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Fernand Braudel


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Frenchhistorian, best known as a leading light of the Annales School, and from his elevation to the Collège de France in 1949 until his death one of the most influential historians in France.

Born in rural France, Braudel wanted to become a doctor but in accordance with his father's wishes studied history instead. On graduation he taught high school history in Algeria for nearly a decade from 1923 to 1932. He then returned to France to teach in a lycée, where he met Lucien Febvre, future co-founder of the journal Annales. In 1934, along with anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, he was invited to Brazil to help establish the University of São Paulo. He remained there until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when he returned to France to enlist in the army. He was captured by the Germans in 1940 and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp.

It was in prison, working from memory, that he wrote the first draft of his PhD, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranée à l'époque de Philippe II (1949), translated as The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1996), which established his reputation. Commencing as a study of Spain's Philip II, this massive book of over 600,000 words soon grew into a dense, but marvellous account of virtually every aspect of life and culture relating to the Mediterranean in the second half of the 16th century. Importantly, it sketches Braudel's three-level model of history, which would become the signature of the Annales School: the first level, which he termed the longue durée, or ‘geo-history’, is the practically imperceptible level of humans' interaction with the physical environment; the second level refers to the formation of social groups, from the tribe to the state, incorporating the problem of the operation of political structures and economies; while the third level refers to the lives of individuals.

Braudel thus redefined historical time as simultaneously geographical, social, and individual (he was in this sense, as recent work by Manuel DeLanda has recognized, a precursor to the development of complexity models of history). This model was clarified further in Braudel's next great undertaking, the three-volume Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme (1967–79), translated as Civilization and Capitalism (1981–83). This work was a major influence on Immanuel Wallerstein, particularly his concept of world-system theory. Braudel's approach to history entailed a paradox: he took great pains to situate individuals, such as Philip II, in their historical context, only to demonstrate their relative unimportance when compared to the deeper historical patterns of society and geography. Despite its aspiration to a ‘total history’ of the region, Braudel has been criticized for his comparative neglect of social values, attitudes and beliefs. His insistence on the material details of life, right down to soil quality and climate, has however had a lasting impact on the fields of history and cultural studies.

Further Reading:

P. Burke The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School1929–89 (1990).

Subjects: Social sciences

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