The Hemispheric Middle Ages — Part II

In previous posts on this blog I have outlined my thoughts on the ‘Middle Ages’ and on what the words ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ can usefully be made to mean. In this post I’m going to go over the same topics again from a slightly different angle, looking at the idea of comparative research in the context of a global or hemispheric conception of the Middle Ages.

I’m not an eminent scholar, of course, and there’s no particular reason for you to accept my views rather than those of people who have studied these things for far longer. Still, I have yet to see my precise position adopted or outlined by anyone else, and to be frank I think I’m right, so here I’ll begin by briefly summarising my views before throwing out a few objections to the idea of comparative research as essential to a broader conception of the Middle Ages (and of medieval studies in universities). As in Part I, I’ll try my best to be clear and concise here.

Hemispheric Middle Ages

I think the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’ ought to refer to greater Afro-Eurasia in the few centuries before the Columbian Exchange. Intra- and intercontinental connections of various kinds increasingly drew Afro-Eurasia together as a single cultural and economic space prior to Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492, which inaugurated a new and truly global era in human history by generating sustained contact between two hemispheres which had up to that point had little to do with one another (except in the far north). ‘Medieval’ is a term that can therefore meaningfully be applied to Norway, China, Russia, Java, or Zimbabwe equally — but not to Oaxaca, Marajó, or Kansas (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 — The period before the end of the fiftenth century CE is characterised by a world divided into two largely non-interacting hemispheres.

As this view depends on a broad separation between the Americas and Afro-Eurasia, and explicitly does not include the Americas in its formulation of the ‘Middle Ages’, I call it the ‘Hemispheric Middle Ages’. This is in contrast to the (relatively recent but now rather common) use of the term ‘Global Middle Ages’ by scholars working in medieval studies and global history.

Comparison and the Middle Ages

A fair amount of this ‘Global Middle Ages’ work has been comparative, examining institutions or practices in different parts of the world before the sixteenth century. (Well, the chronological basis of comparison seems to be the use of the term ‘medieval’ in local historiographies more than anything else, and the idea behind the ‘Global Middle Ages’ seems to be to allow academics to introduce material from outside Europe in their medieval history lectures. Still.) To my mind this risks papering over some key distinctions, and I don’t think comparison of this kind should be the focus of any wider understanding of the medieval world.

Links of various kinds between island Southeast Asia and the rest of Afro-Eurasia before the sixteenth century are indisputable — see much of the material on this blog if you want evidence of that — but there were no such links between any Afro-Eurasian societies and Central Mexico (to take one example) at the same time. A rigorous comparison of literature or institutions in Central Mexico and Italy would without question be fascinating, but this seems to me a more anthropological project than a strictly historical one — and if most work on the wider Middle Ages is comparative then actual links between pre-sixteenth-century Java and Italy, say, are put on the same level as analogies between pre-sixteenth-century Mexican and Italian institutions. That seems rather misguided.

Comparative research can be a wonderful thing, and certain disciplines in the social sciences would not exist without it. What I don’t see, though, is any particular reason to restrict comparison to a narrow chronological band (e.g. a broadly defined ‘Middle Ages’, c.500–1500 CE/AD), especially when many parts of the world are poorly documented or not documented at all at that time. Serious comparative work is fundamentally anthropological, and comparative research should, to my mind, make use of the entire ethnographic record (potentially, at least) rather than the much more limited medieval/pre-Columbian historical record. I’ve seen plenty of anthropological work that compares elements of societies documented ethnographically with historical research on pre-sixteenth-century ones, so this is far from an unprecedented idea. (See e.g. the discussion of Franciscan communities in medieval Europe in chapter 4 of Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process [1969] — one of many anthropological classics to contain such comparisons.)

As little material survives from humid tropical regions of Afro-Eurasia prior to the sixteenth century, the possibilities of ‘global medieval’ comparison are restricted to parts of the temperate world with rich historical traditions. This does not seem ideal. Indeed, it seems likely to contribute to the marginalisation of places of huge importance in greater Afro-Eurasian culture and economy in the Middle Ages — places like Southeast Asia and tropical Africa, already rather marginalised even today.

Instead of working with what survives to help better understand a society and its place in a wider hemispheric world, a comparative focus seeks analogous features and institutions which may or may not be documented at all in certain places. I’ve been asked about hospitals and healthcare in medieval Java, for instance, by people who want to approach the topic comparatively. This seems like a potentially interesting topic — but we simply don’t have much information on that subject from Java (or really anywhere else in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago) before the sixteenth century at the earliest.

What we can do, though, is see Java’s impact (for example) in documents written elsewhere in the medieval world, or examine texts that do survive from Java in terms of their connections with other parts of greater Afro-Eurasia. This is the sort of work, I think, that truly helps us understand the world a bit better. It is also rather difficult work to do, as it demands knowledge of several languages and several textual traditions, as well as a broad understanding of the world in general.

It also requires imaginative leaps not required by comparative work — which can be conducted under the outmoded assumption that different regions of the pre-modern world even within the Americas and within Afro-Eurasia were largely isolated from one another. To work on a hemispheric Middle Ages is, I’d say, to accept that medieval greater Afro-Eurasia was ultimately one place. It requires an effort of will to see it, and it sits awkwardly in an academy that prefers clear disciplinary boundaries and area specialisations based on entirely different principles, but it seems to me that this hemispheric approach is unavoidable if one is to try to understand the world before the sixteenth century in any fundamental sense.

If you have any thoughts about periodisation, or if you dispute my thoughts on the Middle Ages and my views on the utility of comparative research within a restricted time-frame, feel free to leave a comment here or @ me on Twitter (@siwaratrikalpa). Next time I’ll get back to the Old Sundanese 101 series I’ve been working on over the last few weeks, which is intended to help to introduce you to a (medieval?) literature and a manuscript tradition that you might otherwise know nothing about.

A. J. West — Leiden, October 2021

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