Aug 5, 2006

Book Review: A History of Civilizations

A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel Braudel, Fernand, translated by Richard Mayne

New York: Penguin Books, 1993, 600 pages

Fernand Braudel was one of the most influential members of the Annales School, and this text remains firmly in the Annales tradition. Braudel wrote A History of Civilizations to be the basis for a history textbook and course of study in secondary schools, but the author’s refusal to conform to the expectations of the French ministry of education forced him to shelve the project. One ministry bureaucrat described the book as “too hard for the students,” and the ministry insisted on eliminating altogether Braudel’s entire component of “The African World.” The crux of the debate centered on Braudel’s view of the nearly imperceptible longue durée and the conjonctures as being the driving forces that move history; the ministry insisted upon teaching traditional history, which is based upon exemplary individuals and remarkable events.

Braudel’s vision of l'histoire totale, drawing history from disciplines as diverse as geography, climatology, anthropology, and archaeology, is evident throughout the book. This reviewer remains in awe of Braudel’s near-encyclopedic grasp of seemingly unimportant details that later reappear, full-circle, to create the moment of sudden insight into a larger awareness of something more profound. Braudel, for example, began to discuss poor harvests in Maoist China in the period of 1959-61, leaving the topic for another discussion on attempts by the Communist bureaucracy to cover up the magnitude of the problem. At the point where a reader might have dismissed the harvest data as unnecessary detail, Braudel then returned to the discussion and demonstrated how the grain shortfalls forced the Chinese to enter global silver and gold markets to purchase grain from the West.

Braudel organized the text by major world civilizations, following a rough chronological schema in each section. The author, however, frequently moves back and forth between antiquity and modernity, drawing parallels and making comparisons between different historical periods. Braudel was determined to show the existence of conjonctures and the longue durée throughout the examples, and he largely succeeded in demonstrating the validity of this approach.

He differs, however, with pure structuralists such as Claude Levi-Strauss, noting that “civilizations continually borrow from their neighbors, even if they ‘reinterpret’ or assimilate what they have adopted.” In each textual example of human civilizations Braudel began with the elements of the longue durée, moved to the conjonctures, and finally discussed l’ histoire événementielle or courte durée – the contemporary events that historical actors believe to be important, but which, over time, can be better seen as elements of a larger reality.

Fernand BraudelLeft: Fernand Braudel

In the case of the rise of the Islamic world, Braudel considered individual Arabic conquests to be l’ histoire événementielle, while conjonctures were the established tactic of “fast, destructive raids which isolated the towns and forced them to surrender one by one.” He attributed the successful spread of Islam to “the culmination of slow changes in the Near East”(longue durée), arguing that eventual Arabic hegemony was in fact the result of a longer process of decolonization; Persia, Christian Ethiopia, Syria, and Byzantine Egypt were among the foreign powers that once exerted influence on Arabic tribes.

Braudel’s work is beginning to show its age, and there are passages in the book that seem rather dated. In a passage that noted the importance of oil in the Middle East, Braudel sounds like a voice from the distant past:
…at present [1962] there is no shortage of oil in the world, and with other forms of energy, including nuclear energy, on the horizon, Islam’s virtual monopoly of fuel supplies may not last forever.
Then again, if the industrialized nations eventually develop alternatives to fossil fuels, Braudel’s prediction that over-reliance on the oil sector was a doomed strategy for the Islamic Middle East might become true.

Braudel exhibited a decided Eurocentrism in his work that, while not overt, nonetheless lingers in the margins. The “Black Africa” merited only 40 pages of the text, while the author devoted three times as much space to Europe. Moreover, Braudel’s treatment of African history (which he summed up in the statement “the long past of Black Africa is little known”) suffers from a Northern hemispheric myopia. The author relied almost exclusively upon European and Arabic sources for his overview of African history, and the further one travels from the Sahara the more scanty becomes Braudel’s coverage.

At times Braudel’s refusal to acknowledge event-based history can be frustrating; the First and Second World Wars get only passing mention, despite the fact that both conflicts were global in scale. Even more surprising is the near-complete omission of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe; Jews have been outcasts almost from the Diaspora, and certainly one might think that the Holocaust would be worthy of examination as the culmination of many centuries of persecution and genocide.

Despite its faults A History of Civilizations, however, remains a challenging, thought-provoking work with which readers will never become bored. Braudel’s theory of a three-tiered approach to history offers the science of structuralism with the recognition that history does not always fit into simple categories and precise theories. As with all works by Braudel, the pleasure of his writing is in the journey, as his incredible depth of knowledge means that readers will always walk away with information of which they were previously unacquainted.


Anonymous said...

I share your awe of Braudel's "near-encyclopedic grasp of semingly unimportant details", and commend your explanations of how that attention to detail played out in his writing. I can't but think, however, that your caveats as to the author's "decided Eurocentrism" and "refusal to acknowledge event-based history" are more the markers of a conventional nod to 'EuroAmerican' political correctness that begrudges any attitude outside it's boundaries the right to breathe. Nobody in the last 6000 or so years of history has had as big an impact on global trading patterns and social mores as a bunch of western European mercantile guys with high credit limits.
In that regard, I would recommend that you consider Braudel's dismissal of that"doomed strategy for the Islamic Middle East" prescient rather than dated.As for his studied refusal to bow to current tendencies that have empahsized the Holocaust phenomema in isolation from it's historical context what better example could there be of the contrast he held between l’ histoire événementielle or courte durée, and the long view (longue durée) you have so rightly maintained to be his special purview. For context in examining this, I recommend his 'Wheels of Commerce' Vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism, especially (for example) pages 159-60 amongst others.
Kudos for bringing this much neglected scholars works to the fore.

Anonymous said...

I'm attempting to locate a definition of "history," and I'm assuming it comes from Braudel. The definition goes something like:

"History is man's feeble attempt to isolate the unique configurations of time's past..."

I don't recall the rest, but would appreciate any help in finding the full quote and author. Thanks.