrial Revolution presented to T. S. Ashton (1960), pp. 71-96.

[8] Journal of Modern History, Vol. 44 (1972), pp. 448-539. It should be noted, however, that Hexter’s article gently mocked as it praised, for its style and presentation were an amusing parody of the style annales.

[9] Mill quoted in F. Oakley, ‘Celestial Hierarchies Revisited: Walter Ullmann’s Vision of Celestial Politics’, Past and Present, Vol. 60 (1973), p. 48; Taylor quoted in Ved Mehta, Fly and the Flybottle (1963), p. 185.