Saturday, April 24, 2010

If you have the patience for some technical reading...

...Janet L. Abu-Lugbod's landmark Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250 - 1350 does a fantastic if slow-going job of describing the regional economic subsystems and trade routes that spanned Eurasia from around the fall of Rome to the disintegration of the Mongol's massive overland empire.

Besides a broader view of this commercial system's enormous influence on the overall development of human societies, Before European Hegemony also gave me an entirely new understanding of Medieval Europe's economic and political order. What this work lacks, however, is a description of the wealthy trading cities of Eastern Africa, as well as the Gold Roads of Africa--a significant source of precious metals and slaves in the Eastern Hemisphere's economy during the time period.

Robert B. Marks' The Origins of the Modern World does a good job of following the expansion of Abu-Lugbod's Afro-Eurasian economy into a global system after 1500 and is written in a more accessible style.

Having said that, I have two complaints about his work. One is that in his attempt to address why the European Imperial powers came to dominate the world, he never discusses Jared Diamond's Gun's Germans and Steel*, a popular work that looms large over this topic. Even if not strictly historiographical, Diamond's listing of explanatory geographical and ecological factors is so pervasive (and persuasive in my view) that Marks' thesis would have benefited a comparison with Diamond's. It's all the more strange as Marks cites Guns Germs and Steel in Origins of the Modern World with regards to revolutions in food production and in defining civilizations in two footnotes.

The second gripe is that Marks works a little too hard at explaining that no merit was involved with Western Europe's economic and military ascent. While I do agree that this global change was in large part contingent upon a number of factors external to Europe, those conditions also formed the context that European political and commercial leaders were making decisions in. If all factors were materially contingent and choice was never a variable, then European domination after A.D. 1500 was truly inevitable--contrary to Marks' thesis. Instead, like Diamond, I see a number of factors as having helped to stack the deck in Northwestern Europe's favor, and I believe that differing choices during a handful of key moments could have led to a very different world order--again for good or for bad.

*If you couldn't slog through Guns Germans and Steel, don't worry, you are in good company. A number of bright and intellectually curious friends of mine had a hard time getting through this detail-oriented book. But if you do want to know why the world turned out as it did after 1500, I warmly recommend the National Geographic television version (available on Netflix). This three episode series efficiently outlines Diamond's major casual factors in an easy to follow visual narrative and introduces supplemental material not covered in the book.

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