Braudel, Fernand (1902–1985)
One of the foremost social and economic historians of the 20th century, Fernand Braudel combined a perceptive grasp of historical interconnections, an exceptional skill of synthesis and an evocative, even ‘poetic’ style. Perception, scope and style were brought to successful fruition in Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Phillipe II (1949), which became a classic in historical literature and a model for a major school of French history known as the Annales. In this seminal volume and in many methodological articles that followed, Braudel proposed a triple notion of historical time – the long run (longue durée) over a millennium, trends (conjunctures) of a generation or more, and events (événements). According to Braudel, each of these notions or blocks of time involved unique historical problems, appropriate source materials, and even special approaches employing social-science disciplines neighbouring to history. Braudel’s model emphasized the ‘constraints’ of human endeavour rather than the ‘permissive’ factors that had been so much a part of Whig history as practised by most early 20th-century historians. These constraints were imposed by geography, climate and soils, by demographic pressure, and by a static social structure held together by the bonds of custom. Braudel likened this ‘structure’ to a glacier or to the sea depths, imparting both a physical metaphor and a sense of timelessness or immobility. His second temporal level, the conjoncture, made some room for change as new technologies, new forms of economic organization (especially capitalism), and subtle shifts in social relations and customs altered the ‘structure’. Braudel likened these changes – he preferred the term ‘mutations’ – to the sea tides. Finally the ‘event’ was a kind of surface noise, an indication perhaps of deeper sea changes, but in itself of little significance for the historian. He likened these events to whitecaps on the vast ocean.