Jul 2, 2006

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

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds

New York: Harper & Row, 1972, 1375 pages

Fernand Braudel was one of the most important members of the Annales School, and The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World reflects the influence of the author’s mentors Marc Bloch and Lucien Lefebvre. As a prisoner of war during the Second World War Braudel put together the first draft of this text from memory; the original was released in French in 1949, and was followed by a revision in 1966 from which this translation was derived. The two-volume masterpiece is the embodiment of Braudel’s vision of l'histoire totale, drawing history from disciplines as diverse as geography, climatology, anthropology, and archaeology.

The author opened the first volume with a 400-page treatise on the role of geography in the history of the Mediterranean world. While using a word such as “determinist” is unfair to Braudel, he nonetheless made a convincing case that human endeavors owe much to the natural landforms encountered throughout history. Mountainous regions, argued Braudel, were the “first to be brought under control by man” because “the plains were originally a land of stagnant waters and malaria, or zones through which the unstable rivers passed.” Mastery of the plains required advanced agricultural and irrigation techniques, and such land improvement designs required “an influx of big profits from trade, long-term and large-scale trade.” The Earth, in Braudel’s eyes, provided an “almost motionless framework” that governs the life and actions of humans, and this nearly imperceptible environmental history, or longue durée, must first be studied to understand the context in which other levels of history unfold.

Braudel’s work dismantles the anachronistic imposition of arbitrary boundaries on history by looking at the Mediterranean world as a field of study unto itself. The Mediterranean, he argued, was not simply a body of water separating nation-states, but rather a multitude of interconnected land masses and bodies of water without simple borders. The Sahara he described as a “second face” of the Mediterranean that seemed to be a natural southern border of the Mediterranean world, and yet he noted that the trans-Saharan trade routes inextricably tied sub-Saharan African to the Mediterranean. Instead, argued Braudel, there existed a global Mediterranean that stretched to “the Azores and the New World, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, the Baltic and the loop of the Niger.”

fernand braudelLeft: Fernand Braudel

Braudel next considered the social history of the Mediterranean basin, the history of “groups and groupings” in possession of “slow but perceptible rhythms.” The focus of traditional history, which is based upon exemplary individuals and remarkable events, argued Braudel, had to be viewed from within a context of such larger phenomena as the evolution of economic systems, demographic changes, and commercial interactions between regions; these intermediate historical durations were labeled by Braudel as conjonctures.

Braudel described the events most readily apparent to individuals living in a period of history – such as wars, changes in government, or disasters – as the l’ histoire événementielle or courte durée. While important to contemporary thinkers, Braudel considered such brief occurrences as “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs.” Exemplary individuals, in Braudel’s eyes, are merely those people who through luck or foresight have been able to surf the metaphorical waves that propel history, and historians who place too much emphasis on événementielle run the risk of – in keeping with the oceanic metaphors - being blinded by insignificant ripples in the midst of sea swells.

The author was fond of developing broad generalizations that placed historical phenomena in the context of a larger trend. While leaving Braudel open to criticism (his classification of economic trends as conjonctures, for example, seems arbitrary and presumptuous), these sweeping statements nonetheless provide thought-provoking moments for the reader. Braudel, for example, argued that the rise of the Spanish and Ottoman empires on opposite ends of the Mediterranean owed much to bureaucrats:
Experts in Roman law and learned interpreters of the Koran formed a vast single army, working in the East as in the West to enhance the prerogative of princes… this army of lawyers, whether eminent or modest, was fighting on the side of the large state. It detested and strove to destroy all that stood in the way of state expansion.
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World, however, is not merely a series of grand syntheses stitched together for an overview of the sixteenth century. The depth and breadth of Braudel’s knowledge is astonishing, and readers will be sure to leave this text with a great deal of microhistorical information that might spark future research. This reviewer, for example, was wholly unfamiliar with the trans-Mediterranean trade in snow and ice, or the role that the defeat of the Spanish by the Ottoman fleet at Djerba in 1560 played in the later growth of the Spanish armada. Drawing from sources throughout the European and Islamic world, Braudel produced two volumes of material that forced historians to rethink the ways in which they view the world. Decades after its release, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World remains a vital text for historians of the early modern Mediterranean world.

1 comment:

Hooda Thunkit said...

"The focus of traditional history, which is based upon exemplary individuals and remarkable events..." --Braude

I never stopped to think of history this way before. History, for the most part, "overlooks" the mundane, everyday things that must all pass through, but grow weary of...