Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Fernand Braudel

The leading light of the French Annales school revolutionised the writing of history by imbuing it with wider, holistic, narratives and literary flair, says Alexander Lee.

Braudel in l'habit vert of the Académie française, 1985
Braudel in l'habit vert of the Académie française, 1985

Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) deserves its reputation as a landmark of historical scholarship. Pouring scorn on ‘event-based’ approaches to history, it attacked the priority which French scholars had previously given to politics, diplomacy and war as having an excessively narrow understanding of time. While there was no doubting that events (événements) had a significance of sorts, Braudel argued that they were merely ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs’. Men were, he believed, not so much independent actors, capable of steering their own course, as flotsam and jetsam, borne along by the current of their ‘collective destinies’. It was only by studying the slow and almost imperceptible history of humanity in relation to its geographical and climactic surroundings that even the greatest civilisation, let alone the greatest events, could be appreciated. And it was by focusing on the Mediterranean as a distinct space, with its own distinct time, that Braudel succeeded in re-conceptualising the whole history of 16th-century Spain.

Not without reason did Hugh Trevor-Roper describe the The Mediterranean as ‘the culminating product of the Annales school’. As an exposition of the importance of the longue durée it has no equal. Its passionate appeal for historians to reach out beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to engage with the social sciences could be taken as representative of all that the ‘French historical revolution’ sought to achieve. 

But appearances can be deceptive. Despite The Mediterranean’s reputation, Braudel’s approach was quite different from that adopted by the founders of the Annales school. Whereas Lucien Febvre was a voluntarist, captivated by mentalités, for example, Braudel was a determinist, unenamoured by systems of thought or belief. The reason for this apparent divergence is that Braudel came to write The Mediterranean not so much in the guise of a historian pursuing an argument with unrelenting logical fervour, as in that of a novelist. Indeed, it is telling that, while one American critic condemned Braudel for having ‘mistaken a poetic response to the past for an historical problem’, Braudel had no compunction about describing himself as an écrivain rather than as an historien in the preface to the first edition of his work.  

There was little in Braudel’s early life to prepare him for what was to become the Annales school and even less to point him towards the Mediterranean. Born not amid the salty spray of the sea or the dusty air of the library, but in the fields of Lorraine, he was always proud of coming from ‘peasant stock’. He was, to be sure, not insensitive to the natural world but, seeing that the countryside of eastern France was ‘full of military recollections’, his imagination was fired by battles and wars more than anything else and his heart swelled with French national pride. 

Fields of childhood

Enrolling to study history at the Sorbonne in 1920, he took these early prejudices with him. Though he was introduced to economic history by Henri Hauser (1886-1946) and learned much about historical methodology, he seems to have been almost untouched by the wider shifts in historical thinking at the time. Despite his interest in the positivism of the early Marxist, Alphonse Aulard (1849-1928), for example, he remained tied to the fields of his childhood and stuck doggedly to dry, familiar forms of political history. His thesis, published in pamphlet form in 1922, was a rather predictable study of the first three years of the French Revolution in Bar-le-Duc.  

When the awakening came it was not of the intellect but of the imagination. Taking up a teaching position in Algeria in 1923, he experienced his new environment in a manner comparable to that of many other French literary figures who took up life in the colonies at the same time. Able at last to see France from a distance, Braudel, like André Malraux,  cast off his patriotism and opened his heart to wider possibilities. But like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,  he also fell in love with the landscape, enchanted not only by the smell of the souks, the narrow streets and the scorching heat, but also by the romance of the desert and by the vast, rolling rhythms of the sea. 

His outlook changed. Exploring ports and cities, where the Ottoman and Christian world had once met, he found that he could imagine ‘the Mediterranean of the 16th century’ all too easily and was thrilled to discover in records of ‘ships, bills of landing [and] business deals’ a bustling marketplace of many nations, united, divided, shaped and sustained by the waves. Inspired, in 1927 he began writing a doctoral thesis on Philip II and Spanish policy in the Mediterranean. But, as his choice of subject suggested, his literary imagination was still far ahead of his scholarly inclinations. While assiduous in his use of archives, his approach was still lamentably traditional and his concerns remained firmly with diplomatic history. 

It was a chance encounter with Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) in Algiers in 1930 that allowed Braudel to take the next step. Pirenne’s work had been founded on the belief that socio-economic, cultural and religious movements were the result of profound underlying causes invisible to particularist approaches to history and he had earned a measure of renown for postulating that the origins of the European Middle Ages were to be found in differences in the pace of trade and state formation between the Muslim and Christian sides of the Mediterranean. 

But it was not Pirenne’s historical insights that captivated Braudel, so much as his literary sensibilities. Pirenne spoke of history as an adventure, rather than as a subject for research, and of the sea as a character, with its own personality and voice, rather than as a setting for human drama. It was after this, Braudel’s wife later recalled, ‘that he began to dream of the Mediterranean in itself, of its ancient and fabulous history, so much more colourful and exciting in the imagination than the sad personality of Philip II’.

Mediterranean time

But it was only after spending two years teaching at the University of São Paolo in Brazil that the imaginative insights of the novelist manqué were honed into a daring new approach to historical scholarship. Quite by chance, Braudel found himself aboard the same ship as Febvre and, before they reached port, a father-son relationship had developed between them. Although he was never to embrace all of the older man’s views, he was persuaded of the need to integrate history with the other human sciences and to acknowledge the Mediterranean’s own unique ‘time’.  

It was with this that The Mediterranean came into being. He now had in mind not the dry, lifeless study of Spanish politics he had planned when he had embarked on his doctoral studies, but ‘a fantastic phantasmagoria of colours, of countries, of men, of great events, and little anecdotes’, bound together by threads of shared experience and given life by vast movements of the natural world. 

When he came to write the work in mind, it was still in the manner of a novelist rather than of a historian proper. Called up for military service during the Munich Crisis, he was in the field when France fell to Nazi Germany and was taken captive. Imprisoned first in Mainz, then at Oflag XC in Lübeck, he discovered in his dreams of the Mediterranean a means of shutting out the soul-destroying news that filtered through the wire fence and of rationalising the dizzying whirl of war and politics to which he had fallen victim. Scribbling his thoughts in countless school notebooks that were smuggled out to Febvre, he wrote furiously, as a novelist might write, without access to archives or libraries, but carried along by the great sweep of his story and sustained by the driving force of his own cathartic eloquence.  

When Braudel was liberated in May 1945, he hurried to Paris. Staying at Febvre’s, he worked feverishly on his thesis, buoyed by pent-up excitement, and within two years he was able to defend the work before an all-star cast of French historians. All but one acclaimed it as a triumph. Bowled over by his daring sweep and its mastery of detail, they recognised it immediately as a masterpiece, as do most professional historians today. But its originality and its brilliance stemmed not so much from his scholarship as from his willingness to think and write like a novelist. And, though the Mediterranean remains a classic study of the longue durée and environmental history, its true importance lies not in its elucidation of the Annales school’s approach but in its demonstration of the power of the literary imagination.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His book The Ugly Renaissance is published by Arrow. 

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