Fernand Braudel, French Historian

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Pour moi, l’histoire est la somme de toutes les histoires possibles – une collection de métiers et points de vue, d’hier, d’aujourd’hui, de demain. La seule erreur, à mon avis, serait de choisir l’une de ces histoires à l’exclusion des autres. Ce fût, ce serait l’erreur historisante.

Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel's birth certificate
Fernand Braudel’s birth certificate

Introduction

I was introduced to Fernand Braudel by Georgia, a very good friend who now lives in Brussels, Belgium. Georgia got her Ph.D. in Paris on history, and every time we were talking about her studies she would mention Braudel as the star illuminating and guiding her path.

Fernand Braudel
Fernand Braudel

I must confess I became very curious, and thus I started buying and reading his books. Today, some twenty years later, I am writing this summary to present Braudel’s basic ideas. I do not claim completeness in this presentation, but hope to have touched upon some of  the major points of Braudel’s approach.

Plaque on Fenrand Braudel's home in Paris
Plaque on Fenrand Braudel’s home in Paris

The Annales School

In   1929, a new journal called Annales d’historie economique et sociale appeared in France, featuring the work of a new generation of historians: Lucian Febvre, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, and Ernst Labrousse. Until the turn of the century, traditional history was built around the acts and facts of “great men”, political and military personalities who became the stuff of legends: Alexander and Caesar, Gengis Khan, Louis XIV and Napoleon.The movement was in search for “a larger and a more human history,” by its rejection of the predominant conceptions of writing history, namely:

  • a focus on political-military history
  • concentrated on the analysis of short periods
  • a narrative style of events
  • what they called a “stamp collecting” mentality in collecting facts and events

The  Annales wanted to integrate insights and methodologies from anthropology, geography, sociology, economics and psychology. It was interested in longer timespans, the social history of everyday life, and “mentalites” (modes of consciousness). In essence, it was an analytical history which looked at economic and social history in a long-term perspective, departing from a traditional event-based historiography. These historians rebelled against traditional historians’ obsession with wars and states, the “great” men of history, and looking at development as linear. Annales school historians examined phenomena and their underlying causes in depth with a particular attention to long stretches of time.

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HR Trevor Pope summarizes the philosophy of the Annales as follows:

“So, if I were to try to capture the philosophy of the Annales school, I would emphasize three elements in it. First, there is the attempt to grasp the totality, and the vital cohesion, of any historical period or society, the conviction that history is what it is through the human life which animates it, the almost Platonic conception of man as the microcosm of the world. Second, there is the conviction that history is at least partly determined by forces which are external to man and yet not entirely neuter or independent of him, nor, for that matter, of each other: forces which are partly physical, visible, unchanging, or at least viscous and slow to change, like geography and climate, partly intangible, only intellectually perceptible, and more volatile, such as social formations or intellectual traditions. Third, there is the determination, while never losing sight of this totality of human activity, this interdependence of its motivating and limiting forces, to reduce the area of incomprehension by rigorous statistical analysis of whatever can be analysed, by the measurement of whatever can be measured: in short, the subordination, to that ultimate human aim, of all the most refined techniques of the mathematician, the econometrician, the statistician.” (7)

Jaques Le Goff has stated it all in one sentence: “New history is history-through-problems”.

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Braudel’s approach and views

Peter Burke writes in his review in the London Review of Books:

‘Braudel’s Mediterranean is the outstanding achievement of the second generation of the so-called Annales School. Annales, which remains one of the world’s leading historical journals, was founded in 1929 by two professors at the University of Strasbourg, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. At that point Febvre and Bloch were anti-Establishment figures, rebels against the continued dominance of political history in France and believers in a ‘wider and more human history’, as they called it, a history which would be concerned with all human activities and draw concepts and methods from all the social sciences, from geography to psychology. It was this ‘new kind of history’ which Annales was founded to spread.In 1958 Braudel wrote a paper on the three time spans of history: the “longue duree” (long term), “conjuncture” (conjuncture), and event, or better “courte durée” (short term). He argued that the three spans of time “fit into each other neatly”.’ (8)

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Events concern the individual actions that Braudel calls “traditional history”: kings, battles, treaties, and the like.(4)

The conjuncture (from the French conjoncturte, not from the English sense of the term) is Braudel’s term for two intermediate levels of historical duration; Braudel calls the study of conjunctures “social history, the history of groups and groupings”. Braudel divided conjunctures into two kinds: intermediate conjunctures which include wage and price cycles, rates of industrialization. and wars; and long term conjunctures, which refer to secular changes like “long-term demographic movements. the changing dimensions of states and empires (the geographical conjuncture as it might be called), the presence or absence of social mobi- lity in a given society. [and] the intensity of industrial growth”. (4)

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The long term represents Braudel’s most significant innovation in temporal categorization. This level describes “man in his relationship to the environment. a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles”.  In Braudel’s two major historical analyses, the long term forms an almost unchanging, centuries-long background that furnishes constraints and opportunities for the dynamic operation of change at the levels of conjuncture and event. It is an arena dominated by “structures,” which for Braudel are “defined then first of all by duration and second by their effects on human action” (4)

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In an interview with Peter Burke made in 1977 on what the problem was that Braudel wanted to solve with this work, he answered “My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was that time moves at different speeds.” (1)

Koopman compares Braudel’s multi-dimensional time to Foucault’s conceptualization of temporality. Foucault added genealogy to archaeology in his historiographical repertoire. The result was a conception of history that emphasized temporal multiplicity above nay single temporally unifying category. (2)

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“Nothing, in our opinion,” writes Braudel, “comes closer to the heart of social reality than this lively, intimate, constantly recurring opposition between the instant and the long-term…In the year 1558, or in the year of grace 1958, [or even, we might add, 2008] getting a grasp on what the world is about means defining the hierarchy of forces, currents and individual movements, and refashioning the pattern of their totality…. Each ‘current event’ brings together movements of different origin and rhythm: today’s time dates from yesterday, the day before, and long ago”(3)

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Braudel’s notion of time, as opposed to mere chronology, is one of an inescapable duration.

Olivia Harris in her article “Braudel: historical time and the horror of discontinuity” poses the question of Braudel’s aversion to ruptures in historical time. Put in a different way “is there a place for revolutions, abrupt and catastrophic changes in Braudel’s historiography?”. I cannot answer the question, but it is quite interesting. Hacking observes:

“There are two extremes in French historiography. The Annales school went in for long-term continuities or slow transitions—“the great silent motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events” (to quote from the first page of Foucault’s 1969 Archeology of Knowledge). Foucault takes the opposite tack, inherited from Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Louis Althusser. He posits sharp discontinuities in the history of knowledge.” (5)

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The demarcation between history and the social sciences

Finally, turning to France, it is—again—difficult to avoid Fernand Braudel, but we will seek in vain for a clear definition of the object and method of history from him. That is so because, in his view, all the social sciences cover the same ground, which is ‘the actions of human beings in the past, present and future’. Braudel expresses regret that this terrain had, in the past, been parcelled out among the different social sciences, as a consequence of which, each of these disciplines had felt the need to defend its boundaries if necessary by annexing the neighbouring territory: ‘Every social science is imperialist, even if they deny it: they are in the habit of presenting their insights as a global vision of humanity’, observed Braudel.20 To restore the unity of the social sciences and put an end to pointless border disputes, it was in his view necessary to reintegrate all the social sciences. Braudel argued that evidence for the possibility of this can be found in the common language used by all the social sciences, at the heart of which are the concepts of structure and model. The idea that history can be distinguished from the social sciences because historians focus on events and social scientists on structures (as Elton argued) was, therefore, according to Braudel, absolutely wrong. The same could be said of the questioning of the use of models by historians. The main difference between history and the (other) social sciences is not that history addresses particular aspects of phenomena, while the (other) social sciences are said only to be concerned with general aspects. (6)

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Sources

1. Burke, Peter. New Perspectives on Historical Writing. fith edition. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992

2. Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique, Indiana University Press, 2013

3. D Tomich, The order of Historical Time

4. Michael E Smith, Braudel’s temporal rhytms and chronology theory in archaelogoy

5. Hacking I, Historical Ontology, Harvard University Press, 2002

6. The Oxford History  of historical writing, Chapter 1

7. HR Trevor Roper, Fernand Braudel, the Annales and the Mediterranean

(8) Peter Burke, Braudel’s Long Term, London Review of Books