Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was the leading exponent of the so-called "Annales" school of history, which emphasizes total history over long historical periods and large geographical space.

Fernand Braudel was born August 24, 1902, in the small town of Luneville in eastern France. His father was an academic administrator. As a young agrégé in history, he went to Algeria in 1923 to teach in a lycée and to work on his thèse d'état, which was to be on Philip II of Spain and the Mediterranean. His thesis director, Lucien Febvre, made the fateful suggestion that Braudel invert the emphasis—the Mediterranean and Philip II. In 1935 he went to Brazil to teach in the university in São Paulo, Brazil, returning two and a half years later to France just before World War II, with an appointment in the IVe Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (E. P. H. E.) in Paris. He spent the war in German prison camps in Mainz and Lübeck. During this time he wrote from memory his thesis, which has come to be considered the classic exemplary work of the Annales school of history. It was titled The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (two volumes, 1949).

Elected in 1946 to the Collège de France, he joined his mentor, Febvre, as one of the founders in 1947 of the new VIe Section (economic and social sciences) of the E. P. H. E. He created the Centre de Recherches Historiques. On Febvre's death in 1956, he succeeded him as president of the VIe Section and editor of the journal Annales E. S. C. In 1963 he founded the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, a structure housing national and international research groups, and became its administrator. From 1971 to 1984 he served as the president of the Scientific Commission of the annual Study Weeks sponsored by the Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica 'Francesco Datini' in Prato, Italy. These were major meetings of economic historians of Europe (both east and west) specializing in the period between the 12th and the 18th centuries. In 1985 he was received in the Académie Française. He was awarded a long list of honorary degrees, memberships in national academies of science, and similar honors. He was widely-read and influential in southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Turkey), Eastern Europe (Poland and Hungary), Germany and the Low Countries, Britain, Quebec, and, since the 1970s, the United States, where a research center named after him was established at the State University of New York—Binghamton.

What was the nature of his accomplishment that he achieved so many honors, so much prestige and influence? Obviously he was a great organizer of scientific activity, as the list of his successive activities attests. But more important than that, he symbolized, incarnated, and promulgated an approach to history which responded to and was of great help in interpreting the long-term structures and middle-run cyclical shifts of the real social world.

There are three central themes which one may associate with Braudel as the culminating figure of the so-called Annales school of history. The roots of the Annales school itself, often traced to the work of French historian Henri Berr at the turn of the 20th century, was the creation in a formal sense of the collaboration of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch at the University of Strasbourg in 1929, where they founded the journal Annales d'histoire économique et social. The very title of the journal indicates the initial concern, the enormous neglect of both economic and social history in the standard kind of political history that had prevailed in France, Germany, and Britain since the mid-19th century. The Annale sschool was determined to get at the long-term economic and social structures beneath the surface "events" which Braudel was later to describe as "dust." They turned toward the neglected arenas of rural life, demography, social ecology, everyday life, commerce, and mentalities and away from princes, generals, civil servants, and diplomats.

They were pushed by their subject matter to the work of sociologists, anthropologists, and economists for one fundamental reason. It was not only that the subject matter of Annales history was concerned with explaining, as opposed to merely describing, history. It was also that history was no longer seen as a mere collection of "facts." Facts "existed" only as responses to historical "problems." Intellectually, and therefore organizationally as well, the quest became the "totality" of human experience, and therefore the close collaboration of history and the social sciences.

Secondly, and this became Braudel's own great contribution, the Annales school saw time as a social—more than as a physical—phenomenon, whence the idea of a plurality of social times. The great trinity that Braudel constructed and used as the framework for his book on the Mediterranean was structure, conjoncture, événement: long-term, very slowly evolving structures; medium-term, fluctuating cyclical processes; and short-term, ephemeral, highly visible events. Braudel downplayed the time of events and rejected a fourth time, the universal very long-term, as mythical. History was consequently the story of the interweaving of the long-term structures and the cyclical movements (conjonctures).

Finally, 30 years after The Mediterranean, his second great work appeared in 1979—the three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. In it he developed the theme of the three layers of economic life—the bottom layer of everyday life, the middle layer of exchange (the arena of freedom), and the top layer of capitalist monopolies and constraints. This metaphor served to reorganize all of modern history into a constant struggle between the two bottom layers and the top layer of monopoly.

The contribution of Braudel was his sweep and therefore his relevance to the fundamental assessment of large-scale, long-term social change. His intellectual voice was stentorian—a firm line but one uncluttered by dogmatisms. His was a unifying influence, respectful of many strains but impatient of pomposity or foolishness. Above all, Braudel and the Annales school stood as a challenge to the narrow, the petty, the arrogance of power in the name of enduring realities, and the social change that is slow but inexorable.


Further Reading on Fernand Braudel

A description of "the Annales paradigm" is to be found in Traian Stoianovich, French Historical Method (1976), to which Braudel wrote a foreword. Two appreciative articles, one by H. R. Trevor-Roper and one by J. H. Hexter, plus an autobiographical essay by Braudel, are to be found together in the Journal of Modern History (December 1972). A long critical article by Samuel Kinser is in the American Historical Review (February 1981).

Additional Biography Sources

Daix, Pierre, Braudel, Paris: Flammarion, 1995.