Fernand Braudel (1902- 1985), a prominent French historian born in 1902, made a significant mark on the world of historical scholarship and literature. A central figure in the Annales School of historical thought, Braudel’s influence extended throughout his career from his appointment at the Collège de France in 1949 until his passing in 1985. His journey into history was somewhat unconventional, driven by his father’s wishes rather than his initial desire to become a doctor.
Braudel’s early teaching career took him to Algeria, where he spent nearly a decade instructing high school history from 1923 to 1932. It was during this time that he met Lucien Febvre, a future co-founder of the groundbreaking journal Annales, which would become a cornerstone of the Annales School’s approach to historical research. In 1934, Braudel, alongside anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, embarked on an academic journey to Brazil, where they played a crucial role in establishing the University of São Paulo.
However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 brought Braudel back to France, leading to his enlistment in the army. Tragically, he was captured by the Germans in 1940 and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp. It was during his internment that Braudel, working from memory, crafted the initial draft of his PhD thesis, “La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II” (1949), later translated as “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II” (1996). This work played a pivotal role in establishing his reputation as a historian of unparalleled significance.
Initially intended as a study of Spain’s Philip II, Braudel’s work expanded into a dense, comprehensive account of almost every facet of life and culture related to the Mediterranean during the latter half of the 16th century. Importantly, this monumental piece introduced Braudel’s three-level model of history, a defining characteristic of the Annales School’s approach. The first level, which he referred to as the “longue durée” or “geo-history,” delved into the nearly imperceptible interactions between humans and their physical environment. The second level explored the formation of social groups, from tribes to states, encompassing political structures and economies. The third level focused on the lives of individuals. Braudel effectively redefined historical time as a multidimensional entity, encompassing geography, society, and the individual. In this sense, he foreshadowed the development of complexity models in history, as recognized in recent work by Manuel DeLanda.
Braudel’s model was further refined in his three-volume work, “Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme” (1967-79), translated as “Civilization and Capitalism” (1981-83). This work left an indelible mark on Immanuel Wallerstein, particularly influencing his concept of world-system theory. Braudel’s unique approach to history introduced a paradox – while he meticulously situated individuals like Philip II in their historical context, he demonstrated their relative insignificance when compared to the deeper historical patterns woven by society and geography. Despite the comprehensive ambition of his “total history” approach to the Mediterranean, Braudel did face criticism for not delving more into social values, attitudes, and beliefs. However, his emphasis on the material details of life, down to the quality of soil and climate, has had a lasting impact on the fields of history and cultural studies.