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Whose Middle Ages?

16 September, 2004

Whose Middle Ages?

I was reading my newletter from the Medieval Academy and one of the articles really struck me. It struck me because i’ve been trying to articulate why I have serious doubts about World History as a substitute for Western Civ. The article (sorry — I think it’s only available in print) discussed an experiment in a World History course for grad students, team-taught by people who specialized in many different areas and focusing on cultural interaction. I admit that it sounded like everyone in the class found it enjoyable, and perhaps even fulfilling, but I wasn’t really convinced that it had been useful.

You see, I’ve always found the cross-cultural studies interesting, and have always brought up the ones that really fit into the storyline, if you will, for my Western Civ. classes. The problem for me is, how much connection is a connection? Does the fact that the Europeans are getting material goods from, say, Muslim traders who may have gotten the stuff from sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia mean that there’s a valid point of study in the connection between medieval Europe and Southeast Asia? I’m not so sure, if it’s mediated, even if it’s mediated by a somewhat ‘western’ culture. (I hope that last does not offend the Islamicists out there — I mean it only in that I tend to see at least the first 500 years of Islam as being more connected to the Mediterranean west and Rome’s successors — since it is also a successor, in many ways — more than a particularly non-western phenomenon).

Mediation aside, one of the things that I just can’t get my head around is periodization. It’s kind of a big thing in History; it’s one of the harder things for many students to understand, in the sense that periodization traditionally relies on a bundle of factors, not least (but really, not greatest) of which is chronology. When we speak of the Middle Ages, we are talking about the West. It’s the middle part — between the ancient and the modern. Heaven knows, we medievalists have enough of a problem trying to define them chronologically, and we continue to debate the whole Early MA (or is it Late Antiquity? or is late Antiquity a period of its own, followed by the Early MA?) – high MA — Late MA thing. But if World History is in some was a way of addressing or redressing the dominance of western culture, isn’t it problematic to define the period to be studied in terms of the West?

Say we all accept that the Middle Ages were from roughly 476 (unless late Antique is sepaate) to roughly 1400 on the continent and 1500 in England. For simplicity’s sake, pretend that England does’t rate the exception, or we’ll never move on. Is there any articular reason to think that this same period is valid for Medieval Africa? Is there such a thing as Medieval Africa? It’s a pretty big place, with more than a few different peoples, religions, governmental systems, etc. Do Africanists see Africa as a single (if having manifold variations) culture in the way that Europeanists see Europe or Western Civ people see the west? I honestly don’t know, but I’m not sure why they should. The same is true for Asianists: despite various clear cross-cultural influences via conquest, trade, or travel between China, Korea, and Japan or between India and Southeast Asia, or the Steppes and pretty much anywhere those Khans could get to, do area specialists see any truly valid reason for studying the World in the MA that doesn’t include the MA having been defined in the traditional, West-based manner?

I mean, just thinking about Japan and China, I suppose one might say that Japan’s Middle Ages could range from the 1100s (by Western reckoning) to 1868. Maybe. In which case, would we say that Japan missed out on the Early Modern period? Was Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate Medieval (there’s that whole ‘F’-word thing and all) or Early Modern? After all, Reformation and Counter-reformation Christianity, mostly the latter, hit Japan at about that time, and Europeans did bring in firearms, which are more Early Modern and Modern than Medieval. What about China? Are the Mongols Medieval nomadic conquering tribesmen? What about the Ming? If we measure periods by any standards other than time, the dates cannot hold across the cultures.

I don’t really have anything more than questions at this point, so I’m open to suggestions. A World Middle Ages class just seems to me to be a pretty artificial and problematic construct at best, and a continuation of the imposition of Western standards on other cultures — supposedly one of the things World history is supposed to help do away with — at worst.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 September, 2004 9:41 am

    I have been having similar worries about ‘early modern’, especially since I’ve been surfing around hunting for non-European resources that cover that period (and exposing my ignorance about much of the world…). Not that I’ve got anywhere near working out real answers, so will be interested to hear from others.In Britain we don’t tend to do anything quite like Western Civ or World History surveys as standard undergrad courses anyway – how much exposure to history beyond Europe our students get always depends on the interests of staff in individual departments – so I can’t judge that. But it strikes me that if ‘World History’ teaching is to be useful then part of it should involve challenging and questioning Europe-centred periodisation and definitions, and it needs to be explicitly historiographical. And I agree that it’s not really good enough to assume that all ‘encounters’ of any kind involve or lead to ‘mediation’ either. Trade strikes me as a good example where people from different cultures may meet for the single purpose of exchanging goods, without it *necessarily* having much cultural impact… the questions should surely be, does it happen, to what extent, how does it happen, in what ways; and if not, why not?Sharon (that early modernist)

  2. 16 September, 2004 3:41 pm

    I must admit I hadn’t given the matter any thought but now you’ve brought it up, I think you’re right. Saying late antique or medieval Africa/China etc. does make a nonsense of it because it’s viewing it through European terms. Claire

  3. 17 September, 2004 1:25 am

    I need to preface my comments by admitting that I haven’t read the article (don’t have it yet), so I may be missing some important elements here. That said: I guess I would agree that the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” are problematic for the entire world – that they both derive from the European experience and are therefore linked to a particular cultural context not applicable to the entire globe. I also agree that there are a wide variety of periodizations for different parts of the world (for instance, “medieval” Africa, if there is a thing, seems likely to extend to the era of colonialism, or at least intensive contact with the rest of the world).Having said that, I do think that it’s extremely important to integrate Europe into world history and consider it as part of broader global movements, and I have a LOT of problems with the Western Civ paradigm. I’m just not happy with the strange lineage-tracing pattern of the Western Civ model that means that Egypt is part of the “West” in the earliest ancient times, but no later; that what’s now Baghdad is “Western” when it’s Mesopotamia, but not now. Medieval/Middle Ages may not be the appropriate terms, but I think it’s valuable to look at, say, developments across the globe from 1000-1500 (I know, I know, that leaves out the Carolingians, who are certainly “medieval”; but I think 1000 does mark a number of useful turning points, such as the regrowth of cities/commerce in the west, which in turn connects that part of the world to larger global currents more closely).World historians are tackling the issue of periodization, and one example is a textbook that takes the rise of the Mongol empire as its starting point (and moves from there to the present. Sorry that I can’t remember what it’s called; I can look it up if anyone cares). For the Old World, that makes a heck of a lot of sense to me. (Unfortunately, I’m not sure that any of these schemes really know what to do with the Americas until the voyages of exploration.)Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that none of the world history textbooks I’ve used actually do use the terms “medieval” or “Middle Ages” in a global sense – they usually come up with some label for the general era (post-classical age? age of increasing interaction? I can’t remember. They’re not always great terms, but they’re not the European-based ones). Medieval Europe (or the European Middle Ages) is a specific subject within the broader discussion. (Doesn’t mean that there aren’t people using the terms in this way, of course, but I haven’t seen it happening in surveys.) The only other society where “medieval” usually shows up as an adjective is Japan. (On the other hand, I have a book called Medieval Africa sitting in my office somewhere; if I were in my office I’d tell you what that means in terms of years, though I have a vague memory it ends ~1400; but it’s not “world history” in the sense of “what gets taught as an alternative to Western Civ,” and is written by an Africanist, so I have to presume he knows what he’s talking about.)A lot of the arguments in favor of the World Civ (or World History, my preference; I don’t much like the term “civilization” either) sound kind of like cliches by now, but for what it’s worth, I do think that in an increasingly global age, it’s important that students study interactions between different parts of the globe in a historical context. And in an increasingly diverse society, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that the Western tradition is not the only tradition that has produced our students. I don’t have any problem whatsoever with European History, and I can understand reaching back into the ancient world to structure a European history sequence, but if you’re going to be talking about what’s Europe, then talk about it as Europe, not an amorphous “Western Civilization.” (As an aside, I think one of the problems here is that modern Europe is both a geographical and a political entity. I don’t think any of the other continents really fall into this category – well, Australia, but most Americans don’t really know diddly about Australia! Anyway, I’m advocating talking about “European History” in the same sense that Asianists teach “Asian History,” not just tracing the history of Europe as a political entity.)I should also emphasize that this is not intended as a criticism of those who teach Western Civ, or of the way that individual scholars teach Western Civ. There are many wonderful, great, inspiring Western Civ classes, and I would imagine there are a lot that question the very model of Western Civ as well.And for full disclosure, I do teach a class that addresses what I’ve called the medieval world (primarily, but not exclusively, from a European point of view), although I may rethink that precise title now. In many ways it’s a dumb, but useful shorthand that simply means, “I’m the medievalist, so this is about the centuries that I study.” I guess in the end for me the purpose of examining the connections (and conflicts, and utter lack of knowledge in some cases) between medieval Europe and the rest of the world is worth a little weirdness in terminology. [I also came out of a very “world”-y graduate program, and medievalists were strongly encouraged to be able to teach World History as a strategy for the job market (I’m not sure World History is as widespread as that model of the market presumes, but I do know medievalists who have the jobs they have b/c they can teach World History.) So I may have been appropriately brain-washed. :-)]Sorry to go on at such length (hopefully not too rantingly!).

  4. 17 September, 2004 1:44 am

    I teach World when necessary, but then I tend to rely a lot on teaching the text for the parts where I’m unsure, like India and Africa. But my “Western” classes tend to be increasingly “world” as the year goes on. The first quarter is pretty much the Near East and Mediterranean. Quarter two includes primary sources and additional lecture on “the new world” and very much on he cross-cultural interaction between Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Asians. This means adding a lot of information not in the text, but it’s much more interesting and makes more sense. Quarter three I tend to organize around the Age of Revolution, Imperialism/Colonialism/post-Colonialism and Nationalism, so that we do a lot of global interactions and cause and effect stuff. How is early romantic Nationalism different from, say, Kwame Nkrumah and Pan-African Nationalism in the post-colonial period. Yes, it’s West (not really Euro, because by then the US is involved)-centred, but it seems to work at a survey level. I think one of the reasons I resist replacing West as I teach it with world is that most of my studets have had almost no exposure to History, and the world class leaves them a bit overwhelmed, because most texts seem to assume some awareness of western traditions. Part of me also wonders if in most cases World is a sap to the gods of PC. It’s a way of diminishing the importance of what made the west as it is and giving equal time to areas that are equally important in terms of human history, but really have not contributed in the same way. I would like to just see more history required all the way through school, so that students could have the background for the big picture synthesis that world needs. But as it stands, I’m not convinced that doing world will do much more than act as an information dump. But more later — got a plane to catch!

  5. 17 September, 2004 5:24 am

    You’re not by any chance heading to Chicago are you? Or is there more than one medieval wingding going on this w.e.?I have a lot to say on this topic, but I too have a plane to catch.

  6. 17 September, 2004 4:13 pm

    Nope, I was wending my way home from the sunny climes of almost SoCal. I’ll be at AHA this year, and Shifting Frontiers at Illinois, rather then Medieval Academy. Does anyone know about this conference in October on things Early and Medieval?

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