Fernand Braudel was a French historian, among the leader of the Annales School. Born on August 24, 1902, in Luméville-en-Ornois (Meuse). His father, a teacher, aided him in his studies while he attended Lycée Voltaire. As a young man growing up near the Franco-German border, on which many wars had already been fought, Braudel was already acutely aware of the importance of history.
After the Great War, Braudel left for Paris to read history at the Sorbonne campus of the University of Paris. In 1923, he became an agrégé (associate professor) of history, and began teaching the following year, first in Constantine, then in Alger. In 1932, he came back to Paris to teach in many of France’s most prestigious preparatory schools, including the Lycées Pasteur, Condorcet, and Henri IV. From 1935 to 1936, he taught in the French mission in Sao Paulo, Brazil, before coming back to Paris to join the Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, one of France’s foremost research institutions, as an instructor in philosophy of history. There, he worked with Lucien Febvre, co-founder of the Annales journal.
Fernand Braudel fondly reminisced his time in Algeria and chose the Mediterranean as his main area of study. As war threatens to break out with Germany, Braudel is mobilized in 1938. When the Nazis finally attack France in the spring of 1940, Braudel is quickly captured. He will remain in Germany as a prisoner of war until 1945, but managed to write large parts of his thesis while a captive.
The influence of geographers on his thought explains the audacious choice he made to write his thesis on a geographical space. His dissertation, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, was defended in 1947, and soon became enormously influential in the field of history. The work was unanimously recognized as a mahor work in 20th-century historiography. After the war, Braudel succeeded Lucien Febvre as the editor-in-chief of Annales – a job he would keep until 1968. In 1949, he founded the Centre de Recherche Historique, and was elected to the History of Modern Civilization chair at the Collège de France upon Febvre’s retirement. Around the same time, he founded the noted 6th Section for “Economic and Social Sciences” at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes,” which in 1975 became the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, one of France’s top research institutions in economics and social studies.
His research greatly influenced the way societies were conceived of in French thought of the second half of the 20th century. In the 1970s, Braudel published his second major work, Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800. The first volume, Structures of Daily Life, was published in 1967, and focused on the study of material life and demography.
The second, Games and exchanges (1977), was an analysis of economic activity, and the last one, The Time of the World (1979), gave new insights on the study of time and space.
His focus on the economics and social aspects of history rather than on the traditional event-based narrative pitted him against many of his contemporaries.
Elected to the Académie Française in 1984, he began a colossal enterprise, the redaction of a national history, The Identity of France, of which the first three volumes were later posthumously published.
Fernand Braudel died on November 28, 1985, at the age of 83. He was a correspondent for numerous foreign scientific academies (Budapest, Munich, Madrid and Belgrade, and was honored with Honoris Causa degrees from many universities, including (Oxford, Brussels, Madrid, Warsaw, Cambridge, Yale, Geneva, Padoua, Leyde, Montréal, Koln, and Chicago). He was made a Commandeur of the Legion of Honor.
The work of this man, a free mind and a free spirit, largely contributed to shaping the field of social studies. Convinced of the necessity of interdisciplinarity, especially in the social sciences, Braudel, nicknamed the pope of new history, dared to confront the prevailing approaches of his time to conceive a global vision of history. His vision was both criticized and praised – but always discussed, and it remains to this day a foundation of social science, finding great echo in our days as before.