The Study of Medieval Townscapes, Part 2

FERNAND BRAUDEL - La Longue Durée and Multidimensional timeframes

   In the year of 1958 the French historian Fernand Braudel published an article by the name of La longue durée which has had an huge impact on the discipline of history. Braudel was undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s most influential historians and as he promoted a certain geographical focus it could be interesting to investigate the application of his theories unto an urban material.

   According to Braudel, time moves in different ways and he divides time into three different timelines. The first, and the most central to Braudels history, is La longue durée the most tough and slow of the three timelines. La longue durée is the aspects of the human world that was almost unchanging in character and form, where change only can be created from long periods of time. This timeline is characterized by different structures, a structure being those created phenomenon and constellations that have almost completely withstood the test of time. Geographical relationships are a good example of this, where nature and climate have formed the possibilities and boundaries of human life. The second timeline is the Economic and Social one, which is faster in changing yet still moving so slow that changes not necessarily will be recognized during a persons lifetime. The third and fastest timeline is the time of Politics and Events, what Braudel called “quick history”. This third timeline is not concerned with surroundings and larger contexts (Elgán, E. 2010:740-43).

   Braudel was but a part of a larger movement, mostly based in France, called the Annales School. Of the persons involved in this movement, Braudel became undoubtedly the most famed and influential. La longue durée was central to the Annales School and history according to them was not entirely determined by humanity. External forces such as geography and climate have a huge influence on the formation of human society, and it is therefore vital to study these themes in combination with for an example politics and economics (Trevor-Roper 1972:470-71).

   Before Braudel, historians had mainly studied the “quick” history or histoire événementielle. This was still central in the work of Braudel and the Annales school, was so to speak just the “tip of the iceberg”. The multidimensional history described above had yet been quite unexplored and required a total multidisciplinary approach. This was quite revolutionary around the 60s and enabled previously quite “dead” material to be studied once more through an other perspective (Trevor-Roper 1972).

   What potentials are there in studying medieval urban society in the manner of Braudel and his fellows? This is an interesting question and various researchers have through the years applied the perspective of la longue durée to medieval material. I am not yet up to date on how much influence Braudel has had on the discipline of archaeology, but I recall a comment on the matter in Kristina Carlssons doctors thesis Var Går Gränsen? (2007) and it cannot therefore be totally non-existent. Of course, it could be argued that Landscape Archeology in general is concerned with the structures of la longue durée but as we have said the wider scope is paradoxically rather ignored and so are the long timeframes especially in historical landscape archaeology. As a postmodernist would argue: Historical archaeology does not necessary have to be confined to historical timeframes, which indeed are modern constructions and not absolutely related to a past way of thinking. It could therefore be interesting to study the location of towns in a long-time perspective, say for a 1000 years or more. The location of prehistoric settlements for example in relation to medieval ones, could provide interesting information into possible continuity or discontinuity.

   What locations are people drawn to and why? This is an interesting question to which many levels of study can be applied. Braudel tempts us to study how the geography of an area could have influenced human settlement and for someone with a quite environmental deterministic approach such as me it is tempting to merely study how settlements relate to natural phenomenon such as rivers, mountains, forests etc. But Braudel did not argue for just focusing on these types of la longue durée, and we must not confine ourselves to one dimension of time. We need to be multidimensional. Especially in studying urban areas, it is important to recognize the fact that geography is not merely nature, it is also human. A location may be attractive not only because of the proximity to an ocean, but also because of symbolical meanings imbued upon the land or of humanly created geographical factors such as borders. Urban studies should therefore not seek one single reality (as there may have been several, depending on scope and through whose eyes we are watching) and Braudel gives us the means to apply several realities through the application of multi-dimensional timeframes.





Elgán, E. (2010). Fernand Braudels artikel “La Longue Durée” och svensk historieskrivning idag – några reflexioner. I Historisk Tidskrift 130:4

Länk: http://www.historisktidskrift.se/fulltext/2010-4/pdf/HT_2010_4_739-749_elgan.pdf


Trevor-Roper, H.R. (1972) Fernand Braudel, the Annales and the Mediterranean. In Journal of Modern History, Vol 44, No. 4. Chicago Press. Ss. 468-79