Comps Notes: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II

I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, written in 1949, is considered one of the most influential pieces of history ever written due its revolutionary nature. As a student and later leader of the French Annales School, Fernand Braudel employed the social and scientific historical tactics of his Annales predecessors Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. Most notable, is Braudel’s employment of the theory of the longue durée, a method that focused on long-term historical processes rather than on events and specific individuals.

The Mediterranean is divided in three parts that are designed to represent the three levels of time. Part One, “The Role of the Environment,” is dedicated to geography and the concept of the longue durée. Geography, Braudel stated, “helps…rediscover the slow unfolding of structural realities, to see things in the perspective of the very long term…to discover the almost imperceptible movement of history. (23)” The inclusion of geography within this historical analysis illustrates one of the other key characteristics of Annales history, its interdisciplinary nature. In prior generations, history had been an entity entirely unto itself, the intermixing of disciplines was almost unheard of.  Braudel and other Annales historians believed that history was a complex discipline that was the result of an amalgamation of different scientific, social, and historical processes.

The idea of complexity also influenced Braudel’s treatment of regional history. Braudel believed that focusing on a specific region without considering outside factors was a shortcoming of traditional history. The Mediterranean was not a product merely of the forces within its boundaries, but also of its neighbors, such as the Gobi Desert to the south and Europe to the north. Furthermore, there was not one sea and one land, but a collection of different seas and different lands, defined largely by their geographic predeterminations and structures.

Structures in history are those influences, such as climate, that do not change or change very little over time. In Part Two, “Collective Destinies and General Trends,” Braudel examined the social history of the Mediterranean, or, as he defines it, the history of what man has constructed. These social constructs are the product of the overlapping of structures (the permanent) and conjunctures (the ephemeral). Problems arise over the analysis of conjunctures, Braudel pointed out, due to the fact that there competing realities that occur at the same time, and thus there is no dominant pattern to trace. “Our problem now is to imagine and locate the correlations between the rhythms of life and the other diverse fluctuations of human existence,” he commented.

The problems surrounding conjunctures is further examined in Part Three, “Events, Politics, and People,” which focuses on a more conventional analysis of Mediterranean history. Braudel stated that he almost did not write this section because it was too traditional, however, he was admittedly not a complete enemy of the event, and recognized that history is not complete without the inclusion of the transient.  Every event mattered according to Braudel. “Events are the ephemera of history,” he stated:

They pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into the darkness and as often as not into oblivion. Every event, however brief, has to be sure a contribution to make, lights up some dark corner or even some wide vista of history. (901) 

Offering a glimmer of postmodernist thinking, Braudel discussed the fact that history is the result the historian choosing from the infinite number events those that they deem important. Thus, history is always partially the product of the writer’s opinion and bias.

Braudel’s Mediterranean stands as an exemplary foundation for understanding the scholarly groundwork that led to the kind of vastly complex history that we are accustomed to in today’s academic community. We no longer flinch at the publication of an environmental or social history book; however, in 1949, these kinds of historical works were completely unfamiliar. The depth at which Braudel considered the field with which he was working is mind-blowing. His clarification, and at times complication, of the make-up of the historical process is one from which every individual, historian and not, can still gain.

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