Braudel’s _Structures of Everyday Life_

I’m continuing to read/skim Fernand Braudel’s 1980(ish) The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible (volume 1 of his three-volume work Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century).

I continue to find it a mix of fascinating and annoying—there’s a wealth of information here about what Braudel calls “material life” around the world during that period, but there’s also a fair bit of a certain specific kind of racism. (Braudel is admirably evenhanded in discussing some cultures from around the world, but he occasionally refers to some other cultures as “primitives” and “savages,” and casually mentions how stinky their houses were.)

Also, Braudel is interested in history rather than in science and engineering as such, so he refers to a lot of technological changes without explaining them. And he wants to give evidence for his conclusions, so there are pages and pages of lists of numbers of things—how many tons of iron per year were produced at several different European cities in a certain period, for example. (I assume that part of the book’s core audience was historians; I’m not saying that Braudel shouldn’t have focused where he did, just that that focus is less interesting to me personally than some other aspects of what he’s doing.)

But there’s also a bunch of material that would be great for alternate-history writers (such as discussion of Chinese and Arab ships being capable of making long ocean voyages long before the big European ocean voyages). And a bunch of just generally interesting information about all kinds of material aspects of daily life.

The book reminds me of James Burke’s Connections TV show in some ways, but it’s sort of like what Connections would have been like if it had been created by someone who cared more about things like the number of hectares of forest that were cut down in a given period and region than about telling a compelling and coherent narrative story. (I imagine that Connections oversimplifies some things in its desire for narrative; that approach has flaws too.)

…On a side note, there are two ways in which Braudel constantly reminds me that he’s French (I’m reading the book in English translation):

  • His references to people and places and events that he assumes the reader will be aware of and recognize tend to be mostly French ones (I think)—French kings, French towns, French military battles. This is perfectly reasonable, of course—I’m not criticizing, just noting.
  • More noticeably: He uses the phrase ancien regime approximately every 5–10 pages, to refer to the former way of doing things in any and every context. (This phrase does of course appear in plenty of books written originally in English, but I’ve never before seen anyone use it this frequently. Every time he introduces a new topic, which he does every few pages, I start counting down to when he’s going to refer to the ancien regime of that technology or way of doing things.)

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