FOR THE NOBEL PRIZES, history is regarded as a part of literature but historians practically never receive the prize--only two: Theodore Mommsen long ago and Winston Churchill in more recent times have been so honored. It seems hard that Fernand Braudel should be less regarded than minor poets from minor nations, for his literary achievement as an historian puts him at the highest level--among the Michelets, the Macaulays, the Parkmans. The vigor, the ,eclat, the immense sense of gusto which permeates his style in French is sadly lacking in this translation but probably no translation could do his style justice; at least this translation is accurate and clear. Braudel at his best writes an incomparable French but it is only the vehicle for works planned and executed on a gigantic scale and based on profound scholarship. His themes rival Gibbon's. His The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World truly deserves a Nobel Prize. If justice could be done, this new great enterprise would deserve another. I expect that this year's Nobel Prize for Literature will go to an Estonian poet in exile or a teller of folk tales from Andorra, and not to Braudel.
Long planned, long digested--indeed for 30 years-- his book is the first volume of a world history of pre-industrial society or, at least, of its economic, technological and social aspects. He begins with fundamentals-- the span of life, birth, marriage, death, disease; moves to sources of food, the home, the daily toil: and on to sources of energy and then to economic and social change and, finally, to urbanization, for the city is the heart of the modern world, and the womb in which pre- industrial society carried it. The themes are in a sense obvious, they choose themselves and few historians who think about major historic themes like Braudel would offer much criticism of his choice. The difference comes not so much in conception as performance: few have the richness of Braudel's mind and scholarship which clothes these concepts with a wealth of fascinating detail that gives strength to his arguments and brings conviction to his readers. Although naturally most at home in France, he ranges with incomparable effect from China to Peru.
This book will be most salutary for those who look back with nostalgic longing for the world before industry. Life for the majority of the human race was short-- hungry, disease-ridden and brutish. Braudel makes no bones about that. As he points out, viruses and bacteria are better, quicker and more successful explorers or colonizers than men, especially as they were given velocity by those periodic famines which beset all agrarian societies before the 20th century. Every human being born before this century was lucky to live: most babies died and those who did live had, for the most part, short lives punctuated by disease, often of a crippling and fatal nature. One ironic facet of this tragic human condition relates to man's success in controlling the world of animals and plants, especially plants. Maize, wheat, rice, the growth of which required great sophistication and the development of complex technology, enabled far more men and women to live; far more complex societies to develop than the world had known in its millions of years of history, albeit precariously, for numbers often outran food. As their numbers and density grew, the bacteria and viruses discovered their own harvest. And this story of the development of mankind's food supplies not only in basic materials but also in the way luxuries could become necessities--like sugar or tea--is one of the most brilliant parts of this book. About this long section there is a marvelous realism. Braudel is wise enough to know that horrific circumstances, however, need not always give rise to horrific consequences . One result of the appalling Black Death was to give peasant Europe a higher standard of living than it was ever to achieve again until the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Again, we see Braudel's realism at work when he is discussing houses and luxuries of the rich. By modern standards the rich lived very deprived lives in terms of furniture, utensils and comforts that we take for granted. The stench of the rich, either themselves or their houses, would nauseate a working man today: the nobles of Versailles used the corners of corridors as urinals or for defecation and in 1695 Louis XIV's wine froze in his glass at table. Until the 19th century most rich people provided cosy homes for lice and fleas. Whatever subject Braudel touches he adorns with new insights derived from his mastery of extraordinary detail. And this book has a further advantage--it is beautifully and aptly illustrated.
Of course so vast a tapestry of human life cannot be totally mastered even by a scholar of Braudel's accomplishments and there are certain weaknesses in the text. Braudel is far sounder on demography, technology and economic activity than he is on some aspects of social life. His short chapter on fashion is less good than it might be because he ignores recent English work. He is often uncertain about English social history and he makes, when dealing with it, a number of errors of fact. But these are but flecks of dust on the most remarkable picture of human life in the centuries before the human condition was radically changed by the growth of industry that has yet been presented. A book of great originality, a masterpiece.