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Braudel: In Honor of History

December 01, 1985

Thomas Carlyle believed that history is "the essence of innumerable biographies." Fernand Braudel knew better. In two huge works that can deservedly be called monumental--"The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II" and the trilogy "Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century"--Braudel vastly expanded the traditional concerns of the historian to provide vivid new perceptions about the meanings of the past. No one who has dipped into Braudel is likely ever again to be content with a re-creation of history that focuses simply on the lives of its more prominent figures or the economic processes that helped shape society. Braudel was of a school that gave history a new definition, and he became its greatest expositor.

History, as he showed, is vastly more than the record of what leaders did or of the empires that they created. To truly understand what has gone before demands giving due accord to how geography and meteorology helped govern the needs and impulses of the human community. It requires an appreciation of how the invention of a particular tool or the availability of a certain food helped guide the behavior and destiny of peoples. History is a matter of the ordinary no less than of the exceptional. As much as anything else, history is an acknowledgement that the easily overlooked commonplace can be of enormous significance in the progress of human affairs.

The foremost representative of the Annales school of historiography in France, Braudel began work on his great book on the Mediterranean in 1923. It would not be published for another 26 years, and its basis would be a 600,000-word manuscript that Braudel, working only from memory, surreptitiously wrote while in a German prison camp during World War II. When Braudel died the other day at the age of 83 his worldwide reputation as a scholar and teacher had long since been secured. His influence, which is certain to endure, will continue to honor the study of history.

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