Braudel and his conception of history
Since Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was ranked as arguably the most significant historian that 20th century had witnessed, his life and scholarly achievements should be put in perspective for the benefit of history students. Unfortunately, Annales School and luminaries like Braudel could not make their way into the academic circles of Pakistan, which makes it more crucial to bring their contributions into focus.
The easiest way to do it is by looking at his life-sketch, interspersed with vivid details of his feats, as the leading historian of the second generation of Annales School. Not only was he regarded as the most eminent of the modern historians, who had emphasised the role of large-scale socio-economic factors in the making and writing of history, many consider him as one of the precursors of world-systems theory.
Born to a mathematician father, Braudel learnt Latin and Greek at an early age. Later on, his family moved to Paris from Lumeville-en-Ornois (where he was born) around 1909. He was sent to Lycée Voltaire and then to the Sorbonne University, from where he earned a degree in History at the age of 20. The doctoral topic he took up following his undergraduate studies was conventional in diplomatic history. The working title of his dissertation was ‘Philip II and the Mediterranean’. His primary focus was on the foreign policy of the Spanish King (Philip II) who ruled from 1556 to 1598, when the Spanish Empire, though inching toward steady erosion, was still at its acme, with possessions not just in South America but in Italy and North Africa. The story of his doctoral thesis underwent various twists and turns before it reached the stage of fruition.
From 1923-1932, Braudel taught at the University of Algiers. During his nine-years stay in Algeria, Braudel developed a fascination for the Mediterranean Sea and produced several articles on the Spanish presence in Algeria in the 16th century. For three years, he taught in Paris lycées, a secondary school where at one time or the other, Pasteur, Condorcet, and Henri-IV had been students. He spent next two years (1935-37) in Brazil, which he later reminisced as "greatest period of his life".
In fact, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and Braudel were asked to help in establishing the new University of Sao Paulo. In 1937, on his way back from Brazil, he ran into Lucien Febvre who was travelling in the same ship. That fortuitous encounter with Febvre had a lasting impression on Braudel’s style of scholarship. His doctoral research also was tangibly inflected by insights specifically identified with Annales School, whom Braudel joined in 1938.
After meeting Febvre, Braudel switched from working on ‘Philip II and the Mediterranean’ to ‘Mediterranean and Phillip II’. The whole approach of the first Annales School, including the emphasis on geography, was a strong influence. Another influence inflecting his historical insight was Henri Pirenne, who had instilled the realisation in Braudel of the importance of the ‘earlier confrontation of Muslims and Christians across the Mediterranean’.
Braudel took 20 years to write The Mediterranean which also included Second World War years and the time he spent in German prison camp. Blessed with retentive memory which was indeed enviable, he wrote up his master piece (which also was his PhD thesis) in exercise books. That thesis was submitted in 1947 and published in 1949. The Mediterranean is a massive work of 600,000 words.
James A. Henretta aptly described it as "a comprehensive, multi-dimensional cubist portrait of the society."
That book had, as its guiding principle, a new conception of time and of historical change in relation to space. Braudel is most original in his treatment of time. According to him, the historical time is multi-layered and each layer has its own pace or rate at which change occurs in its various phases. Febvre and Bloch had always asserted in unequivocal terms that history must be ‘oriented towards the solving of problems’ instead of confining its remit merely to the narration of events. "My problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds" was his answer. His deep conviction that historical time does not move at a uniform speed is expressed in its division into long-term, medium-term, and short-term: "geographical time, social time, and individual time".
The bottom layer of his three-phased history, what he calls geohistory, spans the immense, timeless phase of human interaction with the natural world. Geohistory is a kind of historical geography devoted to mountains and plains, islands and coastline, climate, land routes and sea routes. At this level, which according to Braudel is la long duree, (the long term), time is almost stationary or moves at the slowest pace. In this span of longest duration, the historian needs the perspective of centuries in order to make sense of any change at all.
In part two of The Mediterranean, Braudel makes mention of an intermediate pace of change which he terms as the time of conjoctures (conjunctures). If the expression had not been diverted from its full meaning, one could call it social history, the history of groups or groupings. This is the medium-term or time taken by the broader movements of economies, social structures, political institutions, civilisations and forms of war etc.
In the third part of the book Braudel is engaged with traditional pattern, with ‘events, politics and people’. These take the shortest time span. In Braudel’s own words, "A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and short-sighted as ours". That statement makes Braudel’s rather distaste for the history spanning short time quite evident.
Read also: The goal of the Annales
Braudel represented the second generation of Annales historians but, undoubtedly, he was the most luminous of all his contemporaries. It is heartening to learn that in some Pakistani universities, Annales are taught and discussed, at least at GC University Lahore and also at Punjab University.
I would like to write on the third generation of Annales historians but for now this debate stands concluded. I will take up Annales contemporary discourse later.