Defining the Global Middle Ages Report on workshop 2: Periodisation[Birmingham, 19-20 January 2013]

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Defining the Global Middle Ages

Report on workshop 2: Periodisation[Birmingham, 19-20 January 2013]

AHRC Research Network ‘Defining the global Middle Ages’

Report on Workshop 2 – Periodisation

University of Birmingham, 19-20 January 2013

Caroline Dodds Pennock had identified an online programme called Preceden on which a number of participants had added elements towards a timeline:, and which we had on-screen at times for a while during the workshop. We did not refer directly to it but the entries were further illustration of the issue of parallel periodisations that was raised more than once during the sessions.

Session 1: Beginnings and Endings (chair: Catherine Holmes)
We heard presentations from Alan Strathern, Scott Ashley (standing in for Sergei Bogatyrev at short notice) and Glen Dudbridge. At the heart of this session was the question of how to distinguish a ‘Global Middle Ages’ from what came afterwards and (to a lesser extent) what came before; a consideration that forced us to question whether any such ‘before’ and ‘after’ distinctions made any sense at all, and, if they did, whether they did so merely in a Eurasian context or could be applied over a wider geographical canvas. Should we seek to identify a single Global Middle Ages which was distinct from other periods, or should we instead be pluralising our period into more finely-cut and overlapping segments, and be more sensitive to the idea of gradual globalising (and de-globalising?) steps?

AS and SA both spoke to an interrelated set of broad conceptual questions set within wide historiographical frameworks, and the main ideas from their presentations are woven together here. SA noted that the search for beginnings and ends can be both trivial (if we focus on dates alone) and grand (if we seek to impose some sense of grand narrative and pattern). AS noted the tendency by historians of the emergent field of early modernity to argue for a first truly global world emerging in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, characterised by the spread and strength of connections (Bentley and Subramanyam). Perhaps, in contrast, a Global Middle Ages was essentially less connected, in the sense that direct links between far flung regions such as China and western Europe were almost non-existent. If this was so, should the GMA by definition be more about looking for useful comparisons rather than seeking to uncover connections? SA saw virtue in comparative approaches (e.g. R.I. Moore) and also in connections, but suggested that we might want to view connectivity by adopting new approaches that might then redraw period boundaries. For instance, might we think about how different parts of the world ‘brush against’ each other rather than in terms of intensifying connection? Could we think less about a big bang of greater contact across the Atlantic during the fifteenth century and more about an earlier northern Atlantic system gradually giving way to a south Atlantic one? More radically, should we give airtime to ideas of ‘big time’ periodisation (e.g. Alfred Crosby, Jared Diamond, David Christian)? To do so would break down distinctions between antiquity, medieval and early modern and, as Newcastle colleagues are increasingly apt to do, we would think about the Middle Ages as the end phase of a much longer period that was characterised by large scale agrarian empires in Eurasia, which had emerged in the Neolithic and only ended when Eurasians reached out beyond Eurasia.

While this ‘big time’ idea was largely thought to be too huge to make a useful explanatory framework, it did harmonise with AS’s suggestion that Goldstone’s critique of traditional interpretations of early modernity, and his suggestions that we think about ‘advanced organic societies’, might help us to break down the antiquity / medieval / early modern model and lead us towards a ‘pre-modern’ characterisation. If so, then we might find guidance by returning to Victor Lieberman’s work on pre-modern societies in comparative context. Above all, as SA put it, going global can help to relativise what may seem to specialists like obvious periodisations, and may make us more sensitive to the fact that very early processes usually considered typical of and confined to one age may still be playing out at a much later date.

AS acknowledged the ‘checklist’ dimension to early modernists’ definition of what was global, but was happy to live with this while accepting that many checklist items (identified by Bentley in JWH 1988) were present in earlier societies too. Our guest expert Nile Green, himself an early modernist, felt we should beware of allowing discussions of early modernity to dominate how we interpreted and approached a Global Middle Ages. Rather than seeking a negative checklist (i.e. the GMA is whatever early modernity is not) we should be confident about identifying more positive and substantial elements as key characteristics of the global medieval, and he suggested that here the project’s emphasis on material culture could be of particular use.

AS also made brief reference to some salient features of the Axial Age, suggesting that at least in Eurasia the emergence of monotheistic religions opened up interesting comparative ground in the context of ‘immanence’, especially in relation to topics such as relics and saints’ cults.

Glen Dudbridge switched the focus from the conceptual to the specific: connections between China, Japan, Korea (and northern India) in the seventh to ninth centuries (the Tang dynasty to a Sinologist). Glen offered us a striking metaphor for how we could conceive of global connectivity in the Middle Ages: as a jellyfish pulsing through waters taking on new nutrients which traced through its system to reach remote extremes and leave long term residues (which chimed with SA’s point about structures and processes playing out beyond traditional periodisations). Here China was the jellyfish taking on nutrients from central Asia and northern India and using them in its own court ceremonial; these were then absorbed and localised by societies in Japan and Korea via China. For GD this was not diffusion so much as focused and self-controlled activity by the Chinese, who sought to stimulate and enable emulation rather than to impose. GD used the example of court music, of which the residues may be observed today on YouTube! In discussion, Jonathan Shepard drew on GD’s jellyfish analogy to talk of ‘spurts’, in which political and cultural elites borrowed selectively and helped to circulate common values, and ‘trickles’ or ‘sideways effects’, where less centralised entities (such as the Viking diaspora), could generate change and development.

In terms of whether we should see GMA communities as gradually linking up (and de-linking?) in a series of phased steps, GD described a phase when Korea and Japan connected through China into a set of links stretching to the Red Sea. Discussion of how to periodise within any global medieval period included Monica White’s suggestion that we attend to how contemporaries periodised themselves, especially through marking key transitions and transformations (recalling Caroline Dodds Pennock on foregrounding Aztec conceptions of time changes how we see American experience of the encounter with Europeans). And Hilde de Weerdt suggested that structure, events and contemporary conceptions should be brought into conversation, which might allow reconciliation between SA’s ‘grand’ and ‘trivial’ distinction. Placing contemporary conception at the heart of our discussion could allow us to escape from key dates such as 1492, the significance of which may be overstated, especially to contemporaries. Sensitivity to contemporaries’ views may also enable new key dates or processes to emerge, especially if we can detect resonances across cultures, which, as Kent Deng suggested, might be in the form of shared expressions and responses rather than physical connections.

Perhaps the most stimulating and promising positive distinction from this session was ‘germinative connectivity’, which is substantial enough to spread ideas / resources / peoples but also allows for isolation, localisation and accommodation.

International expert: Nile Green [UCLA] (chair: Naomi Standen)
Nile Green set out a range of ways of understanding temporality. He set up the problem by noting the ‘disaggregation of times’, associated with Area Studies, that means that each region has its own periodisation. For this reason the idea of an early modern checklist was quite radical for South Asianists, for whom 1750 was still had until recently been considered to be medieval history. But that makes a problem out of the standard world time of early modernity, because we then have to ask whether everybody does actually share this. What about Africa? What about anyone outside the Indian Ocean contact zone? Not to mention Australasia. These places just do not fit the checklist which, furthermore, is exclusive. Are we dealing with states? Or societies? Or pluralities within them? He thus offered a warning: there is no reason for those interested in the GMA to seek to emulate such an approach because it is not actually that effective for the early modern period. At the same time, it is curious that scholars itch to get the societies they study into the ‘early modern club’ and seek to leave behind that which is ‘medieval’.

Alternatively, we could consider contemporary cultures or orderings of time, which in some cases might have been enforced as regimes of time. It would be possible to write a history of time concepts ‘before the checklist’. These would inherently be plural, subjective, and yet also collective. It would shift the focus of global history from economies to mentalities. Islamic time – hijra dating – could be one of these orderings, but as SA noted in Session 1, calendrical time is too simplistic. Qu‘ranic time, that is, concepts of time in scripture, might be a more effective approach. A third option is genealogical time, in which groups were slotted into scriptural genealogies, for instance, the Saraceni (Arabs) were the children of Sarah. This example suggests how notions of time may become a way of seeing others as well as one’s selves. Evidently time orderings – and times – are social creations. They overlap, come and go, succeed and fail, compete. And they become part of the history we are examining.

The danger is that we may be left with chaos, but NG suggested that considering contact between temporalities could provide a framework, if historians are able to navigate these interactions. As an example of an area of contact he cited the widespread importance of astronomy / astrology to pre-modern groups. Some of these ideas, he noted, were already offered by al-Biruni, perhaps unwittingly laying the groundwork for global history writing along with writers of ‘world history’ like Juvaini.

In discussion, Chris Wickham wondered whether emphasising astronomical / astrological time was another way of shifting the pre-modern from cyclical into linear time, while AS wondered why modernity is assumed to be desirable. NG noted that in the absence of a checklist anyone could be medieval, and wondered whether we wanted a medieval checklist that might include, for instance, looking backwards (although there were also expectations of the end of the world) – but does not that simply return us to a contrast with the early modern as an age of looking forward?

Session 2: Shifts and Transitions (chair: Scott Ashley)
The two papers in this session offered two approaches to periodisation, which opened up some fruitful areas of discussion for Eurasia. John Watts took a textual approach, with a critique of Jack Goody’s Renaissances: The One or the Many? (2009). Goody’s attempt to relativise and historicise the European notion of the Italian Renaissance as the foundation of modernity and western hegemony, to situate it as a crucial marker between periods, met with forthright criticism. JW found the argument of the book highly subjective, with no sustained discussion of the links between cultural movements and social contexts, with little sense of chronological change or development and bound unproductively to traditional notions of the ‘medieval’, defined by Goody as one of stasis, collapse and irrationality. Overall, JW found the book to be based upon unhistorical and untested tropes (or clichés, depending on taste) of static religion, sacred versus secular, cultural ‘flowering’, ‘golden ages’ and ‘backwardness’.

JW drew a number of general conclusions from his critical reading of Goody. One, that conventional European periods, such as the ‘Renaissance’ and ‘medieval’ do notn’t travel well into other cultures, such as China, Islam or India. Comparative studies such as Goody’s can lead to an unproductive search for elements from the European experience in other cultures, when the realities are much more complex. Two, that these conventional periodisations must be recognised as problematical and contested even within their ‘home’ historiography. If what is meant by renaissance is argued over by European historians, then it cannot be easily compared with parallel movements elsewhere in space and time. Three, that as an alternative it should be possible to synthesize new theories from bottom-up, evidence-based studies, which are then compared around specific issues, instead of through the use of overly general categories.

The second paper by Susan Whitfield looked at periodisation for central Asia. She also picked up on the theme of the relationship between more general classifications of period and the need for specific studies. She argued that periodisation is always necessary in some form as it is a way to create order from the messiness of the past. But she also warned of the dangers of nominalism, of something becoming real simply because it is labelled and named. She developed this idea in relation to the Silk Roads, originally a nineteenth-century notion picked up by historians in the latter decades of the twentieth century as a way of incorporating China into global history, via narratives of long-distance trade or of cross-cultural encounters. Despite the success of the Silk Roads in finding a niche in modern Eurasian historiography, SW critiqued the concept in a number of ways. These ‘Silk Road narratives’ often leave out central Asia and India, being primarily concerned with the eastern and western ends of the routes. That concern with the Europe / Mediterranean–China route also tends to downplay the importance of a north–south axis of connection running through central Asia. Important centres along the so-called Silk Roads, such as the oases of the Taklamakan including Khotan, need much more study to see how they would fit into the ‘Silk Road narratives’ and into comparative work on a global middle ages. Whitfield concluded by arguing for a more thorough engagement with the concept of periodisation by historians and archaeologists of central Asia in general.

Discussion flowed around the need to make periods more complex and wide-ranging than the overly simplistic stories, whether of ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Silk Roads’, that are often told about them. The point was made that central Asia should not be defined by the fact that people crossed it on particular occasions, but rather by the significant historical developments that occurred there. For future thought and research, two points came through. One, there is a need to pin down crucial and genuinely transformative shifts between periods, over what might be termed ‘motion’, the regular changes that all societies experience. Two, there must be, despite JW’s critiques of Goody, some possibility of grand comparison of processes such as secularisation or state-formation and collapse. It is part of the ‘Global Middle Ages’ project to build on these important insights.

Session 3: Blanks and Gaps (chair: Simon Yarrow)
Naomi Standen began by raising a central question to be applied to the medieval history of China – blanks and gaps in what? This was addressed with reference to three themes: (i) missing things, (ii) parallel periods, and (iii) literacy and illiteracy.

First, ‘missing things’ referred to broad gaps in periodisation, with certain transitional phases in China’s history being relegated relative to others that more conveniently fitted official historiography. In the case of the Song-Yuan-Ming period for instance, the Yuan period is relatively neglected. One of the most conspicuous effects of this neglect is the total lack of explanation offered for the geographical shift of political centre from north to south during this period. It is simply assumed, hardly explained, and hence an important gap that needs attention.

A second set of gaps in Chinese historiography fall within what NS referred to as ‘parallel periods’. There are certain political units such as the nomadic empires, the inner kingdoms of central Asia (as also mentioned by SW), or Srivijaya, that have been ignored or marginalised for their unclear, awkward (or perhaps overschematized and so static, as in the nomadic case) relationships with political institutions (‘Han Chinese’ dynastic history) whose continuity dominates the way historians do periodisation. More attention to these ‘marginal’ entities would open the subject up to new layered and overlapping schemes of periodisation in parallel with the more familiar dynastic scheme. Specifically, NS recommended greater study of the evidence for Srivijaya shipping activities and technologies across the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Seas and its use as a ‘new periodising device’.

NS noted the work of Jonathan Skaff on new ways of understanding the doing of politics. There are gaps in our record of political agency because we are notn’t noticing how political agencies are being ‘spun’ in official records – so for example the question of ‘tribute’ as a means of conceptualising the relative statuses of political entities as always in relation to ‘China’ obscures an alternative view of political players participating in less one-sided systems of exchange that not only linked imperial China to the rest of the world but also those other players to each other. In this alternative view ‘China’ was not always the dominant party.

Finally, NS drew our attention to the mistake often made of associating literacy with a linear and evolutionary notion of history, in which nomadic illiterates overrun imperial China and learn how to govern it through the adoption of existing literate infrastructures. In fact, nomads picked up and dropped literacy as it suited them in different historical contexts of governance, and so the gaps in our knowledge here are the contexts against which we need to see nomads making these kinds of decisions, and following different kinds of literate and non-literate (or points of course on a scale between these polarities) practices of power;. wWhich raises the final question of whether and how, if literacy need not be, as a rule, prior to empire, nomadic empires exercised imperial power.

Mark Whittow treated us to an autobiographical survey of his growing awareness from childhood of the worlds out there beyond that area for him of chief interest, the Byzantine world. He noticed that in 935 the Byzantine Emperor sent an embassy laden with gifts to Hugh of Arles, king of Italy, among which was included 45 men from Ferghana, a city on the northern Silk Road. This led MW to cast his eye eastward beyond the Black Sea toward the territories and entrepots of the Silk Road, following the footsteps of Obolensky and Lattimore all the way across central Asia eventually to the gates of Chang’an. The gap he evokes in these recollections is that imaginative gap, or set of gaps that the historian makes for herself in the remnants discarded after choosing how to link certain subjects with others.

He uses for an example that of America, and asks how we might include it in any model of the GMA we might care to create. Would El Niño events, for instance, increasingly draw historians’ imaginative attentions to the link here between west and further west? In final reflection, MW suggests that if we cannot rely on environmental history to rescue America from isolation, and if we have decided that Marx (here alluding to Marx prompted by what he notes as the eccentricity of its inclusion on the reading list) is not a useful guide to the same goal, then should we not just happily settle for the links that arise out of personal, empirical engagements with our sources?

Session 4: Contemporary Notions of Periodisation (chair: John Watts)
The session began with three presentations. Hilde de Weerdt talked about ways of structuring time in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Song China. Noting that there had been surprisingly little attention to periodisation in China (as distinct from discussion of notions of time and history), she discussed the pervasive tradition of locating events within a temporal framework set by reigns and dynasties. Using ‘policy essay’ exams from the 1240s, she showed how chronologies were becoming more sophisticated in the thirteenth century, and that their meaning was enhanced by aligning them with authoritative geographies and cosmologies (so that dynasties became associated with particular constellations and/or with collections of territories and/or landmarks, which were typically listed, or mapped, alongside names of rulers in the many tabular representations of ruling dynasties which circulated in China). She concluded by observing that readers and owners of chronologies appropriated and adapted them for their own local purposes: this assisted the reproduction and legitimation of the imperial ordering of time and space but also made it available for other uses.

Simon Yarrow took a different tack, considering the implications of periodising as an activity with unavoidably political, and often presentist, implications. At the same time, he noted the feeble hold exerted by modern notions of periodisation and reminded us that we cannot assume that past periodisations exerted any more influence over society. He ended by urging the group to think about the ‘chronographical aims’ of the people(s) we study.

Amanda Power set out from the perspective of thirteenth-century Europe, noting that its intellectual culture was highly receptive to other peoples’ science, which was assumed to reflect the wisdom of God, albeit refracted through pagan ignorance. Western scholars deployed, and often mixed, a number of different models of time – biblical / providential; apocalyptic / eschatological (distinct from the first because less extensively documented in scriptural and patristic sources); notions of a past golden age, whether Christian or classical; cyclical theories. Like HdW’s Chinese examples, scholars were beginning to combine these with geography by the thirteenth century (the example of the c. 1300 Mappa Mundi, with its historic Eden and its proleptic depiction of Gog and Magog, who would one day end the world, was mentioned). AP agreed with SY that periodisations played a part in legitimising those who constructed and reproduced them, but added that a difference between modern and medieval periodisations was that the latter were typically connected to large cosmological systems, whereas ours are not.

Various threads were taken up in discussion. There was particular consideration of the relationship between, as it were, social / experiential perceptions of time and authoritative ones. GD drew attention to the strongly backward-looking and literary emphasis of Chinese chronologies: the significance of the modern was dwarfed by the mythic power and meaning of ancient events, which were embedded in literature. But HdW pointed out that markings in privately-owned chronologies suggested that the deep past was relatively neglected by readers, whose attention was focused instead on the recent past of their own localities and families. Caroline Dodds Pennock drew attention to the significance of measures of time that had heuristic value for the people who adopted them, and suggested that this factor may often have been more important than notions of authority.

NG pointed out that a distinctive factor of the ‘medieval’ world (wherever we look) was the multiplicity of time-systems available to contemporaries, whereas modern society measures both present and historical time in a much more limited set of ways.

There was some discussion of whether or not we should worry about using the term ‘medieval’, given its historiographical baggage. Some felt it was unavoidable, and harmless within our group, given that none of us was using it to imply / assume that other parts of the globe shared the particular characteristics of medieval Europe at the same time. Others were conscious that the term has been very deliberately rejected by prominent practitioners of pre-modern global history.

Conclusions: links backwards and forwards to other network workshops
Questions which have arisen in previous workshops, above all to do with the value of comparison over connection and the relationship between those two approaches, came up again (esp. in Session 1 on beginings and endings). In thinking about the shape and dynamism of connections those participating in the workshop were in many ways also looking ahead to our next event, which will be on networks. It was striking that considerable explicit reference was also made to historiography in this session, including specific items and approaches which have come up in the Oxford 2012 workshop and at the earlier pilot event in 2011. A sense of growing continuity across workshops was also provided by SA’s injunction that we should keep a close eye on a key question which frames the whole of this ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’ project: What exactly does taking a global approach add? In this case what does ‘going global’ add to understandings of ‘periodisation’, a methodological concern with which we may be familiar as regional specialists but which we are used to treating within far more restricted frames of reference.

During the day discussion returned periodically to the jellyfish metaphor and its elaborations were thought to be attractive, but did not all necessarily receive universal approval. Nonetheless, given our group’s enthusiasm for pursuing ‘power’ in global contexts (see Session 1 on empire in the Oxford 2012 workshop), the potential that this jellyfish analogy has for characterising relationships between medieval polities across the globe may mean that we are on our way to identifying the kind of striking characteristic that NG suggested we should be looking for in sketching out the contours of a distinctive GMA. For Catherine Holmes the appeal of the metaphor is that it may allow us to make room for traditional imperial entities (such as China, Byzantium, the Abbasid Caliphate etc) which Victor Lieberman’s charter polity model does not accommodate so easily despite its utility in so many other ways.

The ‘glocal’ dimension to germinative connectivity (that allows for both spreading and local phenomena) linked in striking ways to our discussion about the tension and relationships between the local and the long-distant in the resources session of the Oxford 2012 workshop, and to similar suggestions that were at forefront of our project proposal to the AHRC. If we were to attempt to address the global by means of the local this should allow us to work with the detail and nuance of our individual case studies, and to take account of debates internal to each of our fields that affect the narratives available to global historians (and other non-experts) for the purposes of comparison. At the same time, AS reminded us that we must be open to generalisations and broad-brush approaches even if these gloss over some of the complexities of our individual specialities. The trick will be to marry the two scales together, which is a goal of our forthcoming workshop on networks at Newcastle in September 2013.

Compiled by Naomi Standen from individual chairs’ reports (

21 May 2013)

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