|Lucien Febvre, history of mentalities, Memory,
Civilization and Capitalism, Marc Bloch, historian, history
|Home > History & Historians > Famous Historian index > Fernand Braudel|
Fernand Braudel is seen by many as having been the greatest
historian of the twentieth century - his influence on the study
of history since the publication of his first major work fifty
years ago has been remarkably pervasive.
Philip II and the Mediterranean, a good subject. But why not the Mediterranean and Philip II? A much larger subject. For between these two protagonists, Philip and the middle sea, the division is not equal.In 1929 Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, who were then professors based at Strasbourg, established a journal called "Annals of economic and social history" (Annales d'histoire économique et sociale). As a Journal Annales was intended to promote a new and more open approach to history in a provocatively colloquial style, an approach defined mostly by its search for "a larger and a more human history", by its denial of all historical barriers and by its rejection of the traditional history of politics and government in favour of a deeper analysis of social and economic forces with the goal of departing from traditional political and military history to explore economic and social history, and to focus more on a long term perspective.
Braudel had become a successful schoolteacher and was recognised as an expert in his chosen area. In 1932 he returned to Paris and was nominated to a series of more and more prestigious lycées; in 1933 he married one of his earliest pupils from Algiers. In 1935 he made a decision that was to change his life: he accepted the offer of a five-year secondment to the new university being established with French help at São Paolo, Brazil. In the winter Braudel returned to Europe and worked in the archives of the great Mediterranean trading cities, such as Venice and Dubrovnik (Ragusa). He was an innovative researcher in two respects, conceptual and practical. He made the move from government archives to commercial archives, and by chance he invented the 'microfilming' of documentation, which he used in order to copy two or three thousand documents a day, to be read during the university year in Brazil.
Braudel afterwards said that it was whilst in Brazil that he became "intelligent" - it is possible that inherent challenges to his own background and cultural heritage posed by living in a non European society changed his outlook in important ways.
In 1937 he was offered, and he accepted, a post with a much lower salary at the main research centre in Paris, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, in one of the two nonscientific sections, the IVe Section (historical and philological sciences).
Lucien Febvre, who was now employed a professor of history at Collège de France, visited South America in 1937. He gave a series of lectures in Buenos Aires and, arising out of the earlier contacts between himself and Braudel, arrangements were made by Braudel for Febvre to also spend some time in Bahia, Rio de Janiero and São Paulo in Brazil. During this visit and the subsequent two-week voyage where Braudel and his wife travelled home from Brazil - with Lucien Febvre being a fellow passenger - the two historians became close friends.
Febvre became something of an intellectual adviser and confidant to Braudel, who, in his new work at the École Pratique des Hautes Études attempted to depart from traditional event-based historiography to focus more on economic and social history in a long-term perspective.
Braudel enrolled in the French army in 1939 and, following the defeat of his country, was captured by the Germans in 1940. He took advantage of his captivity to attempt to write what would become his masterwork The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. During several years, as a prisoner in Germany, he wrote on schoolboy booklets with only a very few books to which he could make some reference, (even these few books were denied him when his place captivity was changed from Mainz to near Lübeck in 1942!). Braudel shared his captivity with some twenty other prisoners and often had only a corner of a table, or even just a plank, to lean his work upon.
Despite these circumstances he constructed a work that combined a vast chronological and historical sweep with a mass of minute details, covering the entire Mediterranean world from the Renaissance to the sixteenth century. He managed this extraordinary feat by tapping into the vast knowledge he had accumulated over years of research. He sent the filled booklets to Lucien Febvre after one another. By the end of the war the work was substantiually finished as a first draft, it was rewritten, with critical advice supplied by Febvre, until it was finally presented in 1947 as a thesis of over one thousand pages.
In these times Braudel hoped for a professoral position at the University of Paris but was unsuccessful. He was, however, awarded a Doctorate on the basis of this thesis.
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, was first published in 1949 under its French title La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II; with a second revised and reorganised edition being published in 1966, in preparation for the American edition of 1973. It made Braudel an international reputation. The rising generation of historical scholars were brought up to believe in the words of its preface: the old history of events was indeed dead, "the action of a few princes and rich men, the trivia of the past, bearing little relation to the slow and powerful march of history . . . those statesmen were, despite their illusions, more acted upon than actors." In their place Braudel offered not "the traditional geographical introduction to history that often figures to so little purpose at the beginning of so many books, with its description of the mineral deposits, types of agriculture and typical flora, briefly listed and never mentioned again, as if the flowers did not come back every spring, the flocks of sheep migrate every year, or the ships sail on a real sea that changes with the seasons," but a whole new way of looking at the past, in which the historian re-created a lost reality through a feat of historical imagination based on detailed knowledge of the habits and techniques of the ploughman, the shepherd, the potter, and the weaver, the skills of the vintage and the olive press, the milling of corn, the keeping of records of bills of lading, tides and winds. It began to seem as important for a historian to be able to ride a horse or sail a ship as to sit in a library. Only the third section of Braudel's book returned to the history of events, "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs." Braudel taught us to see that historical time was divided into three forms of movement--geographical time, social time, and individual time--but that beyond all this the past was a unity and a reality. All these movements belonged together - "history can do more than study walled gardens" - this was the ultimate expression of the intellectual ambitions of the Annales school.
Braudel's picture invites us to consider the Mediterranean in its broadest geographical context, inclusive of the great civilisations of Iraq and Egypt, the steppes of Russia, the forests of Germany, and the deserts of the Sahara. For him Mediterranean history is an aspect of world history. Within the context of human history he emphasises two themes - Technology and Exchange. Human history is a history of technological mastery and the development of the skills basic to ancient civilisation: fire and water technology, pottery, weaving, metalworking, seafaring and finally writing. This emphasis on the physical realities of early civilisations brings out the actual quality of life with a vividness that no amount of reading other books can achieve. As to the importance of exchange, especially long-distance exchange: "Our sea was from the very dawn of its protohistory a witness to those imbalances productive of exchange which would set the rhythm of its entire life." It is imbalance that creates exchange and therefore leads to progress. These two ideas, first formulated in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and subsequently explored in depth in for the preindustrial world in Civilization and Capitalism, are applied in the Memory and the Mediterranean to the ancient Mediterranean with magnificent effect.
Memory and the Mediterranean begins with the history of the Mediterranean seabed itself-the layers of clay, sand, and limestone from which the Egyptians carved their ancient tombs and with which the megalithic temples in Malta were built. What follows is the epic story of how the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, the Greeks and Romans, and the great river civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt struggled and thrived in this demanding but gloriously beautiful world bordered and shaped by the Mediterranean.
Lucien Febvre died in 1956, and Braudel inherited the direction of both the "VIe section de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études" and the journal Annales. In the first institution he created and fostered one of the most extraordinary collections of talent in the twentieth century through his appointments: to mention only the most famous of his colleagues, they included the historians Georges Duby, Jacques Le Goff, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Maurice Aymard; the philosophers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault; the psychologists Jacques Lacan and Georges Devereux; the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu; the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; and the classical scholars Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Braudel worked hard to create a separate institution or building where all his colleagues could work together, and where a succession of foreign visitors could be invited as associate professors; this idea, begun about 1958, did not achieve physical shape until the opening of the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in 1970.
The new history of the sixties turned away from the factual certainties of economic and descriptive social history, and explored the "history of mentalities." It held that the historical world was created out of perceptions, not out of events, and we needed to recognise that the whole of history was a construct of human impressions.
Braudel's reply to this development was long in coming and remains incomplete; it was his last great projected work, The Identity of France. Three volumes were published before his death, comprising the first two parts on geography and demography and economy: these were for him traditional territory. With the third and fourth he would be entering new territory by writing about the state, culture, and society, and in the fourth about "France outside France."
In these volumes Braudel took the view that the peasant was the key to the history of France, and a true history of mentalities could only be written in the longue durée and from a long perspective.
In 1968 Braudel was giving a lecture series in Chicago when he was recalled to face--at the age of sixty-two--the revolutionary student movement. Like many radical professors he was sympathetic but uncomprehending of the anarchic streak in youthful protest; his interventions were paternalistic and not well received, and later he condemned the revolution because it made people less rather than more happy.
More dangerous still for Braudel was the reaction, which brought the conservatives under Pompidou to power, and which placed the blame, not on their own resistance to change, but on those who had tried to encourage change. Had not the "events" of 1968 proved the importance of the history of events? Where now was the long perspective? Conservatives claimed that either the new history (whatever it was) was responsible for the "events," or it was disproved by them. The claim was successful in blocking Braudel's access to government circles almost for the first time in his career.
Fernand Braudel retired in 1972 and, after more than ten years of retirement, died in November 1985 at Châteauvallon, on the Côte d'Azur, in Southern France.
"Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life."
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