The Hemispheric Middle Ages — Part I

The ‘Global Middle Ages’ is a growing movement within medieval studies, but it seems to me that it includes a number of disparate notions that aren’t necessarily related and that it is less programmatic than it could be. In this series, I will present my somewhat unorthodox view on what I mean when I use the terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ and more specifically the ‘Hemispheric Middle Ages’, a phrasing I think is a bit more appropriate for my purposes than ‘Global Middle Ages’. The idea here is to circumvent debate about my use of ‘medieval’ in reference to societies outside Europe before the sixteenth century; I’m a little tired of having the same conversations every time the topic comes up and I want to have a set of articles I can direct people to if they’re interested in finding out my views.

In this post I’ll just sketch a quick outline of my position. It’s a staccato summary in bullet-points and not a detailed easy-reading article. I’ve said all of this before, however, principally on Twitter but also in some older posts on this site (‘The “Middle Ages”’ and ‘The Fifteenth Century is the Most Interesting Century’). This outline is still markedly different from the theoretical backdrops of other works published under the heading of the ‘Global Middle Ages’ (in large part because theoretical pluralism is the norm with projects like that), and I am summarising it here in bullet-points so that there is no confusion as to my views on any single topic. To really ram it home I’m going to follow up with a couple of longer articles on particular points.

In the second part I will look at the issue of the Americas within the ‘Global Middle Ages’ framework, concluding that the inclusion of pre-contact American societies is hard to justify. In the third instalment I’ll examine the question of comparison — specifically, whether the notion of the ‘Global’/Hemispheric Middle Ages should be based on comparing institutions (etc.) within ‘medieval’ societies. I say that it shouldn’t be. Finally, I will look at the Indo-Malaysian archipelago specifically within the framework of the Hemispheric Middle Ages. I may well add parts to this series after that.

Anyway, here’s a summary of what I see as the Hemispheric Middle Ages:

  • The ‘Middle Ages’ ended with the Columbian Exchange, a process (rather than a moment) that began at the very end of the fifteenth century and which is to some extent still ongoing.
  • The ‘Middle Ages’ had a somewhat indistinct start — the beginning is much more arbitrarily defined than the conclusion, in my view.
  • ‘Medieval’ is not equivalent to a particular kind or ‘level’ of cultural or technological development.
  • The medieval world included literate and non-literate people/societies, state and non-state societies, and urban and non-urban societies, of a wide range of religious beliefs and practices.
  • The term ‘medieval’ does not refer to a kind of society (e.g. feudal, or Latin Christian) and should not be taken as implying any kind of homogeneity of thought or activity.
  • What matters is that people throughout the medieval world were linked to one another in various ways (economically and ‘culturally’ in the broadest senses), chiefly through relays between different points on the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent.
  • These links can and should be the subject of real research.
  • The medieval world is defined by interaction rather than exclusively by geography.
  • Almost all of Afro-Eurasia may productively be included.
  • But the medieval world did not include the (vast majority of the) Americas, almost by definition.
  • There’s not much in the way of evidence linking Australia with Afro-Eurasia during this period, although people in western New Guinea were certainly involved in all kinds of exchanges with people to their north and west before the Portuguese arrived in the region.
  • I’d say, too, that people in Polynesia and nearly all of island Melanesia were largely separate from the interactions that characterised this medieval hemisphere.
  • The terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ are appropriate labels for this period principally because their established use in European and Middle Eastern contexts already roughly matches the period I define by the criteria here.
  • The negative connotations of ‘medieval’ are regrettable but what are you going to do? Make people love a non-industrial hemisphere without salted peanuts and penicillin?
  • Research guided by the notion of a ‘Global’ or Hemispheric Middle Ages should not chiefly be comparative; I can’t see any reason to limit comparison to a narrow chronological band, especially when so many parts of the medieval world are poorly documented (the humid tropics in particular).
Fig. 1 — The Afro-Eurasian supercontinent. In my view, the terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ can productively be applied across this space.

I would also add a couple of extra points here that are not necessarily part of things but which I tend to emphasise (for obvious reasons):

  • The Indian Ocean was the beating heart of the medieval world and the Indo-Malaysian archipelago was placed right by its aorta (so to speak).
  • As I mentioned in my earlier piece on the ‘Middle Ages’, I am tempted to place the beginning of the Middle Ages at the very end of the first millennium BCE when sailors began to make full use of the monsoon cycle to sail all the way across and around the Indian Ocean and return safely. I am not entirely convinced by this idea (the Roman empire would be part of the ‘Middle Ages’ in this case), but I view it as a provocative counterpoint to the overland-focused ‘Silk Road’ vision of medieval trade and cultural exchange.

The Afro-Eurasian hemisphere was traversed by all kinds of commodities and ideas in the Middle Ages, commodities and ideas that did not make their way to the Americas until the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at the earliest — until the end of the Middle Ages as I define it. Rice, dates, barley, cloves, glassware, porcelain, the Perso-Arabic script, Islam, Christianity, the lion as a symbol of power, steel, rose-water, gunpowder: before 1492 these things could all be found across Afro-Eurasia but not, crucially, in the Americas. And there are so many things like this, so many that we need a coherent interdisciplinary perspective through which to look at them. If you want more detailed examples of the intra-hemispheric links I’m talking about, you could have a look at some of my earlier posts.

Regardless of whether you are happy to use the words ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ here, the inter-connectedness of Afro-Eurasia before the Columbian Exchange necessitates an overarching periodisation under which rubric research on these connections can be pursued. I call the period the ‘Middle Ages’ and the general research project(s) that investigate(s) the links between different parts of Afro-Eurasia in this period the Hemispheric Middle Ages.

That’s what I mean when I use these terms. As I said above, in the next couple of posts I’ll go into some more detail on some of these points before bringing the discussion around to island Southeast Asia, an under-explored but vital region of the Hemispheric Middle Ages.

A. J. West
Leiden, October 2019

Two years later I wrote a second piece in this vein — Hemispheric Middle Ages, Part II. It’s about comparative research, and why I don’t think it should be the core of work on the wider medieval world.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.