Medieval Zomias: Stateless Spaces in the Global Middle Ages: Oxford, February 2019

Medieval Zomias: Stateless Spaces in the Global Middle Ages: Oxford, February 2019

First, considering my personal history, I would like to begin by talking about the reason why I am concerned with medieval global history.

At present my main research interest lies in the state formation processes of the Danish Jelling dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries, especially in terms of international and maritime perspectives. On the one hand, this topic concerns the most crucial time for Danish national history because, as the Jelling stone tells us, the Christianized Danish kingdom was in the process of becoming a territorial state which conquered England and Norway. On the other hand, this is part of the so-called "Vikings phenomenon", which may itself be one of the most globally-oriented research areas among a lot of branches of (European) medieval studies. To widen my perspective and share it within Japanese academia, I invited Catherine Holmes to my university to give us several lectures on her global middle ages in 2016.

But originally I was keenly interested in Japanese medieval maritime history in that I was brought up on a tiny island named Yuge, Ehime prefecture, lying in the Setonaikai inland sea, where famous salt-production manors were managed by the Toji-temple in Kyoto, one of the largest temples in medieval Japan. Living with my family until age 15, I moved alone to a high school in Shikoku, and then was allowed to enter the University of Tokyo in 1992. Here I changed my research field from medieval Japan to medieval Europe during my undergraduate degree, strongly influenced by my mentors Hiroshi Takayama, Koichi Kabayama, Takeshi Kido, Takashi Jinno, Shunichi Ikegami and Yoichi Nishikawa. Surprisingly all are European medievalists. This period might have been the heyday of European medieval history at the University of Tokyo. As a graduate, with my own perspective of connectivity and comparison more or less in my mind, I studied European medieval history and languages at the Universities of Tokyo, Copenhagen and Iceland, and after that moved to Nagoya to research and teach and then to Tokyo (but with my family in Kobe on weekends), before my present visit to the UK. This is my personal history with a little bit of global experience both scholarly and personal.

The above story may belong to me. However, we Japanese have a common academic property based on education and reading, too. As a result of such an experience, we Japanese medievalists might have in common unique historiographies for approaching medieval global history, which might seem to be a little bit different to those of the Europeans in some ways.

First, we have practiced a globally comparative history for a long time. All of us have had to study both Japanese history and world history at high school. The aim of this secondary education is to permit the Japanese to understand the development of each region or civilisation in world history comparatively. We can then choose lectures on Japanese history, Occidental history (European and American history) and Oriental history (Asian and African) at almost all universities, and as researchers in any given historical area, we are required to work within a comparative framework , depending on Marc Bloch's famous article ‘A Contribution towards a Comparative History of European Societies’. We Japanese need comparative perspectives even when we specialise in Japanese history, that is national history written for us the Japanese. Among our influences, the late Yoshiki Morimoto (1934-2012) of Kyushu University, who is known among European early medievalists as a historian of the Carolingian polyptique, encouraged us to share and develop a way of thinking about how we use comparison when we face a society different from our own.

Second, to understand medieval Japan, we always have to put the Japanese archipelago in global historical and geographical perspective. The society of the archipelago developed in active and regular interrelation with China, Korea, the Ryukyu with south eastern Asian culture, and the Ezo with Northern culture in medieval times. Besides, the Mongols in the 13th century and the Europeans in the 16th century caused every aspect of Japanese society to change. We can assume that medieval Japan was created in an interregional and international environment. For those who are interested in such an approach, Yoshihiko Amino (1928-2004) is the iconic name. In origin he was an economic historian, but was recognized as the most influential forerunner of social history who wrote medieval history on the interdisciplinary basis of history, archaeology, and folklore with a maritime perspective. A pile of his books on premodern Japanese history have been bestsellers until now.

Third, Japanese historians have contributed a vast amount of work on global Asian histories in medieval and early modern times: especially ones about the Islamic world, the Mongol Empire, and South East Asia including the Japanese archipelago. There has been a long historiography of medieval Eurasian history in Japan since the 19th century. Here I will mention three recent names among many historians: the medieval Islamic historian Tsugitaka Sato (1942-2011); Masaaki Sugiyama (1952-), a specialist in the Mongol Empire; the Arabist Hikoichi Yajima (1939-). Sato, who has written two monographs in English, organized several research groups with large grants, published many edited books, monographs, general books, and articles, and educated the younger generation of medieval Islamic historians during his long career at the University of Tokyo. Sugiyama produced influential general books on the Mongol Empire based upon his specialized research in multiple languages including Chinese, Persian, Mongolian, Latin etc. Yajima is the most prolific translator into Japanese of Arabic sources such as Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battuta  etc. whilst also being a historian of the economic and maritime networks of Islamic traders, work which has resulted in several major books.

Almost all of their works are written in Japanese. Although that situation is changing, language limitation hinders the sharing of their academic contribution with world academia.


My Japanese colleagues involved in the present workshop formed their academic careers under these Japanese circumstances. Hiro Tsurushima, specializing in earlier medieval British history, is the general editor of the Japanese translation of the ten-volume Short Oxford History of the British Isles. He acts vigorously and globally as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, fellow of the Society of Antiquities of London, and a board member both of the Haskins Society in the United States and the East Asian Society of British History; he is a leader in the comparison of medieval primary sources between Japan, East Asia and Europe. Hitomi Sato holds two PhDs in medieval history, from Kyoto and Milano. In her works she pursues the comparative history of mountainous boundary areas of medieval and early modern Italy and Japan. Takashi Kawato is a historian of medieval Japan, especially the monetary system, but his perspective extends beyond the national boundaries to stateless maritime spaces found between China, Korea, and Japan. Yoichi Isahaya, who studied in Tsukuba, Kobe, Tokyo, London, Teheran and Jerusalem, is a specialist in the intellectual history of the Mongol Empire, especially translation and the transmission of medieval astrological knowledge. He is able to deal with both primary sources and secondary works ranging from Europe to Japan on a truly Eurasian scale. They all share the traditions and works Japanese academia has produced to improve global history in a Japanese way, and they are changing the Japanese historiography of a global middle ages for themselves, connecting Japanese historiography with non-Japanese. A Japanese translation of Scott's Zomia was made in 2013. It has been shared by Japanese anthropologists and area studies researchers, but has attracted little attention from historians. This may be the first time Japanese historians have engaged with Scott's arguments and ideas.

As for me, maybe for my Japanese colleagues too, I (we) would like to explore three points in this Zomia workshop: one is historiographical reflection. The fifteen speakers who will talk in this workshop today and tomorrow have various backgrounds in terms of their lives, languages, ethnicity, nationality, academic careers and so on. These backgrounds may produce their own academic ideas which may reflect their lives. I and we want to understand the various lines of historiography of a global middle ages, which will enable us all to move beyond any prejudices and national perspectives and to participate in more a global space of varied opinions. Second, I want to know what are "stateless spaces" in the middle ages. As we know, we, of course including me, have discussed medieval history in terms of state formation and state power. This viewpoint remains important still and more and more important, but we also know that there were many more geographical spaces less influenced directly by medieval states and political powers. One of the most important discussion points found in Scott's argument lies here. But we can go a step further. Stateless spaces were also spaces for encounter between various beings, states, powers, cultures and civilisations. We can even imagine that stateless spaces might have produced something new that could change the world rather than merely connect different constituents of the middle ages. Exploring stateless spaces historically may shed light on limitless possibilities for historical studies both of the global middle ages and, in addition, of other ages including our contemporary world. Third, I want to understand more deeply how important historical terms such as "connection", "comparison", and "historiography" might be transformed through thinking about stateless spaces, and, more importantly, how our habits of analysis and description in our own fields and even across the global middle ages could be transformed.

Minoru Ozawa

February 2019

Venue: History Faculty, University of Oxford

Friday 8th February

10.30am      Arrival and coffee

11.00am       Welcome and introduction:  Catherine Holmes (Oxford), Naomi Standen (Birmingham), Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan)

11.15am        First Session       Chair: Simon Yarrow (Birmingham)

  1. Arezou Azad (Birmingham) Rethinking Khurasan: A Zomia in Islamic Central Asia?
  2. Lewis Borck (Leiden, Netherlands) Radical archives against the state: Historic zomias as temporary autonomous zones
  3. Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan) Making Communities through Ships in Late Viking Age Scandinavia

1.00pm        Lunch

2.00pm       Second Session Chair:  Naomi Standen (Birmingham)

  1. Takashi Kawato (Chiba Keizai, Japan) Wako (Japanese pirates) as a Maritime Zomiatic People in Late Medieval and Early Modern East Asia
  2. Elizabeth Lambourn (De Montfort, Leicester) Zomia as an approach to the Indian ocean world [TBC]
  3. Nicholas Matheou (IHR) Zomia, Hegemony & Counterpower: Towards an Anarchist Heuristic

3.30pm       Tea Break

4.00pm       Third Session     Chair: Phacha Phanomvan (Oxford)

  1. Fiona McConnell (Oxford), Geography, Zomia and the knowledge production of area studies
  2. Nayanika Mathur (Oxford) Anthropologising the State and Government in Northern India

5.00pm       Summary: Ian Forrest (Oxford)

5.30pm       Launch Event: Past & Present Global Middle Ages supplement


Saturday 9th February

9.00am       Coffee

9.15am        Fourth Session   Chair: Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan)

  1. Lance Pursey (Birmingham) Coming to terms with illegibility: historiographical debates on the Northeast Asian frontier in Middle Period Chinese history
  2. Hirokazu Tsurushima (Kumamoto, Japan) Two or Three ‘Englands’ in the Long Eleventh-Century (c. 973-c. 1135)
  3. Marek Jankowiak (Oxford) and Christian Sahner (Oxford) At the fringes of Byzantium and the early Islamic empire

10.45am      Coffee Break

11.00am       Fifth Session      Chair: Catherine Holmes (Oxford)

  1. Stephanie Wynne-Jones (York) Mobility, history and non-state actors
  2. Yoichi Isahaya (JSPS / Rikkyo, Japan) Sciences in Zomia: Nizārī Ismāʿīlī Movements (1090–1256) in the Iranian Plateau
  3. Hitomi Sato (Konan, Japan) Revolts and Boundary Areas in the Late Medieval Italian Peninsula

12.30pm      Lunch

1.00pm        Summary (& lunch cont’d): Amanda Power (Oxford)

This workshop has been generously supported by grants from the John Fell Oxford University Press (OUP) Research Fund and KAKENHI, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

An international workshop exploring James Scott’s concept of zomias[1] and its relevance to the global middle ages was held in Oxford in February 2019.  The organising group comprised Ian Forrest (Oxford, UK), Catherine Holmes (Oxford, UK), Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan), Amanda Power (Oxford, UK) and Naomi Standen (Birmingham, UK), with funding from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the John Fell Fund, and crucial assistance from Claire Phillips of the Oxford Centre for Global History.  Scholars from Ethiopia, France, India, Japan, Thailand, the UK, and the USA took part in two days of intense discussion which demonstrated the interest and potential of this theme.

Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, who had organised earlier workshops Defining the Global Middle Ages,[2] made some introductory remarks, speculating on the value of the zomias idea and noting the method and values that make global medieval scholarship productive: learning about how history is studied in different institutional and national contexts, taking comparison beyond Europe and China, being willing to listen generously, and taking risks.  Minoru Ozawa, whose funding grant from the JSPS had brought to Oxford four further Japanese historians, introduced the study of stateless spaces as an exercise in overcoming prejudices in global history.  He suggested that thinking globally problematizes everything from primary education to research agendas. Scott’s book had been translated into Japanese in 2013, garnering some interest from anthropologists but not, as yet, from historians.

The first session was chaired by Simon Yarrow (Birmingham, UK) and included papers from Arezou Azad (Birmingham, UK), Lewis Borck (Leiden, Netherlands) and Minoru Ozawa. Arezou Azad immediately questioned the state/non-state binary in Scott’s model in her paper ‘Rethinking Khurasan: a zomia in Islamic Central Asia’. Focusing on the mountains, steppes and salt-flats around Merv, Herat and Balkh, a multi-lingual and multi-religious region that was not exactly ungoverned, just very loosely linked to the centres of Sasanian and then Islamic power, she argued for a model of state/stateless hybridity. Lewis Borck’s paper ‘Radical archives against the state: historic zomias as temporary autonomous zones’ introduced the anarchist ideas of Hakim Bey as a tool for studying the archaeology of the Gallina culture in North America, c.1100-1300CE.  The Gallina had been understood in terms of social pathology: the ‘left behind’ of the Chacoan pueblo state, or the ‘living ancestors’ of peoples who had made historical ‘progress’. Instead, Lewis suggested that the Gallina knowingly deployed social practices that resisted hierarchy and maintained the dispersal of power. He also noted the challenges of practising an archaeology of statelessness when heritage bodies such as UNESCO prefer state-like sites and non-hierarchical peoples are categorised (still!) within natural history rather than human history. Minoru Ozawa’s paper on ‘Making communities through ships in late Viking Scandinavia’ questioned the tendency to see the history of Scandinavia as incorporation into European statehood and religion. Taking the ship to be the basic unit of Viking political economy (a ‘maritime zomia’), Minoru suggested that trade and raiding could be seen as stateless or state-resisting strategies at the same time as being the crucibles for state-formation.  In most scholarship Viking activity is seen as a problem resolved by statehood. Following the three papers discussion ranged widely, addressing the empirical and theoretical shortcomings of Scott’s model, but also its potential when put into conversation with related ideas and the medieval evidence.

The second session was chaired by Naomi Standen and included papers from Takashi Kawato (Chiba Keizai, Japan), Elizabeth Lambourn (De Montfort, UK), and Nicholas Matheou (Institute of Historical Research, UK). Takashi Kawato gave a paper on ‘Wako (Japanese pirates) as a maritime zomiatic people in late medieval and early modern East Asia’, which posed questions about how identity and economic activity are seen through the eyes of states.  The Mongol emperors of China saw Wako as a Japanese problem, but they were defined more by ethnic diversity, involving fishing peoples from Tsushima Island and the Goto Islands, the Hwachog (sedentary pastoralists and craft producers) and Jaein (performers) from Korea, and horse breeders from Jeju. Ethnic and economic diversity are categorised as dangerous by states. Elizabeth Lambourn spoke about ‘The friction of watery terrains: thinking the Indian Ocean rim as zomia’, using Hajime Narukawa’s world map projection ( to centre the maritime worlds of the global middle ages. Questioning Scott’s idea of ungoverned spaces as zones of flight, Elizabeth wondered whether Pahlavi and Sogdian speaking sailors were indeed refugees rather than ‘able migrants’. She concluded that the Indian Ocean littoral incorporated a number of lightly-governed regions whose existence actually benefitted the interests of neighbouring states.  Nicholas Matheou’s paper on ‘Zomia, hegemony and counterpower: towards an anarchist heuristic’ urged engagement with the hinterland of radical social science beyond Scott’s anthropology, as tools for understanding medieval conditions. In particular he suggested that counterpower (anti-hierarchical resistance) comprises the ‘dark matter’ of history, the stuff whose unruly existence stimulates the state action we usually class as history. Discussion included the comment that thinking about statelessness as a good thing challenged the positive connectivity at the heart of early modern global history, but also the warning that some zomias are ruled by Count Dracula; that living in a zomia might create a cultural inheritance for later generations, but also that perceived statelessness could be the prelude to conquest. Lewis proposed a three-fold categorisation of statelessness: (1) living outside states (e.g. fur trappers), (2) resisting the encroachment of the state (anti-state zomias), and (3) navigating the state while being refused by it (e.g. refugees).

The third session was chaired by Phacha Phanomvan (Oxford, UK), a PhD student researching religion and trade in Southeast Asia during the first millennium CE, and included papers by the geographer Fiona McConnell (Oxford, UK) and anthropologist Nayanika Mathur (Oxford, UK). Fiona McConnell’s paper on ‘Geography, zomia and the knowledge production of area studies’ took us back to Willem Van Schendel’s original coinage of the term ‘zomia’ as a riposte to the determinist path-dependency accorded to the canonical world regions of area studies. Using the radical feminist Gloria Watkins’ (bell hooks’) idea of the margins as a site of resistance, Fiona proposed that ‘zomia’ is most useful as a conceit which upsets traditional habits of knowledge production, rather than as a model easily applicable to any particular case study.  Nayanika Mathur’s paper, ‘Anthropologising the state and government in Northern India’, outlined the hostile reception that Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed  has received amongst anthropologists, particularly for its reification of the ‘state’ as a centralised organ of power. Since the 1990s, she argued, states have been understood to exist in everyday practices and perceptions rather than in central power, citing several key works.[3] Discussion revolved around the willingness of historians to work with flawed models (such as zomia) as tools to think with rather than as explanatory frameworks to be applied uncritically.

Ian Forrest reflected on the first day’s papers and discussions, commenting on the need to see ‘state’ as a complex and varied phenomena existing in social relations as much as institutions of power, on the notable absence of women from much of the discussion, and on the radical potential of a consciously anarchist historiography.

The fourth session was chaired by Minoru Ozawa and included papers from Lance Pursey (Birmingham, UK), Hirokazu Tsurushima (Kumamoto, Japan), and Marek Jankowiak and Christian Sahner (Oxford, UK). Lance Pursey’s paper ‘Coming to terms with illegibility: historiographical debates on the Northeast Asian frontier in middle period Chinese history’ drew upon his ongoing PhD research into the Liao period (907-1125CE). He argued that a region once defined by zomia-like social structures, refuge and state-flight became, under the formerly-nomadic Liao, a much more legible and governed region: ‘Liao’ is itself a loanword from Chinese meaning simply ‘state’ in Khitan. Hiro Tsurushima, who spoke of ‘Two or three “Englands” in the long eleventh century’, began from Scott’s idea that the friction of distance and terrain limits the reach of institutional power. In a kingdom with an itinerant court (and courts), zomias are, he argued, defined as much by time as by distance. Royal power appears and disappears over the horizon; it would be possible – and extremely interesting – to map the intensity of governance over different time scales. Marek Jankowiak and Christian Sahner gave a joint paper, ‘At the fringes of Byzantium and the early Islamic empire’, in which they identified possible zomias among the Balkan Bogomils, the Slavic lands c. 800CE, the Atlas mountains, and Yemen. They proposed that illegibility could have been a conscious strategy, and reflected on the challenges and potential in using archaeological data to study the intensity of governance and to chart gradations in connectivity. Discussion followed on the geographical determinism of Scott, and the themes of multiplicity and hybridity in understanding global medieval cultures.

The final session was chaired by Catherine Holmes and included papers from Stephanie Wynne-Jones (York, UK), Yoichi Isahaya (Rikkyo, Japan), and Hitomi Sato (Konan, Japan), although Hitomi was prevented by illness from attending and her paper was read by Minoru Ozawa having being pre-circulated.  Stephanie Wynne-Jones spoke about ‘Mobility, history and non-state actors’, focusing on the Bantu migration across Africa. Africanists, she explained, have long been pushing for a rejection of the evolutionary model of a shift from foraging to agriculture as both too binary and neo-colonial. Scott’s work replaces an evolution over time with a contrast based on space, and is thus still too binary. She argued that the formation of sedentary polities, such as Great Zimbabwe around 700CE, was often based in the political forms and values of the migratory era: acephalous and heterarchical social institutions. Yoichi Isahaya’s paper on ‘Sciences in zomia: Nizārī Ismā’īlī movements (1090-1256CE) in the Iranian plateau’ proposed the usefulness of the zomia model for thinking about the attraction of Ismā’īlī mountain refuges for ‘runaway intellectuals’ and ‘prophets of renewal’. This significantly amends Scott because these were hyper-literate refuges from state power. Hitomi Sato’s paper on ‘Revolts and boundary areas in the late medieval Italian peninsula’ continued the critique of Scott, pointing out that medieval European states were far weaker than he had proposed. Nevertheless, she argued, we can find small-scale zomias in close proximity to centres of power, although their autonomy was usually negotiated with states rather than being the result simply of flight and resistance. In discussion a number of lines of critique of the zomias paradigm were developed, including the danger of reintroducing colonial romanticism about ‘unexplored’ regions, despite the desire to put all areas of the global middle ages onto a level playing field in terms of historical significance and study: inclusive history is not just the comparison of different places, but the discussion of different people to those whose agency normally dominates historiography. Several people made observations to the effect that medievalists are able to contribute a subtle and diverse set of observations about the political contingencies of zomias.

Amanda Power then led a summary discussion and consideration of plans for the future. She began by noting again the lack of explicit discussion of gender, an important theme in any recalibration of medieval historical study on a global scale; the need to incorporate aspects of environmental history and the intellectual culture of zomia-like regions was raised; the need for deeper engagement with Africa, the Americas and maritime worlds was noted, as well as the desirability of including historians and archaeologists from countries that are less well-represented in global historiographical conversations. Solomon Gebreyes concluded that zomias as an experiential category could be social or individual, and Scott’s 19th century assumptions about what constituted a state hindered a proper discussion of this. Picking up a point made by Julia McClure about working with Zapatistas who are writing their own history, there was discussion about the use of ‘zomia’ as paradigm for a post- or anti-globalisation global history. Amanda Power suggested that the obsession with ‘agency’ was exclusionary in its own way, while Naomi Standen suggested that queering the sources was integral to uncovering new histories. Simon Yarrow asked what our own positionality as citizens of surveillance states meant for our approach to this subject, while Anya Raisharma pointed out that the people (including scholars) most subject to state power and surveillance today are precisely those at the margins, not the centre: the migrant, the refugee.

Everyone agreed that a second workshop, further discussion, and potentially publication of some essays were good ideas. 

Workshop participants (*doctoral students)


Lesley Abrams (Oxford, UK)

Arezou Azad (Birmingham, UK)

Fozia Bora (Leeds, UK)

Lewis Borck   (Leiden, Netherlands; now Missouri, USA)

Caroline Dodds-Pennock (Sheffield, UK)

Marie Favereau (Paris, France)

Ian Forrest (Oxford, UK)

Solomon Gebreyes (Hamburg, Germany)

Catherine Holmes (Oxford, UK)

Yoichi Isahaya (Hokkaido, Japan)

Marek Jankowiak (Oxford, UK)

Huw Jones (Oxford, UK)*

Cory Johnson (Oxford, UK)*

Takashi Kawato (Chiba Keizai, Japan)

Elizabeth Lambourn (De Montfort, UK)

Michael Leadbetter (Oxford, UK)*

Curtis Lisle (Birmingham, UK)*

Shinobu Majima (Gakushuin, Japan)

Nik Matheou (IHR, UK)

Nayanika Mathur (Oxford, UK)

Julia McClure (Glasgow, UK)

Fiona McConnell (Oxford, UK)

Minoru Ozawa (Rikkyo, Japan)

Phacha Phanomvan (Oxford, UK)*

Amanda Power (Oxford, UK)

Lance Pursey (Birmingham, UK)*

Anya Raisharma (Oxford, UK)*

Claudia Rogers (Sheffield, UK)

Christian Sahner (Oxford, UK)

Hitomi Sato (Konan, Japan)

Naomi Standen (Birmingham, UK)

Hirokazu Tsurushima (Kumamoto, Japan)

John Watts (Oxford, UK)

Chris Wickham (Birmingham, UK)

Stephanie Wynne-Jones (York, UK)

Simon Yarrow (Birmingham, UK)

[1] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale, 2009); the term Zomia was first coined by the geographer Willem van Schendel, in his ‘Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20 (2002). As a result of discussions in the workshop, this report strips the Schendel-Scott term of its initial capital and prefers a plural term – zomias – as we diverge from the particular historical and geographical circumstances of modern area studies.

[2] Papers arising from those workshops are now published as Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen (eds.), The Global Middle Ages, Past & Present Supplement 13 (Oxford, 2018).

[3] Nayanika Mathur, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India (Delhi, 2016); Nicolai Ssorin-Chaikov, The Social Life of the State in Subarctic Siberia (Stanford, CA, 2003); David Sneath, The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia (New York, 2007).