Historian of Everything

Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800

by Fernand Braudel, translated by Miriam Kochan
Harper & Row, 462 pp., $13.00

Fernand Braudel is probably the most widely admired of all living historians. Author of the huge The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, doyen of the Annales school of historians founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, recipient of an enormous Festschrift containing contributions from over ninety authors drawn from many parts of the world, Braudel has received all the honors and exercised all the influence that can come a scholar’s way. The Mediterranean is an acknowledged classic: living testimony to the possibility of “total” history. The Annales group is the world’s most productive and dynamic school of historians. If there were a Nobel Prize for history there can be little question about its most likely recipient.

Yet for all its sweep and panache Braudel’s work does not satisfy all tastes; and since 1967, when the French version of Capitalism and Material Life appeared as the first part of a projected two-volume work (still incomplete), a faint chorus of criticism has been audible. For, though a book of great originality and power, Capitalism and Material Life is very far from being a masterpiece. It is an exciting work, with a lofty theme, and only an unusually learned and intellectually ambitious man could have written it. But it has some serious limitations, some of them of a kind that throws retrospective doubt upon some of the fundamental premises of Braudel’s historical method.

The book is an attempt to survey the material condition of mankind between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. It is intended for the general public and there are no notes, references, or bibliography. (The French edition stated that a list of the sources used would be published in a Cahier of the Annales, but this promise now seems to have been tacitly withdrawn.) The text, however, is densely studded with erudite allusions to unidentified authorities: “We will therefore disregard the opinions of Woytinski and Embree”; “We need not…believe implicitly in the defence of Attila by the historian Rechid Saffet Atabinen.”

There is a great deal of this sort of thing and he will be a well-informed general reader who can take it all in his stride; better informed than the indexer, who has clearly been beaten by some of these learned names; better informed than the translator, who can write that “in 1525 John Nef estimated…” as if the Chicago historian had lived in the sixteenth century; perhaps even better informed than the author himself, who is capable of suggesting that Werner Sombart’s Luxus und Kapitalismus (1913) appeared “recently.” The reader’s uneasy feeling of being plunged into the midst of an erudite debate without having been introduced to any of the participants, and indeed without knowing whether they are still alive or long dead, is intensified by Braudel’s honest but maddening habit of putting numerous passages in inverted commas, but leaving their authors totally unidentified.

Two other rhetorical mannerisms enhance the reader’s feeling that Braudel …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.