[This post was basically written in November 2014 and queued, and is presented here with a light dusting of updated relevance but basically from the position I was in then, not now, hopefully still worthwhile.]
As recent posts will probably have made clear, I am something of a novice at thinking about global history as a field. As with a lot of things I didn’t cover at undergraduate level, I have had to work to see what is worthwhile about it; my initial feeling, not entirely dispelled, was that a lot of what is called global history would be better described as “explaining a place to Occidental Anglophones that is outside their cultural tradition”. I would now admit that a lot of people identifying as global historians are actually striving to do something more meaningful than that, and the things that they attempt are potentially pretty major.
Of course, they must by nature be big. Something’s not a global phenomenon if it only happens in one place, and as we’ve previously discussed it also needs to be connected not just to be coincidence, a particular problem for the low-connectivity scenario of the early Middle Ages. It seems to me that evaluating whether something is ‘global’ thus ineluctably means comparison; even if this thing looks like that other thing, are the causes the same, do the different backgrounds invalidate the resemblance, and so on? (Think if you like, of the attempts to match up European seigneurial lordship and the society of the fifteenth-century samurai under the banner of ‘feudalism’.1) It also probably needs to be big in time, simply because short of meteorite impact or volcanic action on a huge scale, very little can affect the whole globe at once without being very slow and therefore necessarily long-lasting if it’s to have that effect. The different contexts in which these changes must play out to be comparable also seem to me to dictate fairly high levels of abstraction, so that small-detail phenomena will be much harder to match as well as less observable. You also have to look at things that your comparanda actually have to compare, which since most cultural factors didn’t resemble each other very exactly before globalisation, leaves you choosing things that can be described vaguely enough to match up.2 So I think that most would-be global comparison must be longue durée. At this rate it becomes hard to say much that has a lot more grip on its metaphorical tyres than “agriculture starts or changes” or “a technology diffuses now”.
This post, like the last one on such issues, was occasioned by reading S. A. M. Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history, and it must be said that he strives for a good deal more complexity than this in his explicitly comparative scheme.3 The book, having spent a chapter tearing apart his opponent’s schema, then does four chapters which each take a particular sphere of social development, describe the T’ang version of that sphere in detail and then compare to India, Byzantium, the world of Islam and the Latin West at about the same time (which is to say 500-1000 CE). The four spheres are politics, by which he seems basically to mean development and efficiency of the apparatus of state (or states), economy (meaning standard of living, economic activity, both production and distribution, and the extent of purely financial operation), society (by which he mainly means family structures and marriage, graded more or less according to the extent of initiative and space of action left to women) and intellect (by which he means both scientific and philosophical innovation and sophistication). These are, arguably, all things that one can at least attempt to assess in all these societies or groups of societies, so that seems like a model worth abstracting. My essential question here is whether the uses of the model, both as designed and applied, preset its results so much as to remove its value as an empirical framework of comparison.
The terms of Adshead’s assessment are at least always explicit, and they are rarely as simple as being a single analogue scale. Instead, he rather favours something quite like grid-group analysis, with two axes of comparison allowing one to place a society in one of four quadrants or move between them over time. Here is an example:
“[China’s intellectual development under the T’ang] may be assessed by reference to a grid composed of two axes, one horizontal from paradigmatic to syntagmatic, the other vertical from categorical to critical. The grid provides four registers of intellectual activity: paradigmatic-categorical, categorical-syntagmatic, syntagmatic-critical, critical-paradigmatic. The contrast paradigmatic/syntagmatic is between, on the one hand, intransitive, self-referent, declaratory thinking such as mathematics, myth, music or other art forms and linguistic syntax; and on the other hand, transitive, other-referent descriptive thinking in theories and hypotheses, as may be found in science, scholarship, theology and metaphysics. The contrast categorical/critical is between prior, first-order thinking, whether about paradigms or syntagmata, and posterior, second-order thinking, whether in the intransitive arts or in the transitive sciences. The degree of complexity, or intellectual depth, may be measured by the number of registers in which intellectual activity is taking place, while the degree of pluralism may be measured by the number of alternatives within each register.”4
This nicely exemplifies the problem Adshead’s book gives me. I don’t feel that this structure is anywhere near justified by its references: mathematics would jump categories the minute one applied it, music that was meant to make money or was written to excite patriotism also doesn’t fit, scholarship surely exists in all these modes, and in any case is this really enough to contain the full range of human intellectual endeavour? But even if the answer is, ‘almost certainly not’, that doesn’t necessarily stop this being a framework that one can, with a certain amount of forcing, fit over most societies. So does that actually do any good? If one could somehow patch the terms of reference, would it be better, or do we just run up against the fact that outside categories don’t always work when drawn into a foreign context? Does it help, for example, to say that the British Empire in the nineteenth century had a much more active land market per capita than the Maori of New Zealand when in-depth work suggests that that Maori did not consider land to be alienable, and so disposed of it on utterly different terms?5 One can certainly make the comparison, but is it not effectively to penalise the Maori in the balance for not playing the Western game?
In Adshead’s case, of course, the aim is to show T’ang China ahead in all scales, and so the terms of reference are ones in which it excels: indirect taxes, bureaucracy, management of resources, variety of marriage forms, religious and cosmological plurality and philosophical competition. I suspect that one could, if one did not accept these terms, come up with a set that favoured Byzantium or Islam just as heavily and that could just as easily be assumed to be good—citizen military involvement, governmental centralisation, religious unity and coherence of intellectual culture, for example—and thus find China seriously wrongheaded in its priorities. India tends to lose out on all Adshead’s scales of achievement, and that reminds me of an Internet conversation I saw once in which one westerner was being horrified at poverty in India: they said something like, “India’s population has multiplied by five in the last fifty years and the percentage of people in poverty hasn’t changed a bit!” To which, someone else said, “So they’ve multiplied the number of people using their resources five-fold and still managed to maintain the level of wealth in the economy? Sounds like a success story to me!” The figures may be basically fictional but the terms of the assessment really do matter, you see… I think that Adshead’s initial attempt to compare T’ang China to the USA of 2004 shows where his categories are coming from, but that only increases the likelihood that some of the parties in this comparison would have rejected them. That rejection of a value set would still be historical, but if the conclusion is that T’ang China being better at these things made it the most significant world power of the early Middle Ages, quite apart from the difficulty already pointed out of whether or not anywhere was a world power in so weakly-connected a world, since they did not really affect each other, we really have slid very smoothly from data to value judgement without clearly justifying the values (except by their use in showing Frank’s rival book wrong).
Again, however, there lurks within this the possibility still that a comparative exercise done like this, with maybe different terms of reference and maybe even three-axis comparisons in some spheres, might actually enable truly global comparison. It’s quite hard to tell with Adshead’s attempt what the potential of the method really us, however, because the data he uses outside China is so shaky. His range of references for the Latin West is quite broad, but with Islam there is a great deal of early Patricia Crone in the very occasional references, including some stuff that I think she might now modify, and the only cite for India is John Keay’s India: a history, and that only for the political section; for the others there is just nothing to show whence the dismissal of India’s success comes from.6 (I have no particular interest in championing India here, I should say, it’s just very clearly got the worst of Adshead’s attention.) The Latin West is pretty well favoured; there’s a range of serious and detailed works, often quite modern, in several languages, and while I personally cringe somewhat at seeing Richard Fletcher’s book on Anglo-Saxon feud used as a cite for information on the size of York in the year 1000, at least he had read it. One might expect at least that much attention to all the areas compared, though!
The treatment of Byzantium gives me a mean suspicion of what might be going in both here and in the far-better-covered China, however. The political cite of reference for the Byzantine Empire is that very old chestnut, Dimitri Obolensky’s The Byzantine Commonwealth, which will make some readers groan I know; why doesn’t Adshead at least use a more up-to-date textbook like Treadgold’s A Concise History of Byzantium or something more analytical like a Cambridge History or two? (The ones for China do turn up.) And the answer is that elsewhere he does, Treadgold at least, but not for the politics, where he has a particular view about the stasis of Byzantine political theory, of course compared unfavourably to a supposed Chinese reconception of government in new circumstances, that Treadgold would not allow him to support.7 The same thing is probably going on with the cites of Crone’s old work, I guess; times may have moved on but that would ruin the argument… And this is all very well for the power of the argument but of course in historical terms, or rather computing ones, it’s garbage in, garbage out; the comparison can’t be valid if it’s founded on information selected especially to make the comparison work, rather than an earnest attempt to find out the scholarly consensus on an issue.
So at the end of this I am very undecided about this book. I am certain that I don’t want to accept the premise that T’ang China was briefly a leading world power, in any of these measures, but I don’t know whether to accept the assessment of it by those measures; I am also certain that the comparison has not been fairly managed, but feel that a comparison by means like this could still be a way of making global-scale comnparison actually dig into something of meaning. Could we use these tools to build something better? I wonder…
1. The most developed example of this I know is Joseph R. Strayer, “The Tokugawa Period and Japanese Feudalism” in John W. Hall and Marius Jansen (edd.), Studies in the Institutional History of Modern Japan (Princeton 1968), pp. 3-14, repr. in Strayer, Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History (Princeton 1971), pp. 63-89, to which cf. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, online here, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and indeed Susan Reynolds, “The Use of Feudalism in Comparative History” in Benjamin Z. Kedar (ed.), Explorations in Comparative History (Jerusalem 2009), pp. 191-219, repr. in Reynolds, The Middle Ages without feudalism: essays in criticism and comparison on the Medieval West, Variorum Collected Studies 1019 (Farnham 2012), VI.
2. As ever my go-to statement of the requirements that comparative history must meet is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.
3. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004).
4. Ibid. p. 131. His note references Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’Homme Nu, Mythologies IV (Paris 1971), pp. 575-586, which is perhaps where I should really be looking for his tools…
5. The place I actually read all this, apart from the great old internet of course, is Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington 1987), so I hope it’s credible.
6. John Keay, India: a History (London 2000), cit. Adshead, T’ang China p. 55 n. 14. There is simply nothing else cited for India in the later comparative sections, and no other works relating to it visible to me in the Bibliography.
7. D. Obolensky, The Byzantine commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (New York City 1971), cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 60 n. 22, vs W. T. Treadgold, A Concise History of Byzantium (London 2001), published by Adshead’s own publishers and cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 96 n. 37. I suppose it’s only fair to admit that the Cambridge History of Byzantium did not actually yet exist when Adshead wrote; it is now Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of Byzantium (Cambridge 2007) and is really useful. But the field had not stood still until its emergence!