Regional history from the perspective of the French Annales[1] School of Thought


                                                              Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas[2]

I hope to share with you and to discuss some important ideas in the field of regional history, at this historic moment in which the national structures, those structures that began to be created only a few centuries ago, in  twelfth and thirteenth-century France, and which are clearly a bourgeois creation, have already fulfilled their historical cycle of life and are clearly out of date, at a time when these structures of the nation-states are entering crisis, which allows us to hope they will soon disappear. I think that looking critically at the region and regional history, can be an important element that allows us to rebuild the world once we eliminate capitalism, and with it all of its various legacies, and among them, the stale and already anachronistic figure or creation of the nation-state. Because I think the old structures of the nation no longer make much sense today, and that very soon they will disappear to make us all, simply and happily, citizens of the world.
          On the subject of my lecture, "Regional History and the Annales school of Thought", I will first draw a line and then three clarifications that seem important to me, before entering my topic fully. The demarcation is that I am absolutely against the postmodern position, which has spread to a certain extent among scholars in the field of regional history, because the term "region" has been used and worn out by economists or historians more than by sociologists and political scientists, who have quoted, manipulated, defined and redefined it so many times that they have ended up creating a lot of confusion about what is, strictly speaking, regional history. We even see it in some of the speeches and even in the program of this symposium. Many times, for example, local history is equated with regional history, as if they are the same, and they are not the same, so I am against the use and great abuse of this term of regional history.

          On the other hand, there are serious authors who have said that they have worked all their lives in the field of regional history, and then end up saying that in reality the region does not exist, and that in fact, every historian when investigating his subject specifically ' creates' or 'invents' their own region. But this position seems to me to be unacceptable relativism, and it approaches the postmodern perspectives that want to equate all points of view, and they want to point out that any one of the various definitions of the region are equally valid. Contrary to this point of view, the effort that I am going to make is to precisely to define the concept of region. And I want to try to give some clues to understanding the contribution made by the so-called 'School' of the Annales, which is really not a 'school' of thought, but rather a French current of historians, with stages, orientations, perspectives and very diverse and heterogeneous paradigms. For that, I now turn to the three explanations on the concept of regional history.

The first clarification is that local history has been confused with regional history, although they are not at all the same, because local history is always the story of a particular point and location in space, that is, precisely a locality. But the problem, and here I repeat the ideas that Marc Bloch proposed to us in trying to define regional history in a more precise way, is that in the vast majority of the cases of this local history, the choice of the locality studied is taken from personal, or casual, or random, or anecdotal criteria, that is to say from an extra-scientific or extra-historical criterion. On the other hand, with a local history that has real scientific pretensions, no locality can be chosen as an object of study, and no locality is chosen, except one that from rigorous historical criteria, presents a clear relevance for the historian, as one that is really significant or revealing of those specific processes that the historian is studying or analyzing in particular.

          However, in the vast majority of the current practitioners of local history it is done because the author was born in that locality, or because they lived there, or because they were paid to do a local monograph, or because they had anecdotes and personal stories that happened in that locality, or because that locality is considered relevant in political or administrative terms, but almost never because that locality is important or fundamental from scientific, academic or proper historiographic criteria. So, while there is an important relationship between local history and regional history they should not be confused as they are not at all identical or comparable.

         A second clarification refers to the also frequent confusion between the process of spatializing a social or historical phenomenon, with the fact of making regional history. But the best historians have taught us that any fact or historical element, or any historical process or phenomenon that you want to analyze, is from the most ancient past or the most actual present (because history does not study only the facts of the past, despite this absurd but reiterated definition of our field, but it also studies the facts of the most real present), and has necessarily and inescapably certain temporal coordinates and certain specific spatial coordinates. And then, for example, to understand what is happening in Colombia and the peace dialogues taking place in Havana between the Colombian government and the guerrillas, the first question that a historian would have to ask is how far in time to go back to define the specific temporality that corresponds to these peace dialogues, and also where it will have to be projected into the future to see all the specific results of this dialogue unfold.


In the same way as a singular temporality, every historical phenomenon also has its specific spatiality, since all phenomena, events and historical processes necessarily take place in a well-defined space. However, to establish this spatiality that corresponds to a certain historical fact or reality, does not mean that regional history is already being made, and this is another very serious confusion, which is repeated over and over again, and which is connected with the erroneous idea mentioned before that each historian dedicated to making regional history 'invents' or 'builds' his own region, the particular region he wants to study, and from which he develops his own research. But to do this is to spatialize a historical phenomenon, to define its unique spatial coordinates, but not to make regional history.

         Another widespread confusion, and this is a third important clarification in relation to our subject, is linked to the fact that we can also create the history of a previously defined region. This may be an economic region, or a social region, or a political or cultural region, which is however, still distinct from making the history of a true historical region, since a historical region is not the same as an economic region, or political region, or cultural region. Marc Bloch is also the one who has clearly made this distinction, and says that it is pertinent to first define an economic, political or cultural region, and then try to historicize that region, reconstructing the specific history of that region, for example, political, social or cultural. That would be making regional history but in its broader or lax sense. Although another regional history, conceived in a narrower and more precise way would, according to Marc Bloch, be able to reconstruct the historical evolution, in a scientific way, of a region that is itself a true historical region, that would then be to create regional history in its strictest sense.

           Bloch distinguishes between these two ways of making regional history in scientific terms, reconstructing, on the one hand, the historical evolution of a certain region that can be economic, social, cultural, or political, and on the other side recreating the evolution in time of a strict historical region as such. Taking these three explanations into account, we can move forward by looking more closely at this Blochian definition, which states that making regional history is to scientifically reconstruct the historical evolution of a given region, in order to first ask how we should define the ' region ', be it economic, social, etc., or a strictly historical region. Secondly, how this 'historical evolution' of that region is reconstructed, and third, to try to specify what it means to reconstruct that evolution in a 'scientific way'.


To solve these three questions, I will recover some of the main lessons of the French historiographical tradition of the so-called 'School' of the Annales. And here I explain that this term of 'School' of the Annales seems to me incorrect, because it presupposes that there is an obvious unity between all the stages that this current of French historians has traveled, which undoubtedly is the most important French historiographical current of the twentieth century and even today. On the other hand, what really happens is that throughout their 85 years of life, the Annales have gone through four different stages, and when analyzing them with care it is very clear, for example, that between the first and second Annales, and on the other side of the third Annales, there is no unity but rather an absolute and radical rupture. And then, between the third and fourth Annales, what also predominates are rather several fundamental divergences, much more than a false and supposed unity.

On the other hand, I share only partially the opinion of Fernand Braudel that the best Annales, the most innovative and critical, and the most heuristic and revolutionary of historical theory and practice, were the first Annales, by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, to which I would add that along with the second Annales or Annales Braudelianos, that which I am going to try to do now is to specifically rescue the lessons and contributions of these first and second Annales and of the three authors just mentioned.

         For I believe that the first and second Annales give us important elements to solve these three questions, and also to give a more serious and more scientific foundation to what regional history is doing, while I consider that the third generation of Annales did not do much more for this field of regional history. And unfortunately, the fourth Annales were finally a failed project, which was undertaken by a great historian who was Bernard Lepetit, but who died prematurely before his fiftieth birthday in 1996, which made that fourth generation or stage of the Annales be today like a dead star, like those stars of which you still see the light, which only just comes to us, but which is from stars from long ago, which no longer exist but were located thousands of light years away. We still see them in the sky. Their light is reaching us even now, even though those stars have already collapsed and became nova and supernovae long ago. So I think that today the misnamed 'School' of the Annales or fourth stage of the Annales is already a finished project, a kind of dead star, which still radiates its last light and agonizing glow to Latin America or to other parts of the planet.

         If we wish to recover the contributions of this tradition of the French current of the Annales, in its first and second stages, we have to start from the matrix that nurtured this current, in relation to this complex subject of the definition of "region" and "regional history", and which is the matrix of the geography of Paul Vidal de La Blache, who was called the 'Father of French Geography', despite the paradox that he was not a geographer but a historian. But it is true that Vidal de La Blache founded geography in France and conceived the term Human Geography, giving us a first definition of what the 'region' is, a definition that will be criticized and surpassed by the members of the first and second stage of the Annales.


         But this criticism and overcoming does not eliminate the fact that they are also going to recover a fundamental and worthy element to take into account, and that stems from the situation that the geography of Paul Vidal de La Blache raised in its beginnings criticizing the anthropogeography of Ratzel, who wrote a book on Political Geography and another on Anthropogeography, in which he reproduces a geographical determinism that was very similar to the one posed in his time, for example, Montesquieu, in The Spirit of the Laws.

         For, if you have read this last work, you will remember that Montesquieu asks why Europeans are much more developed than Africans, and gives an answer that is characteristic of a clear geographical determinism, linear and immediate, when he says that this greater development is explained by the climate. According to him, the climate explains why the black populations of Africa are less developed than the European ones, since to live in a temperate climate like that in Europe, produces a white race that is more motivated for the development of economic activities, for commerce, etc., while the hottest and most difficult climate in Africa produces an apathy, laziness, and an attitude of only seeing life pass, and therefore a lower development in agricultural and industrial terms.

         Fortunately this racist and simplistic view of Montesquieu was later surpassed, but it highly resembles the one that Ratzel had in his text of Antropogeography, in which using the terms of soil and society, is going to pose a determinism that is the geographical configuration of a space, based on the theses of natural borders, which determines the type of society that is built on that space, and also determines the type of state that is there. And it should not be forgotten that Ratzel was recovered by the Nazis to justify the wars of German expansion over Europe in World War II, because according to their theories the natural borders of Germany went far beyond those that were in force and had been demarcated at the time of World War II, and for that reason Germany had, for example, to expand to Poland, and had to seize the Netherlands.

         Because of this use of his theories by the Nazis, Ratzel was discredited for several decades and only began to be reread in the sixties and seventies. But it is against this determinism of Ratzel and further away from Montesquieu, that the bases of the French geography of Vidal de La Blache will be developed. Because he is going to elaborate a more complex theory, around which human geography is the object of study, answering that this object is the landscape. And then how that landscape is configured will be defined, affirming that it is nothing more than a complex synthesis of a whole series of elements, including climate, relief, terrestrial morphology, terrestrial resources, and minerals, to the mountains and subsoil, as well as plant resources or flora, and animal resources or fauna. But Vidal de la Blache also says that along with all these factors, the human factor must be included, and the synthesis of all these resources, climatic, territorial, natural, vegetable, animal, along with the human factor conforms the landscape, which is precisely the object of study in human geography.

        From here, Vidal de La Blache, defines a concept of 'region' which is as follows: a region will be a complex synthesis between diverse elements that are homogeneous and that make up a possible 'kind of life'. That is to say, a homogeneous climate that extends within a certain space, with a certain type of relief, also homogeneous, and with certain resources, natural, vegetable and animal, which are the basis for the formation of certain human groups, all elements that together precisely constitute the region. If we look carefully at this definition, we will see that it expresses a clear 'geographical imperialism', in which the geographical elements are the most relevant and those that determine not only the specific configuration of human groups, and their various 'kinds of life', but also the meaning of the actions that occur within these human groups. And although Vidal argues that the mediating element between the human and the set of geographical factors is the technique, nevertheless, the fact that prevails is that the region is defined as the sum of various and multiple elements, mainly geographical elements, together with one or two more that derive from or rather are human elements.

        What can we derive from this? Before turning to the criticism that the authors of the Annales are going to carry out against this Vidalian vision of a somewhat 'imperialist' geographical determinism, although suggestive and interesting in certain points, it is necessary to underline a fundamental reality, that it is not by chance that the concept of 'region' used today by economists, sociologists or political scientists, was invented by geography. What does this mean? It means that we could never define any possible concept of region that does not take the geographical foundations into account. That is to say that there cannot exist any possible region that among its main elements does not include the geographical elements.

        For if you are going to talk about an economic region, you will have to talk about a configuration, an economic unit that is constructed from certain geographic elements, and if you want to talk about a cultural region, or a political region, or about a social region, of a certain identity of customs, of a certain historical identity, it will always have to be in relation to certain specific inescapable geographical foundations. That is why it is no accident that the concept of region had to be invented originally by geographers, and then loaned from them to all other social sciences as a whole. For if you seriously study any region, defined as economic, political, cultural, or social, you can never do so if you ignore its geographical foundations.


        But here the distinction mentioned above reappears between just spatializing a phenomenon or rather studying and actually defining a real region, because the region is defined only from the recovery of the specific dialectic of certain geographical foundations with certain realities and economic facts, or social, or political, or with certain cultural acts and customs, etc. This idea is to be recovered by the Annales perspective, and constitutes a point of agreement with the work of Paul Vidal de La Blache, in the sense that without the consideration and systematic incorporation of the fundamentals and the geographical elements, there is no possibility of scientifically defining any type of region. Defining an economic region is therefore relatively easy, as is defining a linguistic region, or a social region, where certain habits exist and where there is a clear social coherence that refers to certain specific geographical elements, which have been the point of departure and the clear condition for the creation of certain habits of behavior which are easy to establish and delimit, because they can be measured, touched, and perceived. As in the case of the delimitation of a linguistic region, which is based on the space in which a certain language is spoken and where the use of certain idioms and certain forms of pronunciation are found, as well as the use of very specific terms.

         But the interesting thing is that when we move away from the geographic dimension, things get complicated, because it is no longer so simple to establish how a political region can be defined, or how we could delimit a religious region. So the more we move away from the geographical foundations, the more complicated the establishment of the dialectic between the order of the phenomena we are studying and that geographical basis, which is, as we have already mentioned, a precondition of any possible definition of a region, be it economic, social, cultural, religious, etc. The dialectic between geographical foundations and economic phenomena is quite evident, just as the dialectic between geographic elements and some social processes is also very direct. But the dialectic between geographical foundations and religious facts and processes is not so obvious, since it is mediated by other realities and is in general much more remote and indirect. For example, the dialectic between political processes and geographic foundations does not seem to be something obvious or immediate and direct at all, but rather complex and mediated. And I leave this problem open, although I clarify that I am not saying that we cannot talk about political regions, or cultural or religious regions, but I say that I think it is more difficult to learn, perceive and know the latter than the same geographical regions, or economic regions or certain social regions.

        I now turn to Lucien Febvre's position in his classic book The Earth and human evolution, which he wrote for the collection of The evolution of humanity overseen by Henri Berr. There and with respect to the above-mentioned vidalian 'geographical imperialism', Febvre is going to propose that as we are
historians, we have to reverse the conceptual scheme of Vidal de la Blache, and that if he then proposes a scheme in which the object of study of human geography is the landscape, where there are five geographic elements and a sixth element, which is human, and where that human is subordinated or incorporated marginally to the set of geographical elements, then the historians of Annales, and first Lucien Febvre himself, are going to assert that it is not true that history or the human is a small part of geography, but, on the contrary, that geography is one of several auxiliary sciences of historical analysis itself.

        From here Febvre derives a possibilist position to face the position of determinism of Vidal de La Blache, and this has repercussions on the concept of region, be it economic, political, cultural, etc., and even on his own historical region. For what Lucien Febvre will say in The Earth and human evolution, and thus criticizing both Ratzel and Vidal de La Blache, is that although the geographical foundations are indeed fundamental, they are not decisive, much less unambiguous determinants, but rather are 'fields of possibility', that is to say, specific frameworks that limit and enclose the possible 'human responses' that may arise to their pressures, but without limiting to a single and obligate human response by societies subjected to said pressures or located within said frames. That is to say, that within the same framework of certain geographical foundations, different configurations of different human responses can be elaborated, a thesis from which the aforementioned term of 'possibilism' derives.

         So the possible 'geographic determinism' would only be valid if it assumes that a certain geographic base does not obligate or correspond, univocally, with one and only one form of human civilizing configuration, or form of social response to that base, but this base is a framework of possibilities, open though not infinite or unlimited, which accepts as its correlate several and various possible social and civilizing figures. Expanding and surpassing this thesis of Febvre, there is Marc Bloch's definition of a region, either defined in economic, social or political terms, or what for him and strictly speaking, is a historical region. This definition is included in a very illuminating Bloch text that is not yet translated into Spanish, L'Ile-de-France. Le pays autor de Paris, which is a one-hundred-page monograph that studies the region of Ile de France, the region that unfolds around the city of Paris, and where Marc Bloch is going to give his definition of what a historical region is, beyond the economic, linguistic, social, political or cultural region.


         In order to understand this Blochian definition properly, it is worth remembering that the first Annales defined as their main methodological contribution a whole series of historiographic paradigms, which include the paradigm of the comparative method, or of multidetermined history, or of the history-problem, paradigms applied in their diverse historical and historiographical analyses. And among these paradigms, they also defended the paradigm of global history, that is, the idea that the complex problems faced by historians are not watertight compartments but are always part and are deeply linked to all the various dimensions of the social whole.

         That is why it is a terrible mistake to believe that economic phenomena can be explained only by economics, or that we can understand religious problems without departing from the limited scope of religion, or to think that in order to understand political problems it is enough to analyze only structures and political realities, which is erroneous and absurd. This paradigm of global history is by no means far from the idea of ​​Marx, of constructing history from the point of view of totality. Marx, as Jean-Paul Sartre later explained, proposed that in investigating any social phenomena we had to carry out a movement of 'progressive totalisation', that is, to link and reconstruct the nexus of the specific problem under investigation, with more and successive and global totalities that frame it, explain it and give it its sense of existence as such a singular problem or phenomenon.

         So, in the face of this paradigm of global history, who would still defend the idea that regional history can be made, for example out of a religious region, without taking into account certain economic, social, cultural and political aspects of a more general order? What Marc Bloch is going to propose is that from this horizon of global history, to define the historical region in its strictest sense, would imply conceiving of this historical region as a complex synthesis of the geographical, territorial, economic, technological, social, cultural, religious, artistic elements, etc., that is, that the region in rigorous historical terms is defined in part as that complex synthesis of the totality of the social dimensions. However, this is only in part, for Bloch still adds other elements in his definition of what is a strictly historical region.

        On this point, Marc Bloch affirms that the historical region is a 'historical individuality in motion', that has been able to be conformed from a dialectic with the geographical foundations to reproduce a historical region as much as in the social, political, economic and cultural planes. This is Marc Bloch's definition of what is a historical region, which he conceives as a 'historical individuality', which means that it is a homogeneous and coherent entity that has acquired its own dynamics. But we must emphasize that the use of this metaphor that also defines a historical region as a historical individuality, implies that the latter is conceived as a reality or element that forms historically, that is born at a certain moment, that then develops, to reach a stage of maturity and a period of boom, after which a phase of decay and eventually a final disappearance will occur. Although things are more complex in the historical reality, and this itinerary can be combined with ephemeral declines or setbacks, and new booms or relaunches, but maintaining the fact that, as in the case of historical individuals, there is a beginning, a certain development and a clear end.

         This is the definition that Marc Bloch will give us for what he considers to be a historical region in the strict sense. And from this definition, Fernand Braudel goes on to introduce new elements that further complicate his definition, by postulating that this historical region is not only a 'historical individuality in motion', but rather a 'geo-historical individuality in motion'. And it is not a simple terminological change, but an important conceptual modification.

         But before moving on to this Braudelian conception of the geo-historical region, it is worthwhile to dwell a little on the implications of Marc Bloch's definition of the historical region for the definition of what could be a truly scientifically conceived regional history. From this perspective, regional history would be the scientific reconstruction of the historical evolution of a region, that is to say of a certain historical individuality in motion or displaying certain dynamics, starting from the complex dialectic between certain geographic foundations and certain economic, political, cultural, social or historical phenomena, depending on the type of region studied or approached. One of the many implications of this definition is related to the fact that regions, like everything in life, are born, grow, develop, have one or more climaxes and also one or several decadences, for some time begin to decay and wear out until they die. And it is important to insist on this idea, since many scholars of the region and regional history seem to believe that regions are eternal, which is naturally a big mistake.

         On this point I will recall an instructive anecdote, always linked to the French current of the Annales. When Marc Bloch was a young historian, in the year 1910, and the Annales magazine had not yet been founded, there was not, of course, the current of the Annales, the historian Henri Berr, who was coordinating a vast collective work on all the regions of France proposed to Lucien Febvre to write a history text of the Franche-Comté region, which Febvre did. He also proposed to Marc Bloch, who at the time was doing his PhD thesis on the relations of servitude and a vassalage in Paris, to carry out a study of the history of the Ile de France region, that is to say the territorial region that completely envelops the city of Paris. Bloch, who had been reviewing and working in all the Paris archives and in l'Ile de France for years, accepted the commitment to write a historical-geographical monograph of that region.

         Then, guided by the paradigm of global history that we have already mentioned, Bloch reviewed how geologists defined that region of l'Ile de France, and then how people from different disciplines outlined it, geographers, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and linguists, thinking that from combining and at the same time surpassing and enriching all these definitions, they could establish the necessary synthesis to define that historic region of l'Ile de France at the beginning of the chronological twentieth century. Thus, in 1911, his monograph was published, but with a really surprising conclusion, both for that time, and even for ours. What Bloch affirms in his shocking conclusion is that, after carrying out his exhaustive work of reviewing all the archives, and comparing all the definitions and studies of geologists, geographers, economists, linguists, sociologists, etc., is that this region of l’Ile de France does not exist as such as a historical region.

         And it is important to note that with this conclusion, Marc Bloch put into question the very collective project in which he participated, and to which Henri Berr had invited him. But his scientific probity was so great that, with all clarity and honesty, he affirmed that the 'object of study' he was entrusted to study, the historical region of l'Ile de France, is simply an object that does not exist. Bloch adds that in the past this historical region did exist, but that later on and by virtue of the general development of the city of Paris itself, and of France itself, that region decayed and eventually disappeared.

         So historians who specialize in regional history must not only be clear about the fact that the region always refers to a dialectic of certain elements with geographical foundations, but also that the situation of the region is a changing and ephemeral reality. That is why the historian has to be able to detect whether the historical region he or she is addressing is really a coherent individuality with clear current dynamics, but also whether it is flourishing, or declining, or is only in the process of formation, or whether it simply does not even exist in such a region. I return to my general argument, to recover how Fernand Braudel assumes and at the same time complicates the definition of historical region by Marc Bloch, introducing the nuance of asserting that the region, rather than being a moving historical individuality, is a geo-historical individuality in motion. And you know that one of the fundamental contributions of Fernand Braudel was precisely to invent this term of 'geo-history', and with it, a novel theoretical proposal on the complex relations between the geographical historical base and the human civilizational processes that unfold on it.

         To define geo-history, Braudel reminds us of those historians who always begin their books with a chapter called the "geographical framework", and that, for example, a history of Italy will include that chapter on the geographical framework, which will describe the whole Italian peninsula, with its northern provinces and regions, its central regions and its southern regions, and the Apennine mountain range, and its adjacent coasts and seas, and so on. But when we go to chapter two, we completely forget what was said in chapter one, and the whole geographical argument of chapter one has no relation to the rest of the work. On the contrary, and in the antipodes of this position, what Braudel proposed and what he successfully accomplished in his great book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the time of Philip II, was to demonstrate how the geographical elements themselves are active historical protagonists of the historical and civilizing drama being studied.

         That is why in this work of the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the time of Philip II, the object of study is not the diplomatic policy of Philip II in the Mediterranean Sea, nor Spain in the second half of the sixteenth century, but the object of study is the Mediterranean Sea itself, and what Braudel wants to see is the concrete protagonism of this unpublished character that is the Mediterranean Sea, and how it influences politics, society, culture, and the economy, daily life and civilization, not only Spanish and not only European, but of all the civilizations that encircled that Mediterranean sea during the 'long historical 16th century’, running from about 1450 to 1650. And in investigating this logic of the Mediterranean Sea, Braudel discovers that in the sixteenth century, which is the same as the planetary emergence of the terrible and destructive global capitalist society which we still have today in Colombia, or in Mexico, or around the world, we are going to witness a real long-lasting mutation, which consists of a 'center of the world' that has been in force for centuries and centuries, and which was a fundamental and structuring space of diverse historical flows coming from the vast set of what was to be called the old world, which will be displaced by an emerging new 'center of the world', by an immense liquid mass that exceeds that Mediterranean Sea quantitatively by five or six times , which is none other than the Atlantic Ocean.

         So one of the strong theses of The Mediterranean ... is this story of how the historical primacy of the Mediterranean sea and world was displaced, which was a point where historical currents flowed from distant China, traversing the famous 'Silk Road' that reached the sea from the Nordic Europe of the Germanic peoples, but also the flows that came from the other far East, coming from India and through the route of Islam that flowed into the Anatolian peninsula, modern-day Turkey, along with the flows that were came from Africa, and that by the ivory trade routes and crossing the Sahara desert, they also reached the Mediterranean Sea, from the latter to move again and redistribute again to all the spaces of the old world.

        But that Mediterranean Sea, which was both the receiving center and radiating center of all the history of the old world, from the year 5000 B.C.E. until the sixteenth century, is to be displaced, precisely in the time of Philip II by the new also radiating and receiving center that is the Atlantic Ocean. Since the sixteenth century, Europe was going to conquer America first, then India, then Russia, and Africa, at the same time as it attempted to take over China and penetrate Australia completely, to create the capitalist planet that we know today. And from that start of capitalism in the sixteenth century, the various 'Atlantics' that make up the Atlantic Ocean, will become the new center of world, of the reception and radiation of historical flows, now globally, that accompany the history of capitalism in the last half of the previous millennium.

        Braudelian geo-history thus carefully claims and reconstructs this fundamental historical role of geographical dimensions and facts, showing its real impact and concrete influence on the historical course studied. This geo-historical perspective of Fernand Braudel, will also influence his way of conceiving and defining the historical region and its own regional history. Therefore, before we see how this influence on regional history is concretized, we must specify a little more what Braudel means by this geo-history. It is, besides the aforementioned, also an attempt to solve an old problem that goes back at least to Hegel, and perhaps even earlier. Hegel, in his book Lessons on the Philosophy of Universal History, includes a 'Special Introduction' in which he approaches the theme of the geographical foundations of universal history, and where he states that this geographical base plays a fundamental role within the whole of all historical processes covered by universal history.

         On the other hand, Marx is going to recover this Hegelian idea, stating that the entire scientific history of mankind necessarily has to start from those geographical foundations, to specify how they will be progressively humanized and modified by the human species throughout what we call history. Fernand Braudel is also going to try to solve this complex dialectic between the geographic-natural basis and the human civilization process from a singular scheme that, curiously, is shared by many other important authors of the twentieth century within the French social sciences, for it also reappears in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, or in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, or in the essays of François Perroux, as in the brilliant works of Michel Foucault, or in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. This scheme is that of the specific dialectic that is established between a determined 'field of possibility' and on the other hand the 'strategies of choice' by which human societies respond to those fields.

         In order to better understand this scheme, it is useful to resort to a pedagogical artifice, proposing that this dialectic between the field of possibility and strategies of choice, and in our case of geo-history, the dialectic between the geographic-natural basis and human civilizing process, is similar to the mode of operation of the game of dominos, which is an interplay between the domain of pure chance and the predominance of absolute determinism. For in the card game, for example, the cards you receive depend entirely on chance, and in this case, it is only luck that decides the whole game and its outcome. Faced with this total dominion of chance, you cannot do anything, because if you get a bad hand and a combination of cards without any relationship, you will surely lose, whereas instead if they get four Aces and a King they will no doubt beat all their rivals.

        Faced with this option, the opposing end is that of the game of chess, where the pieces move according to strict rules, and each play or each response decisively determines the next, and in which literally the one who is more skillful and intelligent wins, whoever employs the most rational and appropriate strategy to beat the other. Faced with these two extremes, the domain of pure chance, or the predominance of the strictest determinism, the game of dominoes is interesting because it presents itself as an intermediate point between the two extremes, combining, in a complex way, elements of both chance and determinism. For, receiving the seven dominoes, the complete domain of chance is given, but at the moment of constructing the possible strategy of play, the course of the game begins to depend also on intelligence, the ability to organize the chips themselves, the concrete ways of promoting the strategy itself, and of responding in particular to the different strategies of the enemy.

         The French thinkers mentioned above will apply this scheme to multiple fields and problems of the social sciences of the twentieth century, assuming that the field that they analyze is determined by chance, but that the choice strategies that the different social actors construct, utilize their intelligence, capacity, skills and unique characteristics. Because no one chooses or can choose whether or not there are fish where they were born, this is a result of chance, as it is that in certain places there are rivers and in others not, or that the Amazon jungle accounts for 80% of the biotic resources of the whole planet, or that in the southern part of Colombia, 12% of these same biotic resources are present all over the world. Thus, these different geographic bases in Brazil or Colombia, with these important biotic reserves, are simply the result of chance, as a kind of gift of destiny to Colombians or Brazilians, while for example Senegal was not lucky enough to have an Amazon itself, and with it the resources of the two South American nations mentioned.


The field of possibilities is thus established, in terms of the dimension of geo-history, through the configuration of a specific geographic base in which different human peoples will have to be developed, giving some of them rivers, to others deserts and mountains, to others fertile valleys, and to some more: pastures, steppes, islands, coasts, mines, fish, abundant fauna, scarce flora, salt fields, lakes, etc., from which these different peoples and human societies will construct diverse strategies for their choice of civilization, which may be more or less successful and more or less beneficial to these human groups in the short, medium and long term. So the field of possibility is not infinite and you cannot do anything anywhere on the planet, but neither is it univocal or determinant in a direct way. Facing these, each different configuration of geographic and natural elements and resources, each town located in each geographical space will be able to choose and organize several different strategies of a civilizing choice, thus forming a specific and unique geo-historical dialectic.

        From this more precise notion of geo-history, one can better understand how Fernand Braudel redefines, qualifies, and surpasses Marc Bloch's definition of the region as a moving historical individuality, which, from a certain dialectic with geographic foundations, determines the configuration of a series of elements of the economic, social, cultural, political or historical dimensions. Braudel would agree with this definition, but add that it is a geo-historical individuality in motion. This implies that the analysis of the dialectic with the geographical foundations is reconstructed from the referred scheme of the specific configuration of the field of possibilities, before the constitution of the social realities determined by the definite civilizing choices. It may be realized that this definition of the geo-historical region: a geo-historical individuality in motion, is not simple, but rather complex and charged with multiple theoretical, conceptual and historiographic consequences. I think that this is, in general terms, the fundamental contribution of the historiographic current of the Annales, and naturally and especially of the first and second Annales, in the attempt to more rigorously define that difficult reality that is that of the region.

         I will conclude my exposition, going on to point out how we can define regional history from this conception of the geo-historical region, as previously explained. If regional history was the scientific reconstruction of the historical evolution of a given region, a region we have already defined as a geo-historical individuality in motion, then we must ask ourselves precisely what this scientific reconstruction means, and by keeping within the horizons of the French current of the Annales, we can go back to Marc Bloch's response when he questioned himself about the relevance and scientific value of the work of local historians and regional historians of the same period.

        In this regard, Bloch affirms that local or regional historians reconstruct the history of a particular locality or region but without asking, which Bloch does in a very provocative way, who will then be interested in that particular local or regional history. Following the Blochian reasoning, we could suppose that a historian investigates and then writes a history of the region of Boyacá, supposing that Boyacá is a real geo-historical and effective region, and would then ask who would be interested in reading this history about the region of Boyacá. Or we could think of the local history of the town of Sogamoso, and ask ourselves who might be interested in that history of Sogamoso.

       And in turn with questions similar to these, although not referring to either Boyacá or Sogamoso, Bloch responds that naturally the history of a locality or any region will undoubtedly be of interest to the inhabitants of that locality or region, but the true challenge of the regional or local historian is not simply to interest the inhabitants in their place or region, but to interest the whole corporation of the cultivators of the muse Clio in their work. For Marc Bloch, writing these stories is not making a scientific reconstruction of the historical evolution of that locality or that region, since a real scientific regional or local history can only be done if the history is explicitly correlated, with deep insight and complexity regarding the general history that frames it. This is the provocative Blochian answer to this problem.

        For the real challenge consists, in this field of regional or local history, of making sure that a work on the history of Sogamoso or Boyacá would be equally interesting to a Mexican historian, or Turkish, or French, or Chinese, in the same wat it is for the people from Sogamoso, Boyaca or Colombians in general. What Marc Bloch says is only achieved if that regional or local history functions as a laboratory that, from local and regional documents and elements, is able to give questions and then answers regarding general history. For if we do not always correlate that regional or local history with the general history, we do not make truly scientific history, since we are not making a regional history that scientifically reconstructs the historical evolution of a certain region, because the only history that has meaning for all historians is history that at the same time recovers the specific and the general, the unique and unrepeatable dimensions of historical facts and processes, but also their universal and general elements and characteristics.

         And do not think that general history is equal to the so-called universal history, which is now conceived only as the sum of national histories, just as national history is not the simple sum of regional histories. Rather, they are much more complex and subtle articulations than these simple summaries mentioned. That is why Marc Bloch points out that general history is the one that raises general problems, for example, the problem of state formation, which in our opinion is a problem of general history. Since Bloch postulates that a truly scientific regional history is one that is capable of posing problems of general history, and of solving them with documentation and with the elements provided by a particular locality or region, then it is easy to understand the different criticisms of most of the multiple monographs of regional and local history that he reviewed for years. These criticisms were that these monographs were plunged into the detailed treatment of extremely local or regional problems, very limited and constrained, and that had no significance and did not establish any link or bridge with the problems of general history, and that he was interested only in his own author or in a very limited universe of people from that locality or region.

Finally, and trying to condense all our previous arguments about a possible more precise definition of how, from the perspective of the first and second Annales, to make a really scientific and rigorous regional history, we can pose that to make that regional history is to scientifically reconstruct and address problems of a general nature and resolve them from documents and with the elements that contribute to the geo-historical region studied: the complex itinerary of its historical evolution, from birth, development, booms and decadences, until its disappearance, to show its dynamics as a geo-historical individuality in motion, and that from the dialectic between the geographic foundations and the historical and civilizational elements, the unique singular configuration of that same geo-historical region investigated is defined. I conclude by asking to you, young students, and also my university colleagues and researchers, in the light of this rich definition of what regional history should be in the outlook of an analytical critical perspective, who is encouraged and dares to make regional history? Thank you very much for your kind attention!


[1] This text is the partially corrected version of the Conferencia Magistral Inaugural del X Simposio de Historia Regional, (Inaugural Magisterial Conference of the 10th Regional History Symposium), organized in the city of Tunja, Colombia, by the Master’s degree in History of the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia, in October, 2014. Here I would like to publicly thank the invitation from Doctor Lina Parra, to give this magisterial conference, as well as to the students and colleagues who attended this symposium for their diverse commentaries.

[2] Mexican social scientist, theorist and researcher. Doctor of Economics from UNAM and with a Post-Doctorate in History from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales de París (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences). Currently a tenured researcher in the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and professor in the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. He is the editor of the prestigious magazine Contrahistorias and also a member of the Mexican and global movement known as La Sexta, founded by the Mexican Neo-Zapatist movement.