Category: history

Yeahhh boy let’s blog some Braudel

So yeah i picked this up after seeing it on yerman Harrowell’s excellent blog. And yes as it happens I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and happen to be in front of a mechanical keyboard. Just gwine type innit.

Interesting point in his foreward, which I’ll be keen to follow through the main body of the book:

To view Italy – the many Italies – from a distance, is to gather together into a single narrative a history that has been fragmented into too many stories, too many states and city-states. It means presenting a version that departs from usual practice, a quest for the truth, one might say, or at any rate a particular way of trying to understand Italy’s greatness, the better to do it justice.

Out of Italy – Fernand Braudel, Foreward.

It’s an interesting… perspective, literally. Rather like finding the Archimedian Point, Braudel believes that he’s in a position that allows for this gathering together. This is a temporal position of course – that’s the obvious interpretation. But it’s also an ideological position – the Annales school – the ability to find objectivity through managing data, narrative through painstaking analysis of the documents, not pure inheritance of past narratives incorporating back to the Renaissance’s own ability at self-fashioning, self-narrative.

And it’s a French perspective, intellectually exceptional, arrogant, with perhaps some justification for a gilded age of French academia; as Braudel himself says in the next paragraph:

As a witness from quite outside the national scene – so perhaps better qualified than some to consider Italy’s claims to greatness with an open mind – I shall not on that account seek to stifle the undisguised sympathy that all French historians, from Michelet onwards or even earlier, have felt towards Italy. The objectivity and impartiality at which I shall aim as best I can are virtues to which any historian must aspire, though without ever claiming to possess them from the start.

ibid, all of them will be ibid

There! The mixture of arrogance, objectivity, the notion that somehow France is ‘outside’ Italy (just tell that to the Italian cooks). All Braudel. And in my mind very fully justified. To read Braudel is to be thrilled with the ability to connect the minutest of research and data aggregation to thrilling insight and historical wit.

The Archimedean position outside of the Renaissance is France, it is the methodology of the Annales school and not just time itself, but position in time in which Braudel finds himself.

In the Introduction that follows, and having identified the Roman, 12th-14th, 15th-mid 17th Century as a long and possible continuous expression of greatness and genius, Braudel considers other national experiences of greatness (16thC Spain, 17thC Holland, 18thC France and Britain). I’m slightly surprised to see, given the wide-ranging excellence of his world view in Civilisation and Capitalism that his examples here aren’t more wide ranging.

His definition of greatness is worth transcribing:

In such examples of greatness, strength has joined forces with intelligence, power with culture, in combinations that are never quite the same, either in their causes or effects, while they nevertheless remain comparable to each other.

Introduction to ibid ibid ibid

I noted this with regard to the contempt the the current 2020 Tory government has for education in the Arts. According to Braudel, the combination of power with culture is what makes greatness.

I was reading an enjoyable brief interview with @FinanceDirCFO Alastair Thomson the other day – his book on managing cashflow in businesses is well worth reading if you have any sort of financial responsibility, not just running your own business. He had to me unexpected views on the Arts:

Which two fields should talk more to one another? What should they talk about?

I’m a big supporter of the Arts (very widely defined) and think arts and science should talk to one another much more. The education system’s obsession on STEM is a huge mistake, I believe. Not that STEM subjects aren’t important in their own right. Of course they are. But they encourage lazy, incomplete and unrealistic thinking, especially when there’s an interface at some point with human beings.

The UK makes a lot of money from the Arts – why wouldn’t you fund it? Greatness, flexible thinking, money – why wouldn’t you back the Arts? Historical greatness is usually perceived via the Arts, and while that doesn’t always put bread on the table, governments should consider what makes a people’s pride and sense of communities.

I digress.

Also I need more wine, brb.


Braudel continues:

The vitality of a society, an economy, a civilisation, or a state is at once concentrated and exhausted in such episodes. For although the time span may vary, the end of the story is always “decline,” a word as complex as it is convenient. It seems to set the final seal on the episode – yet we know that the wheel of history keeps on turning. Who would these days dare to echo Gobineau when he said, “All human societies have their decline and fall, all, I tell you.” True perhaps but a Renaissance is always possible.

It’s an interesting section. My immediate thought was that in Braudel’s so-called ‘decline’ much that is good has been created. How then to define decline? Is it after all that I have just said rawly economic? Or like Greek sculpture, does learning decay until only the big second toe remains before turning into the entirely different wonder of Byzantine iconography?

I was reminded as I read this that the notion of civilisational decline has been a trope since Herodotus and has carried a sense of effete inner decay brought from the East: decline and decadence.

But what is decline, really? The end of a hegemony? So what? Is Braudel, despite his Archimedean point, actually in a crux between objective imperialism and scientific objectivity? Although he conveyed the crux between power and culture so brilliantly in all his books – showing a sensitivity both to data and to the emotional material content of our societies and our lives, were the Annales in fact a clerk of imperialism and political-financial power after all?


The next section is called The Dialectic of Internal and External. NOW we’re talking.

Imma sit in the garden for a bit with this glass of wine.

Nice book btw. Good cover. No need to do the title colour scheme like a cookbook though innit.

(sorry not sorry for any typos in this)