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.

It is, I think, possible that in part two the lay reader will at times feel out of his depth. Certain sections are as immediately accessible, and as fascinating, as anything in part one. In particular there is a marvelous chapter on distance—that great enemy (and occasional friend) of pretelephonic man. Drawing his examples from innumerable documents scattered throughout the European archives, Braudel sets out to measure sixteenth-century space by examining the time needed for the delivery of letters and the transmission of news. The statistics are fascinating—the sixteenth-century Mediterranean was between sixty-six and eighty days long; the normal traveling time for letters from Venice was eight days to Cairo, twenty-four to London, forty-three to Lisbon. These are figures graphically supported by the charts and maps that are such a striking and valuable feature of the book. Yet Braudel never allows his statistics to dehumanize his history. Behind them we glimpse the men—kings, ambassadors, statesmen, and humbler people—waiting, and going on waiting, for vital letters which are inexplicably delayed.

When Braudel moves, however, from the measurement of space and time to the discussion and measurement of economic activity, his text inevitably becomes more technical. For the professional historian the discussion is marvelously—if at times excessively—rich. The great subjects of modern historical debate—the relation between American treasure and the “price revolution” of the sixteenth century, the “demographic revolution,” which perhaps doubled the population of the Mediterranean lands between 1500 and 1600, and the fluctuating patterns of sixteenth-century world trade—all are examined with the acuteness of intelligence and abundance of new documentary evidence that earned the book’s reputation as a historical classic from the day of its publication.

For example, there is now a section (which was not present in the first edition of 1949) that sets out to discover whether it is possible to construct a model of the Mediterranean economy—an extraordinarily suggestive section, both in its historical approach and technique and in its application of statistical methods to the examination of preindustrial societies. Discussions of this kind make the middle sections of this book a manual for the professional historian, to some extent inevitably at the expense of even the most enthusiastic layman.

Yet precisely because Braudel’s Mediterranean can be read on several levels simultaneously it has an importance and a range that extend far beyond any one historical category. As such, it typifies the characteristics of the age in which it was written. No other book I know of illustrates more graphically the way in which historical writing has been renovated in our own times by contact with other disciplines—geography, economics, and the social sciences. No other book I know of better reveals the explosion of knowledge, and the need to make the historian master not of one trade but of many, which have made his task almost impossibly demanding.

Moreover, no other book displays more strikingly the problems of understanding and interpretation which are central to our times. For one is bound to ask whether Braudel’s book works, gives us a deeper understanding of the course of human history. On one plane, the answer must be “yes.” Braudel has succeeded in bringing into a new and intense focus the forces that at once shaped and constrained the lives of millions of men and women within a well-defined period of time. On another plane, however, there may be room for doubt.

The “traditional” history, the ebb and flow of political and military narrative, which will occupy the second and concluding volume of this translation—how far is this explained by all that has come before? We certainly understand better the immense human problems that attended fitting out a naval expedition or raising an army. We are more vividly aware, too, of the winds, the tides, the elemental forces that made the best-laid plans go awry. But is the chronological narrative of the titanic Ottoman-Spanish conflict substantially different from what it would have been if the huge prelude—the great studies of the structure and the conjuncture which occupy the first two thirds of the book—had never been undertaken? I do not believe that it is.

In fact, there seems at this point to be a failure that is all too common in contemporary historical writing—a failure to achieve a satisfactory marriage of the structural analysis of long-term movements and of the narrative of day-to-day events (of movement over short periods of time), which are surely just as much a part of man’s past as the slower, more stately development of great underlying forces. This may in part be an artistic problem to which no satisfactory solution exists. Certainly it is an infinitely more difficult problem than that which faced the great nineteenth-century narrative historians, because so many more elements of historical causation are brought into play. Indeed, it is hard for a reader of this book to escape the impression that today’s “total history” is not dissimilar to total war. In both instances you throw in everything you’ve got.

But much of the difficulty would seem to derive from a tacit assumption behind so much modern historical writing that one kind of causation is necessarily more “fundamental” than another—that it is the “underlying social and economic forces,” as determined by geography, by climate and terrain, which invariably play the decisive part in shaping man’s fate. Let us take, for instance, the central thesis of this book—the “unity and coherence of the Mediterranean region.” “I retain the firm conviction,” writes Braudel, “that the Turkish Mediterranean lived and breathed with the same rhythms as the Christian, that the whole sea shared a common destiny, with identical problems and general trends if not identical consequences.” Few, I think, would dispute that a shared climate and geography give rise to a common style of life which justifies some such phrase as “Mediterranean civilization.” But are the common characteristics necessarily more significant than the often striking differences? Is the fact that Spaniards and Turks—or, for that matter, Arabs and Jews—are Mediterranean peoples really the most important thing about them?

It is here, I think, that Braudel is at his most seductive, and also his most dangerous. We are always gratified to feel that we have been presented with the master key which will unlock the recesses of the past. The key fashioned for us by Braudel might well be labeled “Impersonal Forces.” Sometimes these appear, in almost metaphysical form, as History itself, as when he writes of the decline of Catalonia: “History sooner or later takes back her gifts.” More often they take the form of a Mediterranean that itself becomes an active historical agent: “The truth is that the Mediterranean has struggled against a fundamental poverty.” It would surely be closer to the truth, and perhaps more historically interesting, to say that some inhabitants of the Mediterranean lands struggled with some degree of success against poverty, whereas others resigned themselves to it.

No doubt the metamorphosis of “History” or “the Mediterranean” often represents no more than a convenient historical shorthand, and need not be taken too seriously. But it at least hints at an approach to historical causation that colors the book. Braudel’s main argument tends to be based on structural determinism which some readers will find unacceptable in general, and others will find unconvincing in its specific applications.

In a remarkable passage on the rise of the Mediterranean world’s population from 35 to 60 or 70 million during the course of the sixteenth century, Braudel writes that “this biological revolution was the major factor in all the other revolutions with which we are concerned, more important than the Turkish conquest, the discovery and colonization of America, or the imperial vocation of Spain.” Really? More important than the discovery of America? A matter of opinion, perhaps (and it is worth recalling that the “biological revolution” of the sixteenth century was not confined to the Mediterranean lands).

But Braudel continues: “Had it not been for the increase in the number of men, would any of these glorious chapters ever have been written?” Well, there seems to be no essential reason why not, for there is, to my knowledge, no clear evidence that overpopulation was a decisive, or even a major, element in either the Iberian settlement of America or the imperial vocation of Spain. And when we read, a page or two later on, that “proof of the overpopulation of Mediterranean Europe after the end of the fifteenth century is the frequent expulsion of the Jews, who were driven out of Castile and Portugal in 1492, from Sicily in 1493…,” we can only rub our eyes in disbelief. There were many reasons, not even remotely connected with a still unproven “overpopulation,” why the Jews should have been expelled from Castile at this particular moment. (The “expulsion” of the Portuguese Jews, which nominally occurred four years later, in 1496, was followed by their forcible conversion and a ban on their emigration. Hardly the correct response, one would have thought, to a case of overpopulation.)

Must we, indeed, always look to geography and demography as the prime determinants of the historical process? Were the “sharp-eyed capitalism of the merchants,” or the rise of the state, really “inevitable,” to use Braudel’s own word? Or were they among the least inevitable and most remarkable developments in the history of mankind—developments, moreover, which themselves profoundly affected the economic and social milieu in which Europeans lived?

It is at what might be called, in Braudel’s scheme of things, the “intermediate level” of causation—the aspirations and achievements of man as revealed in capitalist enterprise, or state building, or the formulation of foreign policy—that his argument, while always suggestive, seems to me to be least convincing. As his second volume will show, he provides some penetrating insights into the problems and the weaknesses of empires and states. But as soon as we come to specific decisions by the men in charge of the state machine—as, for instance, the fateful decision of Philip II to break off truce negotiations with the Turks in 1559—we find that there is little in all that has come before to help us to understand why they were reached. Braudel tells us, convincingly enough, that Philip broke off the negotiations in order not to lose face. But how does face-saving (surely one of the most critical elements in the formulation of foreign policy) fit into a world where men are so conditioned by environmental circumstance? A historical dimension is somehow missing.

“The balance of world history,” we are told, “was tipped by the bankruptcy of the Spanish state, a self-evident fact by 1596….” But why was the Spanish state bankrupt by this time? Because it pursued an exceptionally expensive foreign policy which was the consequence of many different considerations, including religion, reputation, and presumed national interest—a foreign policy that was “irrational” in that it bore little relation to Spain’s capacity to sustain it with continuing success. Nothing in all the preceding six hundred pages has really made it clear to us why such a foreign policy was so doggedly pursued; and yet the impact of the state’s domestic and foreign activities, not only on “l’histoire événementielle” but also on the “collective destinies and general trends” of part two of this book, might reasonably be considered so powerful as to make it, in certain parts of economic and social life, the prime determinant of change.

In a moving passage of his preface, Professor Braudel tells us how, as he contemplated Philip II or Don John of Austria, he came to think that these men were, “despite their illusions, more acted upon than actors.” Often, no doubt, they were. Perhaps even most of the time. But not always. Even illusions sometimes have consequences that move men in unpredictable directions.

Braudel’s Mediterranean is a world unresponsive to human control—a world where time, space, the elements, and half-hidden structural forces persistently enjoy the upper hand. Never has this particular world been more vividly recreated than in this extraordinary book. Nor has any previous historian succeeded in depicting quite so convincingly the constraints within which sixteenth-century kings and bankers, statesmen and generals, found themselves forced to operate. As a result we emerge with, if anything, an enhanced admiration for what the human spirit managed to achieve against such apparently impossible odds. But has Braudel got the balance right? Were his actors quite such creatures of circumstance as he would have us believe? Braudel’s mountains move his men, but never his men the mountains.

This Issue

May 3, 1973