Speaking Volumes: The Mediterranean and the Mediteranean World in the Age of Philip II

February 3, 1995

Peter Scott on Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediteranean World in the Age of Philip II .

It would be neat to claim that I had actually been most deeply influenced by a book in my own field - for example, Talcott Parsons and Gerald Platt's The American University, an impressively worked-through but theoretically convoluted account of the dynamics (or, better, statics?) of the modern university. Neat but dishonest. Many excellent books on higher education have been published in the past decade, far more than supercilious spectators from "mainstream" disciplines imagine. But none has had the capacity to move my intellectual spirit.

The post-childhood book that has meant most to me is Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediteranean World in the Age of Philip II. I bought it, one summer perhaps 20 years ago, in a small bookshop-cum-newsagent in Berwick-upon-Tweed, for me the nearest that a country boy has to a home-town. Bookshops like Bells, long since replaced by a gift shop, were once found in small towns all over Britain, full of unexpected enlightenment, places of delight for the common reader, where Fernand Braudel could be found next to Catherine Cookson.

I had read history at Oxford, but without encountering anything like Braudel (although The Mediterranean had been written, mainly in a German prisoner-of-war camp, before I was born). Until that summer afternoon in Berwick, all the Annales historians meant to me were studies of medieval kingship and feudal society, topics I had done my best to avoid as a student. Reading Braudel changed my view of history. Two things I found particularly exciting.

The first was his evocation of the 16th-century world of the Mediterranean, not the glittering world of kings, popes and doges, but the precarious world of herdsmen caught in a timeless transhumance as their flocks migrated from plains to hills and back again in a pattern older than those kings, popes and doges. Until I read Braudel I had remained loyal to a kind of Whig history, a public history of onward-and-upward progress. He revealed to me another history not taught at Oxford, viscous and intimate.

It was not Braudel's Mediterranean as such which drew me, a kind of Shirley Valentine fantasy. I have never had the ex-pat's longing for a softer southern climate. Then more than now I was a northern patriot, a puritan of the soul. The light I prefer is still the grey light beyond the end of the pier at Berwick where the Tweed runs out into the cold North Sea, not the Tuscan sunshine or the luminosity of the Venetian lagoon. All round me in Berwick was my own history - England's only Renaissance fortifications, one of the few parish churches built during the Commonwealth. But Braudel's evocation worked on these familiar images just as powerfully.

The second thing was that reading The Mediterranean convinced me that history was a proper intellectual pursuit, which previously I had privately doubted. The grandest ideas could coexist with the most diurnal detail. Indeed they could refresh each other in unimaginably (to me then) powerful ways. This combination of hard intellectual edge with wonderful, novel-like description excites me still. It represents, for me, the highest and the best intellect, rigour tempered by emotion.

Years later as a journalist I went to Paris to interview Braudel, shortly before he died as it turned out. I was proud of the profile I wrote. It made a good piece. But for me it was an act of intellectual homage - although I never told him how I encountered him first in Bells Bookshop in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Peter Scott is professor of education and director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education, University of Leeds.

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