As leader of the post-World War II Annales school , Braudel became one of the most important historians of the 20th century. The son of a schoolteacher who later became a headmaster, Braudel acquired a cosmopolitanism unusual for his generation. While serving as a lieutenant in the French army in , Braudel was captured by the Germans. A generous mentor, he also aided numerous historians from southern and eastern Europe , South America , and Africa, further extending his influence over international scholarship.
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The cost of it would have been a small fortune to me at the time, but all the same it was something that I only raided rather than read for writing essays.
Which misses the point, because although you can dip in and out of the text the discussion develops slowly and rolls out like the tide. All three volumes are richly illustrated. The experience of reading this volume is like standing on an elevation and looking out over a landscape while Braudel points out to you the ebb and flow of capitalism across it.
There are Capitalist style modes of works like the extreme division of labour of the migrant labourers who would flood the countryside south of Rome every few years to sow a crop and then harvest lands which where otherwise turned over to pasture. One way of thinking about this is colonialism. Patterns of work and finance colonised regions or sections of society.
The agricultural produce of Poland or Portugal become exploited hinterlands, creating wealth for middlemen but serving the hunger and thirst of Amsterdam or London a geographical division of labour familiar to us today. Nor was the spread of specialisation of production creating a modern looking, integrated economy accompanied by a less restricted social structure.
Quite the opposite. North of Venice and east of the Elbe landowners imposed serfdom, clamping down on individual liberties, obliging people to work to produce food stuffs, or to work in mines for export rather than for self-sufficiency again still familiar, our greater liberty obtained at the cost of some other persons unfreedom -truly there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Braudel, taking a longer view sees the transmission of bills of exchange, customs, forward selling and forms of commercial association from the Islamic world to Italy and then pulsing out into western and northern Europe. From that elevation you see the fine lines of a world economy functioning at a high level with merchants connected from Antwerp to the far east dealing in small amounts of high value products like spices, silks and porcelain while much of the domestic market economy was much more simple.
Dealing in bulk products on the other hand mostly took place over shorter distances view spoiler [ the weight of bulk products ate up profits over distance hide spoiler ].
A good part of the study of history is unlearning the casual assumptions that we make about the world. It is easy to think that because in an atlas each country is clearly defined with a black border and blocked out in a single colour that each one is just as uniform and consistent within those borders as that chance colour and border imply. The richness of details in this book that builds up from the ground corrects that.
Braudel builds up a picture of a world of extreme depreciation. The wooden cog teeth in mills wear down fast. If a ship lasts for as long as twenty years it is doing well. It is also a world that was barely governed. As a schoolboy I wrote confidently about the annual incomes of the Kings of Spain little realising that my knowledge of the subject was more precise than theirs!
Successive rulers pushed the administration of southern Italy to produce budget forecasts which eventually they succeeded in doing - the only problem was that it took them about six years to complete the work because of the irregularities of the cash flows one problem was that each tax ran on its own financial year. The pre-modern world was not uniform but a mess of local particularities. The difficulty of this book is looking out over this richly detailed landscape it is easy too lose sight of the argument, particular as this is something developing over three long volumes.
The discussion engages with economists and historians. It does occur to me that Braudel would have had a better understanding of the 18th century economy than Adam Smith, but in a dog in the forest way the perspectives developed by the economists still have to be engaged with.
One book leads to the next. In this case though on to the final volume in the series The Perspective of the World. Certainly one of the great books of our times.
Braudel also studied a good deal of Latin and a little Greek. At the age of 7, his family moved to Paris. While teaching at the University of Algiers between and , he became fascinated by the Mediterranean Sea and wrote several papers on the Spanish presence in Algeria in the 16th century. Braudel later said that the time in Brazil was the "greatest period of his life. However, the journey was as significant as arriving at his destination; on his way, he met Lucien Febvre , who was the co-founder of the influential Annales journal.
Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Vol 2: The Wheels of Commerce