Fernand Braudel Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Braudel expanded significantly the nature and scope of historical research by reintegrating history with the social and behavioral sciences and by devising a distinctive analytical theory and methodology to justify and make possible a major shift in the ways in which historical research was conducted.

Early Life

Fernand Braudel, born in a village in eastern France, received his early education in Paris, where his father taught mathematics in a secondary school and became a headmaster. Young Braudel’s interest in history was first aroused by an instructor who taught the history of France as high drama. Later, at the Sorbonne in Paris, Braudel specialized in historical studies, partly as an adolescent revolt against his father’s desire that he become a mathematician like himself. Braudel completed his undergraduate education in 1923, still undecided in his vocation.

Over the next decade (1923-1932), he taught history at the secondary level in French Algeria, following closely the prescribed curriculum based on the history of politics and of great men. Having decided as early as 1923 to pursue doctoral studies, Braudel chose as his dissertation topic the policies of the sixteenth century Spanish monarch Philip II. Subsequently, from 1935 to 1937, he taught at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Braudel’s sojourn in the New World, coupled with his long residence in North Africa, contributed to a gradual broadening of the scope and focus of the dissertation topic. He found himself drawn increasingly to the history of the whole Mediterranean basin. The years 1927-1933 proved to be critical for the final transformation of Braudel’s original concept. When in 1927 he informed the eminent French historian Lucien Febvre of his project on Phillip II, Febvre had responded: “Why not the Mediterranean and Philip II?” From this point, Braudel became aware that Philip II attracted him less and less, and the Mediterranean more and more.

Meanwhile, Febvre, with his renowned colleague Marc Bloch, had in 1929 founded in France a new historical journal, called Annales, devoted explicitly to countering the long-prevailing view of history as consisting primarily of politics and great men. The editors hoped to promote through their new journal the cultivation of what Bloch described as “all the sciences involved in the study of man and society,” especially the interaction of history with sociology, economics, and geography. This is the vision of a new interdisciplinary approach to history that Braudel imbibed while still teaching in Algeria. Henceforth he sought consciously to transcend the political, diplomatic, and military focus of conventional narrative history. In the process he would become for a time the most influential historian in the Western world.

Life’s Work

At first, however, Braudel was discouraged by the predominantly political and diplomatic character of the archival sources he found in Spain and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. He recalled vividly the deep satisfaction and joy he felt when in 1934 he discovered in the Dubrovnick archives in Yugoslavia the stuff of the new history he hoped to write. There were the names and precise routes of hundreds of commercial ships, along with their cargoes, the prices of the various commodities, and associated details of maritime commerce ranging over most of the sixteenth century. In these masses of economic and social data, Braudel says, he “saw the Mediterranean of the sixteenth century for the first time.” To duplicate these and similar documents elsewhere, he had adapted an old motion picture camera to provide him with up to three thousand manuscript pages a day. This is the first known use of the microfilm technique for scholarly purposes.

By the fall of 1939, Braudel, having mastered the sources necessary to complete his task, had devised a full outline of a panoramic study of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. Before he could begin the writing, however, the horrors of World War II enveloped most of Europe, including his native France. Mobilized as an officer in the French army, Braudel was captured early in 1940 and found himself confined for the remainder of the conflict in a German prisoner-of-war camp. It was partly to distance himself from the bitter reality of the fate of France and partly to occupy the long hours of forced inactivity that Braudel decided to write his history of the Mediterranean.

Over the five years of his imprisonment, Braudel wrote slowly, from memory, without a single note, the first draft of the book. While this feat was remarkable by any standard, he had immersed himself in the archival and other sources of his great subject and pushed the project doggedly to completion. Released at war’s end, in 1945, Braudel polished his draft, filled in the references, and in 1947 submitted the result to the Sorbonne to satisfy the requirements for the doctorate in history. It was published in 1949 in two volumes under the title La Méditerranée et la monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 1972). Twenty-six years had elapsed from conception to...

(The entire section is 2168 words.)