Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fernand Braudel - The Mediterranean in the Ancient World

Fernand Braudel is one of those historians whose work looms large over his area of specialty. Braudel however was a historian whose work knows few limits and his influence is enormous. References to his writings and ideas crop up regularly in books and their bibliographies. He is also, rightly, associated with a new wave of historical teaching, helping to sweep clear the stuffy corridors of European academia, though he was himself pushed to the fringes by those who he challenged, spending some years teaching in South America.

This book is one that is probably his most accessible. Certainly, it is shorter than his three volume Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800 which might be considered his most important work.

For Braudel, the Mediterranean Sea was one of the key factors in the development of human civilisation. In a latter chapter in this book, while writing of the Roman Empire, Braudel says that "The Mediterranean did indeed operate as a mechanism tending to bring together the countries scattered round its immense perimeter. But the sea did not itself spin the web in which it was captured alive." He then continues;

"But the very fact that the Mediterranean, while in thrall to Rome, was still a living entity with a healthy pulse of its own, meant that all its cultural goods continued to circulate, mingling ideas and beliefs, and bringing about a uniformity in material civilization which has left traces still visible today."

In other words, Braudel's thesis is that the Sea permitted, through trade and the exchange of ideas, widely diverse cultures and communities to mix, mingle and come together. On this is based he argues, the triumph of the Roman Empire, the strength of Ancient Greece and the spread of civilisation, ideas and experience from East to West.

It would take a naive student of history to argue against this. There is no doubt that the Mediterranean permitted travel and communication over enormous distances, in a way that wasn't possible in other parts of the ancient world. However, I think that Braudel uses this to substitute for any other attempt to understand human society. He seems at odds when trying to understand the dynamics of particular civilisations. He makes, for instance, no attempt to explain the underlying dynamics of particular economies. So he discusses Ancient Greece and barely mentions slavery, even though when mentioning Ancient Greek currency he quotes the value of a "woman skilled at doing many tasks" as being four oxen.

This isn't a superficial problem. It means that Braudel cannot get to grips with changing dynamics of civilisation. The Roman Empire peaked at a much larger than say the Greek city states, not because they were more vicious Imperialists, but because the economic dynamic of their society was more efficient at extracting surplus value from slaves. Occasionally the author gets close to a deeper understanding. His discussion on why their was no industrial revolution in the ancient world, despite their understanding of technology and science, lays the blame in an economic system - slavery - that meant innovation was unnecessary. This is an argument that owes much to the Marxist ideas of historical change, but it seems that Braudel is consciously trying to find a explanation of history that avoids Marxism, or perhaps is cherry picking ideas in an attempt to create a new historical method.

As a result of these problems, Braudel can be immensely frustrating. Here's a comment he makes on the Greek city states, which were he says, "a strange little world, very different from the medieval town in western Europe. The latter was quite separate from the countryside; it was self-contained". Even under modern capitalism, cities are still linked to the countryside. Medieval towns were even more closer to rural areas. Economically they were very dependent on peasants coming into urban areas to sell produce. In fact towns grew up around the market, and were not cutting themselves off.

Braudel is quick to see economic systems in terms of a simplistic understanding of economic dynamics. He declares the city of Carthage as "capitalist" because it is based on trade. Again a superficial explanation of a more complex dynamic.

The sheer scope of Braudel's history here is impressive. Yet it is necessarily superficial. He covers pre-class societies up to the fall of Ancient Rome. As a result I found that his prose was at times dull. The author crams detail in, leaving the reader lost and breathless. It is almost like Braudel is making up for historical superficiality through declaring his immense personal knowledge a particular time.

Of course, the book is dated, but this is not a criticism of Braudel. He clearly bases his work on some of the most up to date writings and ideas available. Today though, some of this seems very dated. Does anyone today believe that the existence of "megalithic monuments" in places as diverse and distant as northern Europe, Thailand, India and Madagascar imply a "civilization of huge stones... propagated by sea"?

While Braudel's work is clearly of importance, it seems weak and superficial to me. At points I found the writing a real struggle, though perhaps this is a problem of translation rather than writing. His book is less an explanation of the importance of the Mediterranean Sea and more a collection of interesting facts about different societies. His attempts to gather this into a grand narrative are unconvincing.

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