Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Geographical Turn -- Part I

In 1949 Lucien Febvre seemed prepared to pass on the legacy of the Annales to the next generation. In the article “A New Kind of History” he analyzes the progress that he and Bloch had made trying to establish a different style of history that was conscious of its differences with normative historical practices – ‘history that is not our own.’

Febvre’s school – although it had ceased to be an actual school after Febvre and Bloch left Strasbourg in the mid-1930s – was aggressively interdisciplinary, bringing a range of social sciences to bear on historical subjects. The discipline closest to his heart, however, was geography. In his mind, Fernand Braudel, who had just defended his dissertation, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World of Philip II, succeeded best at combining the geographic interests of the Annales by placing the end of the pre-modern era in its center:
In order to place the major objections of Spanish policy, in the broadest sense of the term, in their natural historical and geographical context, he first studies the permanent forces that operate upon the human will and weigh upon it without its knowledge, guiding it along certain paths; thus we have an entire analysis never attempted before of what we mean when, almost negligently, we pronounce the word ‘Mediterranean', and it is seen as a guiding force, channeling, obstructing, slowing down or, on the other hand, heightening and accelerating the interplay of human forces.

Braudel’s accomplishment, from Febvre’s perspective, was not simply one of time, the longue durée. The Mediterranean pushed the historical boundaries of time-space. The politics of fourteenth and fifteenth century Spain was but a thread of the story of the relationship of humanity with the environment. It extended across millennia and across continents. Humans reshaped the landscape and gave it an orientation.

Unfortunately the contributions of the Annales have been largely reduced to the longue durée, seeing historical events within longer durations of social change. (Marc briefly discussed this aspect of the Annales in his excellent introduction to historical methodology). Bloch’s essays on interdisciplinary and comparative history have made the rounds, but it is questionable that they are read with an eye towards the work done by the Annales.

[To read part II, go here.]

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