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Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 486-492

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Book Review

The Corrupting Sea:
A Study of Mediterranean History

The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History.By PEREGRINE HORDEN AND NICHOLAS PURCELL. London: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. xiv + 761. $74.95 (cloth).

Toward the beginning of this huge, exceptionally well-written and consistently interesting, but occasionally frustrating book, the authors have a section (pp. 39-43) entitled "The end of the Mediterranean." They explain that with this arresting expression they refer to the apparent waning of the influence of Fernand Braudel's Méditerranée, and to the decline of interest, on the part of historians and geographers, for the region which was the focus of "the most famous piece of modern historical writing" (p. 43). There is perhaps no better evidence of their exaggerated pessimism that their very own weighty book: 523 densely printed pages of text, 112 even more densely printed pages devoted to a series of impressive bibliographic essays, 94 pages of a consolidated bibliography comprising hundreds of items, 44 triple-columned pages of an index which some readers might find difficult to get through without a magnifying glass, and 34 pages of maps interspersed through the book. Their modesty (or sense of irony) notwithstanding, it is difficult to accept their claim that what they have written is "essay-like" (p. 4). At the level of erudition—of the sheer mass of scholarship the authors critically reflect on in constructing their text—their book is an imposing achievement; one suspects that long after their central ideas have been forgotten, those interested in the history of the Mediterranean will repeatedly refer to this book's scholarly apparatus, especially to its bibliographic essays, which are likely to become starting points for their studies. But, caveat emptor. This, we are alerted, is only the first of a projected two-volume work! If the second reaches the dimensions of the first, this treatise is likely to exceed not only Braudel's classic book, but also the two-volume studies devoted to the Mediterranean by Piero Pieri and Emil Ludwig (La Méditerranée: Destinées d'une mer, 1943, and Piero Silva, Il mediterraneo dall'unità di Roma all'impero italiano, 1941).

Inevitably, it is impossible to imagine that Horden and Purcell could have conceived of their enterprise without Braudel, whose ghost looms large over every section and argument they advance. They acknowledge as much on the book's first page. The work, they tell us "originated in a simple observation—that . . . Braudel had proclaimed the enduring unity and distinctiveness of his subject; but that he had mostly confined his supporting evidence to what he thought of as the facts of geography and to sixteenth-century documents. . . . If the Mediterranean had indeed. . . constituted a distinct unity in earlier [End Page 486] centuries than the sixteenth, it ought to be possible to demonstrate the fact. It ought also be possible to discover how that unity subsisted, and what kinds of continuity were involved in the process." In response to this challenge, in a series of seminars they conducted over a number of years, they enlarged their field of vision, even more than a reader might suspect from the passage just quoted. Their book does not deal only with the "earlier centuries than the sixteenth"; it covers, no more no less, three thousand years of history, from the earliest historic times to the late twentieth century. The chronological scale is but one of the differences that distinguishes their work from Braudel's. There are others, perhaps no less important, to which we shall return below.

First, however, it might be useful to point to a similarity, which at once enhances and limits their work's significance. This similarity emerges from a comparison of their authors' epistemological ambitions and presuppositions. Concurrently and somewhat ironically, this similarity also points to one of the most striking differences between them and Braudel.

If it is true that the greatness of La Méditerranée must be judged on the basis of the scale of its...


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