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Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II

Braudel’s first volume of “The Mediterranean” is a great work of
scholarship. It certainly displays a great mastery of a variety of
topics, a knowledge that is notable in both its depth and breadth. It’s
also a logical inclusion in the syllabus of an historiography class, as
Braudel is fundamentally attempting to shift the focus of what had been
previously considered historical thought—a trend that would only proliferate in the next
half-century, ending in the current state of affairs, where the
sub-disciplines of History are so numerous and compartmentalized that
sometimes it seems they can hardly recognize one another.

Braudel attempts to refocus the discipline, which he seems to see as
overly focused on the political, military, and biographical. His
response is to produce a work that moves from the socio-geographic to
the socio-economic and demographic. It’s definitely well-written,
well-researched, and full of those curious tidbits that keep a reader
interested when reading a rather dry history text.

While my attention
wandered at times, I found the book intensely interesting at others.

One thing that particularly grabbed my interest was the section on mail
and couriers on pages 355-371, as it seemed to give a much deeper
background to something I found interesting in Habermas’s “Structural
Transformation of the Public Sphere,” but which Habermas unfortunately
glossed over in a matter of a few paragraphs.

Another was his repeated
use, in his socio-geographic description of the mountain ranges of the
Mediterranean, of the word “civilization.” Unlike Prescott a hundred
years earlier, Braudel seems to use the word in a very value-neutral
sense, as a complex that includes both positive features like improved
quality of life, refinements, etc., but also features negative
qualities, such as greater and more widespread despotism, heightened
class disparity, corruption of the clergy, etc. It seemed a very modern,
progressive view.

All of this aside, however, I had an overall negative response to the
book. It seemed to me that Braudel was over-reaching with this work—he
created a book with an impossible scope, and thus inevitably, the result
is mixed at best. To attempt a history of such a large area is a very
difficult task, and to do so through multiple lenses, without a single
unifying grand narrative or theoretical structure, seems downright
foolhardy.  The result is a book that is meandering, at time confusing,
and desultory in its organization and evidence.

While it may or may not
have been the author’s decision, not indexing the first volume within
the first volume seems to me to be a horrible decision, one that reduces
the use of the book as a reference, while the complaints I’ve listed
above make it highly unlikely I’ll ever decide to re-read the book at
leisure.

That said, as someone who is very interested in historical cultural
geography, the book fascinated me, as it seems to represent just that,
in its nascent state, before the birth of cultural theory and cultural
history.