Picking up again the threads of the Global Middle Ages Network meeting I was at in September 2014—see the last post on this for the background if you like—the second post I want to dedicate to this is on the question of periodization. Of course periodization is an issue for the medievalist of any scope. The very fact that we study a period called medieval, of the age in the middle, raises the question of what it is between and how those twin poles define it. Calling something ‘medieval’ began as a way of dismissing it into the past, says Kathleen Davis, and despite the problems I find in the book where she says it the case is persuasive.1 To be medieval is to be defined as between other things, usually the great glories of Classical Antiquity and the Roman Empire and the new modern Age of Empires, which is problematic not least because the people whom we as medievalists study did not think of themselves so. Indeed, those who thought about such things instead tended to think that they were at the end!2
Reasons not to periodize, no. 1: we are all about to be destroyed by many-headed dragons anyway so what’s the point, right? From the copy of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse known as the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional. Ms. Vit. 14.2, fo. 191v. By Facundus, pour Ferdinand Ier de Castille et Leon et la reine Sancha (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
One form of argument that this has raised is one about where the period begins and ends. For Westerners, 476, the death of the last Roman emperor to rule from that city, has often been a good marker of the beginning but it is, in many ways, the final bits falling off a building’s ruins after it has already collapsed, and on the other hand, the fifth-century arrangement of the Roman West endured for centuries by many measures and was possibly only fully reconfigured by the secondary collapse of the Carolingian Empire, or even the semi-legendary ‘transformation of the year 1000’.3
That has led many scholars to hive the whole early Christian period off as ‘late Antiquity’ and just postpone the Middle Ages as the rest of the world understands it till after they cease to be interested.4
And there are genuine changes that make good reasons for doing that, while at the other end of the period, while the discovery of the New World in 1492 makes a similarly good marker, a European maritime empire was already funnelling the wealth of another Continent into Europe by then in the form of Portugal in Africa; firearms, the printing press and plague were already well-established, the Renaissance long under way; and Christianity would remain only either Catholic or Orthodox for a few years thereafter too. So, the impact that 1492 made needs to be argued too if we are to stop the early modern era spreading back into the quattrocento
or the end of the Middle Ages disappearing under a pile of bodies in the Wars of Religion.
In actual fact, the modernists seem largely happy to draw back modernity even further, to the Enlightenment and industrialization, which I think is probably justifiable, myself.5 That raises the question of why the people who work on the Tudors or the early Ottomans aren’t medievalists, one to which I don’t have good answers, and this conflation has been repeated structurally by many universities’ Centres or Institutes for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. But I do observe this same trend that Kathleen Davis points out, to distance modernity from the Middle Ages rather than to colonise them with it, and one of the declared aims of this group meeting (remember the meeting? This is a post about a meeting) was to write something that would force the modernists to stop ignoring the period before their own. But attacking this boundary and still putting a book out about the Global Middle Ages becomes conceptually difficult very quickly; if the boundary doesn’t exist, or is much later, then what does ‘The Middle Ages’ actually consist of? About the only alternative characterisation of the era that’s so far been floated, the ‘Age of Faith’, doesn’t get us out of this hole at all: I already mentioned the Wars of Religion…6 ‘The Age Modernists Ignore’ hardly seems better. And the other end of the periodization also presents problems, not least because with so many big empires with farflung (if ephemeral) contacts up and running, Alexander reaching India overland and Rome doing so by sea, Egypt reaching into Africa and so on, it’s so tempting for a global research agenda to start much earlier.
The Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia, one of the places where it has been suggested that Alexander the Great built Iron Gates to keep the monstrous peoples who lived beyond them away from civilisation. Not necessarily true, but impressive! “Darial-Gorge” by Not home at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
But the modern division is the one that’s defended, it seems; thanks to the border crossing of late Antiquity traffic between medieval studies and specialists in the ancient world is reasonably feasible. And that later division could be attacked in the European world, but trying to ‘go global’ with it introduces a whole host more problems as cultures other than Western Europe, working on quite different timescales, start to be factored in. China had a state bureaucracy, a fiduciary currency system, gunpowder and factories for most (all?) of the European medieval period; much of what we know of Africa looks a lot more ‘Ancient’ in any test against both the Classical or medieval worlds, on the other hand, and Meso-America wasn’t playing the same game at all, while at the other end of a scale I am suddenly reminded of a chapter of David Abulafia’s about Portuguese contact with the Canary Islanders in which the word ‘Neolithic’ is used to illustrate the culture gap.7 And it’s really hard to put India onto this scale, not least because of the legacy of Orientalism and history by colonists that framed it as eternally backward and a rival sort of writing that instead made it a pluralistically enlightened Utopia, both of which are responses to a terrible absence of actual datable evidence for what India was like in the period in which we’re interested.8 Then at the other end of the process there’s the problem of lack of change: that version of China could be argued to have continued till the Boxer Rebellion, and the whole awful ‘West and the Rest’ narrative derives from the appearance that changes happened in Europe which put the Middle Ages behind it, but which were not mirrored elsewhere in the world.9 Identifying something like feudalism in Japan is not going to be enough to force the rest of the world unwillingly into a fundamentally European chronology.10
Note, though, that the rhetoric of difference here really goes hand-in-hand with the defensive one of modernity. Actually, what differentiates the West from the Rest in that narrative, at least at a visible level, are the same things that differentiate Modern from Medieval: mechanisation, so-called Enlightenment, long-range commerce and the development of the two cultures
, to pick an arbitrary handful. Doing that differentiation for the pre-modern is a lot harder. Mark Whittow suggested that one of the things that makes the West different from the Rest during
the Middle Ages as we usually count them was an ‘archival habit’, the practise of keeping documents for a long time (rather than destroying them with each change of administration
, for example, or never making them at all). And as I said in the last post on these issues, the variation in source materials is probably the most important one for any potential reader of the book that is to come out of all this to get their heads round, but otherwise to get too deep into the variation, however tempting and even analytically necessary, may be to miss a point. Invoking the Middle Ages at all engages scholars working on such themes immediately in two probably-useless exercises of justification: the identification of something as characteristically medieval which does not prevent comparison with the early modern era but keeps things distinct from the ancient one (without disparagement from either direction) and then an attempt to find it in areas where the tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern has no relevance. One wonders whether just sticking with a title that invokes no period but only a division (The World Before Columbus
was bruited) would present fewer problems. Alan Strathern argued something very much like this when he early on described the group as ‘pre-modernists who work on the Middle Ages’, but I’m not sure if even he had yet reasoned this through: to write on the Global Middle Ages and get away with it, we may have to cease identifying our work with the Middle Ages…
1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008).
2. See for example Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End”, in Chris Humphrey and Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34.
3. Two cites of many many possible: Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 279-283, and Guy Bois, The Transformation of the Year One Thousand: the village of Lournard from Antiquity to Feudalism, transl. Jean Birrell (Manchester 1992), esp. pp. 2-4.
4. The culprit usually blamed for the late Antiquity label is Peter Brown, especially in his The World of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London 1971), which is unfair in this case as he does much more interesting things with it than mere defence against later periods. Nonetheless, something started there.
5. A relevant example: Peter van der Veer, “The Global History of ‘Modernity'” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 41 (Leiden 1998), pp. 285-294, DOI: 10.1163/1568520981436228, and the debate of which that article forms part in that journal issue.
6. Not least because the most obvious scholarly example of that terminology for me, Peter Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford 2011) as that implies stops barely two centuries into the period.
7. D. S. Abulafia, “Neolithic meets medieval: first encounters in the Canary Islands” in idem and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 255-278.
8. On the colonial contempt for Indian history, see Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 98-100, largely on the basis of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Time of History and the Times of Gods” in Lisa Lowe & David Lloyd (edd.), The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Durham NC 1997), pp. 35-60. For the idealising sort of writing fiction is the best source: try, for example, John Masters, The Venus of Konpara (London 1960), but the appeal to history is as political as ever inside India: see N. Pai, “Towards a shared understanding, and why it is important” in idem (ed.), A Sense of History, Pragati: the Indian National Interest Review no. 27 (Bangalore 2009), online here in PDF, last modified 26th July 2012 as of 30th June 2014, pp. 2-3.
9. The argument about the Boxer Rebellion can be found in Bodo Wiethoff, An Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912 (London 1975), pp. 9-31. The West and the Rest analysis we love to hate is of course, Niall Ferguson, Civilization: the West and the Rest (London 2011), but it’s a much older trope than him. I could also mention once again Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), which is one of those books one lends out and doesn’t get back.
10. On Japan I’m thinking of Jospeh Strayer, Feudalism (New York City 1975), whose comparative aspect derived from a genuinely global treatment of the same phenomenon in which Strayer also participated, Rushton Colbourne (ed.), Feudalism in History (Princeton 1956). Of course it is necessary also to mention Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994) as a required counter to Strayer and his views.