Twenty-five years after ending my career as a professional historian (a career that lasted one year post-college), I’ve decided I am finally going to tackle and complete Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries, a three volume series that I could never quite crack.
This will be a sort of blog of what I learn, remember, appreciate. Below are my thoughts from Chapter 1 (“Weight of Numbers”) of Volume 1 (The Structures of Everyday Life).
The most astounding element of this chapter is how, in 1967, Braudel basically understands that climate change is the single best explanation for humanity’s cross-cultural ebbs and flows and that Euro-centric explanations of why Europe boomed in the early middle ages make no sense when none of those conditions held in other booms areas such as China. Climate improved, ergo all boats rose with that tide.
Braudel presents an estimate of world population across time.
He settles on the following for Europe alone:
1350: 69 million
1450: 45 million
1600: 100 million
1650: 136 million
1750: 173 million
1800: 211 million
1850: 266 million
He also roughly ballparks Europe as 20-25% of the world in this period.
He asks why the standard explanations for Europe growth make sense when China saw similar growth without those European-specific phenomena. His answer: global climate changes. When he wrote this in 1967, climate change was not a common term. It seems obvious now, but it was new and astounding at the time.
He pivots to explain how in a much less well populated world, numbers were correspondingly small. An army of 10,000 would have been large in 16th century Italy. He roughly estimate the world population in 1300 was 1/12 his own 4 million, and was 1/5 in 1800. He offers that Europe simply had too few surplus workers to develop the new world without stealing people fro Africa.
France was an exception and sent hundreds of thousands to Spain where they pretended to be from Habsburg French-speaking lands to avoid being “beaten up” as French. Hence France was a pioneer in birth control.
Europe didn’t discovery any new lands, just the means to tame the oceans to reach them. Thought Braudel’s map sort of implies USA is a change in status from low intensity to dense. [Later in the chapter he addresses this, saying one of Europe’s lucky accidents was that they were able to expand into vacuums — North America, Brazil, Siberia. He contrasts this with the difficulty of German expansion into Slavic lands or Brits/Dutch into South Africa)
Until 1800, the world was in balance, 40 births per thousand, 40 deaths per thousand. Sometimes up, sometimes down.
Reawakening of Black Death in 1348 happened, says Braudel quoting William McNeill, because the Mongol empire reopened the silk route and thus the intermingling of eastern and western germs, and new strains without auto-immunity struck. Basically the Black Death of 1348 and onward is the European version of the immunity crisis of post-Columbus America.
Important to recognize that even if the birth and death rates were roughly equal, humanity had the ability to rapidly recover from demographic setbacks. Each peak was slightly higher than the last.
Russian strength and expansion east helped protect Europe from the waves of nomadic invasions, pushing them to China and India. Peter the great, European fortresses, and gunpowder finally overcame the nomads advantage of speed. Eventually Peking and Delhi adopted the same and the central Asian nomadic empires came to an end.
And then as Russia moved east and its own peasantry followed the armies, this opened up opportunities for the rest of European peasantry to move east as well, even including the Huguenots moving to Germany.