The Perspective of the World is the concluding volume of Fernand Braudel’s huge essay on the economic and social history of the world between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. Completed five years ago, it has now been faultlessly translated by Siân Reynolds, whose English rendering of Braudel’s often idiosyncratic prose is a wonderful achievement.

It is appropriate that the work itself should be in the form of a trilogy, for tripartite thinking has always been integral to Braudel’s historical philosophy and indeed to that of the Annales school of French historians, of which he is the long-reigning doyen. The subtitle of the journal Annales—économies, sociétés, civilisations—proclaims a ready disposition to divide everything up into three. So does Braudel’s earlier masterpiece, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which is split into three parts: “the environment,” “general trends,” and “events.”

Braudel is also famous for having declared that historical time falls into three categories: the long-term (longue durée), the medium-term (conjoncture), and the short-term (événement). His tripartite categorizations are an obvious improvement upon the binary models used by so many historians and sociologists, who are content to divide the past into simple polarities: “preindustrial” and “industrial”; “traditional” and “modern”; “feudal” and “capitalist.” But there is a rigidity about all such divisions, whether polar or tripartite, if they cease to be used as mere expository devices and are presented as possessing some objective reality.

In Civilization and Capitalism Braudel outlines yet another tripartite model, which he compares to the structure of a house. The ground floor is occupied by “material life,” of which the basic components are food, housing, clothes, tools, and money. They formed the subject matter of his first volume, The Structures of Everyday Life.1 The upper stories contain “economic life,” that is, markets, shops, peddlers, fairs, and other means of exchange. Their history was treated in volume two, The Wheels of Commerce. 2 Finally, on what Braudel, as his architectural metaphor grows vaguer, calls “the highest level of all,” there is “capitalism.” This topic was also discussed in the second volume, but it now reemerges as a leading theme in volume three, The Perspective of the World, which is a chronological survey of the economic history of the world between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Braudel’s definition of “capitalism” is never wholly explicit, but it is clearly not a Marxist one. He does not look for a capitalist mode of production or analyze the social relationship between the seller of labor and the owner of capital. Rather, his preoccupation is with the conditions of exchange.3 He sees capitalism as a distinctive kind of exchange relationship, quite different from that which prevails in the normal market economy. For whereas the ordinary market operates on a basis of free competition, capitalism rests on the accumulation of power by multinational institutions and the resulting inequality between the bargainers. For Braudel, the central figures in the rise of capitalism are not industrialists, but international bankers and traders. By offering credit, these essentially parasitic speculators bring people, regions, and even whole states into a condition of virtual dependence; and, by exploiting their monopoly of supply and of commercial information, they evade the laws of the market. They profit by unequal competition and continually seek to extend the area of their control.

So, whereas for Marx monopoly was only a late phase of capitalism, it is for Braudel the very essence of the phenomenon; and he finds it present in Europe at least as early as the thirteenth century. Capitalism originated with urban merchants. It was slow to penetrate either agriculture or industry and not until the Industrial Revolution did it gain control of production. In the meantime it was to be found in those parts of the economy where the highest profits were to be made, notably marketing, distribution, and long-distance trade.

Braudel sees the economic history of early modern Europe as the story of the successive primacy of individual trading cities whose accumulation of capital enabled them to dominate the world economy. They did this less by creating new trading networks than by linking old ones together. By securing a few strategic bases on the map of world trade and by providing ready credit for their victims, they were able to play off different trading regions against each other and to make large profits for themselves. Thus by the end of the fourteenth century it was Venice that controlled the commerce between Europe and the East. A hundred years later its hegemony had been undermined by the advance of the Turks, the opening of the Atlantic, and the discovery of the Cape route to India. In Venice’s place, Antwerp emerged as the center of the international economy, basing its supremacy on the import of pepper from the East and of silver from the New World. By the later sixteenth century, however, the source of silver and bills of exchange had shifted to Genoa; and, until they were brought down by the bankruptcy of the Spanish crown in 1627, it was the Genoese who were the bankers of the world. Then followed the predominance of Amsterdam. The Amsterdamers took control of the East Indies, penetrated the economies of Western Europe, and exchanged the goods of the Mediterranean for those of the Baltic.


This domination of the world economy by seafaring cities was possible, Braudel thinks, because capital accumulation could not yet be achieved in the larger and looser-knit territorial states. But once a national market had been created, the larger units inexorably took over. England was the first country to achieve such a national market (Braudel comments wistfully and at length on France’s failure to do so). As a result, Amsterdam gave way in the eighteenth century to London. By the early nineteenth century both India and Latin America were bound hand and foot to British capitalism, just as, five hundred years earlier, the Byzantine Empire had been dominated by the Venetians.

For Braudel, therefore, the instruments of aggression and domination during these centuries were not states and armies, but banks and trading companies. The great Dutch and English Indies companies set out to conquer the world, like the multinationals of our own day. The Europeans settled in Asia within easy reach of points of production and at the intersections of trade routes, “thus saving themselves the trouble of creating infrastructures, and leaving to local communities the tasks of transporting the goods to the ports, organizing and financing production and handling elementary exchange.” The only regions of the world to avoid this domination were those whose rulers excluded European merchants and resisted the seductive lure of bullion and easy credit. Of these, the most notable were Russia, which successfully maintained an autonomous economy; the Ottoman Empire, which, for all its supposed “decline,” continued to ward off European penetration; and China, which after about 1430 cut itself off from the West and deliberately thwarted the growth of capitalism. In India, by contrast, the very success of the Mogul Empire in creating a national market made the European takeover all the easier when the Moguls collapsed.

The triumph of European capitalism and the industrialization of the West ahead of the rest of the world are thus the logical culmination of Braudel’s story. “The history of the world between about 1400 and 1850–1950,” he writes, “is one of an ancient parity collapsing under the weight of a multisecular distortion, whose beginnings go back to the late fifteenth century. Compared with this predominant trend everything else is secondary.”

This analysis is set out in a relaxed, vivid, and colorful way. Braudel is a master of the striking phrase and penetrating aperçu; behind the sometimes oracular prose one can feel the presence of a powerful mind. Every topic is handled with zest, energy, and imagination. The book’s coverage is world-wide, and the range of examples, graphs, and supporting information is enormous. There are more than a hundred excellent illustrations. From the first, which shows turbaned Eastern traders on the Piazzetta in Venice, to the last, which is a Rowlandson engraving of the London Coal Exchange, they offer an enjoyable and genuinely helpful commentary on the text.

In short, no one can read this book without gaining pleasure and intellectual stimulation. Those, for example, who want fresh thoughts on the old question of why England should have been the first nation to industrialize will find both a summary of much recent writing and some new and original insights. Stressing the importance of the early development of an English national market, Braudel remarks that Henry VIII’s failure to reconquer some of France and Mary Tudor’s loss of Calais were not disasters but a great source of subsequent advantage. In the same way, England’s defeat in 1783 in the wars with America, France, and Holland was unimportant, for she emerged the economic victor: “from now on the centre of the world was in her capital.” Braudel stresses another, often forgotten feature of English history: the stability of its money. Stabilized in 1560–1561 by Elizabeth I, the pound sterling retained its intrinsic value until the twentieth century, whereas all its European counterparts fluctuated wildly. “It is as if the English—usually so renowned for their pragmatism—had had a revelation in 1560 of the correct direction to take.”

The discussion of France’s failure to become the center of the world economy is brilliantly illuminating. Braudel contrasts the early appearance of the French state with the late development of a national market and the slowness with which Paris achieved financial dominance over Lyon. He offers a fascinating account of the different economic and cultural zones into which France was divided at various stages of her history; and he shows how the reasons for these divisions can only be understood when the economic history of France is placed in a wider European setting.


On the larger question of why it should have been Europe that came to dominate the world, Braudel has much to say. In his second volume, he attributed the success of European capitalism to social and political circumstances. In China the state inhibited the growth of capitalism by itself controlling all the upper levels of the economy. In the Muslim countries society was also under firm state control: typically, the composition of the upper class changed in every generation and the possibility of accumulation over the generations was ruled out. What was distinctive about Europe was that “it encouraged the survival of dynasties and the continuous process of wealth accumulation without which further development would have been impossible.” Moreover, these European capitalist dynasties had the advantage of being regarded as socially inferior to the aristocracy of birth. This enabled them to escape lightly when the privileged order came under attack. It also encouraged them to accumulate still further in an attempt to reach the sunlight. European social hierarchies thus generated a tension which was economically creative.

Yet, for Braudel, further European economic development would have been impossible without the liberating effect of international trade. It was essentially American silver that enabled European merchants to penetrate the East, for they had nothing else to offer the inhabitants. The outflow of silver which was so lamented by contemporary economists thus proved the basis of European supremacy. Europe’s domination of the world economy created the conditions for further unequal development: the core thrived at the expense of the periphery. This was not because of any innate Western cultural superiority. If Chinese junks had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope in 1419, perhaps the whole story would have been the other way around: Asia could have become the core and Europe the periphery.

Yet little of this interpretation is put forward in the form of firm propositions. Braudel’s style is musing, conversational, and often indecisive. Questions are raised but not answered. Hypotheses are tentatively advanced and then abandoned. Vagueness and inconsistencies abound. For all the wealth of graphs and tables, there is a lack of rigor about the argument, which often proceeds by suggestion rather than demonstration, and lacks figures where they are most needed. The work’s organization is loose and repetitive. Details are often carelessly presented: the date of the fourth Anglo-Dutch war for example, is variously given as 1780–1784, 1781–1784, and 1782–1783. Thomas Mun, who died in 1641, is said to have defended bullion exports in 1684.

As Braudel himself remarks, a work of history can never be complete and final. Even so, the present book does not always measure up to normal scholarly standards. The author’s range of reading is immense and his text is full of arcane allusions to the unpublished typescripts he has perused, the lectures and conferences he has attended, and the conversations and correspondence he has conducted with learned historians all over the world. But an examination of his references (a difficult task in itself, for the notes are obscured by inconsistencies of style and infuriatingly frequent use of op. cit.) reveals Braudel to be heavily dependent on standard secondary sources: Kristof Glamann on Dutch Asiatic trade, Charles Wilson on Anglo-Dutch finance Irfan Habib on Mogul India, and so on.

There is no harm in that, except that it would be possible to compile a long list of equally indispensable sources, particularly in English, of which he has made inadequate use or no use at all: for example, P.G.M. Dickson’s book on the English national debt, which was cited in volume two but is ignored here, or Mark Elvin’s essay on Chinese economic history, or the work of the Cambridge Group on English population. Amazingly, Braudel’s graph of birth and death rates in England is taken from as archaic a source as G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History (1942). As for the remarks in volume two on the English nobility and the Wars of the Roses, one would think that the late K.B. McFarlane had never lived. Even the references to manuscript sources turn out to be more limited in range than is first apparent, for they tend to be drawn repeatedly from the same series of documents and to come overwhelmingly from French archives in Paris.

Such limitations, venial in a work of such global scope, are made more irksome by the author’s air of historiographical omniscience. Lack of familiarity with English writing does not stop Braudel from asserting that all historians save A.E. Feaveryear have “ignored” the agreement made in the 1630s that English ships should transport Spanish silver; yet this event is mentioned in several English textbooks; Feaveryear’s inaccurate account has been corrected by Harland Taylor and the episode is a prominent theme in a monograph by J.S. Kepler.4 We need figures to illustrate the differential wealth of France, Braudel declares, adding that “André Rémond is the only person who could carry out an enterprise of this kind with the right combination of prudence and boldness. Unfortunately, he has not done so, or at any rate has not published his results.” “For us he is a prince,” writes Georges Duby; and it is certainly in a princely manner that Braudel bestows praise and blame on his fellow historians.

It is only to be expected that a touch of pomposity should creep into the style of a man who has risen to the very top of the French academic hierarchy and been so often acclaimed as the greatest living practitioner of his craft. It is also unsurprising that an elderly scholar (Braudel was born in 1902) should have mislaid some of his references and be a little out of date in his reading. One specialist reviewer of The Wheels of Commerce was so angered by Braudel’s errors in Dutch, English, and East European history and so irritated by the repeated suggestion that the author deserved a Nobel Prize for history that he described the book as “mostly superficial and at times awful.”5 This judgment is as unreasonably severe as the chorus of praise has been indulgent. Civilization and Capitalism is not as impressive or original a work as The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. But it has many splendid qualities and its conceptual framework deserves serious discussion.

Most economic historians will, I suspect, find the work unduly schematic. Labels like “the Age of Venice,” “the Age of Antwerp,” or “the Age of the Genoese” are useful headings under which to organize information, but they exaggerate the degree of dominance enjoyed by the ruling city in question. The distinction between “capitalism” and “the market economy” is not entirely lucid; one can sympathize with Braudel’s admiration for the small firm and his dislike of the multinationals without necessarily conceding that there is a fundamental difference of kind between the two forms of organization. The distinction between “material life” and “economic life” is not very easy to grasp either.

Even more debatable is the concept of the world economy on which the third volume rests. This is a notion that has been powerfully developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, who in turn acknowledges his indebtedness to Braudel and indeed presides over a “Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations.”6 The guiding assumption is that in a world economy the fortunes of any particular region will depend upon its position within that economy, whether core, periphery, or semiperiphery. Since the core rises on the back of the periphery, progress at the center will slow down that of the outlying areas. Thus as Western Europe moved to industrialization and a higher standard of living, India, Africa, and Latin America were confined to primary production and a lower level of per capita income.

Braudel does not by any means share all of Wallerstein’s ideas, but he is fascinated by the creation of interdependent economic zones and he is emphatic that economic development rests on an international division of labor and unequal exchange. For him there is always a dominator and a dominated. In the seventeenth century the “second serfdom” of Eastern Europe was the corollary to the merchant capitalism of the West; the great landowners of Poland and Prussia were the tools and collaborators of the Amsterdam capitalists. In the eighteenth century the profits from the colonies were made by those in Europe, not by the planters on the spot. In the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution occurred only in those countries at the heart of the world economy; Braudel quotes from Marx what he calls “a sentence of perhaps unrivalled density”: “The veiled slavery of the wage worker in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the New World.” In modern times, the world economy condemns the third world countries to perpetual tutelage: “Is not the major obstacle facing today’s developing nations,” asks Braudel, “the international economy in its existing form, and the way in which it divides and distributes tasks?… This is why…industrialization persistently makes a progress only in places where it has already made progress, and the gap grows ever wider between the under-developed countries and the others.”

In recent years this kind of argument has come under sharp attack. It has been pointed out that many primary producing areas have managed to break out of the trap and to industrialize: Scotland, Denmark, Australia are obvious examples.7 It has also been shown that statistics do not entirely support the view that the West rose on the backs of the third world. As Patrick O’Brien has written in a powerful critique of Wallerstein’s thesis:

Some three centuries after the voyages of discovery, Europe’s trade with the periphery still formed a very small part of total economic activity. Even for maritime powers, like Britain, closely engaged with Asia, Africa, and Latin America, profits from that commerce probably financed less than 15 percent of gross investment between 1750–1850…. For the economic growth of the core, the periphery was peripheral.8

Braudel himself spends a lot of time arguing around the fact that for European countries the scale of international trade was always dwarfed by that of internal trade. He also includes some disconcerting figures compiled by Paul Bairoch which suggest that, as late as 1800, for all Europe’s supposed domination of the world economy, other continents still outweighed it in population and wealth. Per capita income in the whole third world averaged about $200 and in China was $228; in Western Europe it was $213. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that the vast discrepancies have emerged. (In 1976 the figures were: Western Europe, $2,325; the third world, $355; and China, $369.) The three centuries between 1500 and 1800 were merely the long period of preparation for modern inequality.

Such very long-term movements are for Braudel the stuff of history. Short-term fluctuations and daily events are for him only trivia. What really matters are the secular trends imperceptible to contemporaries, who have eyes only for the surface of events. Braudel is fascinated by the cyclical rhythms that have accompanied the history of capitalism; and his obsession with such periodicities as the “Kondratieff” cycle of prices over half a century or more is almost reminiscent of medieval number mysticism. “The economic fluctuations of varying length which seem to succeed one another like waves rolling in from the sea,” he declares, “are a rule in world history, a rule which has reached down the ages to us and will carry on operating.” The fall of the Dutch banking system after 1789, for example, was “virtually inevitable, written into the logic of events.” And he speculates whether the years between 1972 and 1974 did not see the beginning of another downward slope of the Kondratieff cycle. “If so,” he suggests, “are not the day-to-day remedies proposed to meet the crisis completely illusory?”

It is this sort of observation that has led some critics to denounce Braudel as an economic determinist, whose historical philosophy leaves no room for the individual actor. Although he recognizes that economies are only a dimension of a larger whole and concedes that at earlier periods of history other determinants may have been more important, Braudel frankly asserts the “primacy” of economics in modern times. “In Europe…a rapidly developing economy often seems to have dominated other sectors after about the eleventh or twelfth century, and even more markedly after the sixteenth.” He admits that politics, culture, religion, and even daily events continued to play a part, but usually only as “barriers, forces of resistance or drags on change.” It is the economy that has transformed the structures and mentalities of European society. As for the influence of the state, the history of great merchant families is at least as important as that of princely dynasties: the empire of the Fuggers was vaster than that of Charles V. Yet even the banker or entrepreneur was the creature of irresistible forces: “Nine times out of ten…the innovator was borne along a rising tide.” Braudel is readier to personify abstractions (“Burdened by her past, Byzantium showed little active spirit”) than he is to concede importance to the individual.

Braudel’s interpretation of past economic development provides historians with some challenging hypotheses which they will, without undue difficulty, be able to revise and refine. But his underlying philosophy of history is less capable of proof or refutation. To those who have faith in the autonomy and effectiveness of the individual human agent, his must seem a depressing creed. But it is to be respected as the characteristically Olympian view of one who has spent a lifetime studying the fortunes of men and empires. For Braudel, history is the science of the present as well as of the past. His belief in the insignificance of human action and the inexorability of long-term forces makes him not just a historian but also a prophet.

This Issue

November 22, 1984