Review: Braudel’s The Structure of Everyday Life

Ed note: this review was written for a now defunct livejournal sometime in 2007.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century)

Volume I
Fernand Braudel
The Phoenix Press Reissue (563 pages)

The first volume of Braudel’s massive work on the construction of capitalism in the 15th to 18th century sets the stage for all that is to come. It is an exhaustive survey of the social and economics conditions in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world at the beginning of the 15th century.

The amount of primary research that went into this is mind boggling. Everything you ever wanted to know about how much livestock the average farmer in Batvia had to the trends in fashion in the courts of Europe is covered here in great detail.

Braudel is all over the place in these books, chasing every detail and argument to their end, and it can be difficult to grasp the important threads running through the work. In the first volume this isn’t as much of an issue as it becomes in volumes two and three. Braudel is still all over the place, but since he is really only setting the stage, it isn’t as important to try and pick up his overall theory. Volume Two is where he really lays out his argument for the separation of capitalism and the market and why certain places in Europe became economic power houses and others didn’t.*

As in volume two, Braudel is at his best when he’s discussing Europe, and is out of his depth when he deals with the rest of the world. There is a trove of good information in this first volume however, and I would recommend it to the academics out there if only because at some point you may need to be able to speak on the Dutch economy in 1500 or the clothes worn in England by the aristocracy in 1600 and this is the place to get all that good info.

* This is also an idea that he returns to in extreme detail in volume three, which I am about a quarter done with and find…kind of ehh, actually.

Review: Bruadel’s The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism 15th – 18th Century Volume 2

Ed note: this review was written in 2007, while I was in my first year of law school, for a now long defunct livejournal account I had.

The Wheels of Commerce (Civilization and Capitalism: 15Th-18th Century -Volume 2)

Fernand Braudel

The Phonix Press Reissue, 601 pages

(Originally published in France as Les Jeux de l’Exchange, 1979)

After a somewhat tedious first volume, where Braudel sets the stage for life and commerce in the period under discussion, Volume two of Civilization and Capitalism really gets the ball rolling. Or as much as anything ever gets rolling in a Braudel book.

The economics of everyday life can be fascinating stuff, but it is not easy going. The language is straight forward, but Braudel wanders around his subject, giving us mountains of specifics and following various side currents to their ends. The basic point of the volume is to outline, first the difference between the market and capitalism, and then to trace the creation of capitalism in the markets centers of Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Unlike many historian of this period, Braudel is more concerned with the world of finance than the world of production, which I find fascinating and very useful for thinking about the role of finance in the economy today. If you care to know how the financiers of Amsterdam dealt with getting a ship in the ocean and bound for America or India, this is the place to look.

While Braudel is not an economic determinist, economics is at the center of this book. Unlike many other economic historians, Braudel does take the time to deal with how culture (there a section on fashion in the first volume!) religion and other factors play into the shaping of an economic and social system. This makes for a deeply convincing argument when he demolishes Weber’s idea of the protestant work ethic, but is less informed or convincing (and sometimes borderline racist) when he is dealing with non-western cultures.

I appreciate that Braudel didn’t assume that by “civilization and capitalism” one can only mean Western Europe, but his sections on the rest of the world I found lacking. They did not have the erudition he exhibits when taking about Western Europe.

The Book fascinating, but I think Braudel could have done with some editing. This book is not going to lay out point by point the creation of capitalism for you. You’ll need to discover the steps through the examples Braudel gives. It’s a riveting if you’re an econ and history nerd but complicated and meandering work that could have used a co-author (or a better team of research assistants) to handle the non western areas he covers and an editor to tease out the string of the creation of capitalism that subtly floats through this work.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.