Saturday, June 29, 2024

Review: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I by Fernand Braudel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This idea of this book has fascinated me for years, since my undergraduate days and my Methods in HIstory course in which the Annales school of history was first explained to me. So, when I found it in a astonishingly good second book store in Manitoba, I jumped at the chance to buy it. And, eventually to read it. For, as those of you who glance at the reading dates will realize, a long time. It has taken me over a year to read this, mostly because it is not a book you can rush through. It is, without a doubt, a tour de force, but it is not easy. Not at all.

The book is written as a total history. It is not just about Philip II's prodigious activities in the Mediterranean. It is, in an important sense, about the Mediterranean, which is, arguably the real hero of the narrative, if you accept it as a kind of tragic hero- noble, but in decline. Braudel is, probably, most interested in processes, rather than events, so he focuses on the cycles and structures in which history plays itself in the Mediterranean. That makes him consider the region over a long period of time, as well as thinking about the cyclical patterns as well, and after that (and only after all that), the events of Philip II's reign. This tripartite structure is Braudel's claim to fame and is often considered the unique contribution of the Annalistes. Never mind that the only person who has ever achieved this structure fully is Braudel himself and, really, only in this book. The approach remains fascinating, if only in theory, especially for those who, like me, are drawn to the very big picture. It does drive the more event focused completely bats.

Some caveats though. This book is looonnnggg! Two volumes of not especially easy prose (here in translation). It is, as my wife calls difficult books, 'stirring concrete with your eyelashes' at times. I mean, it's still fascinating and a tribute to Braudel's vast reading and erudition because the long duration is as densely packed with examples as the event focused last third of the book. But this is not popular history, so be ready to wade through the often sluggish prose. The sheer erudition and insight is worth the work, but, do not doubt it, it is work. A fast read this is not. This is best read slowly and carefully, and probably with lighter reading as a chasers.

But it is so much worth the effort to do, well, at least once. It is legitimately a classic in 20th century historiography and gloriously complex. And I say that as someone for whom the 16th century and Spanish history is distinctly a side interest. Read it, if only to see what a total history might look like. Or just for the spectacle of the Mediterranean in history. Or for the innovative ideas about historiography. Whatever. just read it.

View all my reviews

No comments: