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.

Braudel’s argument will not please everyone. Civilisation Matérielle is not, as one awed reviewer claimed, ‘the history of everything’. It was never meant to be. Indeed, there are some surprising omissions, of which perhaps the most remarkable is war. The other horsemen of the apocalypse are present in force – famine, pestilence and inflation are dealt with at length – but there is no sustained discussion of the deleterious economic and social consequences of Europe’s wars. It must be remembered that only six years in the 16th century and only seven in the 17th passed without some war being fought in Europe: war was as much the normal state of the Continent as peace. Yet armies only merit two pages in Volume I and the Thirty Years’ War (for example) does not even get that. Elizabeth Fox Genovese has broadened this line of criticism to note that almost all human strivings and conflicts are absent from Braudel’s new book. ‘His is a petrified world,’ she lamented, ‘not a human one.’

It is unlikely that this rebuke would ruffle Braudel’s feathers. He aimed to trace the impact of capitalism on material life, not to unravel the rich tapestry of all human endeavour. But he cannot entirely ignore certain doubts which economic historians are beginning to direct against his whole concept of capitalism, rooted firmly in the market economy and trade. Commerce, and especially international commerce, is the glue of his economic system. But was it really so in pre-industrial Europe? The information that we possess suggests that international trade formed but a small part of the total of economic activity – at most 2 per cent of the Gross National Product, which is certainly not enough to explain either the growth of European prosperity or the imposition of European hegemony over the rest of the world. In his Afterthoughts on Material Civilisation and Capitalism (published, a trifle prematurely, two full years before the book came out) Braudel cautiously expressed some doubts about his explanation. Because he had his suspicions about ‘what really happened’ (as German historians used to say), he called for ‘a co-ordinated, if not a collective study’ to test his hypotheses. ‘As far as the economic history of the past is concerned, a total, global history would be possible if we could succeed in applying the modern methods of a sort of national accounting, a kind of macroeconomy.’[4]

I do not believe this for one moment. There is surely a world that we have entirely lost, which even ‘modern methods’ cannot reconstitute. During the 1930s, exiled intellectuals, like Carlo Levi in the mountainous Abruzzi of southern Italy, or restless ones, like Gerald Brenan in the Alpujarras of southern Spain, found villages where time had virtually stood still. ‘We speak a different language,’ wrote Levi, ‘and here our tongue is incomprehensible.’ He found that his villagers were still fighting out in the 1930s the hatreds and rivalries ‘that went back for generations, a century, two hundred years, or more, perhaps for ever’. Even in France, there was a world which was almost invincibly cocooned against modernity: when Haussman visited the Landes in Lot-et-Garonne in 1842, he found neither landmarks nor roads and was obliged to navigate with a compass; 36 per cent of the French conscripts of the class of 1906 did not know that their country had lost the Franco-Prussian war in 1871; and many peasants in Savoy in 1894 were convinced that Napoleon III, who lost that war and died two years later, still occupied the throne of France.[5] It would be idle to suppose that these communities had opted out of modern life only in the 19th century. The peasants of Gagliano, where Carlo Levi stayed, had a saying, ‘Christ stopped at Eboli,’ the nearest major town, because the railway stopped there. But so had the Romans, the Greeks, the Goths and the Renaissance. And historians, too, stop at Eboli: most of what can be gleaned about this ‘other Europe’ comes from the fieldwork of anthropologists. The ‘kind of macroeconomy’ envisaged by Braudel will certainly not bring back these lost people of history; we depend, whether we like it or not, upon the tape-recordings of Julian Pitt-Rivers, Stanley Brandes and their colleagues.[6]

But perhaps there is enough in Civilisation Matérielle without these absentees? It is not often that a historian enjoys the privilege of reviewing a work that has taken a quarter of a century to compose: one should not be too hasty to condemn. It is perhaps more profitable to consider what effects such a long period of gestation has had on a work. In the case of Braudel’s books (for The Mediterranean also took over twenty-five years to complete), it has produced a study of incredible richness and wisdom. The text, tables, illustrations, maps and captions all shed a light on everyday life in early modern Europe that is always fresh, interesting and convincing. Let me present three charming samples. There is an account in Volume I of a meeting in 1609 between a shipwrecked Spaniard and the secretary of the Japanese shogun: the latter pointed out quite rightly, that whereas European fashions of dress seemed to change every year, the Japanese were clothed in exactly the same way as their ancestors a thousand years before. ‘La folie de la mode est strictement europèenne’ is Braudel’s terse conclusion. There is a photograph in Volume II of the great oaks in the forest of Troncais (Allier), planted in 1670 by Colbert with the intention of providing masts of top quality for the French Navy during the 19th century. ‘Colbert foresaw everything,’ comments Braudel wryly, ‘except the steamship.’ Finally, in Volume III, there is a histogram which shows, conclusively and surprisingly, that far more towns were founded in Central Europe during the 13th century than at any other time.

Civilisation Matérielle is perhaps the most handsome history book to come on sale for many years. The text is beautifully set out in short sections of great clarity and almost perfect internal cohesion, lavishly illustrated, and written in that magnificent, magisterial style for which Braudel is justly renowned (but which, alas, does not seem to translate into English). It is a book which, thanks to its careful preparation and construction, may be enjoyed at many levels and many times over.

And yet the consequences of the prolonged period of composition have not all been wholly beneficial. In the first place, over the 27 years of parturition, Braudel has lost some of his notes and references. Commendably, he does not attempt to disguise this: but some of his citations are little more than a joke. We find assertions in the text based, so the author assures us, on a conversation that neither he nor his interlocutor can property recall; elsewhere statements are made which depend on the word of a colleague who cannot himself find his source. At the end of Volume I, there is even a special confession that, since the first version of the work was completed in 1967: ‘My reading notes have so often left their filing boxes that I have had to chase after hundreds, even thousands of references. And not always successfully. I must crave the indulgence of my scholarly readers for those cases where “référence égarée” unfortunately stands in place of an unrecoverable note.’ The scholarly reader may indeed overlook these cases, although they are rather numerous: but he will be more irritated by the cryptic quality of many of the documentary sources that Braudel did recover, for the extensive system of abbreviations is never explained and in some cases the references are incomplete.

There is a second, more serious consequence of the delays in completing this book: sometimes, the author’s reading has become out of date. This appears most clearly in Volume II. There are, for example, 848 notes to the first two chapters, but they include references to only 30 works written since 1970 – the date at which, one supposes, Braudel completed his research on the topics covered there. Not surprisingly, some of the points that he discusses have been elucidated more thoroughly, and sometimes better, elsewhere. On page 135 we are told that ‘the activities of Portuguese merchants, confronted by the immense Spanish empire, have just been illuminated by some new studies’: but the works referred to are not the excellent recent articles of Jonathan Israel, nor even the 1976 book of Gonzalo de Raparaz, but an article of Lewis Hanke published in 1961 and another by Raparaz from 1967.

But there are not many areas in which Civilisation Matérielle is out of date. On the contrary, a considerable part of the work rests upon as yet unpublished research. Braudel has long been an invaluable ornament of the international conference circuit: every year he attends the prestigious Settimana di studi at the Istituto Francesco Datini at Prato, whose programmes, since they began in 1969, have dealt with many of the topics covered by these volumes; in addition, he regularly participates in the journées of French historians with their colleagues from other countries (many of the meetings have been held and sponsored at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, of which Braudel is the Administrator-in-Chief); finally, of course, there are the larger international gatherings. The papers presented at these conferences, almost always circulated in typescript, normally incorporate the latest research in progress on a given topic, and often include a survey of recent literature. Braudel has made full use of these reports, and of the discussions which accompanied them, to bring his findings up to date – and in some cases, to offer a preview of future publications for the next few years. It is a service to the historical community for which everyone will be grateful.

Curiously, however, there are two exceptions to this admirable picture. Braudel’s remarks about England and the Netherlands are neither as well-informed nor as interesting as the rest. To begin with, he seems to lack that enviable familiarity with a wide range of sources, with different and even opposite interpretations, which he displays for France, Italy or Spain. Of course there are still some excellent passages (especially on Antwerp, where Braudel has wisely relied on the significant new research of a brilliant young Belgian historian, Hugo Soly), but the broad mastery is lacking. Very few Dutch works are cited, although the leading Dutch historians are among the best in Europe. How can the economy and society of the Golden Age be understood adequately without reading the works of Faber, Klein, van der Woude and van Dillen? Yet only one work by each of the last three is mentioned.

Matters concerning England are treated in much the same way (Scotland, paradoxically, is well covered, thanks to Braudel’s reliance on the work of Christopher Smout; Ireland is largely ignored). To be sure, the standard general works have been thoroughly used – Ashton, Gras, Mathias and the rest; so have some major studies on important sectors of economic activity – such as P. G. M. Dickson on finance and T. S. Willan on inland trade and trade-routes. But Braudel is seldom able to add anything to what these scholars have already said. In an attempt to do so, he turns repeatedly to the despatches of the French ambassadors in London (which are preserved at present in the State Archives in Moscow), or to works written about English affairs by foreign scholars. Thus pages 447-8 of Volume II contain an account of a weavers’ riot in Wiltshire in 1738, based on an article published in Portuguese by a Brazilian historian. This may seem fair enough. But, upon investigation, we find that the article is little more than a translation into Portuguese of two pamphlets about the riot, published in English Historical Documents Volume X. Braudel, like his Portuguese mentor, seems to be unaware of the classic studies of the Wiltshire cloth industry by Miss J. de L. Mann, who wrote an article of her own concerning the riot (and citing, inter alia, ten contemporary pamphlets).[7] One cannot envisage Braudel presenting his French public with an account of the economy of La Grande Nation based on Séc and Lavisse and spiced with anecdotes from British ambassadorial reports and the isolated articles of antipodean anthropologists.

In the long term, these minor blemishes and idiosyncrasies do not really matter. It will take little effort to update the passages concerning Britain and the Netherlands before the English translation, now in preparation, is published. This is, by any standards, a great book which is worth more as a whole than simply the sum of its parts. A pleasure to handle, a quarry of wisdom, a source of advice on the future, as well as superb history – this book possesses all the ingredients of a cult book, like the much-criticised Study of History by Arnold Toynbee, some thirty years ago. As a dollar-earner, we were told at the time, Toynbee’s opus ranked second only to whisky. Perhaps, one day, Braudel’s writings will stand in the export figures beside butter and broiler-chickens. Beatification has already begun. The Mediterranean was hailed in 1973 by John Bossy, a most sober and respectable English scholar, as ‘probably the best history book ever written’. Braudel was the first living historian to have his life and works scrutinised in the prestigious Journal of Modern History, with eulogies from professors Hexter and Trevor-Roper (neither much given to prasing their colleagues).[8] At the States University of New York at Binghamton we have had, since 1977, ‘The Fernand Braudel Center for the study of economies, historical systems and civilisation’, directed by the Master’s most devoted ‘Anglo-Saxon’ disciple, Immanuel Wallerstein. Even Toynbee only had a room named after him at Chatham House.

Braudel is a far better historian then Toynbee, and he is probably a better prophet. He is also more modest. His prescription for the world is disseminated discreetly, and his book will enrich and enchant those who read it even when they disagree with the author. As John Stuart Mill observed, over a century ago: ‘For our own part, we have a large tolerance for one-eyed men, provided their one eye is a penetrating one: if they saw more, they probably would not see so keenly, nor so eagerly pursue one course of the second living historian to be profiled in the Journal of Modern History, A. J. P. Taylor: ‘Error can often be fertile, but perfection is always sterile.’[9]

[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.