Braudel, Fernand: Geography and Freedom
From A history of civilizations, translated by Richard Mayne, Penguin, 1995.
The history of Europe has everywhere been marked by the stubborn growth of private ‘liberties’, franchises or privileges limited to certain groups, big or small. Often, these liberties conflicted with each other or were mutually exclusive.
Clearly, these liberties could exist only when Western Europe as such had taken shape and become relatively stable. Undefended, or strife-torn, it could afford no such luxury. Liberty and stability were inseparable.
Europe takes shape: fifth to thirteenth centuries
The maps, showing the major invasions of Europe, make it unnecessary to recount at length the accidents and catastrophes in the course of which the Western end of the European Peninsula gradually became a coherent whole. Europe’s geographical area was defined in the course of a series of wars and invasions. It all began with the division of the Roman Empire, confirmed but not caused when it was partitioned on the death of Theodosius in 395 AD.
The Eastern Mediterranean has almost always been populated, endowed with a very old civilization, and engaged in a number of economic pursuits. From the very beginning of the Roman conquest, there was also a Western Mediterranean — a Far West, so to speak, which was primitive if not barbaric. There, by founding cities, Rome partially established a civilization which, if not always exactly Roman, was at least an imitation of the original.
Once the 395 partition had occurred, the pars Occidentalis underwent a series of disasters on the three frontiers surrounding it: in the North-East along the Rhine and the Danube; in the South on the Mediterranean; and in the West on the extensive ‘ocean frontier’ from Denmark to Gibraltar, which for a long time had been peaceful and secure. The new threats, and the reaction to them, defined and settled Europe’s geographical area.
In the North-East, the double limes of the Rhine and the Danube could not resist the pressure of the Barbarians, fleeing from the Huns. In 405, Radagaisus led a Barbarian army into Italy as far as Tuscany. Soon afterwards, on 31 December 406, a horde of Barbarian peoples crossed the frozen Rhine near Mainz and overcame the Gallic provinces.
Once broken through, the door was not closed again until the defeat of the Huns at Chalons-sur-Marne in 451. After that, reconstruction was fairly rapid. Merovingian Gaul re-established the Rhine frontier, and it was soon shifted well to the East: the Carolingians maintained it far beyond the river, imposing their authority over the whole of Germany and pressing as far as ‘Hungary’, then under the Avars. Conversion to Christianity, in which the great St Boniface played a leading role, consolidated this huge Eastward advance. The West succeeded, in fact, where the caution of Augustus and Tiberius had failed.