W. McNeil "Fernand Braudel, Historian"

Fernand Braudel, Historian.
McNeill, William H.
Journal of Modern History; Mar2001, Vol. 73 Issue 1, p133, 14p

When he died in 1985, Fernand Braudel was undoubtedly the world's most
influential academic historian. His reputation was founded on a
magnificent eleven-hundred-page book published in 1949 entitled La
Mediterranee et le monde mediterraneen a l'epoque de Philippe II. His
eminence was subsequently consolidated by editorship (1956-68) of an
influential journal, entitled Annales: Economies, societes,
civilisations, and by his presidency (1956-72) of the Sixieme Section of
the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, where a vigorous group of
young historians gathered around him to form a distinctive "Annales

Despite accumulating administrative duties, Braudel found time for
substantial revision of his famous book. Accordingly, a second edition
of The Mediterranean came out in 1966, significantly reshaped by new
queries and hypotheses and adorned by maps, charts, and illustrations
that had been absent from the first printing. Simultaneously, he worked
toward a world history, published in preliminary form in 1967 as
Civilisation materielle et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siecle. Then in his
old age Braudel launched, but failed to complete, another lengthy
history, this time of France. Its first sections appeared posthumously
in 1986 as L'Identite de la France, in three stout volumes.

Braudel also wrote a textbook for French secondary schools, entitled
Grammaire des civilisations (1963). It surveyed the world, civilization
by civilization, and was designed to broaden and modernize the teaching
of history in French schools. This reform, officially undertaken very
largely in response to Braudel's personal initiative, provoked vigorous
opposition from teachers and was swiftly abandoned. As a result, his
textbook died aboming and can safely be disregarded in trying to assess
his achievement as a historian. He also wrote numerous articles and left
other miscellaneous writings when he died, but the two massive works he
carried to completion, which I will refer to as The Mediterranean and
Civilization and Capitalism, for short, were what most mattered. Let me
therefore concentrate mainly on them.

Oddly, when he already appeared to outsiders as the dominant figure
among French historians, in his own opinion Braudel remained marginal,
excluded from full participation in the University of Paris by
old-fashioned historians who emphasized political events and
personalities and felt that much of what Braudel investigated--what he
referred to as "la longue duree"--was human geography rather than
history. "I, too, was excluded from the Sorbonne in 1947," he wrote in
1976. "When I defended my thesis that year, one of the judges suavely
said to me: 'You are a geographer: let me be the historian.' "[1]

His long-standing grievance against the historical establishment of the
Sorbonne presumably pricked him on to work harder and prove how wrong
they were. But, ironically, after the student uprising of 1968, when
Braudel did at long last become fully incorporated into the
degree-granting university establishment of Paris, he immediately became
a target for younger historians. Many of them were trained in the
Annales tradition, but, perhaps for that very reason, they speedily set
out, in their turn, to assert their own intellectual autonomy by
rejecting all or part of Braudel's style of history.

Generational friction among historians and other professional academics
may have been unusually acute in France, but the phenomenon is
universal. What was unusual about Braudel's career as a historian was
the way the detailed attention he lavished on the longue duree recorded
and reflected the transformation that France itself went through during
his lifetime, changing from an imperial nation with a majority of
citizens still living as tradition-bound peasants into a people whose
outlook was thoroughly urbanized (no matter where they resided) and
whose national identity and sovereign destiny was confused and
challenged by an emerging European community and by a swarm of
immigrants from North Africa and other parts of the former empire, who
fitted awkwardly into French society.

Braudel experienced this transformation vividly and in person. He later
declared that his mature approach to history had been profoundly
affected by childhood recollections from the village of Lumeville,
located in the department of Meuse not far from Verdun in northeastern
France. He was born there in 1902, and, even though his father was
teaching at a secondary school in Paris, the young Fernand spent his
first seven years (and vacations until the age of twenty) in Lumeville
with his maternal grandmother, living there in much the same fashion as
his peasant ancestors had done for centuries.

He could thus affirm: "I was at the beginning and I remain now an
historian of peasant stock. I could name the plants and trees of this
village of eastern France: I knew each of its inhabitants: I watched
them at work: the blacksmith, the cartwright, the occasional
woodcutters, the 'bouquillons.' I observed the yearly rotation of crops
on the village lands which today produce nothing but grass for grazing
herds. I watched the turning wheel on the old mill, which was, I
believe, built long ago for the local lord by an ancestor of mine. And
because all this countryside of eastern France is full of military
recollections, I was, through my family, a child at Napoleon's side at
Austerlitz, at the Berezina."[2]

He dedicated his last book, L'Identite de la France, to his grandmother
and begins it with the proud words: "I say once and for all: I love
France with the same passion, demanding and complicated, as Jules
Michelet."[3] The France Braudel loved was the France of his childhood:
a pastiche of villages and small towns where habitual routines conformed
to dictates of soil and climate, where face-to-face dealings were
"honest" in the sense that both parties knew the customary price to be
paid for goods and services, and everyone knew what to expect from
him-or herself as well. It was a world almost totally comprehensible and
wholly right in the eyes of an alert boy of six or seven, who, under his
grandmother's loving care, watched the seasons pass and came to
understand how and why his elders adjusted their activities accordingly.

Fond recollections of Lumeville undoubtedly provided the inspiration for
the longue duree that Braudel investigated so lovingly and lengthily in
The Mediterranean and in The Structures of Everyday Life, which
constituted the first volume of the final version of Civilization and
Capitalism. Lumeville, in short, provoked Braudel's most successful
innovation in the writing of history: his insistence on the basic
importance of geographically variegated everyday custom and almost
unconscious routines, which, he claimed, set limits to all deliberate
effort, whether in matters economic, political, or military. And just
because the variety of local custom was disappearing so rapidly from
rural France between the two world wars, the French reading public was
prepared to relish Braudel's detailed descriptions and emphasis on the
past importance of this vanishing world.

But the future historian did not remain a simple villager beyond his
seventh year, and Braudel's mature way of writing history, which paid
more attention to towns, trade, and finance than to agriculture,
reflected his urban upbringing. His urban life began in 1909, when he
started formal schooling, residing with his parents in Paris. In primary
school he encountered "a superb teacher, a man who was intelligent,
considerate, authoritarian, and who recited the history of France as
though he were celebrating Mass." Subsequently, he lived through World
War I as a student at the Lycee Voltaire (1913-20), where he studied
Latin and Greek, "adored history," wrote "too much poetry," and, he
later declared, "got a very good education." On graduation, "I wanted to
be a doctor, but my father opposed this insufficiently motivated career,
and I found myself disoriented in that year 1920, which was for me a sad
one. In the end I entered the Sorbonne as a student of history. I
graduated without difficulty, but also without much real enjoyment. I
had the feeling I was frittering away my life, having chosen the easy
way out. My vocation as an historian did not come to me until later."[4]

In 1923 he began teaching history in Algeria, first at a lycee in
Constantine and then, after a year, in Algiers itself. He continued to
teach there until 1932, except for a period of military service,
1925-26, which he spent in the German Rhineland as part of the French
army of occupation. The history he taught was what the French state
required: a sort of history he later disparaged because it dealt only
with superficial political and military events. Yet he was conscientious
in doing his duty and indeed claims to have emerged from the Sorbonne
with thoroughly conventional views, having focused his attention, like
"all leftist students of the time," on the French Revolution of 1789.

Although he was not enthused nor deeply committed to history, as thus
conceived, he was ambitious enough to wish for a university career. This
required him to write a thesis on the basis of primary sources and on a
scale that would qualify him for a doctorate. After considering and then
deciding that his "overly French sentiments" made investigating German
history unwise, he turned instead to France's older rival, proposing to
write on Philip II, Spain, and the Mediterranean. His teachers approved
readily enough, and Braudel accordingly began work in Spanish archives
at Simancas during his summer vacation in 1927.

For an intensely patriotic Frenchman to choose Spanish history was
itself surprising. Residing, as he did, in Algiers, on the opposite
shore of the Mediterranean, Braudel had begun to contemplate France from
a distance, and his thesis soon turned into an act of audacity,
provoking him to explore far wider horizons than those set by the
national frame within which historians usually confined themselves.
Indeed, an omnivorous curiosity was one of Braudel's enduring traits. In
the end, nothing short of the whole wide world satisfied him.

Accordingly, he did not long remain content with Simancas but proceeded
in subsequent years to investigate other Mediterranean archives, even in
places as far afield as Dubrovnik, on the Yugoslav coast. It was here,
he remarks, where Ottoman and Christian frontiers abutted on one
another, that in 1934 "for the first time I saw the Mediterranean of the
sixteenth century" in its everyday, mercantile aspect, revealed by
detailed records of "ships, bills of lading, trade goods, insurance
rates, business deals."[5]

A thesis entirely at odds with the expectations of his Sorbonne
professors thus began to take shape in Braudel's mind and in the
voluminous notes he accumulated from the archives he consulted. But for
a long time he remained unsure of where he was going. Energetic
researches collected a myriad of details about the half century of
Mediterranean history when King Philip's government in Spain struggled
against the Ottoman sultans for domination of that sea, while
transoceanic conquests and commerce began to shift the principal centers
of European economic and political power from Mediterranean to Atlantic
Europe. Little by little a vast human panorama emerged for Braudel's
inspection, and fundamental questions about the course of European and
world history began to stir in his fertile imagination. But the more he
discovered, the more there was to inquire into in archives yet untapped.

No wonder, then, "that among my friends and colleagues it was reported
that I would never finish this very ambitious work"--even though he
never ventured into the vast Ottoman archives and only used west
European languages. Nonetheless, his appetite for detail was insatiable,
and from the very beginning he discovered how to escape the limits of
vacation-time research by using a secondhand movie camera to photograph
thousands of documents each day he was able to spend in the archives. "I
was," he says, "undoubtedly the first user of tree microfilms, which I
developed myself and later read, through long days and nights, with a
simple magic lantern."[6]

Not only he, for his wife, Paule, whom he first met as a student in one
of his Algerian lycee classes, also became an assiduous and skillful
reader of the endless rolls of microfilm they accumulated. They worked
together, each selecting archival materials to be filmed. Afterward,
during evenings and weekends of the school year, one read aloud from the
films while the other took notes. To reduce eye strain, they shifted
roles from time to time. Braudel then summarized their findings in a
hurried scrawl, and his wife typed the result. And in spare time,
discussion back and forth helped to clarify Braudel's emerging
understanding of his subject. Their combined effort thus digested vast
masses of material in a way a single person could not possibly have
done. Mme Braudel, however, kept herself very much in the background,
and in later years tended her husband's fame and influence more
assiduously than he did himself. She, for example, was the person who
persuaded him to write the "Personal Testimony" from which I draw most
of my information about his career, and after his death she continued to
prepare volumes of his miscellaneous writings for publication.

In 1932, Braudel left Algiers for a teaching post at a lycee in Paris.
This allowed him to meet Lucien Febvre, who was destined to play a
critical role in shaping his subsequent career. Their encounters were
only casual at first. Febvre (1878-1956) was a pugnacious, would-be
reformer of French historiography. In particular, in 1929, he and Marc
Bloch co-founded and edited an innovative historical journal, Annales
d'histoire economiques, that sought to transcend mere war and politics
by embracing all aspects of human experience in what Febvre eventually
came to call "total" history. Bloch, who served in the French
Resistance, was caught and killed by the Nazis in 1944, whereas Febvre
survived the war quietly in Paris. Then in 1946, with the help of grants
from the Rockefeller Foundation, he reorganized the journal and gave it
a new title: Annales: Economies, societes, civilisations.

By proclaiming the importance of social and economic history and
provoking innumerable heated debates about how best to approach the
past, Febvre and Bloch inaugurated the "Annales school" in 1929. After
the war, Febvre expanded the imperial claims of his style of total
history, arguing that all the human sciences were inescapably
historical, so that only suitably trained historians could hope to unite
them scientifically. Then, when Febvre died in 1956, Braudel inherited
Febvre's position as editor, and in the ensuing twelve years brought the
Annales school to the peak of its influence.

From their initial encounters in the early 1930s, Febvre encouraged
Braudel to broaden the scope of his thesis researches, but the two men
remained only distant acquaintances until 1937. By then Braudel had
spent three memorable years teaching a general course in the history of
civilization at the newly established university in Sao Paulo, Brazil,
and was returning to France to take up a new appointment at the Ecole
Pratique des Hautes Etudes. By chance, he sailed on a ship that was also
carrying Lucien Febvre home from lectures in Buenos Aires. "Those twenty
days of the ocean crossing were, for Lucien Febvre, my wife, and me,
twenty days of happy conversation and laughter. It was then that I
became more than a companion to Lucien Febvre--a little like a son: his
house in the Juras at Souget became my house, his children my
children,"[7] And it was there, in Febvre's house in the Juras, that
Braudel wrote the first pages of his great book in the summer of 1939,
only to be interrupted by call-up for service in the French army just
before World War II broke out in September.

Braudel's war, like that of France as a whole, was brief and inglorious.
He was captured by the victorious Nazis in 1940 and after two years of
detention at Mainz found himself assigned to a special camp for unruly
captives located near Lubeck, on the bleak Baltic coast. He remained
there from 1942 until 1945, yet it was under these harsh conditions that
Braudel resumed work on his projected thesis. As a result, he actually
wrote three successive drafts of The Mediterranean, immured initially
within the citadel of Mainz and then on the shores of the Baltic. Here
is what he had to say about this amazing feat:

It was in captivity that I wrote that enormous work, sending school copy
book after school copy book to Lucien Febvre. Only my memory permitted
this tour de force. Had it not been for my imprisonment, I would surely
have written a much different book. ... Yes, I contemplated the
Mediterranean, tete a tete, for years on end, far though it was from me
in space and time. And my vision of history took on its definitive form
without my being entirely aware of it, partly as a direct intellectual
response to a spectacle--the Mediterranean--which no traditional
historical account seemed to me capable of encompassing, and partly as a
direct existential response to the tragic times I was passing through.
... All those occurrences which poured in upon us from the radio. ... I
had to out distance, reject, deny them. Down with occurrences,
especially vexing ones! I had to believe that history, destiny was
written at a much more profound level. Choosing a long time scale to
observe from was choosing the position of God the Father himself as a
refuge. Far removed from our persons and daily misery, history was being
made, shifting slowly as the ancient life of the Mediterranean, whose
perdurability and majestic immobility had often moved me. So it was that
I consciously set forth in search of an historical language--the most
profound I could grasp or invent--in order to present unchanging (or
very slowly changing) conditions which stubbornly assert themselves over
and over again. And my book is organized on several different temporal
scales, moving from the unchanging to the fleeting occurrence. For me,
even today, these are the lines that delimit and give form to every
historical landscape.[8]

These remarkable words describe an amazing achievement, even though they
glide over a long process of checking the text as it emerged from the
POW camp against the notes that the Braudels had accumulated before the
war. Those notes spent the war in the basement of their house in Paris,
hidden in a metal container to preserve them from bomb damage. After his
release in 1945, therefore, he and his wife spent almost two years
editing the array of school copybooks Lucien Febvre had received from
the German prison camp until, in 1947, Braudel was ready to defend his
thesis at the Sorbonne. Two more years passed before the thesis, in
polished and perfected form, was finally published in 1949.

But it remains true that this vast and impressive work took form in a
POW camp under Baltic skies. Very likely, without Braudel's apparently
crippling, but actually liberating, separation from the tangled mass of
his notes and supporting documentation, he might not have been able to
write about the Mediterranean by, as he says, "choosing the position of
God." In particular, his unique concept of different timescales for
changeable human behavior, operating simultaneously within the same
geographical space, might never have emerged.

This odd and logically dubious organizing device became second only to
his wide-ranging curiosity as the distinctive characteristic of
Braudel's approach to writing history. It was seldom imitated by others,
and Braudel himself encountered logical difficulties, especially in
dealing with an intermediate temporal rhythm, referred to as conjoncture
in the second edition of The Mediterranean, but which had no name and no
distinct presence in the first edition. Braudel says he borrowed the
term conjoncture and a closely associated word, structure, from French
economists, but he was never completely comfortable with the result, as
he made clear when he introduced part 2, "Collective Destinies and
Trends," in the revised edition of The Mediterranean as follows:

This second book has, in fact, to meet two contradictory purposes. It is
concerned with social structures, that is with mechanisms that withstand
the march of time; it is also concerned with the development of those
structures. It combines therefore what have come to be known as
structure and conjoncture, the permanent and the ephemeral, the slow
moving and the fast. These two aspects of reality, as economists are
well aware-indeed it is to them that we owe the original
distinction--are always present in everyday life, which is a constant
blend of what changes and what endures.

But it will not be easy to convey this complex spectacle in a single
attempt. The chapters that follow share the task among them, tackling in
turn the problems relating to economic systems, states, societies,
civilizations, the indispensable instruments of exchange, and lastly the
different forms of war. But the reader should not be misled. They are
all contributions towards a unique, comprehensive view of the subject,
impossible to achieve from any one vantage point. These subsequent
subdivisions are both convenient and necessary. They may not altogether
satisfy the intellect, but any schema is of value as long as it allows
for the best possible explanation with a minimum of repetition.[9]

Thus Braudel split time, the historian's indispensable guide, into a
logic-defying trinity--longue duree, conjoncture, evenement--to justify
the sequence of themes developed in successive parts of the book, even
though it did not "altogether satisfy" his own intellect nor fit
smoothly into the fascinating variety of themes his chapters explored.
After all, the book was based, initially, on a vast and miscellaneous
assemblage of notes. "It was my original idea, in the first edition of
this book, that the many dimensions of the Mediterranean in the
sixteenth century should be suggested through a series of examples, by
selecting certain important and indicative details. ... But this would
mean leaving enormous blank spaces between the specks of color; at best
it would only give an impressionistic notion of the distance that
separates our world from that of the sixteenth century. Today [in 1966,
when the second edition came out] on the other hand, I am more attracted
towards the language of what economists call 'national accounting.'"[10]

Braudel, in short, found himself torn between the generalizing language
of economics, which he believed to be "the most scientific of the
sciences of man,"[11] and the confusing variety of everyday life as
revealed in the archives he had consulted. Like his mentor, Lucien
Febvre, Braudel was a convinced partisan of the notion that history was
"a very imperfect science, but a science," even though historians had to
rely on "language of an old craft that must be formed close down to
earth" and depended on details and more details.[12] "But is it not a
good thing," he declared when lecturing in the United States in 1976,
"for history to be first of all a description, a plain observation, a
classification without too many previously held ideas? To see and to
show is half the historian's task."[13] The other half, presumably, was
to be scientific and systematic, seeking to find enduring structures and
borrowing economists' terms or those of other human sciences whenever

Braudel always remained tentative in trying to reshape the amorphous
multiplicity of history into a generalizing science. But while revising
The Mediterranean between 1949 and 1966 he did convince himself that
economists' terms were uniquely powerful, with the result that

nowadays we have two fairly well established "chains" to choose from,
one built by the research of the last twenty to thirty years--the chain
of economic events and their short-term conjunctures; the other
catalogued over the ages--the chain of political events ... which, to
the eyes of contemporary observers, took precedence over any other
series of happenings ...

For us there will always be two chains--not one. So even in the realm of
traditional history it would be difficult to tread exactly in Ranke's
footsteps. In turn, we should beware of assuming that these two chains
preclude the existence of others, or in falling into the trap of naively
assuming that one can explain the other, when even now we can guess at
further possible chains composed of data from social and cultural
history and even from collective psychology.[14]

Braudel's approach to history thus remained open-ended, comprising an
ever-broadening array of questions whose answers were tentative at best.
This, in fact, was what made the Annales under Braudel's editorship so
attractive to ambitious young historians. Anyone with a new question was
welcome in the journal's pages. New themes and widely discordant
approaches to the past thus proliferated under Braudel's benign
editorial jurisdiction, reflecting his own limitless curiosity and

Yet the revision of The Mediterranean, and all his efforts to make
history a more perfect science (often by venturing into hypothetical
quantification), fell short of his hopes and regularly provoked him to
call for further research to test his guesses and preliminary
calculations. Braudel, in effect, found himself with a collection of
learned, delightful chapters on his hands, each fascinating in itself
but only slenderly connected with what went before or followed after.

His technique in the first edition had resembled that of the pointillist
painters of the nineteenth century who used innumerable separate dots of
paint to depict everyday scenes, relying on the eye of the beholder to
blend them together into a comprehensible whole. And for innumerable
readers, Braudel's technique worked wonderfully well, conveying a vivid,
convincing sense of what life in the lands of the Mediterranean had
actually been like in the sixteenth century.

By comparison, the efforts he made to fit his magnificent, multicolored
portrait of Mediterranean life in the sixteenth century into a
scientific straitjacket, conceived along economistic lines, were
disappointing. It was like trying to put a saddle on a cow, hoping to
ride off into the sunset and discover scientific truth about the past.
Yet his quixotic attempt to reduce history to quantified economics is
also admirable in its own way, for it speaks to a deep human desire to
make whatever happens meaningful. Braudel himself was never sure that
the conjonctures he explored told the truth, much less the whole truth.
He saw himself as a pioneer, whose hunches and tentative formulations
would have to be corrected and replaced by subsequent more detailed and
precise quantifiers. And he never entirely forgot that other lines of
inquiry--evolving mentalites, for example, which Lucien Febvre had
turned to in his later years--might be needed to supplement the merely
economic measurements on which he focused most of his own effort.

An obvious--and deliberate--deficiency of The Mediterranean was the
rather perfunctory treatment of political affairs in the final part of
the book. This was, for Braudel, a way of proclaiming how superficial,
even trivial, were the preoccupations of his academic rivals. Yet in his
eagerness to make the shortcomings of merely political historians
apparent, Braudel introduced a larger and damaging structural
incoherence into his book. For the conjonctures and structures of
economic life, set forth in the middle sections of the revised edition,
dangle entirely unconnected to the political structures and changes of
part 3, and both of these 'chains' of happenings remained unrelated to
the (ostensibly unchanging) geographical longue duree so skillfully set
forth in the first 350 pages.

As a result, the first edition of The Mediterranean was, I believe, a
greater literary masterpiece than the second, but the intellectual
foundations of both editions were seriously flawed. For in addition to
the problem of how to understand the interactions of structure and
process on three different timescales, Braudel chose to neglect
dimensions of his subject that most historians regard as essential. In
particular, he had almost nothing to say about religion or about other
intellectual ideas or currents of opinion. Yet the age of Philip II
(reigned 1556-98) was when the clash of Protestants and Catholics
assumed a new intensity throughout Europe, competing with and often
outweighing the long-standing clash between Christians and Muslims in
the Mediterranean and eastern Europe. Were the longue duree, economic
conjoncture, and the decisions and acts of the Ottoman and Spanish
governments unaffected by the religious controversies of the age? It
seems unlikely, but this is what Braudel's pages imply without saying so

Braudel was not explicitly anticlerical, as Lucien Febvre and many other
Frenchmen of an older generation had been. His father was an unbeliever,
so Braudel had been brought up without any direct exposure to
Catholicism or any other sort of religion. Then during his imprisonment
in Germany he had occasion to discuss religion with some of his fellow
captives, including a few Catholic clerics who became his friends. But
he found himself incapable of sharing (or, perhaps, achieving) any sort
of personal religious experience and subsequently decided that, being
tone deaf to religion and religiosity, he had best say nothing about it,
no matter how prominent such controversies had been at the time.

He was fascinated instead by routines of everyday work and economic
exchanges. Bringing these back to life in all their concreteness was
what mattered most to him. That was where human reality was to be found.
Abstract ideas, political plans, and religious aspirations all were
superficial by comparison. His goal was to discover the firm, material
foundation of human society, letting others explore the more transitory
and trivial dimensions of the past if they so wished.

Thus, when revising The Mediterranean, Braudel considered omitting
politics and the person of Philip II entirely, but in the end he
decided, rather reluctantly, to retain the political narrative that had
been required of him by the expectations of the professors who approved
his thesis. But, amazingly, Braudel only got round to mentioning the
individuality and mind of Philip II on the very last page of his
narrative and did so only to dismiss him because "he was not a man of
vision: he saw his task as an unending succession of small details. ...
Never do we find general notions or grand strategies under his pen."[15]
The religious anxieties and beliefs that shaped a great deal of King
Philip's daily life and conscious behavior do not appear at all.

Braudel was aware of the oddity of such a vision of the past and added a
brief conclusion in 1965 to justify how he had shaped his book. Here,
then, are the very last words of the second edition: "So when I think of
the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a
destiny in which he himself has little hand. ... In historical analysis
as I see it, rightly or wrongly, the long run always wins in the end.
... I am by temperament a 'structuralist,' little tempted by the event,
or even by the short run conjuncture. But the historian's
'structuralism' ... does not tend to mathematical abstraction ... but
instead towards the very sources of life in its most concrete, everyday,
indestructible and anonymously human expression."[16]

Braudel did indeed portray concrete, everyday, and anonymous human life
in Mediterranean landscapes as no one had done before him, and this
remains the lasting, distinctive achievement of his greatest book. By
comparison, when he turned away from the Mediterranean landscape he knew
so well and addressed himself to the wider world, some of the sureness
of touch that made his pointillist technique so effective deserted him.
Consequently, although Civilization and Capitalism introduced a new
tripartite principle for historical analysis and contains many
instructive and convincing passages, especially those dealing with
Europe, it remains inferior to its predecessor. Regrettably, Braudel
knew too little about Chinese and other non-European peoples to pick out
key details unerringly, as he had done in The Mediterranean, and since
he relied entirely on European sources, the rich grounding in local
archives that had sustained his earlier book was also missing.

Civilization and Capitalism was initially conceived in 1950 as part of a
series, Destins du monde, edited by Lucien Febvre. It was designed to
serve as a companion piece to a book by Febvre himself, tentatively
entitled Western Thought and Belief, 1400-1800. But Febvre died in 1956
without leaving a publishable manuscript, thus compelling Braudel's
deliberately lopsided work to stand alone. This invited Braudel to
indulge his interest in details of everyday material life and his
predilection for economic history afresh, and it excused, more plausibly
than before, his indifference to art, science, and religion--or

The initial version, published in 1967, was designed for general readers
and lacked footnotes. This did not satisfy Braudel for very long. A
wider vision of the human condition in modern times had begun to dawn on
him, so he proceeded to revise and expand his study of the global
economy between 1400 and 1800, reissuing the publication of 1967 in 1979
as the first volume of three, with a new title and a set of laboriously
reconstituted footnotes based on elliptical notations he had made when
preparing the first version. He dedicated that volume to "Paule Braudel,
who has dedicated herself to this book." Presumably it was she who was
mainly responsible for reconstituting the footnotes, and it was she with
whom he talked over all his emerging ideas and hypotheses, testing them
out in what she subsequently described as "a kind of intellectual

Braudel's new master idea for organizing Civilization and Capitalism
depended on drawing a sharp distinction between capitalism and what he
called "market economies." He was aware of how unfamiliar such a
dichotomy was in the United States, and took the occasion of lectures at
Johns Hopkins University in 1976 to formulate his argument concisely,
declaring that "markets are found everywhere, even in the most
elementary societies," and that "even more complicated and developed
societies are literally riddled with small markets."[18] But, according
to Braudel, European capitalism brought a different, predatory sort of
economic system to the fore, featuring "unequal exchanges in which
competition--the basic law of the market economy--had little place and
in which the dealer had two trump cards: he had broken off relations
between producer and the person who eventually received the merchandise
(only the dealer knew the market conditions at both ends of the chain
and hence the profits to be expected), and he had ready cash which
served as his chief ally. ... Now the longer these chains became, the
more successful they are at freeing themselves from the usual
regulations and controls and the more clearly the capitalistic process
emerges." His argument continues: "These men knew a thousand ways of
rigging the odds in their favor. ... They possessed superior knowledge,
intelligence and culture. And around them they grabbed up everything
worth taking--land, real estate, rents. Who can doubt that these
capitalists had monopolies at their disposal, or that they simply had
power to eliminate competition nine times out of ten?" And he concludes:
"Let me summarize: There are two types of exchange; one is down to
earth, is based on competition, and is almost transparent; the other, a
higher form, is sophisticated and domineering."[19]

Braudel's words, as quoted above, reveal strong personal feelings. He
liked and admired the "market economy" almost as much as he delighted in
portraying the everyday routines of material life. Here was his
down-to-earth human reality. No less emphatically, he disliked
capitalists for taking unfair advantage of ordinary people, thanks to
their monopoly of ready cash and information about prices and credit in
distant places. And as a French patriot he also felt that his country
had been left behind, first by Italian and then by Dutch and English
capitalists. As a result, the rural and small-town France where he had
spent his early childhood had been "seized, remodeled, reduced to
inferiority by the capitalist economy that established itself in Europe
after the sixteenth century."[20]

Yet Braudel's distinction between capitalism and market economies
remains unconvincing to me. After all, competition often exists among
capitalists too, and local markets are not always transparent and
competitive, either. In describing market economies Braudel was surely
thinking of the style of life he had known as a child in Lumeville,
where buyers and sellers usually met on very even terms. But that sort
of local society was not universal. In Polish and Russian villages, for
example, when Braudel was growing up, no such equality of buyers and
sellers prevailed. Instead, a local tavern keeper, licensed as often as
not by a great landlord, commonly enjoyed effective local monopoly. In
other frontier societies, whether in the Americas or Australia, local
monopolies also prevailed, simply because transportation and
communication networks were too slender to permit effective local

Braudel's predatory capitalism therefore seems to me to be a transitory
phenomenon, depending on monopolies that disappear when transport and
communication catch up with market demand, only to reappear when new
technologies introduce new, evanescent monopolies. As a case in point,
consider the advantages enjoyed by Bill Gates and his like arising out
of the computer revolution of our time, whereas the industrial
monopolies of eighteenth-century England, featuring machine-made
textiles, have long since given way to cutthroat competition in the
production of cotton and other kinds of cloth.

Hence, Braudel's effort to structure economic affairs in Civilization
and Capitalism around (1) an almost unchanging material life, which
underlay both (2) local market economies, where conjoncture was the
principal disturber of everyday routines, and (3) an emergent, more
global style of capitalist exploitation strikes me as intellectually
unsatisfactory--a defect quite as serious as his failure to articulate
connections between the three levels of time he employed to organize The
Mediterranean. Yet he was never dogmatic, and he always recognized that
his organizing ideas were tentative, since "a work of history ... can
never claim to be complete, to have told the truth for once and for

More generally, "scientific," abstract generalizations were not his
forte. Braudel's great strength was always literary, and his attainments
as a writer were fittingly recognized in 1984, just a year before he
died, by his election to the Academie Francaise--making him, officially,
an immortal. He certainly wrote elegant, sometimes informal, always
discursive and vastly learned histories, enlivened by details and
informed by a quizzical, endlessly curious mind, while persistently
seeking structures to explain the past, even though he was always unable
to convince himself that he had in fact found the truth.

This is a fine, time-tested recipe for writing history. For Braudel's
literary art, combining vast learning and sustained research with lively
exposition of everything that interested him exactly replicates the
classical "inquiries" of Herodotus from which the European
historiographical tradition descends. Braudel was, indeed, a far more
faithful follower of Herodotus than any other historian of our age.

Braudel's truly exceptional literary skill was reinforced by two
features of his inquiries that seem likely to become landmarks of future
historiography throughout the world. First is the emphasis he put on the
overriding importance of circumstances and processes of which
contemporaries were quite unconscious. This means that the most
meticulous transcription of contemporary sources no longer can pretend
to be an adequate account of times past, as the political historians,
against whom Braudel revolted so vigorously in his youth, had tended to
assume. Conscious purposes were not enough: processes--longue duree,
conjoncture, and who knows what else?--defeated even the most careful
human plans. Of course, everyone has always noticed that intentions and
experience never quite coincide. Traditional explanations attributed
such discrepancies to powerful spirits, or to Fortune, Chance, or God's
hidden purposes. Braudel was not content with such answers, even though
the structures and conjonctures he offered as partial explanations never
satisfied him either.

A large company of Braudel's contemporaries among academic historians
also looked behind conscious, recorded purposes in search of
intellectually intelligible processes shaping the past. No consensus has
emerged, but the effort is unlikely to be given up. Through his own
books and as leader of the post-World War II generation of French
historians of the Annales school, Braudel played a central role in
shifting professional attention from what the dead had said and
done-deliberately and consciously--to unintended, collective processes
that their behavior set in motion. This, it seems to me, is the central
departure from older views that affected the historical profession after
World War II. Braudel played a conspicuous role in forwarding this
change, and his enduring influence will probably rest on that simple

A second feature of Braudel's accomplishment was the worldwide vision of
the past that he embraced. His reach for far horizons was already
evident in The Mediterranean, where he explored the (quite literally)
global rivalries of the Spanish and Ottoman governments, while seeing
the Sahara less as a barrier than as a navigable sea of sand connecting
Mediterreanean and African peoples. Braudel's globalism became explicit
in Civilization and Capitalism, even though he was far more familiar
with the European scene than with other parts of the earth and always
remained quintessentially French in taste and outlook.

World history, too, is a growing field of inquiry, though it has yet to
achieve full respectability among academic historians, whether in France
or elsewhere. Nonetheless, Braudel's venture into global history ranks
among the most impressive demonstrations yet conceived and carried
through of how a single author can create an elegant, intelligible
portrait of several centuries of the world's history.

These achievements, together with the array of Annalistes that Braudel
helped to train, assure him of a leading place among historians of the
twentieth century. Moreover, his literary skill and his energetic
inquiry into how ordinary people lived seem likely to assure
long-enduring interest in what he wrote. Braudel, in short, was an
authentic heir of Herodotus and deserves his reputation as the most
influential historian of his time, despite the defects of his
(Thucydidean) efforts to reduce the multifarious variety of human
affairs to the constraints of generalizing science.

1. Fernand Braudel, foreword to French Historical Method: The
Annales Paradigm, by Traian Stoianovich (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976), p. 15.
2. Fernand Braudel, "Personal Testimony," Journal of Modern History
44 (December 1972): 448-49.
3. Fernand Braudel, L'ldentite de la France, 3 vols. (Paris, 1986),
my translation. Jules Michelet (1798-1874) wrote a multivolume History
of France, whose literary power and anticlerical, nationalistic fervor
did much to shape French republicanism between 1871 and 1914.
4. Braudel, "Personal Testimony," p. 449.
5. Ibid., p. 452. Quotations in the preceeding paragraphs also
derive from this brief text.
6. Ibid., pp. 451-52.
7. Ibid., p. 453.
8. Ibid., pp. 453-54.
9. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World
in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds, 2 vols. (Berkeley,
Calif., 1995), 1:353-54.
10. Ibid., 1:419-20.
11. Braudel, L'Identite de la France, 1:19.
12. Ibid., p. 9. For the quotation regarding historians, see
Braudel, foreword to Stoianovich (n. 1 above), p. 17.
13. Fernand Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and
Capitalism, trans. Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore, 1977), pp. 20-21.
14. Braudel, The Mediterranean, 2:902.
15. Ibid., 2:1236.
16. Ibid., 2:1244.
17. Paule Braudel, personal communication, April 1999.
18. Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism,
p. 30.
19. Ibid., pp. 53, 57, 62.
20. Braudel, L'Identite de la France, p. 20, my translation.
21. Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, trans. Sign
Reynolds, 3 vols. (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), 3:619

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