Fernand Braudel and the Annales: History’s Dialectic of Space and Time David G.

Terrell January 21, 2009

For history… having grown old in embryo as mere narrative, for long encumbered with legend, and for still longer preoccupied with only the most obvious events… at last, it struggles to penetrate beneath the mere surface of actions….1

Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was a French historian who, between 1956 and 1968, oversaw the institutionalization of the “Annales” historiographical paradigm. This movement was named after its scholarly journal, Annales d’historie economique et sociale, founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch (1886-1944) and Lucien Febvre (1878-1956). While Annales influenced the writing of history globally, its effects are most often seen among French- and Spanish-speaking historians. Braudel is acknowledged as the second generation leader of Annales. Annales scholars, like the American “new historians” of the early twentieth century, stepped away from traditional narrative political history in favor of a more inclusive, more analytical history. Both groups wanted to present history holistically by embracing an interdisciplinary collaboration with other human sciences, such as geography, sociology and anthropology. Unlike American progressives such as Turner and Beard, Bloch and Febvre did not reject the major themes of German historiography—an emphasis on continuity and the hypostatization of the state—in their determination to expand the scope of historical inquiry. Contrary to some historiographers, Annales scholars were antagonistic only to history that failed to go beyond a superficial examination of events, or history that was studied in ways they deemed methodologically dubious. This paper intends to answer several questions of interest to the author. What characteristics distinguished the first-generation Annales paradigm from previous historiographical paradigms? What


Marc Bloch. The Historian's Craft. Trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Random House, 1953), 13.

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additional historiographical methods were introduced by Braudel? What criticisms were levied against Annales historians? What trends emerged in the post-Braudelian Annales paradigm? Since classical times, historians in the West have written in a variety of genres. The first dominant paradigm was narrative or exemplar history, used most often to chronicle political and military events. It had the practical goal of training the next generation of citizens and leaders by providing selected examples “in the didactic sense of being illustrative of what the society, through the historian, desires to inculcate and what it wants to warn against.”2 Such histories evolved from Herodotus’ pure narration, making no connection between events and conditions, through Thucydides’ systematic explanations, to Polybius’ methodical application of observations of human nature to the explanation of historical context. Extolling the great deeds of great men remained the dominant form of history through subsequent centuries of piecemeal modification, first by Christian and then by humanist historians until the narrative form was challenged during the Enlightenment, around the middle of the eighteenth century. Enlightenment writers, becoming interested in a “history of society” that would include laws and trade, morals, and manners, strived to create their vision of a rational, “scientific” historiography. These historians, as “rational individuals operating in a world where natural laws endowed and safeguarded individual rights”3, examined events, hoping to discover universal laws of human development. Historians of the Enlightenment focused on history’s usefulness in promoting nationalism and cultural pride—progress. In the fragmented German states, historians were admonished “to understand the unique situation existing at a given time and place and to use general terms and insights solely to elucidate the concrete.”4 They allied themselves with classical philology and drew upon legal studies and text analysis, in an


Traian Stoianovitch. French Historical Method: The Annales paradigm. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1976), 26. 3 Ernst Breisach. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 200. 4 Breisach, 222.

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attempt to ameliorate their nationalist frustrations over their disunity and to understand the past through “love of detail, attention to sources, and preference for a narrow range of interpretation”.5 “Progress” was their watchword and reason, emotion, and passion were treated as part of human nature. They drove themselves to make history into an erudite, elegant, empirical science capable of illuminating usable laws of human behavior and their almost exclusive use of government archives shaped Western historiography. During this time, French historians, perhaps in accordance with a cultural bias that embraced a joy of life and desired a perfection of humanity, were fixated on the idea of a rational progress that pushed humanity toward “the highest good”: a universal peace, rational religion, and freedom under law. Their sweeping, elegant theories of rational, beautiful humanity drew criticism from German historians whose practical, functional nature was steeped in history based on cautious research. French historians persisted in their belief—that mankind, and more especially France, was progressing towards an egalitarian society—until the failures of the French revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. A group of historians, seeking a proper political understanding for France to fill the social vacuum left by these two upheavals, began rejecting the dominant empiricist paradigm as sterile and limited. Their insistence that history is an act of imaginative construction, rather than the cautious reporting of facts that somehow speak for themselves, provided much of the theoretical underpinning that became the features of the Annales. As the twentieth century began, criticisms of political history were sharp in Western academia. In America and France, “the nature of history was the subject of a lively debate.”6 In America, progressives like Beard argued for materialistic interpretations of constitutional history that upset earlier interpretations that radically ennobled the founding fathers; while Turner expressed his belief that history had lost touch


Breisach 219. Peter Novick. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 99. 6 Peter Burke. The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929-89. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990), 9.

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with current interests and should integrate itself more with economics, politics, sociology, etc. In France, efforts to understand humanity and society more completely gave rise to Marxists, almost manically focused on economic interpretations of events; and the new discipline of sociology, studying and emphasizing the roles of social structures other than economic, such as family and hierarchical relations. Both Marxism and sociology demonstrated that analysis was as critical as narrative and a French historian, Henri Berr, drawing inspiration from them, focused his attention on analyzing and synthesizing historical knowledge through interdisciplinary co-operation. Berr had a great appeal to two younger historians, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, who wrote for his journal. For ease of understanding, historiographers divided the subsequent Annales paradigm arising out of Febvre’s and Bloch’s efforts into three generations. In the first, from the 1920s to 1945, the practitioners were few and were considered “radical and subversive” insurgents fighting institutionalized traditional history, political history, and the history of events. The insurgency gained strength after the 1914 war overturned “how life was led and thought about”. Bloch and Febvre, the principal insurgents of this first Annales generation, worked together daily, with adjoining offices, between 1920 and 1933, at the University of Strasbourg, “a facility that facilitated the exchange of ideas across disciplinary frontiers.”7 Bloch, for example, studied in Germany during 1908-1909 and, having mastered the language, engaged in a meaningful academic discourse with many German associates. Bloch tirelessly concerned himself with the history of other countries and in particular with Germany, becoming known as a “great reviewer of books” familiar with the entire body of literature in his field. Both men, therefore, rejected the near monopoly of French history by political and diplomatic topics from a position of familiarity. The considered the resulting history sterile and wanted to break


Burke, 16.

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down the boundaries between the human sciences. Their goal was not to eliminate documentary scholarship but to transcend it by extending history’s comparative methods and knowledge base. Their methods were not identical. Bloch was more focused on a sociological history while Febvre had a greater commitment to geography. Nevertheless, both men thought in an interdisciplinary way and stressed that historians should be multi-talented—able to act as archaeologist, paleographer, or law historian, as the need arose. Together, they espoused an ideal of “total history” that would embody all aspects of a society, arguing that historians should create broad syntheses from historical points of view— and asserted that history’s place was in “the forefront of the human sciences.”8 The characteristics Bloch and Febvre encouraged and exemplified inform the method of the Annales: A preoccupation with the general, a taste for global history examined in an inter-disciplinary way; a refusal to stumble into the twin pitfalls of a rhetorical historiography on the one hand or pointless demonstrations of erudition on the other, very firm decisions never to approach the subject until one has first asked questions which are both sufficiently precise as to avoid allowing anything of importance to slip through the net, but also flexible enough to be adjusted as one goes along in response to what the investigation throws up; a refined sense both of concrete reality but also of deeper, less visible phenomena when drawing up the plan of action and its various tools— maps or statistics, for example.9 The great troubles of the 1920s and 30s— war, revolution, depression, fascism, dictatorship— demanded to be documented and interpreted. Febvre, after Bloch’s WW2 death, was not satisfied to have the times viewed through the historiographic lens of the past and lead like-thinking intellectual revolutionaries in assuming a dominant role in the French historical establishment. The Annales historians


Burke, 15-16. Anna Green and Kathleen Troup. The Houses of History: A critical reader in twentieth-century history and theory. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 88. 9 Michael Bentley. Modern Historiography: An Introduction. (London: Routledge, 1999), 113-114.

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went down a path separate from contemporary historians in America and England who remained committed to history as “political movements, ideologies, events and crises”.10 Thus, as it were, two historical cultures developed: one was contemporary history, mainly descriptive and oriented towards “événements,” living by the year and by the day, strongly preoccupied with politics and ideologies and revolving around such axes as the world wars, revolutions, fascism, and so forth. The other was a new historiography with a broader orientation and in-depth analyses, and an eye for the constants of environment and climate, large geographical units, economic cycles, social structures and an inclination toward the long term. 11 Eventually, Febvre’s inheritor would be Fernand Braudel, under whose leadership, the second generation of the Annales movement, in which it was most truly a “school” with distinctive concepts and distinctive methods, would blossom in France. The publication of Braudel’s thesis, la Mediterranee et le monde Mediterraneen a l’epoque de Philippe II (1949), was the event that changed French historiography when he introduced two additional methods to the paradigm: a multi-layered historical chronology, and a focus on quantitative history. In The Mediterranean, Braudel “divided historical time into geographic, social and individual layers, each moving at a different speed, and each aligned with different historical topics.” 12 Geographical time—the “longue dureé”—was the slowest moving and Braudel described the effect of geology and climate on society, changing it in slow cycles hundreds of years in length. Thus Braudel strove to understand humanity in its relationship to its environment. Social Time operated in ten to fifty year cycles and events measured with this scale included broad, human-generated phenomena such as economic cycles, trade, population fluctuations, and prices. Individual time included the daily events of a society, swiftly passing ephemera that included political and diplomatic history.


H. L. Wesseling. Certain Ideas of France: Essays on French History and Civilization. (Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), 162. 11 Wesseling, 162. 12 Green, 88-9. Cheng-chung Lai. Braudel's Historiography Reconsidered. (Taiwan: University Press of America, 2004), 5-11.

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This distinction between short term and long term views of history were not unknown to historians in Braudel’s time, but his personal contribution to history was twofold. First, by holding up for examination the complex interactions between the Earth’s environment; human society and economics; and politics, culture, and events; Braudel demonstrated that history was deeper than “the day’s events”. Second, Braudel’s demonstration that every “structure” changes over time (however slow) was his speci al contribution to stimulate the revitalization of social sciences that were becoming fixed on synchronic descriptions of humanity. Braudel also sought to understand history in concrete, measurable terms that he could relate to the present. In efforts to quantify aspects of historical phenomena, Braudel arranged and interpreted numbers and numerical relationships in order to gain new insights about the past. Braudel demonstrated that quantification was more that a way of expression and his use of quantification as a source of new insights transformed French historiography and when, “after 1945, the Annales group triumphed; quantification, use of demographics as history, was assured a proper place in French historiography”13 analyzing those areas of human life where behaviors are attributable to observable and definable circumstances. It is as if Braudel was among the fists to struggle with history’s current epistemological question. Can we have a true knowledge of the past? Braudel, perhaps realizing that as he could not compare various interpretations of the past to its reality, was responsible for deciding “which of the myriad events are to be selected and elevated to the status of a historical fact.” In choosing to be influenced by what decisively influenced the fate of mankind, Braudel chose to rise above the actions of individuals. He believed that both the geographic and climatic “longue dureé” and the slow tides economic cycles were the primary elements affecting human life. To him, “Events are dust. They traverse history as flashes of light. Scarcely are they born when they return to darkness, often to oblivion.”14 Accordingly, “man’s

13 14

Breisach, 370. Wesseling, 163.

8 Terrell, David G. submission to nature and his struggle to master it”15 were the themes of both of Braudel’s masterpieces, The Mediterranean and Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalism, published in three volumes between 1967 and 1979. Braudel had a remarkable gift for identifying and appropriating ideas from other disciplines but, his work was not without its critics. His explanations of history were open-minded and multilateral—but the wide sweeping expanse of geographic and social time he examined left little or no room for individuals and events. He repeatedly emphasized their insignificance and limitations on individual agency, attributing a great deal of man’s determinism to the effects of geography. Critics also accused him of giving weight to factors that received too little serious discussion in his works. For this, some labeled Braudel a “geographical determinist” (much as Marxists are sometimes called “economic determinists”). In his treatment of time, Braudel was admittedly a structuralist, but some reviewers, seeing that his structuralism tended to describe slow moving, almost synchronic structures—normally associated with anthropology and sociology—accused him of lacking a theory of historical change and claimed that the linkages between time and topic he presented were arbitrarily chosen. Though he postulated three time scales in The Mediterranean, he argued that there were many more and he attempted to express a totality of history through this range of time scales rather than by topic. Other reviewers objected to his claims of total history by pointing to his omission of culture, agriculture, law, religion and politics; which seemed to separate events from the social factors that explained them. Braudel and subsequent Annales historians successfully applied the long-term historical methods to pre-industrial societies, but are criticized for not doing so with regard to modern societies where change is constant and the great discussions of supreme importance are about war and diplomacy, revolutions and ideologies.

Wesseling, 164.

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Another deficiency identified by reviewers of Annales methods regards sex and gender. Women are not often discussed in Annales histories and Annales scholars are not known for using gender as an analytical category, even though it would be interesting to include discussions of patriarchal values in a consideration of long-term history. Annales’ quantitative approach to history was also criticized by some reviewers as reductionist, that practitioners were “naïve positivists” who believed that “only those things which can be counted are worth studying.”16 Others questioned if the chosen statistics were reliable indicators of the subject under investigation and that “fascination with hard data … had relived Annales historians of the task of critically confronting past and present.”17 In their defense, it appears to this author that they attempted to remain historians, while seeing the world through the eyes of sociologists, anthropologists and ethnographers; and perhaps offending colleagues in both domains. In spite of these reservations, Braudel’s immediate followers focused mainly on the statistical aspect of his work. They did not, however continue his attempt to write “total history” and instead, created a more narrowly focused Annales group by turning towards a problem-solving approach to history. They developed valuable statistical tools that helped identify important casual factors. This third generation of the Annales movement began around 1970, but the evolution of Annales did not proceed along orderly lines and the creativity of its practitioners “dissolved any semblance of cohesion”.18 Their intellectual characteristics became more difficult to stereotype as no one historian arose to dominate the movement as Febvre and Braudel did. In addition to the employment of quantitative methods, one can mark the third generation by an emphasis on the “mentalities” or social structures of past societies; historical anthropology; a return to politics; a revival of narrative; and, an increased attention to feminist history. While Annales historians attempted to combine the best of the Annales

16 17

Green, 91. Green, 91. 18 Breisach, 391.

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tradition with other intellectual trends, such as psychohistory, the new economic history, the history of popular culture, and symbolic anthropology, they did; unfortunately, virtually restrict themselves to economic and social histories. That said, Annales historians, with Braudel’s varying rhythms of change, did find a better solution to the historian’s problem of reconciling change and continuity than did the structuralists, who tended to view change as a “negligible surface phenomenon”19 The lack of a grand schema for Annales also granted adherents a great deal of latitude in choosing their research methods and interpretational templates; absorbing historiographical ideals rather than yielding to them. In summary, the Annales revolt against the dominance of political narrative history was not the first such rebellion. Almost all Annales-associated innovations had precedents or parallels, “from the regressive and comparative methods to the concern for interdisciplinary collaboration, for quantitative methods, and for change over the long term.”20 However, the combination of innovations that embody the Annales is a new thing; going further, and lasting longer than any other scholar or school. In considering the Annales as a whole, one is struck by their effort to create cross-pollenization between history and the other human sciences; and the one common direction pervading Annales history; “the search for a life-encompassing history that recognized large-scale but rationally explicable structures.”21 22 The most important Annales developments, the history of the long term, problem-oriented history, and geohistory expanded the purview of historians “to unexpected areas of human behavior and to social groups neglected by traditional historians”23 David G. Terrell Herndon, VA
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Breisach, 391. Burke, 105-106. 21 Breisach, 391. 22 Burke, 110-111. Breisach, 391. 23 Burke, 110-111.

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Bibliography. Bailyn, Bernard. "The Challenge of Modern Historiography." The American Historical Review (American Historical Association) 87, no. 1 (Feburary 1982): 1-24. Bentley, Michael. Modern Historiography: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999. Berger, Stefan, Mark Donovan, and Kevin Passmore. Writing National Histories: Western Europe since 1800. London, England: Routledge, 1999. Bloch, Marc. The Historian's Craft. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Random House, 1953. Braudel, Fernand. On History. Translated by Sarah Matthews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Burke, Peter. The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929-89. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990. Campbell, Peter R. "The new history: the Annales school of history and modern historiography." In Historical Controversies and Historians, by William Lamont, 189-199. London, UK: U C L Press, Limited, 1998. Carneiro, Robert L. The Muse of History and the Science of Culture. Hingham, MA, USA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000. Green, Anna, and Kathleen Troup. The Houses of History: A critical reader in twentieth-century history and theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999. Lai, Cheng-chung. Braudel's Historiography Reconsidered. Taiwan: University Press of America, 2004. Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Stoianovitch, Traian. French Historical Method: The Annales paradigm. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1976. Wesseling, H. L. Certain Ideas of France: Essays on French History and Civilization. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.

© David G. Terrell, 2009-2010, except where otherwise noted, content is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionNoncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. For permission to reprint under terms outside the license, contact davidterrell80@hotmail.com.

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