Braudel’s Long Term

Peter Burke

  • Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Vol. I. The Structures of Everyday Life by Fernand Braudel, translated by Siân Reynolds
    Collins, 623 pp, £15.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 00 216303 9
  • Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century: Vol. II. The Wheels of Commerce by Fernand Braudel, translated by Siân Reynolds
    Collins, 670 pp, £17.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 00 216132 X
  • Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle: Vol. III. Le temps du monde by Fernand Braudel
    Armand Colin, 607 pp, frs 250.00, May 1979, ISBN 2 253 06457 2

Fernand Braudel has pulled it off twice. For most French historians, the massive thesis required until recently for the doctorat d’état is their one piece of sustained research, after which they graduate, or subside, into writing learned articles, or textbooks for schools and universities. Even Gibbon felt a profound sense of relief when he wrote the last lines of the last page of the Decline and Fall, and he did not take up any other grand project. Braudel is different. His thesis, on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, was certainly long enough and ambitious enough – the first edition of the book ran to some six hundred thousand words, and it has since been considerably enlarged. As a result of the war, most of which he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp near Lübeck (according to legend, writing his thesis from memory in exercise books which he posted to France), Braudel was not able to publish his Mediterranean till 1949, when he was 47. It was almost immediately recognised as a major work, and before long its author took his place as the head of the French historical Establishment, with a chair at the Collège de France combined with the presidency of the ‘VIth Section’ of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, a position from which he was able to direct French historical research. Despite these distractions, he began work on a second major book, publishing the first volume when he was 65 and the second and third volumes when he was 78. If this does not give him the long-distance record among historians, it does at least put him into the semi-finals, along with Joseph Needham.

Braudel’s Mediterranean is the outstanding achievement of the second generation of the so-called Annales School. Annales, which remains one of the world’s leading historical journals, was founded in 1929 by two professors at the University of Strasbourg, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. At that point Febvre and Bloch were anti-Establishment figures, rebels against the continued dominance of political history in France and believers in a ‘wider and more human history’, as they called it, a history which would be concerned with all human activities and draw concepts and methods from all the social sciences, from geography to psychology. It was this ‘new kind of history’ which Annales was founded to spread. Marc Bloch contributed to it with his study of Feudal Society (1939-40), a book which, unusually for its time, took modes of feeling and thought as seriously as systems of land tenure. In a similar way, Febvre, in his Problème de l’Incroyance au 16e Siècle (1942), asked whether it was intellectually or psychologically possible to be an atheist in the 16th century, and answered his question by trying to describe the ‘conceptual apparatus’ available in the period, its ‘outillage mental’.

Febvre liked to encourage bright young men, among them Braudel, who dedicated his Mediterranean to Febvre ‘with the affection of a son’. With its long geographical introduction, followed by a description of society, leaving till last the narrative of the major events of the period, Braudel’s book imitated the organisation of Febvre’s own doctoral thesis, which had also been concerned with Philip II: Philippe II et la Franche-Comté (1912). However, the Mediterranean was a considerably more ambitious work, a case-study designed to make general statements about the nature of space and time. Braudel emphasised the need to see the Mediterranean world as a whole – ensemble remains one of his favourite words – and in order to do so, he was prepared to go still further afield and study its ‘zone of influence’ in what he described as the ‘Greater Mediterranean’, stretching from the Atlantic to the Sahara.

In a similar way, he argued that it is impossible to understand the events of the reign of Philip II without placing them in the perspective of the long term – ‘la longue durée’, as he calls it: a perspective of centuries, or even, in the case of the geographical section of the book, of millennia. Insofar as this huge book has a general argument, it is that time moves at different speeds, and that it is useful to distinguish three ‘temporalities’ in particular. There is the short term, the time of events, time as it is perceived by contemporaries; the middle term, the time of ‘economic systems, states, societies, civilisations’; and finally, the very long term, the ‘almost timeless history’ of man’s relation to the environment. In a sense, this argument simply made explicit themes in the work of earlier historians, among them Febvre, who had long been interested in historical geography, and Bloch, who had written both economic history and the history of mentalities over the long term. Yet there can be little doubt that Braudel’s formulation, and his example, have been extremely influential on the history written in France and elsewhere over the last thirty years or so.

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