I remember a night near Bahia when I was enveloped in a firework display or phosphorescent fireflies; their pale lights glowed, went out, shone again, all without piercing the night with any true illumination. So it is with events; beyond their glow, darkness prevails. –Fernand Braudel
Fernand Braudel (1902–1985) was a French historian and a leader of the Annales School (c. 1929–1980), an anthropological approach to history that eschewed the normal emphasis on narrative, politics, and the lives of the great and powerful. Instead it combined geography, sociology, and economics with history in order to create a new and distinctively French school of historical writing. Although it is no longer an active research program, it was probably been the most broadly influential approach to history created in the twentieth century. Other prominent members included Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, Jacques Le Goff, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
Braudel was born in Luméville, a village about halfway between Paris and the Belgian border, the son of a math teacher. He became a history teacher in Algeria (then a French colony) during the ’20s, and spent much of the ’30s founding Sao Paulo’s first university. When the war broke out, he was drafted into the army, and was later captured by the Wehrmacht during the Battle for France (1940.) He spent the rest of the war in a detention camp, where he wrote most of the work that would make him famous: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II (1949.)
“I was at the beginning and I remain now an historian of peasant stock,” he said. The France he knew as a child—of small towns, seasonal rhythms, and ancestral traditions—influenced everything he wrote. In The Mediterranean World he wanted to tell the story of people who had been written out of the history books—people like his friends and neighbors in Luméville. Where the histories of Ranke and Marx were both elitist in their own ways, concentrating on people who “matter” in history, Braudel’s was explicitly the story of people who “didn’t matter” in history: the peasants. As a prisoner of war in a Nazi detention camp, he was forced to watch helplessly as the great and powerful ruined a once-proud civilization, and slaughtered the little people in their millions. There had to be more to history than the awful spectacle of folly, ambition, and carnage, repeated generation after generation—otherwise, it would be too grim to bear.
Concentrating on the lives of the “little people” was one way to get out of this perspective. Another was to think of space and time differently. The title of his history reflects his emphasis on the role of geography in history, and not simply in the sense of aiding or obstructing people’s immediate purposes. Rather, he understood the role of geography as determining certain behaviors, which, over generations, became traditions, attitudes, and habits. Thus there is an underlying geographic unity to any region, based, not on proximity or contiguity, but rather of climate and topography, which produces similar traditions, attitudes, and habits in places that may be very distant in terms of their culture, political allegiance, or physical proximity. On this view, a Catholic peasant living in the Pyrenees may have a great deal in common with an Ottoman peasant living in the Taurus Mountains on the other side of the Mediterranean, even though he speaks a different language, follows a different religion, and lives under a different empire. He may, in fact, have more in common with his Ottoman counterpart than he has with a peasant living just a few hundred miles away along the banks of the Rhone, cultural similarities notwithstanding. But all of them will have more in common with each other than with a peasant living on the shores of the Baltic, because the climate of the Mediterranean and the Baltic are so different from each other. In order to understand the role of geography in history, Braudel argued, we need to think of it in terms of its effects for people’s habitual outlooks, not just its effects on their immediate purposes. Further, we need to stand the traditional account of history on its head. Geography is not a footnote to events; on the contrary, it is events that are the footnote to geography.
Similarly, for Braudel, it was not the prosaic sense of time that mattered, but the way people thought about time. If we think of our own lives, for instance, we have a very peculiar sense of time. For most of us, it means the schedule and the clock: time to wake, time to work, time to relax, time to sleep. We never really separate ourselves from the schedule, at best we forget about it for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, or for maybe even a few whole days if we go camping. But usually we don’t even do that. As soon as we pick up our cell phone or talk to a friend, it’s only a matter of time before someone brings up the digits that, for us, signify the passage of time. When that happens, the schedule comes crashing back in, and we recall that we have to do a certain thing at a certain time on a certain day, or else a certain other thing that we want to avoid will happen. We live the vast majority of our lives “on the clock,” in a metaphorical or a literal sense.
The world of the sixteenth-century peasant was a world in which this concept did not, and could not, exist. She had no clocks and no appointments. For her, time meant the rhythms of life, the seasons, and tradition—sunrise and sunset; marriage, birth, and death; spring, summer, fall, and winter; the rituals of the Church and the holy days of the sacred calendar. It was the same for her as it had been for her mother and grandmother, and as it would be for her daughter and granddaughter, stretching off endlessly across an ocean of time forever. According to Braudel, traditional, event-driven histories conceive of time as the courte durée, or the short term. To capture the perspective of a sixteenth-century peasant, Braudel introduced the concept of the longue durée: an epoch, characterized not by change but by continuity.
These continuities of time and space worked together to create a mentalité, or characteristic way of thinking, feeling, and living. Just what the mentalité of the Mediterranean may have been, Braudel did not address in detail. He ignored religion—rather oddly, in an age of holy war and pious slaughter. He did not address another oft-mentioned characteristic of Mediterranean culture, the honor-shame complex. Indeed, we learn much of the lives, but surprisingly little of the outlook, of his Mediterranean peasants.
His fellow Annalists devoted much more time to this subject. In Centuries of Childhood (1960), Philippe Ariès argued that childhood as we know it—as a special phase of life characterized by curiosity, innocence, and playfulness—was the invention of the seventeenth-century. Before that time, “children” were regarded more or less as stupid dwarves, and did not really become “people” in the social sense of the word until puberty. In a similar vein, in The Royal Touch (1929) Marc Bloch explored the widespread belief, in medieval England and France, that a king could cure his subjects of diseases. In Montaillou: Promised Land of Error (1975), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (subject of a future article) combed through church records of a small town in southern France in order to reconstruct an entire way of life in that one place, c. 1325. In all of these histories it was not the event, or the person, but the mentalité that took center stage.
The Annales School was based on a social sciences approach to history that has fallen out of favor with the rise of postmodernism and the declining confidence of historians to recover an objectively true account of the past. However, its redefinition of the perimeters of historical inquiry has remained hugely influential. Historians think more broadly, and more deeply, about their craft as a result of their work.
This post is the twenty-fourth is a series on the philosophy of history; the previous article in the series is here, the next is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Jacques Barbe says
How about Fernand Braudel and Oswald Spengler ? Anything in common in their approach to history?