Saturday 24 August 2019

The Annales School

It might be a semi-interesting fact that of all the posts which appear here, the ones in which I say something about modern historiography and its possible effects on wargaming are the most widely read and commented upon. I guess my wargaming is either non-controversial or boring. I admit that the wargame posts lack eye-candy, although I think my (admittedly limited) photographic skill might be improving a little.

Anyway, the historiography I want to focus on this time is French, the Annales School, as it is known, and, in particular, the work of Fernand Braudel who, if you have not encountered, particularly as an early modern wargamer, you really should try.

Braudel first came to attention with his work on the Mediterranean:

Braudel, F., The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (London: Fontana, 1975).

This comes in two volumes and three parts and was first published in France in 1949. Braudel moves away from the idea of empirical evidence and towards a perhaps more experiential view of history – how did it feel to people? In this, he identifies various strands of historical time – geographical, economic and population fluctuations, and events. These flow at different speeds, so humanity’s relation to the environment moves much more slowly than events do.

Thus we get the statement, for example, that the Mediterranean is 99 days long. This is the expression of early modern communications – horse and sail being the fastest ways of getting anywhere.

The Mediterranean is divided into three parts, corresponding to the three durations noted above. Firstly, Braudel considers the geography, humanity's relation to the environment and how that affects how people live and what sorts of political systems they might have given the influence of the world around. For example (non-Braudel) the Greeks in the ancient world lived in cities; this was, at least partly, due to the geography of Greece itself.

In the second part Braudel considers space, time and the economy. Part II spreads over both volumes of the work and pitches up with a consideration of the types of warfare in the Mediterranean world. One of the points that wargamers might like to note is that the Mediterranean is in fact a sea, naval activity was important. As I have noted before, few wargamers seem to be interested in navies in any period, or the multiplicity of amphibious operations the history of the world offers. On the other hand, I still have to rebase and repair my own Renaissance galley collection.

The third part of the book is the top level of historical currents – the events in the Mediterranean world from 1550 – 1598. Braudel has already extended his consideration of the size of the Mediterranean to cover most of Eurasia, at least, with a side-line, of course, of the Americas and the import of silver from Spanish colonies there. But in the top level of history, the north of Europe and the Mediterranean become increasingly interlinked. Spain, at least, had to look two ways – to the Netherland after 1566 and the Turks more or less across the period. Further, the Hapsburgs were, of course, involved on the Danube / Balkan frontier.

That said, of course, the Ottomans were by no means without their own sets of problems; issues with Persia and in the Indian Ocean (with the Portuguese disruption of the trade there) meant that they, too, were looking both ways and, at crucial times were, in fact, looking away from the Mediterranean. Further, with the acquisition of Portugal, the Spanish crown became more Atlantic focussed, as well as more concerned with the northern Europeans; in addition, the collapse of the French crown into near-anarchy (from time to time) also left Spain with tempting opportunities and distractions.

Braudel’s aim was the noble, if probably impossible, dream of ‘total history’. Critics (and, after all, there is no historiography left un-stoned) argued that The Mediterranean left great swathes of history and culture untouched, like law, agriculture and religion. There are also claimed to be problems with the linking of the three eras; the top events level often seems only vaguely connected to the previous sections.

Braudel also gets labelled as a geographic determinist. The accusation implies that he thinks that the geographical setting of different peoples means that they will, inevitably, behave in different ways. A people who live by the sea will develop a different society to those who live in mountainous areas. To an extent, this is stating the obvious. The Swiss are not the English, nor could they have become so.

Nevertheless, The Mediterranean is an outstanding achievement of twentieth-century history, as Green and Troup note (Green, A., Troup, K., The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999) p. 90). In my view, Braudel’s three-volumes on the world (Braudel, F., Civilization and Capitalism 15th - 18th Century (Glasgow: Collins, 1981 - 92), is also a remarkable work, with a global scope. It was, perhaps this work, more than any other, that suggested a global scope to my own wargame activities and informed, to some extent, my world-wide wargame campaign of 1618-Something.

For a pure wargamer, the books offer, perhaps, rather little. There is not much in either work about the orders of battle, troop types and dispositions of the forces of various nations. A I have noted before, modern historiography is largely uninterested in this sort of thing, designating it ‘drums and trumpets’ with, perhaps, a slight sneer. However, critics of Braudel note that his world is largely impersonal – people exist within their geography, they are not, particularly, actors within it. The Spanish and Ottomans lost interest in their wars in the Mediterranean because they were distracted by other things, other geographical areas. No-one seems to have decided to stop a war that neither side felt it could win (even after Lepanto).

Flaws and quibbles aside, if you want to understand the fluxes of history more than just sticking troops on the table, Braudel is a fine place to start. I read both multi-volume works a long time ago now, and they both still influence my thinking. Not only that, but I got them cheap – vast swathes of information, illustrations (particularly in Civilization and Capitalism) and a totally different way of thinking about history. I can’t argue with that.


  1. Interesting topic and sound economic reference point too.
    Your re-interpretation of historiography is my main attraction to the blog; that is not to say that there is anything wrong with the wargaming content - but I'm not seeing the distinct historical perspective in other blogs. That's not to say that other blogs are in way less entertaining, but your perspective and context is quite different and of course interesting. (I find myself purchasing many of your recommended books for instance).

    I would honestly love to put more of this type of research/discussion on my own blog but time (and my vain attempts at wargaming comedy...) get in the way.

    1. Glad you like it; I like and read a lot of history, but as an amateur. I suspect many people put the wargame bit of historical wargaming first.

      On the other hand, often it seems my reading and historical bent cuts in to my wargaming time.

      anyway, after I'd written the Braudel post, I started to wonder if he had been influence by Bergson's philosophy of time. I suspect it is quite possible, but I've no idea how to find out. Not reading French would be an initial hurdle, I'm sure.