Review of “Before European Hegemony”

Cover of "Before European Hegemony"Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Amazon link), tells the story of globalization before globalization, of a system of international trade that predated industrial capitalism, centered on the Indian Ocean, and in which Europe was at the periphery and the Americas were unknown. Rather than writing a tightly-focused study of a specific historical circumstance, Abu-Lughod takes the ambitious approach of studying the economic history of all of Eurasia over (title notwithstanding) several centuries.  While flawed in some respects, it is a worthwhile and interesting read.

It is, however, a challenging book for the student of history. Written as a sociological text with an historical focus, it lacks rigor in its citations, which unfortunately has the effect of making the book fascinating but suspect. The standard for citations she uses makes it difficult to trace her sources: she occasionally uses an inline notation indicating an author, year of publication, and page range, which the reader must cross-reference with the bibliography. Quite often, though, no citation is given for some of her claims. This would not be so bad if Abu-Lughod were completely reliable, but some of her unsourced claims are either extraordinary and suspicious (e.g., that Muslim navigators from the Middle East may have visited the Americas) or flatly mistaken (e.g., that the Battle of the Golden Spurs was fought between the French and an English invasion force aided by local militias of Flemish commoners), leaving the reader with a sinking sense of uncertainty.

But in fairness, these unsourced claims are mostly parenthetical, or marginal to the overall point. When Abu-Lughod carefully quotes and cites her sources, and writes about the central focus of her analysis, her book can both inform and amaze; she frequently goes into impressive detail and makes thought-provoking connections and comparisons. Abu-Lughod describes what she calls a “world system,” an integrated system of trade and cultural exchange that connected almost all the major societies of Eurasia in the high middle ages, as an analog to the modern Eurocentric world system created by European colonialism and capitalism. Her narrative focuses on a series of cities from Europe, to Central Asia, through the Middle East, along the Indian Ocean, and terminating in China, all of which participated in this exchange and were (directly or indirectly) connected with each other. While this leaves a lot of ground uncovered (for example, little is said about Africa, Japan, or northeastern Europe, not to mention cities nearby to her foci), a truly comprehensive study could probably take up many volumes. The sketch she outlines is detailed enough to make her point.

Several fascinating examples stand out. In medieval Europe, there was an echo to modern concerns about the fraternity of government and corporate power. The Champagne Fairs in France, a meeting ground for trade between Italian merchants and Flemish weavers, grew in a propertarian and “business friendly” environment, of safe travel and enforcement of contracts, provided by local feudal lords. Once trade became regular, local textile producers sprang up to take advantage of the market. It wasn’t long before they grew rich and petitioned to the lords for a local monopoly on production, which they got. In Italy, there was an even stranger example of this phenomenon. The city-states of Venice and Genoa could be fairly described as “corporate states.” They funded themselves by loans, sometimes obligatory, from their citizens, who could expect a return on this investment: citizens effectively bought shares in their government. The mercantile activities of the city-states were so vital to their continued existence that it is difficult to tell where state began and private enterprise ended; the navy and the merchant marine were the same institution, and foreign policy and even war were executed as a part of calculated business ventures.

Abu-Lughod’s specialty seems to be in urban history and the Middle East, and so her exploration of medieval Cairo is especially detailed. The very nature of the Mamluk Sultanate is a puzzler to conventional understandings of economics, politics, and society. It was a kingdom defended by slave armies and administered by slave bureaucrats, in which the ruling class comprised such slaves after manumission and promotion. This ruling class of former slaves was entirely of foreign stock, and perpetuated its existence by purchasing and training the next generation of slaves, captured abroad. It funded itself through both feudal agrarian production and state capitalist investments into textile and confectionery production, and for a time was the home to a prosperous and adventurous merchant class. The merchants of Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities kept the Islamic World in close contact with India and the Far East, as part of the Indian Ocean trading system, or made use of the land route over Central Asia to China, a route kept safe and regular by the Mongol Empire.

It is in her description of East Asia that Abu-Lughod makes her case the strongest. The lines of trade which she traces over the Indian Ocean between the Middle East, India, the islands of Indonesia, and China, reveal a world that was busy and prosperous and interconnected well before the intrusion of European powers; this world was not a passive recipient of European expansion. Her description of China’s wealth, commercial reach, and technological advancement hint at an entirely different world that might have been, if not for the overall collapse of the system in which China was enmeshed, a collapse which affected all the participants in the system in varying, but always negative, ways. The Black Death and the collapse of the Pax Mongolica which secured overland trade in Asia lead to the fraying and severing of previously strong ties, and created a power vacuum into which Europe, a formerly peripheral player, could expand.

The central thesis of the book is a refutation of any Eurocentric conceptions of world history, those which hinge on the superiority or inferiority of specific regions and cultures as explanations for Europe’s rise, from 1500 to the present. While this is not a shocking idea anymore, in 1989, when the book was first published, it may have had a much stronger impact. But the arguments Abu-Lughod develops are still resonant. In her account, Europe filled an economic power vacuum, in near analogy to the vacuum created by World War 2 which gave America space to grow into the global hegemon it is today. In the high medieval world system, no internal policy or cultural characteristic is to blame for the fall of the constituent parts: the cultures involved were too varied for monocausal cultural explanations, and bad policy was often as much a symptom as a cause of local decline. In the final analysis, it was the very interconnection of the system, the web of trade that was its source of strength and purpose, which undid it. Total interconnection meant total interdependence, and as goes one sector, so go its dependent partners, in a sort of chain reaction. And lines of trade which carry goods can carry much else besides, most importantly the Black Death which figures so prominently in so many of the collapses Abu-Lughod describes. While her predictions about the future of our current world system seem quaintly dated, the general patterns she describes are still relevant in an interconnected and “flat” world wracked by resource scarcity, ideological and asymmetric war between the core and the periphery, and struggling from the ruins of a cascading financial meltdown and resultant economic depression.

Most distressing of all, however, might be a sort of meta-narrative implied although not explored. The idea of barbarians and civilization is a persistently lingering part of our understanding of history, stretching back to the historiography of Rome: its decadence, decline, fall, and conquest by invading “barbarian” groups. In modern times, it is popular to speak of a “clash of civilizations,” and we even have a new type of barbarian: the fanatical terrorist, sweeping in from the impoverished Muslim world, which is in today’s economic periphery, but was once the heartland of the world. Yet, in the focus of Abu-Lughod’s account, it’s hard to avoid the implication that at the end of the high middle ages, the barbarians at the gates, poised and ready for the civilized world to weaken and topple, eagerly plundering its riches once it did, were the forbears of those same nations which would justify its conquests and power in the name of civilization: their homeland was Europe, womb of the developed Western World of today.


2 thoughts on “Review of “Before European Hegemony”

  1. I think it might be more fruitful to see Abu-Lughod’s work as a kind of reworking and rethinking of this area’s history via the perspective of Fernand Braudel–who, although he did portray the inner workings of high medieval Europe as being very important to the ultimate world-dominance of those powers, also has a broader perspective that takes into account the internal economic and political structures of other areas fully.

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