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The great circumferential mountain ranges were regions of archaic social forms, poverty and continual migration. The major plateaus, notably Castille, Umbria and the Algerian Biskra, served as arteries of commercial and cultural exchange, as did the principal islands, Sicily. Cyprus and Corsica. The Mediterranean Ocean had its deserts, bare expanses far from land where ships rarely ventured.

The coastal plains were decisive for the economy of the Mediterranean basin. Unlike the vast wheat lands of northern and eastern Europe, they were not naturally abundant regions Even the deltas of the great rivers—the Nile, the Tiber and the Rhonewere lethal marshlands requiring continual reclamation, zones of torrential rains and endemic malaria.

By studying climatic patterns in relation to agrarian price cycles, Braudel demonstrates that Mediterranean agriculture was fragile, subject to floods, erosion, drought and a constant threat of scarcity.

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These ecological forces had brutal social consequences: massive work forces and an unrelenting labor far more intense than that required in the North; the proliferation of great estates; the economic domination of the countryside by market towns and cities. The improvement of the agricultural plains was both the salvation and the curse of the 16thcentury Mediterranean economies. Urban capital steadily flowed into the plains, where it congealed within seigneurial estates, an aristocratic world that disdained economic innovation.

With the ocean as his pivot, Braudel moves in a huge descriptive arc through the Eurasian and African hinterlands of the Mediterranean. And he demonstrates that Europe itselt was not a unit—geographically, ecoromically or culturally. It consisted of distinct zones in shifting relations to an ancient Mediterranean nucleus. During the 16th century, the essential northern frontier of Europe remained that of the preceding millennium, the one originally formed by the median line of ancient Roman garrisons, of cities oriented towards both the South and the North—Lyons, Geneva, Basle, Ulm.

Augsburg, Vienna, Cracow and Lvov. Beyond this line, outside the sovereignty of Latin civilization, lay the Europe of the modern era, open to the Reformation and its national cultures. Volume II traces the rise and decling of these great empires.

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Blocked and decaying at their source—in agriculture and its social organization—the Mediterranean economies were poised on the brink of the great depression of the 17th century. Could it support the burden of increasing population and the luxury of an urban civilization so dazzling that it has blinded us to other things? Henceforth the Straits of Gibraltar could no longer be closed to them. Elites unsuccessfully attempted to compensate for this inexorable decline by indebtedness and distant imperial ventures, while consuming themselves in an effulgence of luxury.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1

Not so: these were the contradictions not of the Baroque but of the society which produced it and which It only imperfectly conceals. And at the heart of that society lay bitter despair. Through the Baroque, Latin civilization prolonged its cultural force despite its political and economic decay. In an unintended and epochally important consequence, the lurid energy of the Baroque shocked the dis sident cultures of the North and pushed them towards an ever more refractory and ultimately victorious Protestantism.

Mediterranean societies of the 16th century were eclectic and porous, despite their selfprotective religious dogmatism.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II…

Frontiers were less barriers than permeable membranes for a massive, continual flow of groups and individuals. Territorial empires gave way to nations; the membranes solidified into ever more implacable frontiers; the mercantile capitalism of the 16th century was supplanted by an increasingly abstract and dehumanized industrial capitalism; national and racial identities became murderously literal. Fernand Braudel's method gives us a structure for the exercise of our own historical imaginations.


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His work describes the last of the several major periods when the world of the Inner Mediterranean magnetized alien civilizations and submitted to their force while profoundly altering them. We are experiencing today another convergence on the Mediterranean by great territonal states, animated by both imperial and defensive wills.

Once again, the seismic forces of economics and demography are operating within archaic, decaying social structures and propelling anxious elites to confrontation in the Mediterranean, as they did within the bloated empires of the 16th century. Oil, not agricultural and luxury products, is now the magnetic commodity.

Yet the geography of convergence centered on the Near East and North Africa resembles that of the 16th century. Today, just as then, confrontation—through the bellicosity of intermediaries and at their expense —joins the great states in a macabre dialogue concerning technology and economic force. We are literate, and thus ostensibly enlightened, but is the structural meaning of today's convergence on the Mediterranean any more readily accessible to us, or its outcome more subject to our wills, than was that of the 16th century for its contemporaries?

To understand this design, we must examine the genesis of the work and Fernand Braudel's largest moral and intellectual purpose. Braudel is one of the few modern historians whose vision and achievement are a reasoned expression of an experience, the experience reluctantly sketched in a brief autobiographical statement written in Born in in a village of the Northeastern French plain, Braudel is a native of the enduring zone of confrontation and exchange between Latin and Germanic civilizations.

The labor of this sustained existential meditation served Braudel as a refuge from the cascade of events inundating himself and his generation.

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And my book is organized on several different temporal scales, moving from the unchanging to the fleeting occurrence. For me, even today, these are the lines that determine and give form to every historical landscape. Fernand Braudel's vision of history is unmistakably postimperial, shaped by analysis of the failure of French imperial ambitions and of the intellectual dogmas which had provided their underpinning.

Braudel has concentrated instead on the limitations imposed by nature itself upon man and his fragile creations, the iron constraints of geography, climate, population and natural resources. Second, in one of the work's most cunning and provocative reversals of perspective, Braudel has largely rescued the Mediterranean civilizations of the 16th century from the ethnocentric distortions of most previous historians.

He approaches the Christian Mediterranean through the perceptions of its Ottoman, Berber and Moorish adversaries and accomplices, whose indispensable voices finally become audible. For the first time in European historiography of this period, the Sahara, the Barbary Sahel and the Anatolian plains are given a historical presence equaling that of Andalusia, Provence and the Grecian archipelago. The result of this shift of perspective is a cosmopolitan analysis of an international confrontation. Very few critics seem to have appreciated the enormous value of Braudel's presentation of symbiotic conflicts for the study of other confrontations between civilizations, including those of our century.

By breaching the conventions of national and imperial history. Braudel discloses how the Mediterranean world of the 16th century acted as a prism of modern European civilization. You are commenting using your Twitter account.


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Holberg Prize Symposium 2010: Mediterranean History as Global History

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