Nation-States and National Identity
- The Identity of France. Vol. II: People and Production by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sian Reynolds
Collins, 781 pp, £25.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 00 217774 9
The most renowned historian of his time. Fernand Braudel owed his international reputation to the two great volumes on the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II which he published in 1949, and to his trilogy on the material civilisation of world capitalism, which appeared between 1967 and 1979. He died a few months before the first volumes of his incomplete final work came out in 1986. More local in topic, and limited in execution. The Identity of france has generally been treated as a charming but relatively slight coda to his achievement as a whole. In fact, this concluding project – on which Braudel embarked in his late seventies – was conceived on a colossal scale. The torso that survives, two volumes devoted to geography, demography and production, is over a thousand pages in its English edition. They were to be followed by two sequels: one concerned with French politics, culture and society, the other with external relations. This quartet on ‘Identity’ was then to be completed with two further works, respectively on the ‘Birth’ and the ‘Destiny’ of France, in which Braudel planned to re-totalise the structures analysed separately in the first four studies into an integrated narrative history of his country. Perhaps incredulous of such ambition, Sian Reynolds has taken the liberty of suppressing the full extent of it in her graceful English translation.
What were the aims of this vast design? Braudel’s previous themes were virtually invented by him – strikingly original quarries from the past little mined before. Here he chose the most traditional of subjects, on which an abundant literature already exists, much of it distinguished. Why then a new history of France? Because, Braudel contended, ‘the profession of historian has changed so utterly in the last half-century’ through the encroachment on its poorly-fenced territory of the ‘various social sciences – geography, polilical economy, demography, political science, anthropology, ethnology, social psychology, cultural studies, sociology’. Braudel’s claim was that these innovations made possible a much more profound exploration of the continuities shaping France, a speleological descent to the depths of ‘an obscure history, running along under the surface, refusing to die – which this book proposes, if possible, to bring to light’. The subterranean longues durées so discovered could then permit the comparative capture of what was historically specific to France: for only structures that are durable over time, as opposed to events that foam and fade away with it, allow meaningful contrasts between national experiences. Tacitly (it is never quite spell out), this is the double force of the term ‘identity’ in the title of the book – it denotes what subsists and what singles out, and suggests that they are the same. The premise of Braudel’s multi-disciplinary enquiry is that the particular and the permanent in France have been one.
Braudel called his enterprise a gamble. How far does it succeed? The work we possess has a quizzical attraction of its own which to some extent comes from its unfinished state. Braudel always aspired to totalities, but his forte was detail. Here, in a book confessedly personal, these are more wayward than elsewhere: but also often more delicate, and warmer. The first volume offers a physical description of the major regions of France and the tiers of its settlement; moving from general analyses of its villages and towns to particular reflections on the commercial role of the Rhone corridor, the agrarian primacy of the Parisian basin, the strategic fortresses of Metz and Toulon. The second traces a demographic profile of the populations who have lived in the area of the hexagon; explores the setting and range of their agricultural activities – livestock, wine, cereals: and ends by looking at the historical character of trade, industry and credit in France. The casually vivid, flowing style and bright jetsam of examples carries the reader effortlessly along, through terrain that might with other vehicles seem arbitrary, perhaps sometimes even arid. It is easy to understand why so many reviewers have dwelt on the pleasures of the text; but also why they have complained that Braudel seems to have lost sight of his initial aim along the way. For the work as a whole lacks any sustained – even fitful – comparative dimension. The differing European contexts which ought logically to have given relief to the specifically French experience are virtually all missing. The result is that much of Braudel’s book is taken up with extended accounts of settlement patterns, agrarian practices or commercial procedures that were often quite general to Western Europe as a whole. If its focus moves freely back and forth from remotest prehistory to contemporary times, it also slips seemingly unawares across large ranges of commonality more than identity, as what was distinctively French recedes into what was Medieval or Early Modern. Braudel says at the outset that his theme was seductive but elusive, and so it proves.
Nevertheless, amid the sunnily digressive mass of this history, unenclosed as he wished it, there are claims that do in principle indicate a special position for France within the Continent. The first of these is the contention that of all the countries of Europe, France has always been most various in its physical endowments. This is the most insistent thread of the work. For others, space would only be weakly historical as a feature. But Braudel’s empirical claim for France reflects the theoretical primacy he accorded geography at large in social causation. Spatial determinations, he declared elsewhere, are ‘the most ancient and important of all – what counts in any deeper history’. Here the privilege of France is to be such a happy illustration of the principle. For its regional variety, Braudel argues, meant material and cultural plenty – a wealth of contrasted settings and resources without equal among its neighbours. France has always been ‘the dazzling triumph of the plural, of the heterogeneous, of the never-quite-the same’.
In celebrating French diversity, Braudel had many predecessors. He cites his immediate master Lucien Febvre. But the theme ultimately derives from Michelet, whose history of France lyrically depicted the contrasts between its provinces, ‘diverse in climate, customs and language’, yet bound in mutual understanding and affection; and most directly from Vidal de Blache, whose Tableau de la Geographie de la France of 1903 declared that ‘the word which best characterises France is variety.’ For Vidal, the ‘harmony’ of its constituent parts and the ‘goodness of its soil, the pleasure of living there’, created an ambience that was ‘a beneficent force, a genius loci, that prepared our existence as a nation and imparted something healthly to it’. In other words, Febvre’s phrase ‘diversity is the name of France’ was already a long standing trope. Braudel affectionately embroiders it. But he makes no effort to substantiate the claim in the way Vidal did, when he pointed out that France alone of European countries combined a Mediterranean, an Atlantic and a Continental zone. Such climatic contrasts are real enough, but whether they suffice for greater regional diversity than anywhere else is another matter. Germany, too, contains three major geographical zones, between the Rhine, the Baltic and the Alps, with subdivisions which – contrary to Vidal’s assertion – rival or exceed those of France. The Länder are a lot more vigorous in their regional profiles than today’s emaciated provinces.
In point of fact, it seems more plausible to argue that France was historically distinguished from its neighbours not so much by its geographical variety as by its early political unity. This is in effect the ease made by another Annales historian, Pierre Chaunu, who likes to dwell on the singularity of the French ‘super-state’, by the age of the Renaissance four times the size and population of the only comparable unified monarchy, its English rival. Braudel himself seems to concede as much when he suggests that provincial diversity in France was actually a forcing-house of royal centralisation. In the actual triumph of the unitary state probably lies the clue to the popularity of the motif of national variety – the one functioning as symbolic compensation for the other in the French ideology. Confirmation of this is suggested by the reversal of the relationship in an Italy which lacked any unitary state. There Manzoni vehemently rejected the patronage of the well-meaning Lamartine, during the revolution of 1848: ‘Do you not realise that there is no harsher word to throw at us than that of diversitvy, which epitomises for us a long past of misfortune and abjection?’ It may be less the fact than the cult of regional diversity that tells us something Specific about the history of France.
There is a second claim for French specificity in Braudel’s account, less prominent or pursued, but comparable in kind. Turning from geography to demography, he argues that the great challenge for the historical imagination today is to overcome the artificial divide between prehistory and history, as traditionally conceived – one which the advances of archaeology have rendered anachronistic. Once this is done, he maintains, a striking phenomenon comes into view. France knew a greater antiquity of dense continuous settlement than any other part of the Continent. Towards 1800 BC it supported perhaps as many as five million inhabitants. The basic ‘biological combination’ making up the population stock of France was thus already in place four millennia ago. In developing this case. Braudel appeals to the notion of a ‘national neolithic civilisation’ proposed by a leading French prehistorian, Jean Guilaine, author of a recent work entitled La France d’avant la France. Again the theme is by no means new. Introducing his tableau of French spatial diversity, Vidal stressed that its complement was temporal continuity. ‘The relationships between land and man are marked, in France, by a distinctive character of antiquity and continuity … It has often been remarked of our country that its inhabitants have succeeded each other from time immemorial in the same sites.’ Facination with prehistory is widespread today. Some of the impulses behind Braudel’s interest in it can be sensed in Raymond Williams’s multi-secular fiction of place. But transposed into proto-national register, the distance to myth is short. Braudel’s claim for five million neolithic farmers closes it. Guilaine himself allows no more than two to four hundred thousand. Here, too, the attributes of identity prove to be less specific than specious.
The claims of diversity and of continuity share, however, a common structure. They should be read, not as the findings of empirical history, but as fixed points of national ideology. All ethnic mythologies, it has been pointed out, are either territorial or genealogical in character – tracing the identity of the group to an original location or a primordial ancestry. Later nationalist ideologies reworked these basic mythemes into their own forms of ‘poetic space’ or ‘heroic memory’, as Anthony Smith terms them in his fundamental study of The Ethnic Origins of Nations. In a moving passage, Braudel confessed his passion for France, but promised to put it aside in his book. He characteristically added: ‘It is possible that it will play tricks on me and catch me out, so I shall keep it under close watch.’ It bamboozled him just the same. But it was also typical of him that, found out, he could concede his errors with disarming bonhomie. At the end of his second volume, he reports that an audience at Göttingen would not let him get away with the thesis of France’s superior diversity, and that he had no answer to their claims for equal German variety; and just before his death, he ruefully yielded to more modest estimates of France’s genetic continuity. Although at times the creature of a national self-image, he was never a captive of it.
Where do these retractions leave the quest for the identity of France? In the last and longest part of his work, Braudel develops the elements of another approach to it, more serious and less congenial to collective amourpropre. The title of this part sums up its message: ‘A Peasant Economy down to the 20th Century’. Here Braudel dwells on the extraordinary stability of French agrarian life, with its inveterate routines of cultivation and sluggish levels of productivity; the early adoption of birth-control, checking population in the countryside; the peripheral pattern of urbanisation – all major towns save Paris and Toulouse scattered round the edges of the country, leaving a ‘hollow interior’, yet without stimulating major foreign trade; the lack of new industrial complexes comparable to the Ruhr or the Midlands; the hoarding of coinage and weakness of domestic credit; the failure to take effectively to the seas. France, Braudel concludes, was marginalised within the history of capitalism, which developed in a circular movement around it from the later Middle Ages onwards, from Italy to the Low Countries to England to Germany, without ever transforming the slow metabolisms of the hexagon between them. The peculiar identity of France derives from this fate – of fortune. ‘Is it perhaps both France’s tragedy and the secret of its charm that it has never really been won – what is called won – over to capitalism?’ The French Revolution, contrary to received opinion, was not responsible for the economic misfiring of the country – any more than for its political unification. The die was cast much earlier. France enjoyed a brief period of economic leadership in the 13th century, when the Champagne fans were the commercial hub of the continent. Thereafter, bypassed by sea routes linking the Mediterranean and North Sea economies, ‘France was no longer a partner in the most advanced economic activities of Europe’: from now on it would be a covetous spectator of other people’s successes, on occasion tempted to annex them – 15th-century Italy or 17th-century Holland – by force of arms, in vain forays to offset the peasant stillness at home.
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[*] Routlege, 330 pp., 300 pp. and 298 pp., £40 and £12.95 each, 15 June 1989, 0 415 02772 1, 0 415 02773 X and 0 415 02774 8.
[†] Europe, Europe, translated by Martin Chalmers (Radius, 272 pp., £14.95, 1989, 0 09 174222 6).