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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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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