The last frontier: Fernand Braudel’s France-By Uditha Devapriya

The last frontier: Fernand Braudel’s France-By Uditha Devapriya


Fernand Braudel’s “The Identity of France, Volume I: History and Environment”, translated by Siân Reynolds. HarperPerennial, 432 pp., 1993.

Since at least Jason and Odysseus, home has rarely been where the heart is. The Greek hero leaves everyone dear to him, in pursuit of a divine calling. In all those myths that immortalise him, his catharsis comes once he realises that home is more than just a geographic space: that it’s part of a cosmos spanning heaven and earth, between which he must serve as messenger and mediator. Contemporary intellectuals are no different: postmodern Odysseuses in their own right, they too traverse multiple worlds and mediate between them.

Multiple worlds, of course, don’t exist between multiple geographical spaces: they can be, as they often are, the same space, the tides of change sweeping across them through the years. In the first of his two colossal books on France (The Identity of France, originally planned for four volumes) Fernand Braudel transforms from historian to cartographer, taking us through village after bourg after city, as these tides of change sweep over, turning them not only from village to city, but also, occasionally, from city back to village.

From the 13th to the 18th century, these communities – and Braudel dwells on four of them, Besançon, Roanne, Laval, and Caen, before moving on to Paris – evolved at different speeds and on different levels, either gobbling up neighbouring spaces or being gobbled up by other spaces in turn. France’s cities grew as fast as neighbouring towns allowed them to, and as quickly as their roads connected them to bigger cities. Depending on whether these roads were wide enough, the linkages between towns would tighten or snap.

Thus the moment merchants and traders discovered quicker routes to Paris, the undisputed capital even then, one town’s prospects would improve at another’s cost. Indeed the fortunes of these cities depended more than anyone else on the whims of traders. Where they went, the cities they set camp in prospered; where they left, they sank.

This is how Besançon profited from the arrival of Genoese bankers and merchants in the 16th century. Having been expelled from Lyon by Frances I (a Spanish colony then, Besançon was still to be conquered by Louis XIV following his marriage to Marie-Thérèse), these financiers found the city’s proximity to their former “home” (again, a fluid term, especially for as fluid a vocation as a banker’s or a merchant’s) much too an advantage to let go. One by one, some of the century’s most powerful financiers made their way here, soon to be followed by richer immigrants from Montpellier, Lons-le-Saunier, Luxeuil, and Fontenoy-en-Voge.

Yet a mere century’s passing reversed these fortunes, reducing it to a hotbed of poverty. On May 15, 1674, against the onslaught of some 200,000 cannon balls, it finally surrendered to French conquest. Such twists of fate overwhelmed cities elsewhere too.

The quicker these towns evolved, grew, prospered, even languished, the quicker became their incorporation and integration into the wider French polity. Yet this abstraction of France as a single unit never came to fruition until the monarchy itself had run its course: nationalism in its modern form, after all, dates from the Revolution of 1789. With villages squeezed beyond the limits of endurance, with tax upon tax forcing the peasant to finance France’s wars abroad and Louis XVI’s hubris at home, the bourgeoisie, incorporated by conquest to the monarchy, took part in the uprising against the Empire, replacing the landed aristocracy with a capitalist State. Thus nationalism, the political expression of the bourgeoisie, articulated itself here, as elsewhere, in the voice of a unified civic consciousness.

Braudel shows us how even this unified civic consciousness failed to dampen or put a stopper on the consciousness of towns and villages. What historians call “provincial particularism” – a term that evokes the particularism which prevailed in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods here – sometimes if not often prevailed over the consolidation of unitary nationalism. To what extent did this fragmentation of France – “France’s name is diversity,” wrote Lucien Febvre – into different regional polities reflect the autonomy of those polities? Braudel does not provide all the answers, but like all good historians – and what better example of such an intellectual do we have than him? – he gives us real life, tangible case studies.

How one makes sense of a country thrice Britain’s size and twice Germany’s invariably boils down to what united it and divided it. Eric Wolf begins and ends his Europe and the People Without History with the point that time compresses space, as one mode of production gives way to another, and one tribe or clan surrenders to another. Yet despite this compression, one could say atomisation, of space, remnants of the past – cultural, linguistic, social, economic, even political – remain. Faced with the threat of their obliteration, civilisations respond in two ways: they fight back, or they adapt. In the case of France, Braudel is unequivocal: most of the time its constituent parts fought back, yet often they adapted.

The maze of dialects, accents, languages, not to mention cultural mores, even units of measurement (“Is it possible to lay down a single standard capacity for the cask of wine?”one intendant of Poitou was asked in 1684), makes it hard if not impossible for one to put a finger on the country, indeed on the very idea of it. Where does one begin?

very town, Braudel informs us, had a different social equation within a separate economy: in Mountauban it was the clothiers who reigned supreme, in Toulouse it was the landowner, and in Dunkirk those who owned and handled ships. The bourgeoisie took time to emerge in these enclaves of nascent capitalism, but their ancestors were there, trading, bartering, often speculating, rebelling against the intendants and the tax-officers.

On these different social equations rested different, at times unidentifiable, patterns of life, and on them rested a fundamental division between north and south. Thus provincialism in France, as in Britain, reflected a duality: two territories encompassing hundreds of villages, towns, and bourgs between them. This duality, Braudel tells us, was mostly linguistic, lying on either side of the frontier from La Réole to the basin of the Var River.

To which side you belonged depended, incredibly, on how you answered in the affirmative: in the north everyone replied with oui, in the south with oc. Oui eventually came to prevail over oc, no doubt because the north produced the culture, the politics, indeed the very mores, which constituted the idea of France. Yet these linguistic divisions remained; more than one famous chronicler from the north made his way through the south without understanding a word of what he heard: “I swear to you,” wrote a frustrated Racine to his friend La Fontaine in 1661, “that I need an interpreter here as much as a Muscovite would need in Paris.” Such differences in language were punctuated by even sharper contrasts of dialect, often within the same area: thus on either side of the Garonne, people spoke “two completely different patois” of Gascon, itself spoken in two provinces, Gascony and Guyenne.

Standing apart from these provinces, while connecting them together, was Paris: not the only big city in the country, but the biggest among them (from 1787 to 1789 its population stood at 524,186, an underestimate according to Braudel, but in itself four times as high as the next city on the list, Lyon: 138,684). Yet like France itself, Paris never incorporated itself as one, nor allowed itself to be incorporated into one. Occupational specialisation within its districts compounded ethnic stratifications, with Saint-Marcel housing poorer artisans and being overwhelmed by successive waves of immigration from Lorraine, Burgundy, Lorraine, and Champagne, and Saint-Jacques transforming into the preferred home of the Limousins. These quarters, as with most cities in Europe, turned into urban villages, “where people could recognise their own ‘pays’.” Such divisions did not fade away with capitalism’s rise: as late as the 1960s, certain Parisian streets remained meeting spots for certain communities.

Reading Braudel, one wonders whether Europe’s encounters with nationalism ever really succeeded in forging a sense of unity between its cities. The case appears to be particularly pronounced in France, in which the tiers of settlement followed, not a preconceived and predetermined course, but rather a wayward, haphazard trajectory, from the Rhone corridor to the Parisian basin. It both echoed and diverged from the experience of Western Europe, on account of two reasons: its size and population, and the peculiar character of its bourgeoisie. Indeed, the role played by the latter may have forced the State to regulate the convulsions of commerce by centralising its authority. The conclusion to be drawn there is that, in France, diversity coexisted with an irregular, but continuous, process of unification.

If there is one problem with this view of French history, it’s that it simplifies the reality of post-16th century economic, political, and cultural consolidation of French society. One must understand why the author engaged in such simplifications. In writing his account of French history, Braudel was reacting to contemporary historiography which charted France from the tail-end of the 19th century: a historiography tracing its origins to Hippolyte Taine and Alexis de Tocqueville – centring on the notion that “France was born of the dramatic ordeal to which it was subjected during the violence of the Revolution” – and questioned if not challenged by the Annales school to which Braudel belonged.

In reacting against those earlier “Scholars of the Republic” (as I like to call them), Braudel hence went back in time, poring over Michelet, Racine, and other “documentarians”, before moving on to Lucien Febvre. The line between Febvre and Michelet is unmistakeably clear there: the one “his [Braudel’s] immediate master”, as Perry Anderson described him, and the other, possibly, the master of that master. The France they saw was very different to, and in fact lay a world away from, the France Taine and de Tocqueville dwelt on. It was the France that Braudel lived through, wrote of, talked about, and ultimately died in.

The author intended, as I mentioned earlier in parentheses, to follow this volume (“History and Environment”) and its sequel (“People and Production”) with two more: on culture and on external relations. That would have been a fitting coda to his earlier works, priceless in their own right: his magisterial two volume study of the Mediterranean under Philip II, his trilogy on Civilization and Capitalism (still the best there is, translated as with The Identity of France by Siân Reynolds), and several others besides (including A History of Civilizations, a personal favourite and a bedside companion). His death in 1985, however, marked an end of an era in historical scholarship, and put a permanent halt on the enterprise.

Braudel is not without his faults; even his trilogy on capitalism gets several points wrong, including the entry on Ceylon tea. Yet of these faults one can say, they never really tarnished his perspective: what he called the longue durée. Though never an avowed Marxist, much less a practicing one, his preference for social history, as opposed to the series of dates and names and innumerable other associations one memorises today, put him on par with Marxist historiographers. The two volumes of The Identity of France have long been out of print – the copies I have are old and tattered – but they are available on second-hand bookstores online. They offer an insight into a great historian – though by no means an omnipotent all-seeing one – and hold the ideal to which those in his trade should aspire. And of course, they evoke the fluidity of home: neither limited to geography, nor stuck in posterity.

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