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.

It goes without saying that a book of such scope could not be based, as theses are supposed to be, on the primary sources. Mediterranean culture is a notarial culture which secreted archives on a grand scale from the later Middle Ages on, and in Venice alone there are kilometres of documents relevant to Braudel’s work. Despite his tour of Mediterranean archives in the 1930s, photographing documents with a cine-camera, he had very largely to build with other men’s bricks. But for anyone who knows the studies he used, it is fascinating to see how he reinterprets the data and relates limited conclusions to a larger whole.

Braudel’s second book is even more ambitious. Not long after the publication of the Mediterranean, he was invited by Lucien Febvre to help him write a history of Europe from 1400 to 1800. Febvre was going to write on the history of Western thought, while Braudel dealt with material life. His part of the project turned into a three-volume study which has taken thirty years to complete. Like the Mediterranean, it is built on a ternary system: Braudel distinguishes three forms of material life, which he compares to a house with three floors. On the ground floor is civilisation matérielle, defined, much like the Zivilisation of Oswald Spengler and Alfred Weber, as ‘repeated actions, empirical processes, old methods and solutions handed down from time immemorial’, the equivalent of the ‘almost timeless history’ of the first part of the Mediterranean. On the middle level there is vie économique, the world of exchange, with its markets and fairs, craftsmen and merchants. At the top, a kind of superstructure, there is the sophisticated mechanism of capitalism, which was only assembled in the course of the period with which the trilogy deals. At times, Braudel seems to identify these three levels with the three functions of consumption, distribution and production, with which they overlap rather than coincide.

The first volume of the trilogy, which was originally published in 1967, and here appears in a revised version, deals in turn with population, food, housing, clothes, energy, transport, money and towns. Having planned a study of Europe, he has characteristically expanded it to take in much of the world. Thus his first chapter, ‘Weight of Numbers’, makes the point (following the German demographer Ernst Wagemann) that the long-term trends in the population of Early Modern Europe (expansion in the 16th century, stagnation in the 17th, expansion again in the 18th) also held good for China and India. Europe and Asia moved in the same rhythm.

Again, the chapter on ‘Daily Bread’ compares and contrasts the advantages and disadvantages of wheat and other grains with those of rice in the Far East and maize in America, noting that the rice-fields ‘brought high populations and strict social discipline to the regions where they prospered’, while maize, ‘a crop that demands little effort’, left the Amerindians ‘free’ (if that is the word) to labour on ‘the giant Mayan or Aztec pyramids’ or ‘the cyclopean walls of Cuzco’. In this perspective, the peasants of Early Modern Europe appear to have achieved a happy mean, despite their back-breaking labour and low returns.

Braudel’s method in the ‘Daily Bread’ chapter is typical of his general approach. With an artist’s eye for the vivid or significant detail, he builds up a picture of Europe like a mosaic, juxtaposing contemporary accounts of different regions, from the Paris basin to the Russian steppe, among which the Mediterranean continues to occupy an important, indeed privileged, position. Then, with his usual need, and capacity, to see things on a grand scale, to grasp the whole, he leaves Europe for a tour of the rest of the world, in order to come back to Europe at last and to define its position more exactly by means of comparison and contrast. Europe stands out as a continent of grain-eaters, relatively well-equipped with furniture (so that people tended to sit rather than to squat or kneel); a continent where labour was relatively expensive so that inanimate sources of energy were relatively well developed, at least by the 18th century; where transport problems were less acute not because roads or waterways were better – water transport was highly developed in China – but because Europe was relatively compact.

It is true that some chapters deal at length with the world outside Europe, while in others its place is more decorative than structural, and it is also true that Braudel’s knowledge of other cultures, although far better than that of most European historians, is patchy. He seems, for example, to have discovered Needham’s work relatively late, and to have made little use of it. The volume – indeed the whole book – is something of a compromise. If it is supposed to be a world history of the period, it is a curiously Eurocentric one, while if it is supposed to be a history of Europe, then the digressions outside it, fascinating as they may be, are unnecessarily long. Yet when a book is at once as novel, as exciting and as illuminating as The Structures of Everyday Life, it would be a mistake for anyone except a librarian to worry about the category into which it should be placed.

In the 15 years since it was first published, this volume has been subjected to a number of criticisms. For example, Braudel’s epigram that ‘a town is a town wherever it is’ drew the fire of the late Philip Abrams, who accused him of neglecting the social context of specific towns and indeed of ‘reification’. Abrams is paid the rare compliment of a direct response in the revised edition, in which Braudel explains that he did not mean that ‘all towns are alike’ but only that ‘they necessarily speak the same language.’ More generally, Braudel has been accused, by some Marxist historians, of eclecticism and lack of rigour, and it is certainly true that his wide-ranging curiosity, his instant sympathy for new ideas, and his ability to see phenomena from different points of view, are not matched by a concern for strict consistency. For example, Braudel will not be tied down either to an acceptance of economic determinism or even to a rejection of it.

The critics have scarcely had time to react to Braudel’s second and third volumes, one of which has just appeared in English, while the translation of the other is still in the press. It is difficult not to be dazzled and bewildered by the variety of the information and ideas offered in these volumes, nearly thirteen hundred pages in all. Volume II, The Wheels of Commerce, opens by evoking the traditional market, and the bustle and mess of that noisy, animated, polyglot multi-coloured world. In its inventory of the ‘instruments of exchange’, it passes on to the pedlar, who trudged from village to village carrying in his pack not only needles and almanacs but, so we are told, Bohemian glass and even horseshoes. From the pedlar we pass to the fair: the Ascension Fair at Venice, the horse fair at Antwerp, ‘the equivalent of today’s Motor Show’, and many others. There is a section describing merchants, many of them as exotic as the goods they bought and sold, for Braudel emphasises the role of outsiders in international trade – Huguenots, Jews, Old Believers, Portuguese in Spanish America, Banyans in India, Armenians in Persia, Turkey and Muscovy. The rest of the volume is given over to an analysis of the structure of capitalism, described in a characteristically paradoxical way as a system the units of which lay in its ‘unlimited flexibility’.

One striking feature of The Wheels of Commerce is its balance between abstract and concrete, general and particular. The author frequently interrupts his general survey to offer case-studies, such as that of an agricultural ‘factory’ in the Veneto in the 18th century; the Amsterdam Stock Market, that ‘confusion of confusions’, as a 17th-century participant described it, already inhabited by bulls and bears; and the market in sugar, or, more exactly (though the distinctions are never explained), in ‘Muscovado, cassonade, seven-pound sugar loaves, royal sugar, semi-royal sugar, candy sugar and red or Cyprus sugar’. Braudel retains his eye for the vivid detail which summons up a whole scene. At the fair of Medina del Campo in Castille, he tells us, Mass used to be celebrated on the cathedral balcony so that ‘buyers and sellers could follow the service without having to stop business.’

These descriptions are complemented by an analysis which draws on a wide range of disciplines. Indeed, at one point the author describes his book as not so much a work of history as a hybrid, the offspring of history and the social sciences. In this respect, too, Braudel is the heir of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. In The Wheels of Commerce he takes ideas from geographers, such as Walter Christaller; from demographers, such as Alfred Sauvy; from sociologists, such as Georges Gurvitch; from social anthropologists, such as Marcel Mauss; and from economists, such as J.A. Schumpeter and Simon Kuznets, not to mention the unclassifiable polymath Karl Polanyi, debates with whom have a central place in the volume. Polanyi argued that the self-regulating market economy had emerged only recently in world history, in the course of the ‘Great Transformation’, as he called it, of the 19th century. Braudel, on the other hand, suggests that a market economy can be found co-existing with a non-market economy in the Early Modern period – and much earlier.

Two features of his analysis are particularly distinctive. The first is a stress on the system as a whole, rather than the individuals of groups working within it. Where Schumpeter explained the rise of capitalism in terms of the abilities of entrepreneurs, Braudel insists that the innovator ‘was borne along on a rising tide’. Again, his discussion of the economic role played by Jews, Parsees, Copts and other minorities concludes that ‘it is surely the social machinery itself which reserves to outsiders such unpleasant but socially essential tasks ... if they had not existed, it would surely have been necessary to invent them.’ If this preference for structural explanations reveals Braudel as a determinist, he is a determinist of an unusually subtle kind, for his multilateral approach is as distinctive as his stress on system. ‘Capitalism,’ he writes, ‘cannot have emerged from a single confined source: economics played a part, society played a part, and culture and civilisation played a part.’ Both Marx and Weber are rejected for offering one-sided explanations of capitalism, and The Wheels of Commerce ends with a chapter on ‘society’ in the widest sense, the ensemble des ensembles – neatly translated by Sian Reynolds as the ‘set of sets’ – which discusses the influence on the economy of the social hierarchy, politics and culture.

Taken by itself, the analysis offered in Braudel’s second volume appears too static, and its readers should be aware that Braudel moves from structure to process in Le Temps du Monde, which is to appear in English under the title The Perspective of the World. Although the range of reference remains wide, this final volume draws more heavily than its predecessors on the ideas of one man, Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein is almost as difficult to classify as Polanyi. Trained as a sociologist, he worked in Africa. Convinced that he could not understand contemporary Africa without understanding capitalism, he turned to economics. Convinced that he could not understand capitalism without going back to its origins, he turned to history, the history of the ‘European World Economy’ from 1500 onwards. Wallerstein is in his turn indebted to Braudel, but his history of capitalism also draws on the work of Third World economists such as Raul Prebisch: notably on their concepts of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, and their argument that the development of the West and the underdevelopment of the rest of the world are two sides of the same coin. Wallerstein’s suggestion is that ‘hegemonic power’ in the world economy belonged first to the Dutch, then to the British, and finally to the United States.

Le Temps du Monde is also concerned with world economies and with the sequence of dominant powers, but it begins, as one might have expected Braudel to begin, with the Mediterranean. According to him, it was 15th-century Venice which first achieved economic hegemony. Venice was followed by Antwerp, and Antwerp by Genoa, whose bankers controlled the economic destinies of Europe for two generations in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Fourth in sequence came the Dutch Republic, or more exactly Amsterdam, which Braudel sees as the last of the economically dominant cities. Then, with a characteristic twist, he turns the problem inside out and discusses the failure of other parts of the world, including France and India, to achieve a similar dominant position, before ending with Britain and the Industrial Revolution.

Neither the French nor the English edition of Braudel’s three volumes has been seen through the press with the necessary care. Many names are misspelled and some of the illustrations lack adequate captions. More serious, Braudel’s knowledge of the secondary literature has remarkable gaps. He seems to know not only what has been published but what is going to be published in France, Spain and Italy, but he quite often misses well-known works in English which bear on his central arguments. To take only one example, it would have been interesting to have his reactions to Mark Elvin’s suggestion, in The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1974), that the Chinese economy failed to grow after a certain point because it was caught in a ‘high-level equilibrium trap’. A similar explanation might be valid for the slackening of Dutch economic performance in the 18th century.

My most serious criticism of Braudel is that he has in a sense remained the prisoner of his original division of labour with Lucien Febvre. As he shifted his theme from a survey of material life to an explanation of the rise of capitalism, he should surely have placed a greater emphasis on values, on mentalities. Spain and China, for example, seem to have been anti-enterprise cultures, while the Dutch Republic and Japan were pro-enterprise cultures, and these culture differences are relevant to their respective economic histories. Braudel does not deny the importance of cultural factors in his story, but he finds curiously little to say about them. In this respect he has either ignored or rejected the heritage of Bloch and Febvre.

Despite these and other possible criticisms, these three volumes confirm their author’s right to the world heavyweight title. One can only be grateful for this demonstration that it is still possible, in the late 20th century, to do original and scholarly work on a grand scale, to resist the pressure to specialisation. One can only admire the tenacity with which he has carried out two large-scale projects over a period of 50 years. And he has now embarked on a three-volume history of France!