Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Structures of Everyday Life

Book Cover

Book Title

The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 1. London: Phoenix Press, 2002


Braudel, Fernand (translated by Siân Reynolds)


This work is the first volume in a three part series on the subject of material civilization and capitalism. By material civilization, Braudel means the existence of a zone that underpins the market economy (he calls it a “shadowy zone”), that provides a way to understand a system that emerged which contributed to the establishment of social hierarchies and also the emergence of modern economic systems such as capitalism. Critically, the book claims to be a way to understand, by using a schema, the development and existence of present day societies: it is an examination of transnational trends. The past is thus linked invariably to the present: the trends of the present are explained by, and could be compared to, those of the past.

Showing a real and detailed richness of everyday life, the book is a history: being, admittedly, an inexact science. By highlighting the complexity of the past, whilst also using a global scale, the book is aware that the exercise is one of grand proportion, and the author shows this by making the telling claim “how shall I begin?” before undertaking the writing of the work.

Material life is something which encompasses both humanity and objects, but what we are able to produce materially is not a singular way to understand reality. Working without data such as population statistics, instead using images and impressions of the time, Braudel is able to cover themes that are complex, appropriating them into a well -researched narrative, giving us a wealth of information that is structured thematically.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Braudel’s work has an expansive scope, but deftly deals with his subject matter- this work is exemplary of a narrative both constructed as a thematic study of how the world had changed between the 15-18 century, but it must be seen as a contribution that is part of a larger framework, thus the study could not be isolated to this book only. Dealing with things on a global scale is hardly a straightforward task, but the book is able to study society and its processes and existence from the multifarious vantage points: dietary change, the role of wheat, how alcohol and stimulants played a revolutionary role as “the great innovation”, creating new markets but also giving a plausible explanation for development, including nations both within and without Europe.

Braudel is clear at the outset to provide a schema which he works with in his volumes, and this is that there is a triple division between the upper, lower and observable limits of material life, where the lower is that of informal economic activity that evaded documentation (basic activities such as barter), upper being that which includes the individuals who, through being merchants, could create “zones of turbulence” thus having power to create new social hierarchies.

Taking Pierre Chaunu’s description of “weighing up the world”, the book examines the limits of what was possible in what is termed the pre-industrial world. Giving revealing insights into habits, Braudel is able to make use of even a potato to give a reflection of social change and market forces.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book is essentially taking a historical approach to give light to forms and ways in which the international economy operated and changed at the point, and in its pursuit of being a comprehensive account, it demonstrates the ability to reference extensively and give light to complexity by employing what Braudel terms “parahistoric languages”, excavating the records of demography, food, dress, money and other such technologies to give a coherence to the past.

Where records do not exist, Braudel reads from inference of other sources and attempts to persuade the reader that he is constructing a well- informed narrative: the example of decrease in birth rate is thus juxtaposed to an increase in use of contraceptives, statements such as “husbands…take care in their raptures to keep from adding a child to the household”, are utilized to make the points in the book.

The book is careful to qualify that it is only attempting to provide one plausible view of the past and, by taking a dialectical approach, it could explore the world through a new lens. Giving a commonality to the structure of everyday life and thus lending credence to homogeneity, Braudel provides the idea that there is more in daily practices that peoples have shared in the past.

With a detailed examination of the time, he is illuminating the past and its contribution to the present, and this is generally the proposition that drives the work- the book justifies how revolutionary events are based upon, and build upon past developments, thus historicizing civilization and capitalism as developments that must be seen in a chronological trajectory: these developments, if deprived from their social milieu are bereft of an adequate explanation.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh