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Mediterranean Mysteries

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vol. I

by Fernand Braudel, translated by Siân Reynolds
Harper & Row, 642 pp., $17.50

When in 1827 the greatest of nineteenth-century historians, Leopold von Ranke, published his now neglected book The Ottoman and the Spanish Empires, he displayed what was to prove an unerring instinct for the dramatic themes of world history. For what could be more suggestive than to juxtapose the histories of the two imperial colossi of the European sixteenth century? Here were two supranational structures whose influence extended beyond Europe. Each had risen spectacularly from relatively inauspicious beginnings. Each, after a brilliant imperial noon, entered the prolonged twilight of decline. And each, at the very peak of its power, confronted the other in a huge trial of strength along the shores and upon the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

The theme was, and is, a marvelous one; but it can hardly be said that Ranke did it justice. While there was nothing he touched that he did not adorn, he lacked the documentary information that would give solidity to his frequently inspired historical guesses. Ottoman history of the sixteenth century was (and indeed to a large extent still is) terra incognita, for the inaccessibility of Ottoman documentation to Western historians goes far beyond the inaccessibility of Ottoman archives. But even the state archives of Western Europe had scarcely begun to open to historians when Ranke embarked on his book. It was only in 1844, for instance, that the Spanish state archives of Simancas were first opened for purposes of historical research, and even then the hardy pioneers who made their way to Simancas were likely to find that it was one thing to set foot in an archive and quite another to catch more than a glimpse of the documents.

To compensate for the dearth of official state documents, Ranke resorted to another historical source which he exploited over the years with brilliant success—the famous reports of the Venetian ambassadors. Since these ambassadors were frequently shrewd judges of men and experienced observers of the European political scene, their reports enabled Ranke to present a vivid description of the Spanish and Ottoman rulers, and of the methods and machinery by which they governed their respective empires. But even Venetian ambassadors suffered from the general defects of the species, and the furtively collected intelligence that they transmitted to their government was not necessarily as reliable as they, or later generations, were inclined to believe. The fate of the historian of the sixteenth century compelled to rely almost exclusively on the Venetian Relations is not unlike that of a historian of the later twentieth century somehow deprived of all records except for the files of the CIA. In both instances his information, while no doubt graphic, might be considered in some respects defective.

Since Ranke’s day there has been a documentary revolution. Vast quantities of previously unexplored records have been made available to scholars, not only in the great central archives of church and state, but also in municipal, notarial, and private repositories. But over and above this, there has been a revolution in attitudes—in the expectations and preconceptions with which historians approach the evidence of the past. Nineteenth-century history was principally, although not exclusively, political, administrative, and intellectual, cast in a narrative and chronological mold, and permeated by a belief in the power of ideas to shape the destinies of men and of nations. Middle and later twentieth-century history has other objectives and ideals. Social and economic in preference to political and administrative, analytical rather than narrative, it has chosen to look to social forces, generated by the imperious demands of geography and of economic circumstance, as the prime explanation of historical facts.

Given this double revolution in the availability of sources and in the attitudes of mind with which historians approach them, one could only expect that the twentieth-century version of Ranke’s Ottoman and Spanish Empires, if it ever came to be written, would be a very different book from its nineteenth-century predecessor. On both counts it also had the chance of being a much greater book. Not only were the archives at last beginning to yield up their secrets, but the new appreciation of the part played by social and economic forces in the history of mankind (however much dispute there might be about the primacy of their role) added a new dimension to the study of the past.

But if the opportunities were greater, so too were the hazards. Were nation-states, or even empires, any longer adequate as concepts for the new kind of history? Did not economic and social forces necessarily transcend man-made boundaries? If so, it became necessary to study a still larger collective unit than that comprised by one, or even two, territorial groupings; and this in turn demanded a research effort adequate to the sheer scale and variety of the documentation that had to be explored. On the face of it, the task would seem to transcend the powers of a single person. Collective history, as the study of large and diverse human groupings, might appropriately seem to require the collective dedication of a team of historians.

Perhaps,” as Professor Braudel wrote in the preface to the first edition of his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, “the day will come when we shall no longer be working on the great sites of history with the methods of small craftsmen.” Perhaps it will, although it would not be surprising if the resulting edifice had the efficiency and impersonality of a skyscraper. In the meantime, one could wish that more historical craftsmen had not only the industry but the originality, the vision, and the intellectual daring of the master craftsman who thus looks forward (with concealed misgiving as well as hope?) to the extinction of his race. For Braudel’s Mediterranean, first published in 1949, and now at last appearing in a superb translation by Siân Reynolds, fully worthy of its French original, will doubtless stand as one of the crowning achievements of twentieth-century historical craftsmanship.

In a sense, the history of Braudel’s great book is the history of twentieth-century historiography itself. Braudel began his work in the 1920s as an orthodox history, as understood and admired by those early twentieth-century epigoni of the great nineteenth-century masters. It was to be a political and diplomatic history of Philip II’s Mediterranean policy—a meticulous survey of the mutual relations of Ranke’s two great empires. Its transformation into something very different can be fully understood only as a consequence of the belated impact of the twentieth-century historiographical revolution on France, in whose universities the ancien régime of the historians appears to have been more powerfully, and indeed tyrannically, entrenched than in most of their counterparts elsewhere.

This revolution, which will always be associated with the names of Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and François Simiand, and with those remarkable early numbers of the great historical journal Annales, brought France dramatically into the center of twentieth-century historiography. In the process, Braudel’s study changed almost beyond recognition. Diplomatic and political narrative gave ground before the powerful claims of social and economic history; geography assumed a central position; the group became of greater concern than the individual unit; and Ranke’s Ottoman and Spanish empires were subsumed into a vast, and at times almost mystical, entity—not just the Mediterranean but Braudel’s Mediterranean.

I have loved the Mediterranean with passion,” his preface begins, “no doubt because I am a northerner like so many others in whose footsteps I have followed.” Braudel, like Goethe, possesses the supreme gift of evoking “das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn“—of being able to recapture for pallid northerners the sun-drenched regions of the south. The first part of his book is an almost poetic evocation of the Mediterranean world, and one of the most brilliant pieces of sustained historical description of our times. The mountains, the plains, the sea itself—all are surveyed with the critical eye of the geographer and the historian, but also with the loving eye of the poet.

Take, for instance, the following passage, in which Braudel is attempting to show how “the Mediterranean means more than landscapes of vines and olive trees and urbanized villages,” but is also a world of snowcapped mountains.

The traveller will have seen too the snows that linger until midsummer, “cooling the eye,” as a visitor once put it. The peak of the Mulhacen is white with snow while down below, Granada swelters in the heat; snow clings to the slopes of the Taygetus overlooking the tropical plain of Sparta; it is preserved in the crevasses of the mountains of Lebanon, or in the “ice boxes” of Chrea.

These are the snows that explain the long Mediterranean history of “snow water,” offered by Saladin to Richard the Lionheart, and drunk to fatal excess by Don Carlos in the hot month of July 1568, when he was imprisoned in the Palace at Madrid. In Turkey in the sixteenth century it was not merely the privilege of the rich; in Constantinople, but elsewhere as well, Tripoli in Syria for instance, travellers remarked on merchants selling snow water, pieces of ice, and water-ices which could be bought for a few small coins. Pierre Belon relates that snow from Bursa used to arrive at Istanbul in whole boatloads. It was to be found there all the year round according to Busbecq, who was astonished to see the janissaries drinking it every day at Amasia in Anatolia, in the Turkish army camp.

And so the detail and the examples multiply—the transport of Syrian snow into Egypt by relays of fast horses, the import of snow into Lisbon, Oran, and Malta, the early development of the water ice in Italy—until the reader almost physically shares with generations of dwellers in the Mediterranean hot lands the sweltering heat, the parched throat, and the sudden ice-cool relief.

This is evocative history at its best, pursued with such richness of detail and example over space and time that it dazzles as well as illuminates. It is hard to see how any reader who submerges himself in the first 300 pages of the book can fail to be carried away by the sense of excitement that comes with the discovery of a hidden world. But the first section, self-contained as it is, represents no more than the groundwork of a tripartite whole. Here is the physical infrastructure of history—the barely changing story of Mediterranean man’s relationship with his environment, of his struggle with the sea and the seasons and the ever-encroaching desert. The second part concerns itself with “collective destinies”—with the human groups who peopled the sixteenth-century Mediterranean lands, their economies, their social systems, their civilizations. This forms the immediate prelude to the third part, the more traditional narrative history of the great Spanish-Ottoman conflict of the age of Philip II—the “histoire événementielle“—which constitutes most of the second volume, still to appear in translation.

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