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The Liquid Plains of the Sea

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An enthusiastic bibliophile in a certain frame of mind could construct quite a library made up entirely of books that were written in prison. The poetry section would have the esoteric colour of Le Morte d’Arthur and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos; political thought would be unusually well stocked, with The Consolation of Philosophy and The Prince vying for attention with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks; and those with an off-beat sense of humour might enjoy the juxtaposition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. For me, though, the particular highlight of the library would be the history section, in which pride of place would certainly be granted to Fernand Braudel’s monumental work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949).

For several decades after the Second World War, Braudel was unquestionably the most prominent historian in France, but it was while he was interned after his capture by German troops in 1940 that he drafted the work for which he will always be remembered. Written without his notes or access to any reference works, The Mediterranean was not only a genuinely beautiful paean to a disappearing world, it also represented a whole new template for historical and geographical scholarship.

Braudel’s ostensible concern was to compose a coherent interpretation of Spanish history in the late sixteenth century – a golden age for the Iberian peninsula, but one in which its destiny was inextricably bound to the great inland sea to the east. To do this, the historian consciously turned away from the personalities and battles that had long dominated the histories of the period; these were, as he saw it, little more than the cresting whitecaps on the tides of history. Instead, he focused on the swells of the waves themselves and the deep but inexorable currents b

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An enthusiastic bibliophile in a certain frame of mind could construct quite a library made up entirely of books that were written in prison. The poetry section would have the esoteric colour of Le Morte d’Arthur and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos; political thought would be unusually well stocked, with The Consolation of Philosophy and The Prince vying for attention with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks; and those with an off-beat sense of humour might enjoy the juxtaposition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. For me, though, the particular highlight of the library would be the history section, in which pride of place would certainly be granted to Fernand Braudel’s monumental work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949).

For several decades after the Second World War, Braudel was unquestionably the most prominent historian in France, but it was while he was interned after his capture by German troops in 1940 that he drafted the work for which he will always be remembered. Written without his notes or access to any reference works, The Mediterranean was not only a genuinely beautiful paean to a disappearing world, it also represented a whole new template for historical and geographical scholarship. Braudel’s ostensible concern was to compose a coherent interpretation of Spanish history in the late sixteenth century – a golden age for the Iberian peninsula, but one in which its destiny was inextricably bound to the great inland sea to the east. To do this, the historian consciously turned away from the personalities and battles that had long dominated the histories of the period; these were, as he saw it, little more than the cresting whitecaps on the tides of history. Instead, he focused on the swells of the waves themselves and the deep but inexorable currents beneath, on the seemingly eternal rhythms of economic and social life, and on the ways in which the landscape of the Mediterranean world had shaped the lives of those many people who had lived on its shores since the time of Homer. Braudel helped to take the individual out of history, but his Mediterranean is still crowded with people, and it is this which makes it such a pleasure to read. By shifting focus away from Philip II, Suleiman the Magnificent and innumerable angry popes who had jealously jostled for position in traditional historiography, Braudel made room for those actors who would otherwise barely feature on the stage. For him, true Mediterranean history was about the perennial shuttling of coastal traders from port to port (and their regrettable tendency to turn to piracy when things got tricky), the invisible threads that bound the great coastal cities of the sea to one another, and the respiratory rhythms that lifted mountain-dwellers up to the highland pastures to graze their flocks, and then drew them down to the market and to the curious gaze of history. For Braudel, it was the countless figures in their landscape who were the true actors in history, and this history was often unchanging. As Siân Reynolds’s wonderful English translation puts it:

The vast low-lying plain of the Sienese Maremma, a real fever trap, is, like its neighbour the Tuscan Maremma, dotted with noblemen’s castles. Their anachronistic silhouettes of tower and keep conjure up a whole society, the crushing presence of the feudal landlords who dominated the country without even living there, for these residences were only their temporary abodes. Most of the year the masters lived in Siena, in the huge town houses still standing today, palaces into which Bandello’s lovers find their way, with the ritual complicity of the servants, up staircases leading to the great attics where stacks of grain are stored, or along corridors leading to the rooms on the ground floor, always a little neglected. We can follow them into the houses of these old families to relive the comedies and tragedies whose dénouement would take place in secret in the old castle in Maremma, far from town gossip and family control. Isolated from the world by fever and sultry heat, what better place could there be for putting to death, according to the custom of Italy and the century, an unfaithful wife – or one suspected of being so?

Braudel’s conviction that individuals’ actions were determined by their context – that history was shaped by geography – sculpted the very structure of The Mediterranean itself. The first of the three volumes, and certainly the most widely read, is essentially a human geography of the Mediterranean, its islands, coastlines, tributary rivers and mountainous fringes. Here, Braudel’s sun drenched (and occasionally snow-flecked) prose combines with the sumptuous illustrations of many modern editions to create what is effectively a sensitive travelogue of the great inland sea. The second volume of The Mediterranean is concerned with what Braudel terms ‘collective destinies’. This is the history of changing economic systems and the rise and fall of the great sea-borne empires – narratives that long outlasted the lifetime of an individual merchant or prince, but which might recognizably adapt and change over decades if not centuries. Here, the historian moves away from the travelogue, but not from its breadth of interest. And, crucially, the work remains resolutely a human history: ‘These apparently trivial details’, Braudel says, ‘tell us more than any formal description about the life of a Mediterranean man – a wandering life, tossed in every direction by the winds of fortune.’ Thus we read of the growth of Venetian trade or the ubiquity of Jewish diaspora communities through the experiences of individuals. Invariably, these slender threads of anecdotal evidence are pulled together brilliantly, as in Braudel’s assessment of the endemic piracy of the Mediterranean (perhaps my favourite chapter of the whole work):

All, from the most wretched to the most powerful, rich and poor alike, cities, lords and states were caught up in a web of operations cast over the whole sea. In the past, western historians have encouraged us to see only the pirates of Islam, in particular the Barbary corsairs. The notorious fortune of Algiers tends to blind one to the rest. But this fortune is not unique; Malta and Leghorn were Christendom’s Algiers, they too had their bagnios, their slave markets and their sordid transactions . . .

It is only in the final volume of The Mediterranean that Braudel turns directly to the age of Philip II. Predictably, this is probably the least read section of the history but it is still emphatically a work of startling historical scholarship. Here, Braudel is concerned with the struggle between the Spanish King and the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, during the middle decades of the sixteenth century. This was a conflict that raged from Vienna to Algiers and included the great siege of Malta in 1565. The struggle came to a head in 1571 in the Battle of Lepanto when, in G. K. Chesterton’s words more than three centuries later, ‘the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships’. Lepanto was the last of the great clashes of Mediterranean galleys, and occupies a central position in innumerable military and naval histories; Braudel’s great accomplishment was to see this, not simply as a second Actium, or as a chapter in a sixteenth-century ‘clash of civilizations’, but as one small wave in a great, organic sea. Braudel’s Mediterranean would not be the only work of history in the prisoners’ library. By strange coincidence another great study of the Mediterranean, by another great Francophone scholar, was drafted in strikingly similar circumstances twenty years earlier. Between 1916 and 1918, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne laid out the plan of his Mohammed and Charlemagne in another German prisoner-of-war camp. Pirenne’s volume is rather slighter than those of Braudel, and lacks the latter’s sumptuous prose, but it too had a profound influence upon generations of historians, and it too allowed its author an imaginative escape from the grim realities of a restricted world. Ultimately it is this fabulous capacity for imaginative escapism that makes Braudel’s Mediterranean such a delight. And to judge from the author’s own preface, he was well aware of this too:

I have loved the Mediterranean with a passion, no doubt because I am a northerner like so many others in whose footsteps I have followed. I have joyfully dedicated long years of study to it – much more than all my youth. In return, I hope that a little of this joy and a great deal of Mediterranean sunlight will shine from the pages of this book. Ideally perhaps one should, like the novelist, have one’s subject under control, never losing it from sight and constantly aware of its overpowering presence. Fortunately or unfortunately, the historian has not the novelist’s freedom. The reader who approaches this book in the spirit I would wish will do well to bring with him his own memories, his own vision of the Mediterranean to add colour to the text and to help me conjure up this vast presence, as I have done my best to do.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Andy Merrills 2012


About the contributor

Andy Merrills teaches Ancient History at the University of Leicester. For one term as an undergraduate, he tried to write all his essays in the style of Fernand Braudel. He now remembers this with some embarrassment.

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