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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list of the sources used would be published in a Cahier of the Annales, but this promise now seems to have been tacitly withdrawn.)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’s prose is designed as much to intimidate as to inform. One is the repeated suggestion (probably true in this case) that the author knows more than could ever be fitted into any book, however long, every one of his sentences being capable of effortless expansion into a monograph of its own: “It would be possible to discourse at length on what was luxury in ancient Rome”; “We could fill pages if we now embarked on the history of cloth production”; “We could have written a whole book on corn without any difficulty”; “A whole book would be needed to describe the Imperial Palace [of Peking]”; “A whole book could be written on the Halles in Paris”; “A whole book could equally well be written on London.” The French edition even uses the old device of ending paragraphs with three dots, thereby hinting at yet further vistas of undisclosed knowledge.

Another of Braudel’s tricks is the attempt to mesmerize the ordinary reader by suggesting that the professional historian’s ability to see multum in parvo can make him capable of performing extraordinary feats of divination. For not only can “the vibrations of economic life… be grasped through the special case of the metallurgical industry,” but “a historian has deduced the tempo of economic life in Provence in the seventeenth century from the number of mules and muleteers and their movements”; and “a statistician can reconstruct the movement of the cost of living in the sixteenth century from a few eggs sold in Florence.”

Braudel’s subject makes it inevitable that his approach should be impressionistic and uneven. His successive chapters are devoted to the history of population, food, drink, housing, clothing, technology, money, and towns. These are fundamental topics and Braudel is the first to discuss them all on a world scale. But the evidence for many of them is sadly incomplete. Admittedly, Braudel is a master of brilliant improvisation where evidence is concerned. The height of a chair will lead him to the basic principles of Chinese civilization; a painting of the Last Supper will help him to date the arrival of the fork. (It is a great pity that the English translation has been published without the hundreds of marvelous illustrations which made the French edition so fascinatingly informative.)

But only too often Braudel has to abandon the quest, defeated by the lack of sufficient relevant facts; and repeatedly he falls back on literary sources, particularly a few favorite authors, like the eighteenth-century dramatist, Sébastien Mercier, who is invoked on nearly thirty separate occasions. By way of compensation he makes immensely ambitious efforts to quantify his data whenever possible. Thus he offers striking calculations of the population of the world at different dates; and he assesses the amount of horsepower available in 1800 from each of the different sources of energy—animals, men, wind, water, wood, sails, and coal. Most historians would regard these calculations as hopelessly overspeculative. It is characteristic of Braudel that he should think them worth attempting.

The book is also intended as a genuine essay in world history. It has a great deal to say about China, Japan, India, and Latin America. But there is far more about Europe, and particularly about France. For the non-European countries Braudel remains heavily dependent upon the impressions of a few European travelers. The reasons for this go beyond the inevitable limitations of one man’s reading. The simple fact is, as Braudel ruefully observes, that far more is known about Europe. This is why some historians still regard the prospect of world history, however attractive, as fundamentally utopian. As the naturalist Gilbert White remarked in another context: “Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with.”

Nevertheless Braudel’s book splendidly vindicates the cause of comparative history, for many of his most striking conclusions arise directly from his taking so broad a view. The rise in European population during these centuries, for example, has usually been explained in terms of circumstances peculiar to Europe: improved hygiene or a declining age of marriage. Braudel now shows the rise to have been a world-wide phenomenon and therefore rejects all purely local explanations out of hand. Instead he suggests that fluctuations in world population reflected changes in the climate: a proposition which is by no means absurd when we remember that the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants depended on the annual harvest. Braudel thus postulates a physical and biological history common to all mankind, long before the industrial revolution and the creation of a world market.

The discussion of the history of food also gains immensely from the author’s global perspective. He describes the great staple crops—corn, rice, and maize. Only the West was fully carnivorous. The civilizations of Asia depended on rice, which, with its two harvests a year, could yield five times as many calories to the acre as corn, and twenty times as many as stockraising. “The Far Eastern civilizations’ preference for vegetarianism certainly does not spring from idealism.”

At every point the world-wide comparisons yield new insights, whether into different heating methods (“stoves extinguish the imagination”); or seating arrangements (the Japanese lived on the floor, whereas the Chinese had a seated life for officials and a squatting one for people at home); or the use of animal power (extensive in the West but negligible in China). The history of the geographical discoveries is given a new piquancy by Braudel’s speculations of what might have happened had Chinese junks rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the early fifteenth century. The extraordinary public works of the Maya and Aztec civilizations, so inconceivable in the West, are made intelligible by Braudel’s reminder that maize virtually produces itself.

Constantly we are shown how each civilization has worked out its own distinctive answers to common problems, so that, for example, whereas windmills in the West rotated vertically, in China they were horizontal. Only occasionally do the heady vistas opened up by Braudel’s almost cosmic vantage point lead him into hyperbole; as in the notorious passage where he suggests that the difference in seating habits between East and West reflects two different biologies, squatting being “impossible or at best difficult for a European”; an observation which, apart from going flat against everyday experience, comes strangely from anyone acquainted with French public conveniences.

In one respect, however, differences among civilizations prove to have been relatively unimportant. For most of the world’s inhabitants, wherever they lived, passed their lives in what we would regard as conditions of intolerable poverty and squalor. A low expectation of life, a simple and monotonous vegetarian diet, rudimentary housing, dependence on animal power and wood fuel, reliance on barter and substitute money: this was the lot of the masses in East and West; and it had not greatly changed by 1800. At that date draft animals and firewood were still the main sources of the world’s power. Napoleon could travel no faster than Julius Caesar. Voltaire was our contemporary on the level of ideas; “but if we spent a few days with the master of Ferney, all the details of material life, even his personal hygiene would shock us.”

Of course there were changes over the four centuries, but not all were for the better. The living standards of the lower classes steadily deteriorated from about 1550. Bathing and bodily cleanliness regressed markedly between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the other hand world navigation became possible. Banks and credit mechanisms proliferated. The use of coal and iron had been pioneered; and the Europeans had discovered alcohol.

Since most of these developments were peculiar to the West one of Braudel’s main themes becomes the contrast between the two hemispheres, the one unmoving, the other beginning to change. He contrasts the initial precocity of China (pioneering gunpowder, paper, navigation, coal, and, he might have added, clockwork) with its subsequent stagnation. Not only in technology did China stand still; even Chinese clothes, furniture, and landscape took on a timeless quality.

Why was it in the West that the material progess was made? This is the nub of the question. But Braudel offers no general theory of economic growth and the motors of change remain hidden. Presumably he will deal with the problem more directly in his second volume, which is to be on the rise of capitalism. But he hints at one answer when he suggests that the Chinese had no incentive to expand. With a captive “colonial” market in the Indian archipelago they lacked the motive to travel further, whereas in the West long-distance trade seems to have been a crucial force for expansion. The search for new markets and new sources of supply led Europe to master the Atlantic; while at home the towns were “the accelerators of all historical time,” for in the West “capitalism and towns were basically the same thing.” Yet Braudel also declares that the luxury of the great capital cities was a disease rather than a source of growth, so the precise role played by the towns in his scheme remains ambiguous.

The failure to offer any substantial explanatory theory makes the book a disappointing sequel to The Mediterranean. It also reminds us of the sprawling, unintegrated character of that great work. As J.H. Hexter has suggested in a penetrating appraisal of Braudel’s work,* there is a picaresque quality to his writing, a gargantuan appetite for information, a capacity for brilliant episodic illumination, a restless sense of movement, but an ultimate failure to effect a satisfying synthesis. There are too many loose ends and unresolved problems; and too often the obiter dicta are cloudy and portentous. In this particular book there are also a great number of trivial factual errors. The great plague of London is misdated; Captain Cook is said to have reached Australia four years after his death; Robert Walpole’s house at Houghton is attributed to the (non-existent) Duke of Oxford; the chronicler John Stow is found writing in 1528, when he was three years old; the diarist becomes William Pepys and the historian of the American frontier Joseph Turner. These are matters of no great moment in themselves; anyone who takes all knowledge for his province is bound to run into trouble at some point. But when unesoteric facts of this kind are garbled one is bound to feel a little skepticism about so many weighty pronouncements on India or Cathay.

More seriously, the book reflects Braudel’s greatest weakness: his inability to take adequate account of ideas, religion, mental attitudes, cognitive structures. This was the dimension missing in The Mediterranean. Its absence here, in a book concerned solely with material life, might be thought to matter less. But the very separation of the material from the mental is itself question-begging. It is a sociological cliché to observe that reality is socially constructed and that our material life is difficult to distinguish from our perception of it. Time and again Braudel inadvertently reveals the constraining influence of mental, moral, and religious assumptions upon the physical life of human societies. There is the vegetarianism of the East and the reluctance of Westerners to eat dogs, cats, horses, or even working animals like oxen. There is the Islamic objection to wine, or the Western taboo on the use of human excreta as fertilizer. There is the spatial organization of Islamic towns, which, as Braudel remarks, reflects local concepts of cleanliness and pollution. There is even the expansion of Europe, which Braudel ultimately attributes to the “courage” of the early navigators and their “conscious will to master the world.”

No one did more than Braudel’s predecessor at the head of Annales, Lucien Febvre, to draw attention to the interconnectedness of mental and material structures. Braudel makes a few bows in the direction of the semiologists, remarking that fashions in clothes are a kind of language and that civilizations are “strange collections of commodities, symbols, illusions, phantasms, and intellectual models.” But usually he writes as if material life can easily be isolated from the life of the mind. It is no accident that the most enduring monographs produced by the Annales school during the past twenty years have related to material affairs, particularly demography and trade, whereas Febvre’s plea for the study of mentalités remains relatively unanswered. There are scores of books which owe their inspiration to The Mediterranean. But where are the worthy successors to Le Problème de l’Incroyance au XVIe Siècle?

Yet in the end all criticisms of the achievement of Fernand Braudel are disarmed by the sheer stature of the man, the brilliance of the writing, the range of the erudition, the largeness of vision, the passionate interest in human life. Some of the most characteristic passages in Capitalism and Material Life are those which show how Braudel’s historical outlook has both enhanced his own personal experience and been deepened by it. We see him growing up in a small Lorraine village with its ancient mill wheel; watching the construction of a peasant’s house in Brazil in 1937; peering down from an airplane to scrutinize Polish field patterns; staring at peasant wagons on the road to Cracow in 1957; visiting museums in Munich and Innsbruck, houses in Prague, archaeological sites in Mexico; gazing at Yoruba sculpture and Flemish painting. His work leaves a profound impression of vitality, imagination, sensibility, and infinite curiosity.

  1. *

    Fernand Braudel and the Monde Braudellien,…” Journal of Modern History 44 (1972), pp. 480-539.

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