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…

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