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Thursday, 24 January 2019

Decentring Western European History … in the History of Western Europe

As many of you will know, I am (endlessly it seems) working on a book about Western Europe around 600 AD.  I work on Western Europe partly because it is what, over the years, I have become most (if far from exclusively) interested in, and partly because it is the limit of my scholarly competence.  I have little time for people who study regions or periods of history where they can’t read the sources in the original language (why yes, ‘Latin East’ Crusades studies, I am looking at you, but not exclusively).  I can get by in reading all of the western European Romance or Germanic languages, to some degree, ranging from fluent (French) to ‘basically getting the gist if it’s not too complex’ (Norwegian; Portuguese).  But my Greek is pretty basic; I have a very (very) little Turkish but not enough to call a reading knowledge (and none at all prior to Ataturk’s reforms of script and grammar); and I can’t read any Slavic languages, let alone Arabic or Parsi, or Sanskrit, or Chinese…  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the main reason why I restrict myself to the West.  The other reason is simply to put some sort of geographical limit on the projects.

Partly, though far from entirely, as a means of making a virtue of this necessity, I have developed an interest in the North-South axes of communications and connections in the West, from Scandinavia to the western Mediterranean, rather than in the East-West axis that has generally dominated the historiography.  I think that has allowed a slightly different perspective on the ‘Late Antique Paradigm’ and a slightly different way of seeing the last century or so of the Western Roman Empire.  Clearly, it’s impossible to study that period without keeping the Eastern Empire in the picture but I maintain that the disintegration of the Western Empire was chiefly attributable to entirely western imperial factors.

One of the many things that is interesting about the period between c.550 and c.650 is that in this period links with the East, the old East-West Mediterranean axis, let alone more far-flung connections, began to reduce further, and dramatically.  Now, this is not news, and not just because it’s stuff that happened 1400 years ago.  If Pirenne was right about anything, it was about the ways in which the North-West, the North Sea World, had become more important in Western Europe, than the Mediterranean world by Charemagne’s day.  That’s not to say that the Mediterranean was without any importance at all; recent studies have shown that East-West contacts were much more important than Pirenne, for instance, had thought.  But the picture, grosso modo, pertains.  In Pirenne’s narrative, the closing of the Mediterrranean by the Arabs, as he thought, led to western Europe turning inwards and creating new economic systems around the North Sea.  ‘Without Mohammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’, in Pirenne’s famous dictum. Pirenne was wrong about almost all of the specifics of his model.  The North-Western European, North-Sea world was effectively separated from the Mediterranean at least by the fourth century, for example.(1)  Whether the Arabs are to blame for the end of the Mediterranean’s domination of the western economy is debatable; the shift comes a generation or more too early in my view but Simon Loseby, whose understanding of the Mediterranean economy is far superior to mine, thinks otherwise (or at least used to).  Nonetheless, that the shape of western European networks, c.650, differed very importantly from those of c.550 seems incontrovertible to me as does the comparative applicability of the phrase ‘inward-looking’ to those networks.

In even grander narratives, of European exceptionalism, of the Rise of the West and so on, that phase becomes yet more important.  Allegedly, it is this ‘inward-looking’ period that saw the creation of the features, and the dynamics, that enabled Europe to expand outwards, ultimately to dominate the world in the period after c.1800.  There’s a danger, perhaps, of this study of western Europe in the generations either side of 600, becoming incorporated in one of those tiresome narratives about Why the West is the Best, worse still in one of those narratives of modernity.  Rather like Simon Critchley, I don’t really believe in modernity, other than as a narrative construct, and I reject ‘modernity fundamentalism’.(2) The concept of the modern world is a rather Eurocentric one.

It has become fashionable recently to discuss Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in more global terms.  In some ways this is excellent; in other ways it’s a huge conceptual muddle.  Of course, the rest of the world had a history before European colonization and there were links that connected Europe with most of that world.  Traditional Late Antique Medieval History can be criticized for its Eurocentricity (or Mediterranean-basin-ocentricity) but I am not sure that foisting European periodization on the rest of the world is any less Eurocentric; perhaps it is more so.  I recently received a ‘reply-all’ email criticizing a proposed history general course for being divided into Medieval, Early Modern and Modern on the grounds that that periodization made no sense outside Europe.  That of course begs the question of whether it makes any sense within Europe.  It is a bit disheartening to see a history professor mistake traditional, contingent chronological divisions, which have been endlessly called into question and have never really been based upon more than convenience, for reflections of concrete, regional historical actuality.  But we are were we are, and the proposed response, to divide world history into two equal periods, before and after 1800, is (among many other absurdities) even more Eurocentric.

As signs, labels have their signifieds.  To talk of the global Middle Ages or the global Late Antiquity, implicitly confers on extra-European, or extra-Mediterranean, regions not simply a name but a place in a teleological narrative or a historiographical problematic.  Periods referred to as a ‘middle’ age in various parts of South or East Asia, for example, are so called for quite different reasons than those which led European humanists to designate the period between them and the Roman Empire as the age that lay ‘in the middle’ between them, and consequently those different Middle Ages do not map directly onto each other.  Does the history of South Asia benefit from being labelled according to a periodization devised to address the issues of continuity on either side of the political events of fifth-century Western Europe and the Mediterranean?  I am not sure it does.

That is not, by any means, to argue against the interest or importance of looking at the links that existed between western Europe, say, and China or South Asia, via the Steppe, or the sea routes around the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.  There has been much recent work done that sees Roman history as a part of a Eurasian history that connects it with the other great Empires of the period.(3)  I am thinking about a radically revised, second edition of Barbarian Migrations and these developments definitely need to be taken into account there.  Just the other day, via a quite different process, I found myself wondering whether the collapse of the Gupta state in India had some role in kicking off the changes in East-West connections that can be seen in the period I am studying.

But connections need closer critical consideration.  There are two dangers, as I see it.  One is that the Eurasian perspective on Late Antiquity runs the risk of reintroducing the idea of the Huns as the Deus Ex Machina that ruins the Roman Empire (though of course there are some areas where that idea has never gone away).  It either kicks the explanatory can back off across the steppes, leaving us not to have to worry about conflicts, tensions and political dynamics within the Roman Empire itself, or it leads us on a goose-chase, wild or otherwise, to seek some sort of ultimate point of causation, the place where change started, where no further external factor can be adduced: an Ursache indeed.(4). 

This raises the next problem, which is that connections, like narratives, have to be deconstructed.  When we join the dots are we creating a picture that had no contemporary historical reality?  Just as the arrows on ‘migration maps’ have been correctly critiqued for joining up into what looks like a coherent process series of separate phenomena, distinct, contingent movements motivated by quite other intentions than to arrive at the next ‘stage’ on the map or the final ‘goal’, carried out by fundamentally different groups of people.  Do links that join up trading connections or cultural contacts commit the same fundamental error?  Do the people who stood at the beginning and end points of these arrows even have an awareness of each other?  What does this connectivity mean? How does it compare with other social relations, if at all?  How is each link in the chain seen, enacted and employed by the people involved?  What are the (quite possibly very different) effects of connectivity, on the various societies connected by these chains?  These questions are not at all posed to reject placing fourth- to seventh-century Europe and the Mediterranean in a wider world of connections and contacts.  They are meant to invite a more critical reflection, even if also to challenge the notion that joining the dots is a blessing in itself.

But what if, as I think is the case, the dots leading to or from Western Europe between c.550 and c.650 don’t actually go very far?  Is there a less Eurocentric way of thinking about European history of a period when Europe (if we can even talk about Europe – let’s call it Europe ‘sous rature’) had little to do with anywhere else?  Is it possible to recast the period in terms other than those of European exceptionalism: the time ‘when Europe discovered itself’ and when the foundations of modern Capitalism were laid?  Maybe there isn’t and it isn’t.  One idea that occurred to me comes out of the placing of Europe sous rature, just now.  I once referred to the area I work on as ‘far western Eurasia’.  I did so partly in jest but perhaps it is worth taking that nomenclature seriously.  It has the benefit of decentring the perspective that led westerners until recently to talk of the ‘near’ and the ‘far’ East.  It has the advantage, too, of pointing out, that in global terms, especially if you eschew the Mercator Projection, the area I work on lies at the extremity, at the edge, whether of the great Eurasian landmass, or northwards, across the sea, from the equally great landmass of Africa.  It is interesting to think not only of Britain, but of all of Eurasia west of the Upper Elbe and the Adriatic, as peripheral.  But that, it seems to me, if very much the case in the period I am currently looking at.    In many ways it won’t make much difference to the story I have to tell and the factors I want to adduce, but words matter and ‘The Isolation of Far Western Eurasia’ has a rather importantly different signified from ‘The Origins of Europe’.

[1] Indeed the preceding period, between say the Late Roman Republic and the ‘Third-Century Crisis’ when this may not have been the case, is rather more exceptional.

[3] See Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Maas (ed.), Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, Ca. 250-750 (Cambridge, 2018).  Some of this thinking makes its way into Michael Kulikowski’s excellent Imperial Triumph. The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine (London, 2016), which I heartily recommend.

[4] The German word die Ursache (‘cause’,‘root cause’, ‘reason’)  contains the stem ‘Ur’’, which usually denotes something primordial or original, and die Sache – ‘thing’, ‘matter’: the ultimate, primary thing. A root cause indeed.