On History

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The first English translation of Ecrits sur l'histoire—a collection of essays written over a twenty-year period following publication of Braudel's masterwork, La, MéditerranéeOn History sets forth Braudel's reflections on the intellectual framework of his historical studies. Braudel calls on the historian to penetrate beneath the surface of political events to uncover and measure the forces shaping collective existence. Cycles of production, wages and prices, grids of communication and trade, fluctuations and climate, demographic trends, popular beliefs—all of these phenomena are proper subjects of the historian's investigations. It is only through study of the longue durée, Braudel argues, that one can discern structure, the supports and obstacles, the limits and his experience cannot escape.

"The great French historian Fernand Braudel has done what only giants can: he has made Western man confront the problem of time—individual time, historical time, relative time, real time. . . . Braudel, more than any other historian, has wrestled with man's conception of time over time. . . What a magnificent fight he has fought."—Virginia Quarterly Review

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Editorial Reviews

Virginia Quarterly Review
The great French historian Fernand Braudel has done what only giants can: he has made western man confront the problem of time - individual time, historical time, relative time, real time...what a magificent fight he has fought.
Braudel is a far better historian than Polynbee and he is probably a better profit. He is also more modest...His book will enrich and enchant those who read it even when they disagree with the author.
London Review of Books
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226071510
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/1982
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 236
  • Sales rank: 1,346,397
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Read an Excerpt

On History
By FERNAND BRAUDEL The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1980 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-07151-0

Chapter One

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II

Extract from the Preface

This book is divided into three parts, with each part being an attempt to explain one aspect of the whole.

The first is an inquiry into a history that is almost changeless, the history of man in relation to his surroundings. It is a history which unfolds slowly and is slow to alter, often repeating itself and working itself out in cycles which are endlessly renewed. I did not wish to overlook this facet of history, which exists almost out of time and tells the story of man's contact with the inanimate, nor when dealing with it did I wish to make do with one of those traditional geographical introductions to history, which one finds placed to such little effect at the beginning of so many volumes, with their brief reviews of the mineral deposits, the types of agriculture, and the local flora, none of which is ever mentioned again, as if the flowers did not return each spring, as if the flocks were frozen in their migrations, and as if the ships did not have to sail on an actual sea, which changes as the seasons change.

Over and above this unaltering history, there is a history of gentle rhythms, of groups and groupings, which one might readily havecalled social history if the term had not been diverted from its full meaning. How did these deep-running currents affect the surface of Mediterranean life? That is the question I set myself in the second part of my book, looking successively at economies and states, societies and civilizations, and finally attempting to show, in an effort to clarify my own conceptions of history, how all these forces from the depths came into play in the complex arena of war. For war, as we know, is not an arena governed purely by the actions of individuals.

Lastly comes the third part, concerned with traditional history, history, so to speak, on the scale not so much of man in general as of men in particular. It is that history which François Simiand calls "l'histoire événementielle," the history of events: a surface disturbance, the waves stirred up by the powerful movement of tides. A history of short, sharp, nervous vibrations. Ultrasensitive by definition, the slightest movement sets all its gauges quivering. But though by its nature the most exciting and richest in human interest of histories, it is also the most perilous. We must beware of that history which still simmers with the passions of the contemporaries who felt it, described it, lived it, to the rhythm of their brief lives, lives as brief as are our own. It has the dimensions of their anger, their dreams, and their illusions. In the sixteenth century, after the true Renaissance, there came a Renaissance of the poor, the lowly, all avid to write, to speak of themselves and of others. All these precious records give a somewhat distorted view, invading that lost time and taking up an excessive amount of space in it. A historian, reading some papers of Philip II as if he were in his place and time, would find himself transported into a bizarre world, missing a dimension. A world of vivid passions, certainly, but a blind world, as any living world must be, as ours is, oblivious of the deep currents of history, of those living waters on which our frail barks are tossed like Rimbaud's drunken boat. A perilous world, granted, but one whose spells and dangerous enchantments we will have exorcised by having previously charted those great underlying currents which so often run silently, and whose true significance emerges only if one can observe their workings over great spans of time. Resounding events often take place in an instant, and are but manifestations of that larger destiny by which alone they can be explained.

Thus we have been brought to the breaking-down of history into successive levels. Or rather to the distinction, within historical time, of a geographical time, a social time, and an individual time. Or, again, to the breaking-down of man into a succession of characters. Perhaps it is that which will be found hardest to forgive in me, even though I maintain that the traditional divisions also split up the fundamental integrity of the living body of history, even though I maintain, despite Ranke or Karl Brandi, that narrative history is not an objective method, still less the supreme objective method, but is itself a philosophy of history; even though I maintain and then demonstrate that these levels are intended only as means of exposition, and that I have not refrained from passing from one to another as the need arose. But what is the use of pleading my case? Though I may be criticized for having put the elements of this book together badly, I hope that its parts will at least be found to have been satisfactorily constructed, according to the rules of our historical workshops.

I also hope that I will not be held to have been overambitious for having felt the need and the desire for taking a wide view. Surely history need not simply be condemned to the study of well-walled gardens? If it is, will it not fail in one of its present tasks, of responding to the agonizing problems of the hour and of keeping in touch with the human sciences, which are at once so young and so imperialistic? Can there be any humanism at the present time, in 1946, without an ambitious history, conscious of its duties and its great powers? "It is the fear of History, of history on the grand scale, which has killed History," wrote Edmond Faral in 1942. May it be reborn!

Chapter Two

The Situation of History in 1950

History today finds itself faced with formidable but challenging responsibilities. This must be so, for history, in its essence and through all its permutations, has always been dependent on concrete social conditions. "History is the child of its time." So its preoccupations are the same as those which weigh on our own hearts and minds. And should its methods, its projects, those answers which only yesterday seemed so rigorous and dependable, should all its concepts suddenly collapse, it would be from the weight of our own thinking, our own study, and, most of all, the experiences we have undergone. Now, over the past forty years those experiences have been particularly harsh for all of us; they have thrown us violently back into our deepest selves, and thence into a consideration of the whole destiny of mankind-that is to say, into the crucial problems of history. It is a time to lament our state, to agonize, to ponder, a time in which we must of necessity call everything into question. Besides, why should the fragile art of writing history escape from the general crisis of our age? We are quitting a world of which we have not always had the time to understand or appreciate the benefits, the errors, the certainties, and the dreams-the world, shall we say, of the early twentieth century? We are leaving it, or rather, it is slipping inexorably away from us.


Great catastrophes may not necessarily give birth to genuine revolutions, but they infallibly herald them and make it necessary to think, or rather to think afresh, about the universe. Out of the agony of the great French Revolution, which for years embodied the entire dramatic history of the world, the meditations of the Comte de Saint-Simon were born, and then those of his disciples and adversaries, Auguste Comte, Proudhon, Karl Marx-meditations which still have not ceased to torment the minds and reasoning of men. Or to take a small example from nearer our own time: during the winter which followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, what onlooker could have been more sheltered than Jacob Burckhardt within the walls of his beloved Basel University? And yet he felt unquiet, and was driven to formulate his grand vision of history. That term he taught a course on the French Revolution. In a prophecy which has since turned out to be only too true, he declared that it was merely the opening scene, the curtain-raiser, the initial moment in a cycle, in a century of revolutions which would go on and on. What an endless century it has been, indeed, leaving its bloody mark on Europe and on the whole world. But there was a long respite for the West between 1871 and 1914. And who can say how much those relatively peaceful, almost happy years diminished the scope of history? As if, to be on the alert, our profession has a constant need of suffering and of the manifest insecurity of men.

How can I convey how moved I was to read, in 1943, Gaston Roupnel's last work, Histoire et destin-that delirious, prophetic book, half lost in a world of dreams, but borne up by a wealth of compassion for the "sorrows of men"? Later he was to write to me: "I started [this book] at the very beginning of July 1940. In my little village of Gevrey-Chambertin, I had just seen the waves of refugees go past along the main road, the whole sorry exodus of unfortunates, in cars, in carts, on foot, a miserable muddle of people, all the wretchedness of the roads, and mixed up with all this there were the troops, soldiers without their weapons.... And this great panic, this was France! ... Added to my declining years, to all my irremediable private misfortunes, there came this sense of a public, a national misfortune." But in Gaston Roupnel's last meditations it was just this wind of affliction which swelled the sails of history, and history, great, bold history, set off once again. Michelet became once more his God: "It seems to me," he wrote to me, "that Michelet's genius informs all history."

Our age is only too rich in catastrophes and revolutions, dramas and surprises. The social reality, the fundamental reality of man has been revealed to us in an entirely new light and, whether we would or not, our old profession of historian is endlessly burgeoning and blossoming in our hands. What changes, indeed! All society's dearest symbols, or nearly all-including some for which we would have sacrificed our lives yesterday with hardly a second thought-have been emptied of meaning. And now the question is not whether we will be able to live without them as landmarks and beacons to light our way, but whether we will be able to live and think peacefully. All intellectual concepts are distorted or destroyed. That science on which we as laymen relied without even having been aware of it, which was a haven and a new reason for living to the nineteenth century, has altered brutally from one day to the next and been reborn to a different existence. It is to us now honored but unstable, constantly in flux, inaccessible, and it seems certain that we will never again have the time or the opportunity to reestablish a working dialogue with it. All the social sciences, history amongst them, have changed likewise, in a less spectacular manner but no less decisively. It is a new world, so why not a new history?

But all the same let us dwell for a moment, tenderly, perhaps even a trifle irreverently (may we be forgiven!), on our past mentors. Behold the slim volume by Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos, their Introduction aux études historiques, which appeared in 1897. It has no relevance for us today, but yesterday and for years it was a most authoritative work. And that in itself is a fact sufficiently amazing to give us pause. It is not too hard to discern in this venerable book, crammed with principles and minor recommendations, a particular image of the historian as conceived in the early years of this century. Think of an artist, a landscape painter. Before him there are trees, houses, hills, roads, an entire peaceful landscape. Such for the historian is the reality of the past-a reality which has been carefully verified, dusted off, and reconstructed. The landscape painter must leave nothing out, not a shrub, not a puff of smoke. Nothing must be left out except, of course, that the painter himself must be overlooked. For the ideal is to suppress the observer, as if reality were something to be surprised without frightening it off, as if history somehow existed outside our reconstructions, in a raw state of pure fact. The observer is a source of error, and criticism must be on its guard against him. "The natural instinct of a man in the water," wrote Charles-Victor Langlois in all seriousness, "is to do all he can to drown himself; learning to swim is a question of repressing those spontaneous movements and performing others instead. In the same way, a critical attitude is not a natural one; it must be learned, and becomes a part of oneself only through repeated practice. Thus the historian's work is above all a work of criticism; should one go into it without previously being on one's guard against instinct, one must surely drown."

There is nothing to be said against the criticism of historical documents and materials. The historical spirit is fundamentally a critical one. But above and beyond an obvious scrupulousness, it consists in reconstruction, as Charles Seignobos with his perceptive mind contrived to state on two or three occasions. But after all those cautions and warnings, was that really sufficient to maintain the vigor and the impetus necessary to history?

Of course if we were to go further back, if we were to turn this time to really great minds, to a Cournot, a Paul Lacombe, our illustrious forefathers-or to really great historians, to a Michelet above all, or to a Ranke, a Jacob Burckhardt, a Fustel de Coulanges, their genius would forbid us to smile. And yet-except perhaps for Michelet once again, the greatest of them all, whose genius is so charged with illumination and foresight-it would nonetheless be true to say that their answers would hardly fit our questions: we historians of today have the sense of belonging to a different age, to a different adventure of the intellect. Above all, our profession no longer seems to us to be a calm, secure undertaking, with just rewards automatically awarded to hard work and patience. It no longer gives us that secure feeling of having the whole of history surrounded, so that if only we apply ourselves courageously it will surrender itself to us. Surely no remark rings more strangely in our ears than that of the young Ranke in 1817, when in an enthusiastic address to Goethe he spoke fervently of "the solid ground of history."


It is a hard task-doomed from the start-to try and relate in a few words just what it is that has changed in the area of our studies, and above all how and why that change came about. Thousands of details clamor for our attention. Albert Thibaudet claimed that truly radical upheavals are always essentially simple to comprehend. So, where is that simple little fact, that effective signal of renewal? Certainly not in the long-expected failure of a philosophy of history, whose ambitious and hasty conclusions had lost all credibility even before the turn of the century. Nor in the bankruptcy of a scientific history that had, in any case, hardly begun to be sketched out. There could be no science, so they used to say, without the ability to predict: it had to be prophetic, or nothing. Today we would say that no social science, history included, can be prophetic, and thus by the old rules of the game none of them can lay claim to the fine title of a science. Besides, note well that there can be no science without historical continuity, and that is something which sociologists, but not all historians, call violently into question. But what is the point of arguing about this troublesome word science and the factitious problems which derive from it? We would do as well to become involved in the more classic but even more sterile debate about objectivity and subjectivity in history, a debate from which we will never be free so long as philosophers, by force of habit perhaps, care to linger over it, and so long as they lack the courage to ask themselves whether even those sciences which claim to be real are not themselves both objective and subjective at the same time. Those of us who have no difficulty in not believing in the necessity of antithesis will be happy to dispense with our customary discussions on method for this debate. The problem of history is not to be found in the relationship between painter and painting, nor even, though some have thought such a suggestion excessively daring, in the relationship between the painting and the landscape. The problem is right in the landscape, in the heart of life itself.

Just like life itself, history seems to us to be a fleeting spectacle, always in movement, made up of a web of problems meshed inextricably together, and able to assume a hundred different and contradictory aspects in turn. How should one tackle such a complex, living entity and break it up so as to be able to lay hold of it, or at least of some part of it? Numerous failed attempts are there to deter us even before we begin.


Excerpted from On History by FERNAND BRAUDEL Copyright © 1980 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Part 1 - Time in History
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Extract from the Preface
The Situation of History in 1950
Part 2 - History and the Other Human Sciences
History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée
Unity and Diversity in the Human Sciences
History and Sociology
Toward a Historical Economics
Toward a Serial History: Seville and the Atlantic, 1504-1650
Is There a Geography of Biological Man?
On a Concept of Social History
Demography and the Scope of the Human Sciences
Part 3 - History and the Present Age
In Bahia, Brazil: The Present Explains the Past
The History of Civilizations: The Past Explains the Present

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