Towards a Global Middle Ages II: the middle of what, exactly?

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

An illustration of the two beasts of the Apocalypse from Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional. Ms. Vit. 14.2, fo. 191v.

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.

Fort Sao Jorge da Mina at Elmina, Ghana, erected by the Potuguese in 1482.

Colonial African architecture of the Middle Ages: Fort Sao Jorge da Mina at Elmina, Ghana, erected by the Potuguese in 1482. “Elmina slave castle” by Dave LeyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

A suit of hon kozane dou gusoku Samurai armour in the Tokyo National Museum

Medieval armour? A suit of hon kozane dou gusoku Samurai armour in the Tokyo National Museum. By Ian Armstrong [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

18 responses to “Towards a Global Middle Ages II: the middle of what, exactly?

  1. Geoffrey Tobin

    There’s a serious historic issue with the term “modern”. It derives from Late Latin “modernus”, from Latin “modo”, meaning “just now”. When it was coined, hundreds or thousands of years ago, its users thought themselves very modern indeed. For us to appropriate it for what is recent only to us is as absurd as those books and cereal packages with the emphatic word “New!” on them. It doesn’t take long for the “new” to become old, and for the “modern” to become old-hat. Witness the nonsensical term “post-modern”. “Post-now”? Really?

    • Indeed! I am very used to the two buzzphrases, “we have always been modern” and “we have never been modern”, and this comment has had me spending five minutes trying to find out where they actually came from. The counter is easy: Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes : Essai d’anthropologie symétrique (Paris 1991), transl. as We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge MA 1993), is the thing which people cite and/or react against. But although many of these recoin the phrase “we have always been modern” in reaction to it, and many people just use that as a title without attributing it, it is older than Latour, it seems: the earliest use I can quickly search up is in Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, transl. Robert Wallace (Boston MA 1983). Some useful references to the debate, should you really want them, in Krishan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World, 2nd edn. (Oxford 2004), whose first chapter is online for free here.

  2. The same problem is encountered in pre-Classical history. Western Europe lingered in a non-technological neolithic culture while the Near & Middle East forged ahead with States and metallurgy and writing and . . . . It seems there has always been a gradation from culture to culture. So the term ‘Global Middle Ages’ surely must refer, as does Neolithic. Bronze Age etc, to the stage reached by each culture. Which isn’t much help, really, in the present case. BTW, when I took O level Medieval History (back in the paleolithic) it covered the period from the [re-]Christianization of Britain to War of Roses. Yet the next period for study (Modern History) began with the Stuarts. What happened to the Tudors? Yet with the finding of the New World, and the first English reigning/ruling queen, surely the start of the Modern Age.

    • Well, the start of something, certainly, but by that reckoning, why wasn’t Byzantium modern under Eirini or Theodora? I ask, you understand, merely to be difficult…

      • It could be argued that Greece was modern before Rome shattered its achievements and swept the evidence under their convenient ‘carpets’. Much has come to light regarding their advanced technologies (possibly inspired and/or imported from China). History is written by the winners. Though in these days of Global Equality . . . and this we see the lids being raised and the truths emerging. And we’re left wondering which label belongs where.

  3. Pingback: Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. I think Alan Strathern (who supervised me while I was an undergraduate, and was great at it, for the record) might have it right. Periodisation is, in general, a beast whose shape varies depending on what exactly you’re periodising, and claiming that the ‘Middle Ages’ invokes anything real seems like a losing bet – what, after all, does Henry VI have in common with Edwin of Northumbria which Henry VII or Henry VIII doesn’t?. An approach of chronological convenience is probably more realistic. After all, there was history (in the sense of ‘events in the past’) before 1492; and there was a world (in the sense of a terrestrial globe); and insofar as anyone is qualified to write the history of the whole thing, people who work on that period anyway are probably that group…

    • what, after all, does Henry VI have in common with Edwin of Northumbria which Henry VII or Henry VIII doesn’t?

      That is absolutely bang on, thankyou. I suppose the question that remains is: why would one wish to write the history of the whole thing as one, and in what terms can that even meaningfully be done? I’m fairly happy that once those are established the medievalists get to do it…

      • The first is easy in historical terms, christianism (monotheism) extended the notion of an unified humanity, so there could be only one big history (Eusebius et al)..
        The escond is tricky as you have to define ‘meaningfully’ first… and that’s the key point, different world views imples different terms, so there’s nothing to establish, only relative sets of concepts. Historians are suppoused to be trained to think in other than current world-views…

        • Very fair! We choose what we think is meaningful, for sure. I suppose that the philosophical question is then does it distort our findings if we then go looking for something we have pre-conceived? I hope not too much, because there seems to be no way round it…

          • I hope not too much, also, of course. Stricly speaking there’no way round, that’s true, but in practical terms, there’s a lot we can do. For example, we can try to catch or understand his/ours? ancient world view. A classical example: astrology. If we cannot understand astrology as nothing more than supertition, as something inecluctabily false, then we will not be able to understand a basic concept of his world. So I call for a two headed approach: the current, quantitative/objective one, and at the same time, a qualitative, philosophical search of a deeper/better understanding of past/other world views.

  5. Pingback: Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Problems of comparative global history | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Joseph Brown

    I think the thing about “The Global Middle Ages” is that its deliberately meant to be completely artificial and problematic. Its not meant to work as a periodisation at all. It can easily be a chaotic mess – I did the global middle ages as my optional subject for my Masters, and many of the discussions we had in classes felt quite disjointed and all over the place. I think the Global Middle Ages is basically a conceptual tool that serves two purposes.

    The first seems to be basically polemical. Its basically all about saying to early modernists and modernists that people, things and ideas have been connecting continents long before 1492 or whenever people think globalisation begins. Obviously the early modernists and modernists can claim that what’s going on in their period is quantitatively or qualitatively different to what came before, but at least it means that they can’t go around assuming that this is the first time we see this kind of phenomenon (I know this is just me being a smug medievalist, but early modernists do this with a lot of things).

    The second seems to be more about introspection and broadening horizons. Its all about getting western medievalists and people who specialise in other parts of the globe between 500 and 1500 to basically question and challenge their own assumptions through what is essentially comparative history on a grand scale. It basically gets you asking questions like: is there really anything special about the area that I’m studying? If so, what’s special about it? Why did it become special like that? Could it have gone down a path more similar to other parts of the world, in which case why did it choose not to? Or, if it turns out similar phenomena/ paths of development are being taken in other parts of the world in a similar timeframe, what’s the reason for these parallels? Are they causally connected, or pure coincidence? Or, for that matter, why does everywhere appear to be on such different trajectories from each other?

    Basically, in this way, the global middle ages serves as a kind of anti-grand narrative. It doesn’t take kindly to exceptionalisms, but nor does it treat anywhere as the norm that other places are simply deviating from.

    It also serves to kind of make you think more deeply about how you approach the past and why. That’s why, I think, Mark Whittow’s article was the most valuable contribution in that Past and Present Supplement published in 2018. Historians working on the Latin West from the eighth century on (albeit with some regional variation) are able to take archives for granted, whereas historians of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Steppe World and Mesoamerica have to work without them, and even in China and the Islamic world the archives aren’t nearly as abundant and extensive. Why should that be the case and how does it affect our approach to the past? One could do a similar exercise with written narrative histories – why are there lots of them for Latin Christendom, the Islamic world, China and Japan, but none for peninsular India, Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa? Similarly in that case, simple differences in levels of literacy can’t just explain it away.

    That’s basically what I think the usefulness of the “Global Middle Ages” is – it gets us to think rather than just assume.

    • If it’s ‘done right’, I completely agree. (When it’s done wrong, in either instance, it seems to be ‘let me tell you fellow white people about some people who aren’t’ and stop there.) I feel as if I should say more to such a substantive comment than ‘yes, indeed!’, though, so two pointers, firstly to the anthropologists’ ideas of ‘protochronism‘ (i. e. my culture did it first), a game we can play with the modernists till the Romanists turn up and so on back; secondly, on the lack of narrative histories from peninsular India, that depends what you think the Sangam epics or the Sri Lankan royal chronicles are, doesn’t it? The trouble with all history of India, and maybe especially that done by those of a global turn, seems to be its tendency to forget the south… And one might reasonably observe that it takes the Islamic world a little while to start generating them and that even the Latin West goes through odd century-long patches of not generating many. But still, basically, yes…

      • Joseph Brown

        yeah, it definitely has to be done right. Like any attempt at comparative history worth its salt has got to, in some way, actually further our understanding of the societies/ cultures being compared. And yeah the kind of approach you described as how not to approach it is definitely to be avoided, as is the whole “the non-western culture I’m studying was lightyears ahead of the Latin West in this period” which is implicitly saying “my scholarly patch is better than your scholarly patch”, which doesn’t really serve to enlighten anyone at all.

        As for protochronism (new word for me) I’d be completely with you – its fun till the Romanists (or for that matter Hellenists) get involved, and in the meantime it pits early and high/ late medievalists against each other i.e. Anglo-Saxonists criticising Michael Clanchy’s “From memory to written record” or Carolingianists being unhappy with Stephen Jaeger’s “The Origins of Courtliness.” And thanks for making me aware of the Sangam epics and the Sri Lankan royal chronicles.

        • Well, I wish I was more aware of them myself; but I do know they exist, and so can alert others. I can also advise people to watch, when they read about ‘Indian’ history, to see if their chosen writers ever looks south of the Deccan. This is even true of peninsular writers; it’s like the way most UK newspapers don’t remember anywhere outside London exists unless an event pokes them…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.