One of the greatest French historians of the XXth century, Fernand Braudel co-founded the French school of social and economic history of civilizations.
Fernand Braudel was born on 24 August 1902 in Northeastern France. After completing his history education in Paris, Braudel spent 10 years teaching in high schools in Algeria, then a French colony. Later he went to Brazil and taught during 3 years as a professor at University of Sao Paulo, an institution founded with the help of France.
Upon his return to France, in 1937, Braudel worked at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He became a disciple of Lucien Febvre (1878-1956), a professor of history at Collège de France, attempting to depart from traditional event-based historiography to focus more on economic and social history in a long-term perspective.
He enrolled in the French army in 1939. Following the defeat of his country,
he was captured by the Germans and spent 5 years as a prisoner in Germany. Braudel
later said that he took advantage of his captivity to write what would become
his masterwork La Méditerranée. During five years, as a prisoner in Germany,
he allegedly wrote on schoolboy booklets on a corner of a table without any
documentation, by tapping into the vast knowledge he had accumulated over years
of research. He sent the filled booklets to his master Lucien Febvre after one
another. It seems safe to assume, however, that Braudel wrote the largest part
of his doctoral thesis after his return, in 1945-49, when he could dispose of libraries,
documentation and paper.
In 1949, Braudel defended his doctoral thesis in Paris and published it under the title La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II. After receiving his PhD, he hoped for a professoral position at the University of Paris but was rebuffed.
At the death of Lucien Febvre, in 1956, Braudel was nominated president of the "VIe section de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études", in Paris, where he stayed up to his retirement in 1973. This VIth section was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Braudel inherited as well Febvre's chair at the Collège de France, in Paris. In 1959, he additionally created in Paris a library and research center called "Maison des sciences de l'homme" (House of Humanities), with money from the Ford Foundation. This center opened in 1970.
Fernand Braudel had much charm but he relished power. He reigned upon a court of students and disciples with the munificience and the mercilessness of a Renaissance prince. He was both admired and feared.
Fernand Braudel marked his imprint on a whole generation of French historians. Among his disciples are Maurice Aymard, Pierre Chaunu, Georges Duby, Marc Ferro, François Furet, Jacques Le Goff, Emmanuel Leroy-Ladurie, Jacques Revel. However, (like Joseph Needham) he had no successor up to the task he had himself set (the social and economic history of civilizations). Perhaps by fault of his bent to discourage any potential rival, all his disciples have remained mere specialists of subdomains.
Fernand Braudel died on 28 November 1985.
Works related to the European miracle:
(1) 1949: La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque
de Philippe II.
(2) 1963: Le monde actuel, histoire et civilisation,
Librairie Eugène Belin, Paris; by S. Baille, F. Braudel,
(3) 1979: Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme,
XVe-XVIIIe siècle, Armand Colin, Paris.
English version in 1985:
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century,
Part 1: "The Structures of Everyday Life",
Part 2: "The Wheels of Commerce",
Part 3: "The Perspective of the World".
(4) 1985: La dynamique du capitalisme (written in
(5) 1987: Grammaire des civilisations, Arthaud,
Paris (republished from Le monde actuel, 1963).
English version in 1987: A History of
Civilizations, translated by Richard Mayne.
A brief summary
of Civilization and Capitalism.
keen to let the French culture beam to all corners of the
world, briefly introduces Braudel to websurfers. A
short biography and introduction to Braudel's thought (in French).
The homepage of the
Maison des sciences de l'homme.
Fernand Braudel Institutes,
in New York and in Sao Paolo, unfortunately disclose little
in English about Braudel's life and work. They supply a
of Braudel in Portuguese, signed by William McNeill.
My absolutely subjective review of Braudel's contribution
to the Grand Question
Fernand Braudel asked himself all his books along about why
the West succeeded the way it did and about the reasons
of the widening gap between the West and the Rest.
He enumerated and investigated almost all possible hypotheses.
He came across many decisive economic and political factors.
So much so, indeed, that I could quote extracts
of his books in Le Secret de
l'Occident (The Secret of the West) to support
the main stages of the demonstration of my theory
of the rich states system relying on the indented
Western European coastline.
Braudel identified the crucial role of the sea for trade
the fact that, during most of history, exchanges of goods
could take place between two regions much easier if a
sea linked them. Moreover he emphasized the steady difference
between coastal regions and landlocked ones throughout
Asia and Europe. He perceived as well the decisive
importance of multipolarity and the nociveness of a
unique empire for China and for the Muslim world.
However, he missed the causal relations between economic
prosperity and scientific&technological progress, which
I present in The Secret of the West.
In particular, he did not at all identify the role of
growth and of political division in the flourishing
of innovation-friendly schools and academies in Europe
(and in their demise in China and the Middle East).
However far he had gone towards the Grand Issue, Fernand
Braudel stopped short of concluding. He
remained undecided, endlessly pondering all possible
theories. He in fact mentioned cultural and sociological
hypotheses as often as political and economic factors.
Perhaps he preferred searching over finding.