Context and Objectives

This project takes place against a background of change. For many years Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony. The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989), a path-breaking examination of a short-lived but powerful late-medieval world system facilitated by the expansion of the Mongols, remained a rather isolated contribution. But now interest in the ancient and medieval dimensions to the global is increasing.

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Victor Lieberman’s two-volume study of charter polities across late medieval and early modern Eurasia [Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (2003)] has demonstrated how making explicit comparisons between differently-situated pre-modern societies can open up new horizons in the study of apparently familiar social and political processes, such as state formation, devotional activity and identity creation. Research pioneered at Stanford has sought to compare the Roman and Chinese empires of antiquity and to date a first ‘great divergence’ between China and Europe to late antiquity rather than to more recent centuries. The Dunhuang project involving the British Library investigates the texts and artefacts associated with the medieval eastern Silk Road. Medieval antecedents are sought for the ‘maritime worlds’ of the early modern period, including in the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. But for all this interest, medieval global history is still an undeveloped field. Medievalists have yet to establish even the most basic definitions of what may be involved in globalising the Middle Ages.

This project seeks to lay the foundations of a new field of historical inquiry by asking: What was ‘global’ in the Middle Ages? It has four principal objectives:

1. To establish medieval history on a truly global footing: by integrating Africa and the Americas it seeks to ensure that the new field of global medieval history does not simply become another form of Eurasian history shaped by primarily Eurocentric debates borrowed from other periods.

2. To analyse the global as it was experienced in the Middle Ages itself, paying close attention to material as well as written evidence, particularly material produced in non-elite contexts, in contrast an emphasis on high-end international trade.

3. To add much needed chronological and geographical specificity to the emerging field of global history.

4. To create a vibrant community of historians across the United Kingdom and beyond who are armed with the practical and intellectual tools to research and teach the fundamentals of a Middle Ages that was global and who can also contribute to the expanding field of global history.

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In order to meet these objectives a network of UK-based scholars with expertise in different regional evidence bases and historiographies will meet in a series of workshops across a period of nearly two years (2012-14). The workshops are scheduled to be held in Oxford, Birmingham and Newcastle.

The initial three workshops investigate central issues of definition. The first looks at ‘Historiography’, questioning how far historiographical models borrowed from other periods facilitate or inhibit research into the global Middle Ages. How helpful, for example, is a focus on ‘empires’ and ‘divergences and transformations’? It starts a discussion about how the study of material evidence (in which the medieval period is so rich) can be integrated into the global. This theme runs as a thread through all the workshops. The second workshop examines ‘Periodisation’. The ‘Middle Ages’ does not happen in the same place at the same time. It may not even be identified as a period at all in some places, most notably China, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. Does this matter? Having established some theoretical parameters for our field of inquiry the third workshop takes up the theme of ‘Networks’, an approach which we believe may offer a more creative and flexible tool for analysing the polycentric and permeable medieval world than other models, especially those which prioritise bipolar competition within Eurasia (e.g. Christendom versus Islam; China versus the West). But while examining networks and considering how different communities communicated with each other over space and time may enable us to get closer to our goal of working out how the global Middle Ages was actually experienced, this workshop also discusses the physical and cultural limits on communication.

The themes for the later workshops will be generated as the project progresses. A pilot event held at Oxford in September 2011 which involved roughly two thirds of the network’s members pointed to several potential topics, including comparative political culture and clerical elites. Other possibilities include examining the virtues of ‘comparison versus connection’ or ‘elite versus non-elite global experiences’.

Central to each workshop are discussion sessions framed by short presentations by members of the network, each from different geographical contexts; each explores the significance of the broader theme in the light of their own specialist research. Since very few medievalists have truly global expertise, this method allows us to pool our expertise. All participants present regularly. Our network contains experts who cover Africa, the Americas and Eurasia. Most workshops include an international ‘expert’ who provides a position paper and facilitates subsequent discussion. ‘Experts’ have been selected on the basis of their experience in the field of global history and their regional specialisms.

The network’s Principal Investigator is Catherine Holmes (Oxford); the Co-Investigator is Naomi Standen (Birmingham). John Watts and Lesley Abrams (both Oxford), Simon Yarrow (Birmingham) and Scott Ashley (Newcastle) form a steering group together with the PI and CI. There is also an advisory group of senior historians from a variety of UK universities who represent each of the major geographical regions in this project: Tim Insoll (Manchester: Africa); Bob Moore (formerly Newcastle: the medieval west); Sue Whitfield (Director of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library); Jonathan Shepard (formerly Cambridge: Byzantium and eastern Europe); John Darwin (Oxford Centre for Global History).

Network Publication: Past & Present Supplement

We are pleased to announce the publication of a supplementary issue of the journal Past & Present on ‘The Global Middle Ages’ – currently accessible online here and available in print soon. Co-edited by Catherine Holmes (Oxford) and Naomi Standen (Birmingham), the supplement applies the study of global history to the pre-modern world through a series of thematic chapters incorporating a wide range of periods and regions. Read more






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