On history and premodernity: A clue to the peasant’s life

So certain stormy conquests looked at retrospectively, through the eyes of men today, seem like episodes, whatever their duration. They are achieved quickly or slowly. Then, one fine day, they collapse like stage sets. (102)

Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 1500-1800. Volume 1.

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If history is only the retrospective pallor we cast over past events, then it is of little use and of no importance. Yet if history is the re-dramatization of the past according to the demands of the present, then it may awaken us from our dogmatic slumber.

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From our vantage point of super-abundance, it is difficult to fathom famine in Somalia, near-impossible to understand the fluctuations in food supplies during the ancient regime. In the 17th C., for instance, a peasant’s life would have snugly fit Hobbes’ characterization of the state of nature as “nasty, short, and brutish”: his diet would have consisted chiefly of grain (wheat, rice, maize, or potatoes, depending); his hours in the field would have been long, monotonous, and fraught with care; epidemics would have raged, then subsided, then raged again; droughts and “little ice ages” would have come from nowhere, then subsided 100 years on; his children would have died in childbirth or, in the 19th C., perished from consumption; his eyes would have closed, God willing, after 45 years. Should there have been a food surplus, then populations would have swelled to the breaking point and labor-power would have been re-directed toward higher things: the waging of war, the building of cathedrals, the development of cities, the furtherance of civilization.

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