Featured Title

Memory and the Mediterranean
Memory and the Mediterranean

 

Line
About the Author Excerpt


A previously unpublished work by one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century: the story of the Mediterranean in ancient times, from its geological beginnings to the great civilizations that flourished along its shores. Written in the late 1960s—the decade during which Fernand Braudel was also atwork on his monumental Civilization and Capitalism—the manuscript was set aside on the death of the author’s longtime friend and editor, Albert Skira.

The magnificent text 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.

With its extraordinary depth and range of knowledge, Braudel’s superb history—expertly annotated to reflect recent archaeological discoveries—brings to life as never before the beginnings of Western culture.
Author Name

Fernand Braudel (1901-1985), the most celebrated French historian of the postwar era, taught at the Collège de France and was a member of the École Pratique des Hautes Études. His widely acclaimed works include A History of Civilizations, On History, The Structures of Everyday Life, and The Wheels of Commerce.


Author Name


Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was the greatest historian of the twentieth century. So universal has his influence been on the study of history since the publication of his first major work fifty years ago that it is almost impossible for us to remember what history was like before Braudel. For that reason we often tend to forget how important was this revolution in historical method: it takes a discovery like that presented here, of a lost work by the master on his favourite theme, to remind us of our debt to him.

Braudel liked to think of himself as a typical Frenchman from the provinces. In his memory he belonged to a peasant family from Lorraine, on the borders of France and Germany. Because of poor health he had indeed spent his early years in the village of Luméville-en-Ornois at his paternal grandmother's smallholding, with its chickens, stone walls, and espaliered fruit trees, in a world that (as he described it) was still centred on the blacksmith, the wheelwright, the itinerant woodcutters and an ancient mill. He subsumed the contemporary realities of industrial Lorraine and the ever-present threat from Germany into this idyllic picture, along with the fact that his later childhood and adolescence were spent in Paris and its suburbs, where his father was a teacher of mathematics. On leaving school Braudel did not compete for entry to the elite institution of the École Normale Supérieure but instead went to the Sorbonne. There he was attracted to economic and social history and the study of ancient Greece, and to the lectures of history professors outside the mainstream, which usually had audiences of only four to seven people. He chose resolutely to identify himself with the margins of French society and to escape from his Parisian bourgeois background to a career in the provinces. In 1923, at the age of twenty-one, he travelled to his first post as a history teacher, at the grammar school of Constantine in Algeria, and here he saw the Mediterranean for the first time.

His true intellectual formation began in Algeria, a world in which a young man could take himself seriously. He turned from studying the past of Lorraine (which he came to think was too full of national problems) to that of Spain, and he began to contemplate a traditional historical thesis on the Mediterranean policy of Philip II between 1559 and 1574; by 1927 he was publishing reviews of books on Spanish history. But he was also fascinated by the new history of Lucien Febvre, based on the science of human geography, as exemplified in a book written in 1913 but not published until 1922, La Terre et l'évolution humaine, translated as A Geographical Introduction to History (London, 1932). Braudel read the book in 1924. As usual his approach was cautious: it was three years before he began to write to Febvre, and their close personal friendship did not begin for another ten years. Meanwhile, in his first reply to Braudel, Febvre had planted a serious doubt about Braudel's subject of research:

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.
Braudel was a successful schoolteacher and became known 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. Then he made a decision that was to change his life: in 1935 he accepted the offer of a five-year secondment to the new university being established with French help at São Paolo, Brazil. It was a golden chance for him and for others of his generation who had not followed the easy road to break into French academic life; at least one of his contemporaries and friends in that enterprise is now equally famous--the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

"It was in Brazil that I became intelligent." Braudel was always an eminently practical man. He managed to rent a large mansion, complete with a Chevrolet and an Italian chauffeur, from someone who conveniently spent the period of the university terms in Europe. Each 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 microfilm, which he used in order to copy two or three thousand documents a day, to be read during the university year in Brazil.

I bought this machine in Algiers: it belonged to an American cameraman and was used to make rough images of scenes for films. On it you had a button that allowed you to take one photo at a time, or you pressed it and you took the whole shoot at once. When I was offered it, I said to the cameraman, "Photograph me that: if I can read it, I'll buy it." He made me a magnificent photo. And that's how I made kilometres of microfilms. It worked so well that when I was in Brazil I could spend whole days reading documents.
In 1936, during the long voyage back to Brazil in a cargo boat, he told his wife that he had decided to make the Mediterranean the centre of his research. A year later he was offered and 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). By chance the boat on which he and his wife travelled home from Brazil in 1937 was carrying Lucien Febvre back from a lecture tour in Buenos Aires; during the two-week voyage they became close friends. Febvre, now aged sixty and a professor at the Collège de France, had been one of the two young professors at Strasbourg who founded the polemical journal Annales in 1929. The journal sought to create 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" (Marc Bloch), 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. From this time on Febvre became Braudel's friend, intellectual adviser and confidant.

When war began, Braudel was mobilised in the artillery and stationed on the frontier in Alsace; he saw no fighting, but he was forced to surrender after the Germans encircled the French army. Despite the armistice, in 1940 he was imprisoned at Mainz, where he remained until 1942. Then he was denounced by fellow officers as being a supporter of De Gaulle rather than Pétain and sent to a special "discipline camp" for "enemies of Germany" at Lübeck. He remained until 1945. He was reasonably happy amid all sorts of "dissidents"--partisans of De Gaulle, French Jewish officers, sixty-seven French priests of all descriptions, escapees, "all the best types in the French army," together with English airmen and Dutch, Swedish and Polish officers. He only missed the German books that he could find in the municipal library of Mainz.

It was during these four years of captivity that Braudel wrote the first draft of his monumental work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Assisted by a few books, but using mainly his prodigious memory of his prewar researches, 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. This immense intellectual achievement was written in exercise books on a small plank in a room shared with twenty prisoners. At intervals parcels of the manuscript would arrive in Paris for criticism by Febvre; by the end of the war the work was finished, only to be rewritten at the rate of thirty to fifty pages a day until it was finally presented in 1947 as a thesis of 1,160 pages.

The transformation of Braudel's thought in captivity remains a mystery, although recent publications of writing from this period offer some insights. In one sense The Mediterranean was, as he said, "a work of contemplation," his escape into a world that he could control and whose detailed realities he could believe in with greater ease than the artificial world of prison life. In 1941 he wrote a rare letter from Mainz to his wife (who was living in Algeria): "As always I am reading, writing, working. I have decided to expand my work to the period from 1450 to 1650: one must think big, otherwise what is the point of history?" In the two camps he gave miniature university lectures to his fellow prisoners. Notebooks containing the text of some of these have been discovered and were published in 1997. They show that the reflective experience of prison was crucial to his historical thought, for in these lectures he sets out virtually all the great themes that he presented after the war.

Shortly before the presentation of his thesis, Braudel had been passed over as Professor of History at the Sorbonne in favour of a more conventional historian. At his rival's viva voce examination, he sought to justify the choice, telling Braudel: "You are a geographer; allow me to be the historian." In retrospect it is clear that this moment marked a turning point in the intellectual history of France: over the next thirty years the Sorbonne stagnated as a conservative backwater, while outside the university system Braudel proceeded to construct his great empire of "the human sciences," and to open a series of vistas that could perhaps never have found their place within a more conventional university atmosphere, where orthodoxy in teaching was valued above originality of ideas.

Braudel made his reputation with The Mediterranean, which was published in 1949; a second revised and reorganised edition was published in 1966, in preparation for the American edition of 1973, in the magnificent translation of SiČn Reynolds (who takes leave of Braudel with the present book). With this new edition Braudel became the best-known historian in the world. My generation was 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, which was reborn after the war and the Nazi execution of Marc Bloch, one of its two founders and a hero of the resistance. Braudel became a member of the Annales editorial board. Meanwhile, in 1947, a new section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études had been formed (with the help of money from the Rockefeller Foundation): the famous VIe Section in social sciences, with Febvre as its president and Braudel as his assistant. In 1949 Braudel was elected to the Collége de France, and in the same year he was given the immensely powerful position of president of the agrégation in history, the general qualifying examination for teaching in secondary schools. His reforms were resisted by the conservatives, but they could not dislodge him until 1955. The record of what he sought to achieve is contained in his little textbook for teachers called Grammar of Civilizations (written between 1962 and 1963, republished in 1987), designed to introduce contemporary history and world history to the school curriculum. History was divided into six civilizations--Western, Soviet, Muslim, the Far East, southeast Asia, and black Africa, all of course of relevance to a France still, at least in memory, committed to its status as a colonial power. Braudel's attempts at reform were destroyed by an unholy alliance of right and left, for he was one of the few French intellectuals who belonged to neither camp. He was therefore hated by Georges Pompidou, who held proto-Thatcherite views on the unimportance of all history apart from the history of one's own country and who irrationally regarded Braudel as responsible for the events of 1968. At the same time Braudel was denounced by orthodox communists as "a willing slave of American imperialism."

Lucien Febvre died in 1956, and Braudel inherited the direction of both the Ecole Pratique 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. And it was only after he retired in 1972 that the VIe Section finally metamorphosed into its present status as a new and independent teaching institution, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

In and through Annales Braudel sought to promote and defend his conception of history. For thirty years the great debates on the nature of history took place in its pages. In retrospect one can see four successive but overlapping issues with which he engaged.

The first debate was provoked by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's claims that the theory of structuralism offered an explanation of human social organisation. Braudel had been possibly the first historian to use the word structure in his original thesis, but he saw that the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss was fundamentally antihistorical, in that it sought to explain all human societies in terms of a single theory of structures. The notions of difference and of change that are basic to all historical thought were simply dismissed as irrelevant to the search for a universal underlying structure, which existed in the human mind if not in the physical universe itself. Against this, in a famous article in Annales (1958) on the "longue durée," Braudel sought to explain his own historical conception of the varieties of underlying forces influencing human society, which he had already formulated during the writing of his thesis in relation to the static forces and the slow movements behind the ephemeral history of events. Braudel's conception of the longue durée (usually translated rather misleadingly as "the long perspective") is not easy to express in non-historical terms as a theoretical concept; it is the recognition that human society develops and changes at different rates in relation to different underlying forces, and that all the elements within any human situation interact with one another. There are underlying geographical constraints; there are natural regularities of behaviour related to every activity, whether climatic or seasonal or conventional; there are social customs; there are economic pressures; and there are short-term events in history with their resulting consequences--battles, conquests, powerful rulers, reforms, earthquakes, famines, diseases, tribal loves and hatreds. To translate the messy complications that constitute the essence of history into a general theory is impossible, and this fact represents the ultimate problem of trying to subsume history within any abstract theory, from whatever philosophical or sociological or anthropological source it is derived.

The second debate concerned quantitative history: after The Mediterranean Braudel became more and more attracted to the idea of quantification in economic history, the notion that history could become scientifically respectable through the use of graphs and tables and the collection of hard quantifiable data. It took the example of his disciple Pierre Chaunu, who sought to surpass Braudel with his immense work of 7,800 pages on Seville and the Atlantic trade (finally published in 1963) to convince Braudel that something was missing from this type of statistical history. History was something more than the effect of the fluctuations in the Spanish-American trade or the economic boom and decline of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was in response to this debate that Braudel wrote his second great work, translated as Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century (1982). The first volume of this work was originally published in 1967 and translated into English as Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800 (1973). It presented a vivid picture of social life and its structures before the Industrial Revolution, in terms of population, bread, food and drink, fashion, housing, energy sources, technology, money, cities and towns. This was revised and incorporated into a three-volume work with a one-word addition to the title: Material Civilization, Economy and Capitalism (1979). The work now approached the whole question of the origins of modern world capitalism. The second volume dealt with the organisation of commerce, manufacture and capitalism, the third with the growth of a world economy and world trade. His conclusion was both historical and practical: it is small-scale business and freedom of trade that both produce and sustain capitalism, not state enterprise or large-scale capitalism. Without the independent small artisan and the merchant-shopkeeper no economic system can survive, and these smaller entities are embedded in the social fabric so that society and economy can never be separated from each other. His work stands therefore as a refutation through the study of history of both communism and capitalism.

The third issue with which Braudel was involved was a consequence of his growing distance from the most talented historians whom he had called to join him in the management of Annales. The new history of the sixties turned away from the factual certainties of economic and descriptive social history, and explored the "history of mentalities." 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. The crucial problem for a history that still sought a degree of certainty and an escape from arbitrariness or fiction was to analyse the mental world that created an age or a civilisation. It was the medieval historians Duby, Le Goff and Ladurie who pioneered this approach from 1961 onward; it meant a whole-scale return to the old German conceptions of cultural history, and to the use of literary and artistic sources alongside archival material. This was perhaps one of Braudel's blind spots: to him, it was the realities of peasant or merchant existence that mattered, not the way that they might be expressed in artistic or literary form. He was also more and more interested in the global sweep and saw the detailed studies of the mental world of small communities undertaken by his colleagues as a betrayal of the grand vision. As he said to Ladurie in relation to his famous book Montaillou, "We brought history into the dining room; you are taking it into the bedroom." His disapproval of these trends cost him the direction of his journal, and by 1969 he had abandoned Annales, sidelined by those whose careers he had started and whom he had originally invited to join him.

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." Fragments of the third volume were published in 1997. They suggest that in this last work he intended to confound his critics by proving that the "mentality" of France was contained within its physical, social and economic history. 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. History must do more than study walled gardens.

The difficulty of translating longue durée with the phrase "the long perspective" reveals another problem that was perhaps to emerge in the later debates with Michel Foucault. Braudel never claimed that his categories were absolute. They were only means of organising the explanatory factors in any situation, but equally he was not prepared to see them simply as constructs fashioned by the observer for his immediate purposes. However indeterminate and changeable, they did possess a real existence as forces in the field of history. This was challenged by the theories and methods of Foucault in his Words and Things (1966), and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). The idea of historical relativity introduced in these works and adopted by postmodern historians took one step beyond the history of mentalities. Not only did the uncertainty contained in the study of history rest on its derivation from a set of human impressions rather than facts: the crucial role in this process belonged to the historian as interpreter. Indeed, the whole organisation of knowledge could be seen as a construction designed to control the world. History, like all the social sciences, was an aspect of power, so that history was both the history of forms of control and itself a form of control, not an innocent activity. All this is still highly controversial today, but it was of course one step worse for Braudel than the history of mentalities. The historian was no longer the innocent observer but himself complicitous in society's attempt to marginalize groups such as the women, aboriginal peoples, the mad, criminals, and homosexuals, and through its control of the psychology of humanity to construct mechanisms of social power--or ultimately (in Foucault's last work) a more beneficent form of the control of the self. Moreover, Foucault singled out the Braudelian conception of history for special attack: it was ideas and the sudden rupture created by them (exemplified in his own books), not the long perspective, which mattered in a history dominated by random change, by discontinuities instead of structures.

This theoretical debate had just begun 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. He could not understand the desire to destroy everything that he had personally tried to build outside the university system of which both he and they disapproved, or their contempt for facts and research in face of neocommunist and anarchist ideas.

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? "Has Structuralism Been Killed by May '68?," as a headline in Le Monde put it in November of that year. Either the new history (whatever it was) was responsible for the "events," or it was disproved by them. As a conservative you could have it both ways, and both implicated Braudel along with all his intellectual opponents. This was of course to accuse the Enlightenment of causing the French Revolution, but the claim was successful in blocking Braudel's access to government circles almost for the first time in his career. The university conservatives had indeed lost, and the old Sorbonne was swept away, but they also had their revenge on the man who was most responsible for establishing their irrelevance to modern life.

Braudel ended his life as he began it, as an outsider, but not unhappy with this fate. He had always believed in the importance of accepting reality and the relative powerlessness of the individual in the face of his circumstances, even though he had himself ruled French intellectual life "as a prince" for a generation. Above all, despite his recognition of the importance of the grand vision and the power of the longue durée and of structures, he had always upheld that crucial historical value, the centrality of the individual as the subject of history; not the individual great man but the anonymous yet real peasant, the ordinary unknown man. In this sense he remains more truly revolutionary than any of his opponents on the left or the right.



How powerful the legacy of Braudel, and especially of his Mediterranean, still is and how modern its conception still appears, can be seen by considering its impact on two recent books. The first is Barry Cunliffe's Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples (2001), in which Cunliffe seeks to do for the Atlantic what Braudel once did for the Mediterranean. The title of his last chapter makes explicit reference to Braudel's longue durée. The second is the latest book on the Mediterranean, whose first volume appeared in the year 2000, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell's The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. For all its immense learning and resolute up-to-dateness, this work too is inconceivable without the example of Braudel: it is an attempt to answer the same questions as Braudel for the centuries before the age of Philip II. When we were young we all of us indeed dreamed of writing a book on the Mediterranean that would replace in its title Philip II of Spain with that earlier Philip II of Macedon.

It is not therefore surprising that this work, Braudel's Memory and the Mediterranean, although it was originally written a generation ago, can still serve as a model. This little book exemplifies all the ideas that Braudel believed in, and for that reason it is richer than most of the detailed books by experts written both before and since its composition. It contains all those elements that he taught us to respect, and offers new surprises. The first is its scope and its exemplification of the meaning of the longue durée. A history of the ancient Mediterranean would normally begin with the Minoan age, or not earlier than 2000 b.c.; Braudel invites us to consider the Mediterranean, not geographically, but as a historical phenomenon beginning in the Paleolithic age or even with the start of geological time; as he points out, the historical period of classical civilization belongs in the last two minutes of the year, and the last two chapters of his book. How Braudel would have relished the new perspectives on the early stages of evolution and the biological history of the universe that are being revealed by the new uses of genetics in archaeology and evolutionary biology. How he would have loved the enrichment of our knowledge of the origins of human art in the Paleolithic age with the new discoveries of the Grotte Chauvet in the ArdŹche.

Braudel's picture also 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. The first is what I would call the reality principle. 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. The second is 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 change 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 subsequently explored in depth in for the preindustrial world in Civilization and Capitalism, are here applied to the ancient Mediterranean with magnificent effect. This deceptively modest book is indeed the work of the greatest historian of the twentieth century, and the new poem by Christopher Logue will serve as a fitting preamble.* --Oswyn Murray



*In writing this essay I have been helped of course by Braudel's own brief description of his historical development published in English in the Journal of Modern History for 1972, but more especially by the magnificent biography of Pierre Daix, Braudel (Flammarion, 1995). The lectures from the period of the Second World War and the fragments related to the third volume of Braudel's L'Identité de la France are published in Les ambitions de l'Histoire (Editions de Fallois, 1997).

Christopher Logue's poem was first published in Harold Berliner's deluxe edition of War Music (Nevada City, California, 1999). It is reprinted here for the first time as fitting homage to Braudel, for which privilege I thank my friend Christopher Logue.