In The Structures of Everyday Life; the Limits of the Possible, volume one of his three volume set Civilization and Capitalism 15-18th Century, Fernand Braudel, by compilation of detail upon detail, by comprehensive listings of the things that make up daily life, and by pointillist visual and verbal maps of the world, combines the data of many disciplines so as to suggest vast slow currents of civilization. He argues that the rich context of pre-industrial societies can best be understood by portraying the material civilization against the economic civilization. He confesses that there is no clear demarcation between the material -- rural, barter-based and static -- and the economic -- agile, market-based and sophisticated -- portions of society, but suggests that together material and economic "civilizations" erect above themselves a society which they must bear. (Perhaps Braudel has a Foucaultian-style social archaeology in mind). For instance, he discusses the relatively rapid changes in upper-class Western fashion and asks
[c]an it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to the societies fickle enough to care about changing the colours, materials and shapes of costume, as well as the social order and the map of the world -- societies, that is, which were ready to break with their traditions? There is a connection. Perhaps if the door is to be opened to innovation, the source of all progress, there must first be some restlessness which may express itself in such trifles as dress, the shape of shoes and hairstyles?1
Each part, then, of the structure of material life is emblematic and expressive of deeper phenomena: "the energies, possibilities, demands and joie de vivre of a given society, economy and civilization." (323) Braudel's entire survey is shaped by the conviction that "at the very deepest levels of material life, there is at work a complex order, to which the assumptions, tendencies and unconscious pressures of economies, societies and civilizations all contribute." (333)
Braudel starts by touching on the difficulties of estimating the population of the world, choosing among methods of calculation, modestly picking middle numbers and concluding that the world population around 1600 might have been in the range of 287 to 442 million. He describes birth rates, death rates, common diseases and the level of available animal resources for food. As he moves on, he begins a comparison of the lifestyles of the rich and poor, using these categories as a convenient substitute for a comparison of the material and economic civilizations of the world. He offers an absorbing discussion of the rise and distribution of crops, agricultural methods, and the cooking methods prevalent for the staple items, explaining who ate what, where, when and how. In this vein tracks the rise of luxury and transitional luxury items such as salt, pepper, spices, tobacco, coffee, tea and chocolate. He continues with home arrangements, furniture (mentioning China as a unique blend of Western and Eastern styles) and fashion. He canvasses sources of energy, including animal, wood, human and wind, focusing on the development of coke. He notes that the Chinese may have known how to produce coke and had the necessary mechanical technology for the industrial revolution in the 13th century, but did not put the power and technology together presumably because they were a static, non-innovative society, as typified by their resistance to change in material things such as fashion. Despite refinements like damask steel (origins mysterious) the great revolution in metallurgy had yet to happen: the time period under consideration was "very much the age of wood." (382) He moves swiftly through artillery, printing and ocean navigation, listing competing technologies such as the exemplary low-tech solution to a high tech problem: earthenwork barriers thrown up around towns to stop cannon shot from breaking the heavy but brittle stone walls. On this note he also mention the nearly world-wide fear of the open sea, and stops again to point out that need alone drives the application of technology. Finally he follows the cycles of competition between gold and silver as they are mediated by a multitudinous jumble of financial instruments. (Of money in general it can be said that its velocity is slow and its direction is east.) Braudel ends in the towns and cities, insisting on the town as a market, describing the town as the queen of countryside, creating its own subjects and resources, and traveling across the world illustrating the growth of the town into a city, a capital, a synecdoche of the state.
Braudel's work suggests many avenues of pursuit, but three questions stand out. First, what things "caught on," and why? For instance, beyond climactic limitations, why were some crops more successful than others in colonizing other parts of the world? What luxuries were desired, and to what extent did they carry with them the essence of the culture they came from? Second, Braudel mentions that the luxury of goods such gem encrusted clothing is a means of government. Perhaps the notion of a hierarchy is being visibly enforced? Then is mass production as a means of government for democracies, the notion of replaceability being so enforced? That is, would it be possible for the Duc de Berry to choose to order a hundred shoes for poor people instead of a book of hours? Finally, Braudel asserts that "[n]o innovation has any value except in relation to the social pressure which maintains and imposes it. (431). In other words, technology is either the possible unachieved or the ceiling needing to be broken (335). Technology must be driven by need (or perceived need) otherwise the barriers to change are too high. If agricultural technology is the prime example of the importance of neglected material civilization, then what would be an example of the neglected or undiscovered technology of economic civilization?
1 Fernand Braudel. The Structures of Everyday Life; The Limits of the Possible. Civilization and Capitalism 15-18th Century, Vol. 1.. New York: Harper and Rowe., 1979. 324. All quotations in the text are to this edition.