The Challenge of World History

“It would not be difficult to argue that we should be better off if we could scrap our histories of Europe and free our minds from their myopic concentration on the West… The questions we have to ask have changed.”

So wrote Geoffrey Barraclough in the TLS in 1956 in a statement which seems as relevant today as it did then. For Barraclough, the call to engage with non-European histories was part of his reaction to a world unsettled, with war and revolution across the globe radically reshaping the world with breath-taking speed. Yet the progress of world history has been slow. It began with an unsteady eclecticism which, in the hands of some practitioners, it has never fully lost. It is, even in McNeill’s classic defence of the subject, a big subject by definition, even if many of its working methods are held in common with smaller-scale histories. Can one write world history? Would the results be anything more than the cherry-picking of interesting tit-bits?

It is good to see someone trying. Bob Moore – R. I. Moore – has been engaged with world history for a long time now, despite being more famous for his work on heresy. (See the particularly interesting recent exchange between him and Pete Biller here). On Monday he came to St Andrews to give the annual SAIMS lecture: ‘The Eleventh Century in World History’.

RI Moore gives the 2014 SAIMS Lecture

RI Moore gives the 2014 SAIMS Lecture

You could tell from his talk that he is still troubled about the practicalities of world history. He began with a picture of Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV at Canossa, with Henry outmanoeuvring the pope for a while as part of the brinkmanship surrounding the Investiture Contest. He then turned to Song China, where there were apparently similar anxieties about counsel and clerical authority. Was this coincidence or something we could usefully analyse? Well, it would have been a short paper if the former, unless comparing apples and oranges is your thing.

It is a truism, once pointed out by the great Alex Woolf, that all medieval historians specialise on the bit when there was a shift in power from land to lordship. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the historiography on the eleventh and twelfth centuries – the period, according to Moore, in which the Middle Ages changed decisively. There are always dangers with that kind of argument, but we’ll sidestep them for now. Moore’s big contention was that was true not only for Europe but for the Eurasian landmass as a whole. He had a nice diagram to show how different economic spheres overlapped so that, if Europe wasn’t directly connected to India or China, then you could at least see the indirect connections. Really, he argued, you could see that there was structurally a history of the whole region to be told. The rise of cities drove developments, supported by rising agricultural surpluses and better shipping technologies. In this universal context, it is not so surprising to see intellectual and religious life more ordered in China and in Europe than it had been before: similar paradigms were shifting for similar reasons.

I don’t know. When you are talking at that kind of level of historical analysis, it is difficult to have the expertise to comment. Was Song China really so similar to Europe under the Capetians and Salians or was Moore impressed by superficial similarities? One presumes that he didn’t go and do the legwork with Chinese sources – or Arab or Indian ones – so there is a danger of comparing second-hand interpretations with no control tests. It is for this last reason that much work in world or global history is pursued collaboratively and, actually talking to Moore afterwards, it is clear that he has had plenty of collaborators. Still: they weren’t there to interrogate.

Methodologically, this was neither really comparative history nor anthropological in enterprise. Marc Bloch long ago warned not to compare societies without setting out enough structural similarities to make the comparison meaningful. Anthropologists, as Moore noted, tend to be more focussed, more concerned with micro-detail. What Moore had advocated was seeing history as part of a world system. Does this rob historical actors of real agency? Does it prioritise a few commonalities in a sea of difference? (Where, he said cheekily on the way home, were the women and ethnic minorities?).

I am nit-picking, of course. It was a good lecture and I enjoyed seeing some of the ways in which different regions compared and might, at distance, be responding to similar complex processes. Earlier on this year I started reading up on T’ang China, which runs from 618-906, because I wanted to know more about what was going on outside the Merovingian and Carolingian worlds, and I had already read up on the Arab world. (If anyone knows of any good books on India in this period, do let me know). Immediately things jump out at you. Was the Empress Wu (d. 705) not really a Chinese Brunhild? She was a powerful woman who dominated generations of politics, but whose life is known primarily through later propaganda which uses stories of sordid sexual encounters to smear the one-time heroine. And isn’t it just so striking that the Merovingian world ended in 751, just as the ‘Abbasids were ousting the Umayyads… and just a couple of years before the An Lushan rebellion of 756, which ousted Emperor Xuanzong. Can you do anything with that kind of coincidence other than to tell interesting parallel stories and to what end?

The Flight of Xuanzong

The Flight of Xuanzong

Politically this matters. Funding bodies for research truly believe in research that cuts across geographical borders as well as disciplinary ones. Just look at lists of projects in the humanities which have received ERC money. The classic problems will be raised: few people can master all the relevant languages let alone all the relevant sources; one will inevitably end up trying to compare apples and oranges; and, you know, you can still do excellent ground-breaking research on Old Europe, and terrible work on a trendy topic (bah humbug). (Plus do the people of Fife want to read about T’ang China any more than they want to read about Merovingians? Probably best not to answer that one).

It is certainly more interesting to think about these issues than to ignore them. But who knows where it will lead…

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