The longue durée

Ever since Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), the concept of the longue durée (long-term structures) has become one of the dominating concepts in the history of history, historiography, the study of how the past becomes history.

According to the longue durée, the historical event fades in the face of the extended period in which the process, the development, the cycle, the evolution deploys its significance to the discerning eye.

According to the longue durée, the periodization in history is irrelevant. The ancient world doesn’t end with the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages doesn’t come to an end in 1492, modernity doesn’t start in the Renaissance.

It also means that inventions are not merely inventions, but parts of larger wholes, constituents of broader developments: Gutenberg wouldn’t have invented the printing press: printing began with coinage, with gold-smithery, engraving and the scribal culture. In fact, no-one invented anything, nothing was born overnight, demarcations are useless. Instead of lines, areas of interference. Instead of points, lines and circles. Everyone is part of a large context, and every context is part of a structure.

The longue durée has been one of the most successful and enduring concepts in historiography. Once Braudel introduced this approach, it was hard for historians to go back to how they used to think about history. Once you’ve seen 100 rivers flowing into one, it’s hard to think it’s all just one big river.

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