The Global Turn at the Medieval Academy of America 2019

The Medieval Academy of America this year was subtitled ‘The Global Turn in the Middle Ages’. It surprised more than a few people, then, when the plenary speaker, Prof Nora Berend, began proceedings by explaining at length why she thought that using the word ‘global’ was a mistake in analyses of the pre-modern world. The case ultimately rested on the fact that nothing in the Middle Ages was globalised in the same kind of way as, say, multinational corporations today, and rarely did events have full effects across the world. Many scholars claiming to be doing global history, she argued, are not therefore actually doing global history. They are not even doing anything new.

Nobody is going to quibble that societies before, say, 1600 were not as ‘globalised’ as modern ones. And plenty of talk about being global is certainly still framed by Eurocentric concerns. So it is worth asking what the ‘global turn’ really means to those trying to pursue it.

Berend’s argument was, I think, rooted in technical distinctions, although she only touched on these. ‘Global history’ as a field has been around for a while, often focusing on large-scale systems, big-picture analyses, and, yes, globalisation as a defining feature of modernity. It has been contrasted with ‘world history’, which can be understood as more about comparing developments in different regions, but going further afield than comparing France with northern Spain or the Rhineland. The labels have always been a little interchangeable, not least because ‘global’ works better as an adjective than ‘world’ in general chat. The ‘global turn’ in medieval studies also takes influence from fields that don’t take quite such a bird’s eye view, particularly postcolonialism. This means that ‘global’ as a word is also being asked to do work to express a view of the Middle Ages that is, simply, less-Eurocentric and more inclusive of all peoples and cultures. [Later NB – we might also consider how people in the past thought of the world as ‘global[ised]’, as Pennock & Power 2018 have done]. Personally, I think we should reflect on all that, but I don’t think we need to get too bogged down in finding The Perfect Alternative Term. What is going to make any investigation of the ‘Global Middle Ages’ good is not the label, but the methodologies and questions they bring to the table. Same as always.

The following morning at the MAA, Walter Pohl, Naomi Standen, and Ana Rodríguez addressed some of the issues they had encountered in their projects that were framed by ‘global comparisons’. (Relevant project pages here, here, and here). Standen in particular stressed that in the network ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’, those involved had quickly rejected the idea that ‘global’ had to be a synonym for globalisation. Moreover, they felt that attendant concerns about periodisation could only really be addressed by having multiple overlapping ‘periods’ depending on the themes under analysis. Again, what we need is complexity, not a thesaurus. Anyway, by making these choices, they were not bound by a modernist straight-jacket in which the things analysed would have had to be assessed relative to later processes, but rather on their own terms. Pohl’s project had similarly focused on a more historicising approach to global comparison – and, in keeping with one of Berend’s concerns, had had difficulty explaining to PR people that they were not looking for ‘the origins of globalisation’. The term ‘global Middle Ages’ and its relatives should not be efforts to make the pre-modern past seem more modern. They are (still early) efforts at articulating a way of seeing the past in ways that are not rooted in Eurocentricism or even Eurasia-centricism. Those involved in the ‘global turn’ seek new ideas by escaping the confines of national historiographies. There is both intellectual and political advantage here. The field can be diversified, new concerns can emerge, new ways of seeing might be possible. Pohl admitted here there will be new ways to be wrong but that that shouldn’t deter us from having the adventure.

There are many methodological differences. The projects in which Pohl, Standen, and Rodríguez were involved all necessarily rested on the involvement of people who were not experts at global history, but who knew about their more specific thing and who were prepared to talk to people with similar interests in other areas. All three speakers talked about the difficulties that followed in agreeing on what was ‘similar’. Rodríguez, for instance, explained that while it was easy for historians in PIMIC to agree that they were interested in ‘institutions’, it transpired that they all meant something slightly different by the term, and therefore had to spend time agreeing on a model. Standen and Pohl had similar anecdotes. Such discussions could be frustrating, but they seem on the whole to have led to some genuine conceptual insights in the process. Historians, like most people, do not always reflect fully on what words they use and how. But when confronted with societies with different sourcebases, different organisations, different conceptual repertoires, you have to be clear about finding the common ground the makes comparison a real thing.

[Later addition – there was an interesting twitter thread by Rabia Gregory about the MAA and global history, and I just wanted to stress in relation to the above paragraph that Standen, Pohl and Rodríguez were all clear that these discussions were ESSENTIAL to avoiding ‘global history’ being itself a Eurocentric discourse].

Naturally it is easier to have these conversations when you have funding for conferences, networking, and research projects. Smaller scale interactions can be good too. Later on the Friday, there was a lively session with papers by Mike Ryan on Venetian charlatans and Paula Curtis on Japanese legal forgeries. By having a clear, shared theme and talking through some issues in advance, they were able to have a great discussion with the audience after their more technical papers about strategies of dissimulation and the negotiable limits of the legitimate. Now, obviously Venice + Kyoto isn’t in itself ‘global’, but it took that framing, and Curtis and Ryan were able to ask profitably ‘what can we say to each other and how?’ More of this kind of thing can only be good.

What about the role of the lone scholar away from even the conference environment? Here, as ever, there lies some anxiety. Nobody can learn all the languages and all the things, after all, and few of us know who to talk to in other fields at the best of times. At the same time, relying on the conclusions of other scholars rather than engaging with original sources can be misleading too. We need a mixed economy, Standen argued, and we need to be prepared to talk. All the projects started, as I mentioned, by building up from individual scholars who were experts in their thing. Pohl suggested that, within the ‘global turn’, there would remain areas where individual scholars were more effective, particularly where synthesis and creating narratives were concerned.

There is value too, I think, in the ‘lone scholar’ having a go at other languages and engaging with the kinds of things Western historians don’t always do. I have been working on Classical Chinese as a little side-line for a while, so my modest contribution to the MAA’s ‘global turn’ was a comparison of the cultures of astronomy under the Carolingians and Tang. (This will be covered in a different blogpost). It was a fun paper to do and it made me frame the Frankish material in ways I wouldn’t otherwise have done, which for me was the point. The key thing for me in the context of the ‘global turn’, I suspect, is that now I need to go and talk at length to some people who actually work on Chinese intellectual cultures under the Tang to see where we can go from here (if anywhere) and to work on having a more developed methodology than the kind one usually generates by writing a 20-minute conference paper.

As someone said to me recently, global is of course not always better history. And certainly not – no more than any effort at thinking about methodology and subject matter. No one is saying every medievalist has to have a global turn in their work. But as with gender or narratology or working with text+material evidence, it never hurts to have a go, to encounter new things, and to think about things differently. The point is not the label we use – it is the adventure and it is the journey. Hopefully, debates such as those at the MAA will stimulate more in future.

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