Jun 1, 1981

Braudel, History, and Patterns

“No longer self- [or even] collectively determining, the human individual shrinks and fades away in Braudel’s pages before the grandeur of the environment.”

Samuel Kinser
Northern Illinois University

“Annaliste Paradigm? The Geohistorical Structuralism of Fernand Braudel.” American Historical Review 86 (February 1981): 63–105.

Fernand Braudel gained international renown with the appearance in 1949 of his monumental study La Mediterranee et le monde mediterrane a l’epoque de Philippe II, a “seminal work” of the “Annaliste” historical school for at least two decades. Braudel considered his work to be, above all, an example of “structural” history. Thus, the Annales “paradigm” during the twenty years of his leadership might seem related to the structuralist models which have captivated the minds of French social scientists. But such an interpretation is misleading. Braudel’s colleague Ernest Labrousse has emphasized the relation of Braudel’s work to the old historiographical tradition of geohistory rather than to the new vogue of structuralist thinking.

La Mediterranee is divided into three parts which Braudel described, in the first edition, as dealing with three sorts of time: geographical, social, and individual. Three types of historiography correspond to the study of these three varieties of time. The first type, forming the “geohistory” of Part 1, seeks to grasp the “almost immobile history of man’s relations with the milieu surrounding him.” The second part, dealing with social time, attempts to represent “a slowly rhythmic history…of groups and groupings” of people. Finally, the third part portrays a “history of short, rapid, nervous oscillations” of “traditional,” “eventful history,” which is comprised of the twists and turns of politico-military history. The order of these three histories, ranged in diminishing importance, emphasizes Braudel’s disinterest in and scorn for the narrow history of diplomacy.

Braudel’s work echoes and broadens the most important ideological directive of the earlier annalistes Bloch and Febvre—the directive to synthesize history with the other social sciences. A social science (as opposed to the outworn history of political events and leaders) collectivizes its object. As a result, Braudel sought a socially embedded but naturally generalized man. He saw the Mediterranean as a privileged area in which to pursue this search, since it is “a meeting place, an amalgam, a human unity.”

No longer self-determining or even collectively determining, the human individual shrinks and fades away in Braudel’s pages before the grandeur of the environment. The geographical milieu assumes an all-consuming individuality. In a more than metaphorical sense, it becomes the only real actor and shaper in history. Man’s short-sighted “free” actions to control the environment inevitably prove ineffectual in the face of the deep currents of history embodied in the might of the milieu.

The ideological assumptions underlying Braudel’s geohistory closely resembles the “structural history” of Gaston Roupnel, as outlined in his History and Destiny. “The history of a people,” Roupnel wrote, “is determined…at the level of the soil, in its down-to-earth life.” Similarly, Part 2 of La Mediterraneestresses the concrete, repetitive, and enduring patterns (“structures”) which have marked social life in the area over centuries, i.e. the determining effects of routes (as in the pepper trade) and the placement of cities, the slowness of communication and transport, the inflexible cultural frontiers, etc. Thus, even human activities are considered in as long-range perspective—freed from the limitations of the “circumstantial individual.”

In Prof. Kinser’s view, Braudel’s heavy emphasis on long-range “structures” caused him to treat superficially or to neglect events that break such patterns. For example, the sixteenth century witnessed numerous insurrections, both urban and rural, which seemingly had few consequences—which “failed” in Braudel’s terms. Given his bias, however, Braudel overlooks the deep connection between these “failed” revolts and the epoch-making revolution that was the Reformation.

Nevertheless, in general, Kinser sees in La Mediterranee a “rhetoric of space with its intoxicating vastness, of exchange with its ceaseless activity, and of life with its alluring warmth have inspired many others to construct equally new and compelling visions of the past.”