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Before European Hegemony, by Janet Abu-Lughod.

May 1, 2013

Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. By Janet Abu-Lughod.  Oxford University Press, USA (1991), Paperback, 464 pages

 A wonderful, mind-changing history offering a well-researched alternative to assumptions about Europe’s rise to world dominance.  We see the vast trading network that developed throughout Eurasia which Europe joined late, and learned to imitate, and eventually came to dominate.

Janet Abu-Lughod offers a convincing challenge to the widely-accepted theory that Europe’s rise to world dominance was because it was inherently smarter and more capitalistic than anywhere else.  With her careful, systematic scholarship, she offers detail after detail about parts of Eurasia that I had considered remote, but in fact had once contained world-class cities with highly developed technology and trade.  She traces the growth of the Eurasian network that brought prosperity to the elites in the cities along its routes, cities with a wide variety of political, economic, and religious practices.  The same network that brought riches, however, left the cities dependent on the well-being of all its component parts.  When the network declined, Europeans, who had been latecomers to the network, moved into the vacuum and began their growth toward global domination.

Abu-Lughod’s book is a classic world history, re-arranging how we think about our world.   Having read it, I will always think of distant places differently, not as vague locations where the USA has become involved, but as centers having their own unique histories of past power.  As an overview, the book brings together the vast scholarship by a wide variety of specialists.   Focusing on trade, it considers economic and political developments in eight, somewhat overlapping, geographical and cultural subsystems. These include (1) Europe, (2) the Mediterranean and southern Europe, (3) the Mongol conquest across northern Eurasia (4) Egypt (5) the Middle East (6) India, (7) Southeast Asia, and (8) China.  She excludes the parts of the world which were not yet linked into the trade network such as the Western Hemisphere, Australian, and most of Africa.13thcenttrade

Each subsection is the focus of a chapter in which Abu-Lughod presents the concrete details of a few of its major cities engaging in international trade.  In her view, the trade network which peaked around 1300 depended on this “archipelago of cities.”  For each city, she considers factors like its history, its economic foundation, its political structure, its technological level, its religion and its attitude about trade.  Her attention to details supports her point that the cities varied extensively in what they contributed to the network, as well as in their political and economic organization.

Reading these chapters gave me my first real understanding of how the world beyond the European/American axis has changed over the centuries. As I read I composed my own timeline to keep track of what major events were happening simultaneously.  I came away from this book feeling as if I have just had a crash course in the histories of the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and China, as well as grasping for the first time how they were connected in the period before European expansion.

Although one of Abu-Lughod’s major points is that Europe lagged behind others in the network, she starts her story with a discussion of its medieval fairs and textile manufacturing.  This was more familiar territory for me, and probably other readers. Starting there helped me see how other regions were more developed.  Italian merchants attended these fairs, bringing goods they had obtained trading around the Mediterranean Sea.  The Crusades encouraged more European demand for eastern goods, both those from the Middle East and those arriving over longer distances.  Then Abu-Lughod discusses how the Mongol Empire brought easier traveling conditions along the Silk Road from China to the Black Sea.  She traces the various Islamic Empires and the rise and fall of their leading cities of Baghdad and Cairo.  Turning to the southern sea routes, she describes the ports of India’s western and eastern coasts and the critical straits near today’s Singapore.  Here she identifies the impact that annual monsoons had on trade and the need for merchants to lay over in port cities and to establish colonies of their own nationality there—effectively exchanging ideas and techniques with others.  Finally, she outlines changes in China itself with the Mongol conquest of the country and their later replacement by the Ming Dynasty.

Just as Abu-Lughod’s trade network of the known world reached its high point, however, problems in cities along its path caused it to flounder, allowing Europeans to enter the vacuum.  One of the major problems was the Black Death which passed along the trade network and devastated some cities. Then Portuguese and other Europeans arrived ready to plunder and use violence to upset the overall balance between essentially equal partners that had existed within the network.  By the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Europe was turning her attention west and establishing dominance in the Atlantic World.  The vast wealth that Europe amassed in the New World would lead to the ability to return and colonize eastern regions.

Abu-Lughod is a respected scholar and her book is a classic.  Even if her interpretation is challenged in its specifics, the shape of the story she tells needs to be better known.   She has organized a vast amount of information in an orderly fashion that is highly accessible to all readers, even those like me who know little of the names and places she includes.  Her maps are wonderfully clear and helpful.  She explains the methodological difficulties of her research, such as the incompatibility of records and statistics.  Her discussion of how she balances the various biases of her sources is a lesson in how historians need to operate.

I heartily recommend Before European Hegemony to all readers interested in thinking about the world in non-Eurocentric ways.  This book has also has important relevance as we today live in our own globalized trading networks.

One Comment leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    May 1, 2013 5:15 pm

    This sounds like one I’d really enjoy! Have you read Charles C. Mann’s 1491 and 1493? I think those are two YOU would really enjoy 🙂

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