Historiography: Oxford, September 2012

General and Methodological

Lieberman, Victor. 2011. ‘Charter state collapse in Southeast Asia, ca. 1250–1400, as a problem in regional and world history’. American Historical Review 116 (4): 937-963 [ http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/ahr.116.4.937 ]

Robertshaw, P. 2000. ‘Sibling rivalry? the intersection of archaeology and history’, History in Africa 27: 261-286 [ http://www.jstor.org/stable/3172117 ]

Session 1: Empire

Brumfiel, E. M. 1983. ‘Aztec state making: ecology, structure and the origin of the state’. American Anthropologist 85 (2): 287-309 [ http://www.jstor.org/stable/676313 ]

Tambiah, S. J. 1977/1985. ‘The galactic polity in Southeast Asia’, in Tambiah, ed. Culture, thought, and social action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 252-286.

Session 2: Divergences and Transformations

Arnason, and Wittrock, eds. 2004. Eurasian transformations, tenth to thirteenth centuries (Brill 2004), esp. theoretical chapter (‘Cultural crystallisations’) by Wittrock.

Patrick O’Brien, ‘Ten years of debate on the origins of the Great Divergence’. Reviews in History 1008.www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1008.

Session 3: Resources

Fleisher, J. B., and S. Wynne-Jones. 2010. ‘Authorisation and the process of power: the view from African archaeology’, Journal of World Prehistory 23 (4): 177-193 [ http://www.springerlink.com/content/4k711040j7405243/?MUD=MP ]

Gerritsen, A., ‘Fragments of a Global Past: Sites of Ceramics Manufacture in Song-Yuan-Ming Jiangxi.’ Journal of the Social and Economic History of the Orient 52/1: 117–52 [ http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/10.1163/156852009×405366 ] [and/or if published by then ‘Scales of a Local: The Place of Locality in a Globalizing World.’ In Douglas Northrop, ed., A Companion to World History (Wiley-Blackwell, September 2012)

Horton, M.C. 1987. ‘The Swahili corridor’. Scientific American 257 (Sept): 86-93.

Session 4: Religion

Crossley, P. 1992, ‘The Rulerships of China’, The American Historical
, 97 (December 1992), 1468–83 [ http://www.jstor.org/stable/2165948 ]; eadem, 1999. A translucent mirror, history and identity in Qing imperial ideology. Berkeley: University of California – esp. pp. 9–29.

Elverskog. Johan. 2010. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Intro and Chapter 2, ‘Understanding’, pp. 1-8 and 56-116

Bayly, C. A. 2004. The birth of the modern world, 1780-1914: global connections and comparisons – ch. 9, ‘Empires of Religion’

Venue: History Faculty, Old Boys’ High School, George St, Oxford OX1 2RL

Monday 10 September

2.15 Session One – Empire (chair: Naomi Standen)

Presentations by Alan Strathern, Andrew Newman, Anne Haour followed by discussion

Tuesday 11 September

9.15 Session Two – Divergences and Transformations (chair: John Watts)

Presentations by Hilde de Weerdt, Caroline Dodds Pennock, Bob Moore followed by discussion

11.30 Session Three –  Religion (chair: Lesley Abrams)

Presentations by Conrad Leyser, Andrew Redden, Catherine Holmes followed by discussion

1.45 Session Four – Resources (chair: Scott Ashley)

Presentations by Monica White, Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Anne Gerritsen followed by discussion.

4.00 Ashmolean Visit: talk by Dr Julian Baker on flows of metal, imagery and ideas as mediated through coin evidence from the Islamic, Byzantine and western medieval worlds of the 7th-8th centuries: includes handling coins from the period.

Wednesday 12 September

9.30 Session Five – Wrap-up and preparation for the next workshop (in Birmingham, January 2013): discussion led by the network organisers

This workshop was the first in a series of four designed to discuss the scope, limits and nature of the global between c. 500 and 1600. It followed a pilot workshop (‘Approaching the Global Middle Ages’) held in Oxford 2011 at which participants called for a more substantial series of funded workshops to analyse the potential and pitfalls of adopting a global approach to the Middle Ages. Twenty-five delegates representing Africa, the Americas, and eastern and western Eurasia gathered in Oxford for this event. This was the first workshop in a series which will be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from January 2013 onwards. This particular workshop was supported by the John Fell Fund and the History Faculty at Oxford University. Four graduate students from Oxford assisted in running of the workshop.

The overall theme was ‘Historiography’. Our objective here was to ask how far historiographical models borrowed from other periods or from individual regions within our own medieval timeframe can facilitate research into the global Middle Ages. The themes chosen to channel this discussion were ‘Empire’, ‘Divergences and Transformations’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Resources’. The fourth of these sessions was designed to inaugurate a discussion of how the study of material evidence (in which our period is so rich) can be integrated into the global. It is a thread we envisage running through all subsequent workshops. Following the ‘resources’ discussion, participants went to the Ashmolean Museum to examine coins from the early medieval Islamic, Byzantine and western European worlds in a session organised by Dr Julian Baker from the Museum.

Participants volunteered potentially useful readings before the workshop. These were circulated in advance and provided some useful jumping off points for discussion. Each of the sessions was introduced by three speakers representing a different part of the medieval globe who explained in informal ten-minute presentations the utility of the theme in their own region and in the more precise context of their own research. The remainder of each session was dedicated to round-table discussion. The conclusions of those discussions are detailed in the summaries below. The summaries were presented at the wrap-up session with which the workshop concluded; at the same session plans for future workshops and for dissemination of our findings were discussed.


It was easy to see how this theme was global, and many comparisons and parallels were offered. Perhaps surprisingly, it was rather harder to see how empires related to the idea of a global Middle Ages. Accordingly, the presentations and discussion were most useful for helping to point towards where and how we might find the definitions we seek. The session began with a comprehensive discussion by Alan Strathern of the nature, but especially the workings, of authority and relations of power – Alan drew here on the work by Stanley Tambiah on galactic polities; Andrew Newman talked about the elements that work to glue empires together, notably Pamela Crossley’s concept of simultaneous rulership; and Anne Haour raised the issue of mapping empire and the different territorial (and other) stories told by archaeological and historical approaches.

Although we began with the question of whether imperial rulers were simply outsiders when compared to kings, we rapidly found that the kingdom-empire distinction was not especially helpful; this was not simply because of the obvious teleological problems arising from the origin of this distinction in modern discussions of nationalism, but rather because it is often almost impossible to tell the difference when treating pre-modern regimes on their own terms. As a result of this failure of an old distinction we did not pursue the potentially useful question of whether simultaneous rulership is an eastern or steppe phenomenon or whether it is distinctively pre-modern rather than modern. This aspect of the discussion also raised the issues of non-hegemonic systems, where regional dominance is not monopolised in the long term by one authority but shifts relatively rapidly among a group of rulers; and to what extent claims to ‘empire’ are a creation of surviving records and/or historiography.

As the discussion developed what really engaged the group, and emerged as an issue that clearly has potential for further exploration, was the question of praxis: How do you do things (as a ruler) and what is it like to have things done to you (as a subject)? But the question of what rulers do also generated a query about what they are for, and how much of an impact they really have on their subjects. These questions offered possibilities for exploring significant differences from modern circumstances, although the difference from antiquity may be less apparent. Clearly these distinctions are at least partly about what Chris Wickham called big states in a traditional landscape: a world of slow transportation and without mass communications. Our discussion drew out the roles of coercion and persuasion and the relationship between forced and voluntary action (for example, in concepts such as the ‘commonwealth’) as these things affected the legitimation of regimes. Stephanie Wynne-Jones drew particular attention to the importance of bottom-up impulses to associate as followers in various guises with those who are deemed to be attractive, useful and efficacious, and this idea was elaborated by others until we reached the notion of ‘the empire as umpire’. Clearly there is a range, perhaps a spectrum, of gradations in just how much subordination is involved in each case. We also discussed the important role in imperial states played by collaborating elites, not least as the ‘hinge’ between the imperial rulers and ‘the masses’. We noted, too, that there remains in the modern world a desire for rulership or leadership, and that this may provide some possibilities for the study of a global Middle Ages to offer insights that can feed back into the study of ‘modern’ phenomena; this in turn may allow us to offer an alternative and potentially more positive response to the Middle Ages as a concept defined only by contrast to the modern.

Perhaps inevitably, we came round to the role of ritual, which we discussed only briefly in light of the upcoming session on religion. At the end of our discussion, the concept of Church and State came up, and while this clearly has little purchase outside Europe, it could provide a starting point for thinking about the relationships between political and religious authorities as a global but not necessarily pre-modern issue. Here we confined ourselves to noting that in at least some cases ritual may be seen as not only legitimating but creating not just political authority but the collectivity over which rule is exercised and perhaps even the world in which the collectivity exists. This highlighted the interactive nature of power rather than it being simply something done by one party to another.

In keeping with our strong concern for material culture, we also approached the question of just how people link themselves to the various places of importance to them (in a world before rapid and mass communications), which pointed us clearly towards the global in the form of transportation, routes, transmission and, notably, the role of seas as connectors rather than dividers. Consideration of connections promises to take us away from any sense of isolation or the variety of –centrisms that had been noted at various points in the discussion. Indeed, as Scott Ashley pointed out, we will gain a great deal from treating our regions of specialism as entangled empires or political units, which will ensure that we do not allow our conceptualisation of political units to give us boundaries that are too sharp, or units that are too discrete.

If we are to find definitions then we have to ask the basic question: what do ‘medieval’ polities not have that ‘modern’ ones do have (and vice versa)? A couple of suggestions included settler colonialism and concepts of treason based on an assumption of non-reciprocal sovereignty, but in fact global comparisons suggest that these could be hard to sustain as universally distinguishing features. In the end the discussion suggested that we might be able to get beyond needing to continue with the teleologically driven contrast between medieval and modern and might instead be able to move more towards consideration of the ‘medieval’ period in its own right, with its own set of concerns, agendas and approaches.

Divergences and Transformations

Three lively papers (by Hilde de Weerdt, Bob Moore and Caroline Dodds Pennock) and some provocative background reading (Wittrock on ‘cultural crystallisations’, O’Brien on Pomeranz’s ‘Great Divergence’ thesis and subsequent historiography) produced rather a bitty and sceptical discussion.
The presentations drew attention to some of the problems with grand comparative history:

  • attempts to create typologies abuse specificities, underplay contexts, repeat stock examples and deal poorly with change over time;
  • the scale of comparison effaces individual/local agency;
  • terminologies and periodisations are given a specious universality, where they typically reflect a ‘western’ cultural perspective;
  • the search for divergences, in particular, introduces unhelpful teleologies.

But they also put forward some more promising approaches – particularly by recognising that a given transformation could allow for regionally-specific outcomes provided that there were some common dynamics or patterns of causation; in this way, a concept like the ‘axial age’ or the notion of a Eurasian ‘transformation’ around 1000-1200 could be rendered historically plausible.
The discussion illustrated some of the ways in which large-scale hypotheses could be productive. It was suggested, for example, that Meso-America was an area that, like some others, avoided an ‘axial’ transition (viz. the apprehension of a transcendent sphere wholly distinct from the mundane), and that this difference ( or ‘divergence’) could be an organising concept for extra-regional comparisons. Equally, some of the parallel conditions underpinning the ‘first European revolution’ and the transformations associated with the period of the Song dynasty were set out, and some interesting points were made about the significance and comparability of the moments at which processes of change (often long drawn-out and caused by different things) were recognised by different societies. The group spent time thinking about possible causes of parallel transformation – during which climate, disease, neo-Malthusian constraints, technology and contact received attention – and also considered themes which might expose difference/divergence, such as food, measures of time, and technologies of communication/writing.

As we reflected on the session in the wrap-up discussion, it was pointed out that, as historians, we were constitutionally set up to look sceptically at theories and insist on local differences, but that, if we want to engage in large-scale comparative analysis, or even to develop some kind of conception of the global, we would have to find a way of engaging constructively with theory and/or of creating generalisations that we can live with.


That the Religion session was difficult to summarise was symptomatic of the topic: quizzing its definition at the start proved thought-provoking, but it also demonstrated the difficulties involved (what is religion?), and there was only time to scratch the surface of that particular issue. Arguably, ‘religion’, which might for some denote the different formulations of relations with an extra-terrestrial, supernatural, reality, is too large a category for coherent investigation in the context of our project. Having said that, some interesting strands linked our three speakers, Conrad Leyser on sacrifice (filling in for Susan Whitfield, who was unable to attend due to illness), Andrew Redden on medieval religion in the Hispanic World, and Catherine Holmes on religious encounters, beginning with those on the Silk Road as discussed by Johan Elverskog. An interest in continuities linked their presentations, whether in the practice and ideology of sacrifice, the export of liturgical programmes in a missionary context, or encounters between Islam and Buddhism. The preservation and transformation of pre-existing elements and the related issues of exchange, shared space, competition, and co-existence emerged as potentially fruitful avenues to pursue under a global flag, although everyone agreed that some individual approaches have been overly blunt, and concepts would need careful nuancing. These are hardly uncharted waters – issues of religious accommodation have been well explored for years, for example – but they could do with a fresh look: why religious co-existence threatens some religions’ idea of themselves, but not others, opens up interesting questions about the societies involved.

In discussion, Elizabeth Lambourn raised a very important point: that in order to do this properly, we cannot just dip into the pool of sources for areas outside our own expertise. We must collaborate across fields and work with specialists (but without being bound by their fetters…). Speakers and discussants alike emphasised the need to overcome Christocentrism. Whatever subject we choose to pursue must take this problem on board. In the 2011 pilot workshop, Glen Dudbridge pointed out that ‘clerisy’ would be a more helpful category than ‘clergy’, for example. Religious mission comes to mind: is this too Christian? Would missionary encounters be more profitably reformulated as a theme that emerged in other sessions, something along the lines of ‘The Wonderfulness of Us’?

It was agreed that objects had a potentially major contribution to make to the theme of religion, although subtleties of interpretation are needed, as objects can change their purpose and meaning across space and time. They are, however, useful in combating some of the historian’s problems, such as oral cultures, or a lone surviving written witness. Physical evidence, which can suggest something about rituals rarely mentioned in written sources, helps to shrink the distance between official pronouncements (driven by a potentially alarming range of variable concerns) and lived practice.

The relationship between belief and practice came up towards the end of the session. Much serious work (such as Bob Moore’s on late medieval Europe, Terence Ranger’s on Zimbabwe) has been done in this area, but some concerted puzzling over what these terms mean and how they are applied in different scholarly traditions would be necessary (and perhaps ‘transformative’) before discussion could properly proceed. Another theme that emerged from discussion was the tension between ruling powers and religious specialists (aka the clerisy?), formulated in the West as the conflict between Church and State but not an exclusively Christian story. An investigation of writing, as proposed by John Watts at the end of Session Two, could illuminate this nicely.

Religion is not a neglected subject in global terms: comparative religion is a well established field, and social scientists (especially anthropologists) have contributed much to the study of religion in modern societies. As far as past societies are concerned, in comparison with some of our other sessions’ themes, the question ‘what is global?’ offers less that is new. The study of religious history has been transnational and global (both comparative and connective) for some time (think, for example, of the study of encounters, which – Christocentrically – includes missions, crusades, religious orders, institutional authority, etc.). Our project’s other question, ‘what is specifically medieval?’ did not come up in discussion. All in all, a range of topics emerged from the session congruent with our project’s goals. Perhaps the way forward, if it is to feature in future plans, is to pursue ‘religion’ in the course of a multi-faceted theme: Continuities and Transformation, for example, or Writing.


There were three papers in this session. The first by Monica White looked at the near invisibility of resources in written texts from Kievan Rus, despite abundant evidence from other sources that there was extensive trade in furs, forest products and luxury items. This provided a useful textual methodology for approaching issues of resources in the middle ages. The paper by Anne Gerritsen on Chinese ceramics in a global perspective complemented this, by stressing that historians need to grapple more fully with the materiality of objects and the narratives they embody. She argued that the fragments of Chinese ceramics found should be seen in their own use-contexts rather than as simply evidence for the lost whole. The paper by Stephanie Wynne-Jones worked as a case-study to bring together both of these perspectives, looking at the archaeology of Kilwa and the Swahili Coast. She looked at how networks of exchange worked to connect littoral, interior and the wider world, and how resources, especially imported Chinese ceramics, had been reused in local East African contexts.

Discussion of the papers raised a number of important conceptual, methodological and comparative issues. Distinctions between different categories of material that might be included under the classification of ‘Resources’ was fruitful. The differences between natural and manufactured resources, the role of people (both free and enslaved) and the nature of the surviving evidence were all raised. The latter point generated discussion around the different survival rates of ‘soft’ and more ephemeral evidence (leather, cloth, wood, paper etc) against ‘hard’ and more permanent types (metal, pottery, stone etc) and the ways this influenced the interpretations historians make.

What emerged from the panel was that there are a number of routes by which ‘Resources’ can act as a pathway into a history of the ‘Global Middle Ages’:

  • Resources and power: comparative studies of states, institutions and socio-economic organisation through their relationship with and control over resources.
  • Resources and exchange: connectivity between disparate parts of the medieval world through trade and forms of non-economic exchange (e.g. gift-giving).
  • Resources and material culture: the use, reuse, adaptation and transformation of objects/resources as they move through space and time.
  • Resources and ecology: the role access to natural resources (woodland, fossil fuels, animals, fertile lands etc) have had in determining parallel and divergent social, economic and political developments in otherwise unconnected parts of the globe.
  • Resources and culture: comparative study of the non-material resources, such as stories, texts, memories, images and symbols, on which societies drew, and on the connections, exchanges and adaptations made in different locations and contexts.

The general category of ‘Resources’ appears to offer fruitful lines of research into medieval world history, being susceptible to both comparative and connective approaches. As the three papers and the discussion showed, it can also deal effectively with both macro- and micro-narratives, concerned as it is with both local and global scales of experience. This is encouraging given that one of our over-riding concerns as a group has been to explore the creative tension between the local and the global.

Concluding ‘wrap-up’ session

After the summaries of the preceding sessions were introduced, most discussion in this session was devoted to planning the next workshop – ‘Periodisation’, which is due to be held in Birmingham in January. Four themes were identified as potentially productive: a) beginnings and ends; b) shifts/transitions; c) blanks or gaps; d) contemporary self-perceptions of time/periodisation. At the time of the writing of this report, the network’s organisers are in the process of recruiting volunteers to offer short presentations to kick off our round-table discussions, and inviting all network participants to send in reading suggestions.

Some thought was also devoted in this final session to how we disseminate the fruits of our discussions more widely. More work will have to be done on this but some helpful suggestions were made about the need to go beyond the simple listing of bibliographies and posting of reports on our eventual web-page. Caroline Dodds Pennock also suggested that electronic tools might be helpful in the preparations for our next workshop, in the sense that all the participants might be able to contribute to a composite electronic time-line on which they could indicate and explain period divisions relevant to their own particular region. We hope to have more concrete news about this development very soon.

[Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen with assistance from John Watts, Lesley Abrams and Scott Ashley].