Fernand Braudel has pulled it off twice. For most French historians, the massive thesis required until recently for the doctorat d'état is their one piece of sustained research, after which they graduate, or subside, into writing learned articles, or textbooks for schools and universities. Even Gibbon felt a profound sense of relief when he wrote the last lines of the last page of the Decline and Fall, and he did not take up any other grand project. Braudel is different. His thesis, on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, was certainly long enough and ambitious enough - the first edition of the book ran to some six hundred thousand words, and it has since been considerably enlarged. As a result of the war, most of which he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp near Lübeck (according to legend, writing his thesis from memory in exercise books which he posted to France), Braudel was not able to publish his Mediterranean till 1949, when he was 47. It was almost immediately recognised as a major work, and before long its author took his place as the head of the French historical Establishment, with a chair at the Collège de France combined with the presidency of the 'VIth Section' of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, a position from which he was able to direct French historical research. Despite these distractions, he began work on a second major book, publishing the first volume when he was 65 and the second and third volumes when he was 78. If this does not give him the long-distance record among historians, it does at least put him into the semi-finals, along with Joseph Needham.
LRB 10 January 1983 | PDF Download