Why should I think about the Global Middle Ages and what will it do for me if I do?
This was the final workshop in our AHRC-funded series. Its purpose was to gauge responses to the idea of a Global Middle Ages among three target audiences:
- Early career researchers: post-graduates and post-doctoral scholars
- Teachers and lecturers in secondary education (schools and colleges)
- Curators and custodians of museums and special collections
We were keen to find out more about what these audiences make of the general idea of studying and teaching the Global Middle Ages; what they think of our project’s approach to the topic; and how our group in particular and the higher education sector in general can help audiences outside university-level research circles understand and respond to global history, especially in pre-modern periods. We also hoped that these audiences would help us to think about future directions for our own project.
With those objectives in mind we invited members of the three target audiences to an informal workshop at which several of the network members would also be present. Twenty-one people attended the workshop (held at University College, Oxford), of which eight were early career researchers, three were museum/special collections staff, and four were teachers. Five other invitees who initially accepted invitations were unable to make the workshop because of last-minute problems. As in previous workshops, we structured sessions around a series of short presentations which then left plenty of time for round-table discussion.
The world before Columbus: towards a Global Middle Ages (Parts 1 and 2)
The workshop began with all participants (invited guests and network members) introducing themselves and giving a synopsis of their own particular reasons for being interested in a global Middle Ages. After that the morning sessions were devoted to a series of presentations by network members about the general context for the ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’ project, and about some particular themes in global medieval history that project members are developing for the jointly-authored publication (see Workshop at Birmingham, September 2014).
Catherine Holmes and Simon Yarrow talked through a series of reasons for being interested in a Global Middle Ages, alerted everyone to the challenges that this enterprise involves, and offered some general thoughts about how those challenges are being tackled by our network and by other projects with which we have communicated. CH and SY drew attention to the need for medievalists to be able to offer those inside and outside academic history a sense of when apparently global themes (including globalization itself) had deeper pasts, and when in fact those deeper pasts were different from each other. CH also pointed to the deeper historiographical past to the idea of global and/or world medieval history itself: this is not just a current fad – think of Marshall Hodgson’s explicitly non-Eurocentric interest in an extensive pre-modern Islamic world, expressed as early as the 1960s. She went on to highlight the potential that a GMA has for putting Europe into perspective (Europe has not always been central to world history) or for offering an alternative story to medieval Europe itself (one more about movement across porous frontiers rather than about the growth of state and ecclesiastical institutions). But perhaps the reason for going global, she argued, is the plentiful nature of the evidence and the ways in which that evidence, both textual and material, is rapidly being made more easily accessible. For all that, though, we are at the start of thinking about how best to interpret that evidence: whether as early signs of later post-medieval global phenomena, or as afterlives of earlier global developments, or as representatives of a global experience particular to the years between roughly 500 and 1500.
The suggestion that we are at the very beginning of understanding how to frame and to study the global Middle Ages is one that was reiterated by SY. In that context SY was very open about the fact that most university-based historians of these centuries struggle to know how to go global; about the fears that many feel over taking on regions and cultural traditions which are deeply unfamiliar to them; and about the fact that much of the early work that we need to do as historians of the global Middle Ages is simply about ‘tooling up’ on the basics of other parts of the world, and about learning from each other. This need for exchange of information and interpretative approaches is one reason why our network has worked so collaboratively during our workshops and will continue to do so as we put the publication together.
SY also offered a synopsis of the Medieval Academy of America conference that he had recently attended at the University of Notre Dame, where he met faculty from the University of Illinois, at Urbana–Champaign, an important centre for the study of the Global Middle Ages in the United States, and the home of The Medieval Globe, a new journal for global medieval history. He pointed out some similarities and differences in emphasis between our ‘Defining’ project and those approaches he had recently encountered in the US. In common with UK historians, US medievalists are interested in exploring connectedness and the deep historical contextualization of selected historical themes. In terms of difference, there seemed to be a greater weighting towards literary sources in disciplinary conversation with the sciences among US-based scholars, certainly those based at Urbana-Champaign. Our project, by contrast, has tended to take more anthropological and archaeological perspectives on the material record. There are also differences on the question of how readily the term ‘medieval’ should be attached to ‘global’. Our project has always acknowledged ‘medieval’ as a Eurocentric term that we would not wish to trumpet, and we certainly accept that the term has little meaning historiographically for the study of many areas of the world. That said, the ‘Defining’ project has tended to retain ‘medieval’ simply as a label of convenience, useful until we can find a viable alternative. US-based scholars of the global find the use of ‘medieval’ more controversial. The term is thought to be too closely implicated with modern western colonial discourses and practices to be used in a merely neutral and descriptive manner. A postcolonial, more actively reflexive approach to perceptions and uses of the concept medieval is a well-developed aspect of the field in the US that is just not discussed in the UK. Such an approach aligns two distinct ‘subaltern’ voices in a manner that Simon suggested was distinct to the US: the voices of the extra-European, post-medieval recipients of medieval discursive strategies, and the voices of those marginalized by the medieval as a historiographical term of periodization. This theoretical move opens up a field of identity politics that Simon suggested appears more fruitful and compelling to the US Academy, themselves historically postcolonial but seeking liberation from historiographical colonialism, than to UK historians, for whom the medieval past is a continuous and relatively unproblematic identity. The discussion which followed SY’s presentation concluded that while ‘medieval’ could convey unhelpful preconceptions and associations for outreach-type audiences, including school children and museum visitors, nonetheless it was useful in the UK context as a recognizable label which had the potential to draw newcomers into the global history of the centuries our project covers. It was more accessible than, for instance, numbered centuries (sixth century, ninth century etc), or other potential dating mechanisms (e.g. labelling by dynasty).
These context-setting outlines were followed by three presentations by network members which sought to demonstrate the Global Middle Ages in action. Each speaker covered a thematic area that they will be picking up more fully in the publication that is in preparation. Thus Scott Ashley spoke about the potential that ‘networks’ as a theme has for studying the global Middle Ages. He drew the audience’s attention to a variety of different approaches to networks with which our own project had engaged, including small-worlds theories, world systems theories and what he termed ‘local worlds’. By taking as an example the goods with distant provenances (e.g. silks, peppercorns) that Bede handed out to his followers on his death bed at his monastery in the north-east of England, Scott gave a concrete example of a strong theme that has emerged from our discussions: the way in which ‘global’ items were used and made meaningful in highly localised settings. Discussion which followed Scott’s talk made it clear that objects with global or trans-regional stories attached their production, transmission and domestic use (as with the Lewis chessmen in the British Museum), or anecdotes in the historical record which identify objects of that sort (as in the Bede example) are powerful tools with which to present the global Middle Ages to new audiences.
After the break, Conrad Leyser spoke about the ways in which adopting a global perspective can open up big questions about the nature of cities. He talked about how he had worked as a western medievalist with network colleagues in thinking comparatively about resources and their distribution within medieval societies. He showed how this collaboration had brought him into contact with evidence for cities in African and east Asian contexts which seem to overturn the kinds of assumptions that western medievalists usually make about urbanisation. These certainties go back to the model developed by V. Gordon Childe with respect to the ‘rise’ of the city in ancient Mesopotamia, and are brought into doubt by evidence for what he called the ‘pop-up’ cities, such as Djenné-Djenno in Mali, West Africa. In the discussion which followed Conrad’s talk, participants saw a lot of potential for ‘the city’ as a theme which would resonate with audiences new to the global Middle Ages. Ashley Hern, one of the teachers in the audience, outlined how he has sometimes used discussion of V. Gordon Childe’s model to get students in Years 12 and 13 to think about what it is that a city needs to be called such.
Rather a similar reaction met the final presentation of the morning, that by Ian Forrest on ‘trust’. This was another theme which participants thought would play well in class-room discussion because it generated the kinds of fundamental questions that teachers like to explore with students: Why should I trust you? Should I trust you more if you’re my neighbour and family friend, or if you’re only known to me through remote means? Ian opened the door to thinking about trust in these ways by offering the workshop some alternative approaches to traditional thinking on trust. He questioned assumptions that trust in pre-modern societies, especially in medieval contexts, could only be experienced in face-to-face encounters where participants were well known to each other through multiple local connections (so-called ‘thick trust’), and that we have to wait until the very end of the Middle Ages for the beginning of mechanisms which enabled trust to operate over much longer distances, in contexts where the participants in trust arrangements did not necessarily meet each other and had very few other social connections (‘thin trust’). Ian suggested that there were in fact other ways in which trust over longer distances was established, long before the dawn of modernity, some involving public authority, others operating within more private contexts, others combining public and private elements. In fact, Ian’s arguments, based more on cultural approaches to the evidence for trust in the Middle Ages rather than on economists’ arguments about the primacy of self-interest, suggest strong continuities between the pre-modern (including the medieval) and the modern.
Some we made earlier: sharing Global Middle Ages research outcomes beyond the academy
After lunch the emphasis in the workshop moved away from the network members telling the other members of the audience about our academic ‘take’ on the global Middle Ages and more towards activities of an outreach nature involving network members and others which offer models for how the Global Middle Ages could engage wider audiences. All three presentations involved projects that network members have shaped, but only one was directly generated by our network. That first project was presented by David Gimson, a History teacher at Cheney School in Oxford, who together with one of our network members, John Watts, had taken the global Middle Ages into the classroom with a group of bright 14-year olds. Over the course of two lessons, one focused on maps showing the movements of goods and faiths during the medieval period, and the other on the theme of medieval corruption generated by comparative study of text excerpts from China and late medieval England, David and John sought to introduce these students to the global before 1500 while at the same taking note of what did and did not resonate with those students. This exercise was clearly innovative as far as the teaching of History went, never mind global medieval history: David indicated that this was the first time that he had ever worked with an academic historian in the actual delivery of lessons, and that he was certainly keen to do something similar again, particularly if the academic in question were as well prepared, responsive and thoughtful as John. He also thought that this might be a way for post-doctoral or post-graduate scholars to interact creatively with schools. The full findings of their joint endeavour have been written up in Teaching History (see Resources for Schools section on this website), but David was able to gloss those findings further in our meeting, confirming for instance that working with maps seemed an easier way to engage students with the global than through text alone. This reference to the visual offers another spin on the preference for object or pictorial evidence expressed earlier in the workshop (see responses to Scott Ashley’s talk).
Following David’s presentation, Susan Whitfield introduced the workshop participants to the International Dunhuang Project, an international collaboration with its HQ at the British Library, designed to make information and images of all the manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on-line. For participants at the workshop with an interest in using objects as ways into a global Middle Ages, or even into a theme with a slightly different angle, such as the Middle Ages outside Europe or pre-modern trade, the resources offered by the IDP are quite unparalleled in the range and excitement of what is on offer: http://idp.bl.uk
Following Susan’s talk, Anne Haour offered some thoughts about how she worked with the curators of the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia to present the archaeological findings from her Crossroads of Empire project in northern Benin. This region of the Sahel around the Niger River is commonly thought to have been controlled by huge and powerful empires. Anne’s project has been concerned with trying to establish and interpret the archaeological record of those empires’ interactions with local societies. As she explained in her talk, there were many challenges in putting on an exhibition designed to introduce this topic to a wider audience who might be visiting the museum for entirely other purposes. How to make ‘brown’ pottery exciting? How to overcome negative and simplistic assumptions about Africa and about ‘the medieval’? Anne offered some instances of feedback that museum visitors had offered to the exhibition, many of which seemed to indicate genuine surprise at the sophistication of the technical skills of those who produced the objects on display. Even more striking for the purposes of those interested in a global Middle Ages, some of the feedback showed that visitors to the exhibition had only suddenly realised that Africa had a medieval history at all. How was this successful engagement with the public achieved? In part by interlacing the medieval evidence with some modern instances of local craftsmanship – e.g. a colourful textile to offset the pottery! But perhaps most strikingly, it was achieved by offering substantial textual explanation to the exhibits so that they were given a context that enabled a wider story to be told. As far as this workshop went, this focus on text was interesting in that it suggests that while objects and maps may be the way into gaining audience attention for periods and places which are unfamiliar to non-expert audiences, well-judged text is also necessary for those audiences to be able to respond to the visual evidence in front of them.
These presentations acted as a gateway to further discussion of how to interact with wider audiences in pursuit of the medieval global. Most of that discussion happened in small groups and was focused on three linked themes:
- What ‘tools’ are likely to be most helpful for audiences who are new to the global middle ages?
- How can the ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’ project assist with that wider dissemination to new audiences and to early career researcher audiences?
- How can academic historians and archaeologists interact with wider audiences in presenting a global Middle Ages?
Discussion was exceptionally lively and produced a host of ideas, some of which will be taken forward by the Defining the Global Middle Ages project (which all the target audiences at this workshop seemed to feel had established a necessary and helpful platform for the study of the medieval global both nationally and internationally). Some of those ideas can be turned into reality quickly, particularly in conjunction with the DGMA website; some will take longer to come to fruition. Some will undoubtedly lead to new projects. That the workshop ended on such a high note was immensely gratifying to the network members who were present, above all because it seemed to indicate that while the business of ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’ will continue, it is a business well worth discussing!