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.

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