The Global Middle Ages, a supplement to the journal Past and Present, is a welcome publication. Pre-1500 global history is a small field, and few works have taken up the middle period millennium (the volume covers roughly 500–1500 C.E.) in a comparative way at all, let alone in Africa, Oceania, and the Americas as well as Eurasia. Indeed, there is no volume, to my mind, that theorizes or conceptualizes the Middle Ages as a global era. This is a field-making volume, and for that reason alone, it belongs in the collection of any historian who is serious about world history or about the millennium in question.
It is also a volume that grows out of a collaborative endeavor, a series of intensive workshops. No single individual could have covered its breadth, but neither is it a typical edited collection in which each chapter is a deep dive into one author's expertise. Instead, half the chapters are co-authored, and all of them include information about parts of the world far beyond the authors’ own specialties. It is commendable to see authors offering insights that they could not have reached outside the opportunities that the editors fostered. The volume is exemplary in that way.
The Global Middle Ages defines itself against “the still ubiquitous idea” that “truly global history” only began with European long-distance maritime expeditions (1) and against a dominant teleology of global history, that of “relentless development of a global order defined by ever increasing circulation” (2). It is audacious for a global history book to reject a “globalization narrative” (18) in favor of an aspiration to study the millennium in question “in its own terms and in its own time” (15). The editors concede that “the topic is a moving target” (43). For a reader looking for a narrative or an engagement with comparative questions about periodization, this editorial direction may be frustrating, but it is an admirable experiment that is sure to provoke conversation.
Still, the editors do offer frameworks that gently structure the volume. They suggest that one way to think about the era is that it was a millennium of both “great intensification” and “great diversification” (36–7). They identify it as a period of “longer, denser and more frequent connections” (38) along branching and diversifying routes, which facilitated the spread of universal religions across multi-state systems. It was, as contributor Jonathan Shepard puts it, an era of “casual intermingling and cultural symbiosis” (155) that occurred largely outside imperial control.
The ten chapters in the volume address a range of themes. One is historiography and method. Mark Whitlow's chapter about cultures of recording notes that for historians, the Middle Ages millennium is “a world sprinkled with historiographical hot spots … and cold patches where the same sorts of questions … cannot be answered” (48). Historians know more about societies where people recorded information on parchment than about those that used palm leaves; and more about the anomalous places where archives have survived the centuries than those where various upheavals have made preservation impossible. Whitlow proposes a turn to interdisciplinary methods that incorporate materials such as DNA, LiDAR images, and ice cores, which suggests exciting future directions for this field. The chapter about urbanism by Conrad Leyser, Naomi Standen, and Stephanie Wynne-Jones also makes good use of archaeological sources along with written ones. High-density population centers existed throughout the medieval world, even if they did not always take forms that were legible to visitors at the time, let alone to historians and archaeologists today. For instance, some African cities emerged around the person of the monarch and moved each time there was a succession in rule. Periodic trade emporia existed throughout Eurasia.
Many articles in the volume do just what the editors hope. They identify globally-comparable social phenomena that take on distinctive casts outside normative Europe. Caroline Dodds Pennock and Amanda Power demonstrate that everyone in the world had a cosmos of their own—a unique idea about what it meant to be global. Ian Forrest and Anne Haour examine the notion of trust, which structured familial, political, and religious frameworks in different ways throughout Eurasian trade networks. Simon Yarrow reminds readers that all medieval Eurasian elites had their own versions of political economy. Hilde De Weerdt, Catherine Holmes, and John Watts demonstrate that all political change in medieval Eurasia required mediators like clerks, students, and locally powerful families, not just high officials and monarchs.
Although the editors aim to challenge some global history orthodoxies, they are as intrigued as any other world historians about encounters among far-flung peoples. Many of the articles in the volume take up such topics, but in original and decentering ways. For instance, Jonathan Shepard's article about networks spans the globe and explains how Russian and Ottoman empires contributed to the decline of Silk Road trade. Inspired by Janet Abu-Lughod's landmark work on late medieval world systems, Glenn Dudbridge looks at the regional ecumenes of the centuries 600–900, including those in Korea and Japan. Naomi Standen and Monica White challenge readers to understand that there is no binary divide between nomads and sedentary peoples. Rather, the medieval taxonomy of mobility included peripatetic kings and ministers and periodically migrant peoples.
Each of these articles is grounded in specific archives, and every article includes astonishing examples that are ably conveyed by erudite authorities. Given the breadth of expertise that is represented in the volume, each article is sure to include some information that is new to even the most well-read historian. The volume includes an extraordinary bibliography that offers a lifetime of reading to anybody seeking to understand and teach the global breadth of human experience during an entire millennium of history. Since the volume rejects standard global history frameworks and eschews a chronological and spatial structure besides, all the authors have space to experiment with new keywords and frameworks, and they all have significant latitude to convey their ideas and explain their research.
I have not yet mentioned the concluding article by Alan Strathern, who was invited to participate as an interlocutor from the field of early modern history. His chapter offers a constructive and collegial challenge to some of the assumptions of the rest of the volume. I agree with many of his ideas, and I hope that they will help to structure the future agenda for this new field. Strathern suggests that global medievalists should not reject the concepts of imperialism and globalization in spite of their Eurocentric origins or possible teleology, but rather that, like early modernists, they should use those terms to decolonize the field by identifying agency from peoples throughout the world. He also challenges global medievalists to embrace periodization. As he puts it, “ideally, at least, there is surely no need to view such analytical categories in judgmental terms and to endow them with some kind of moral power” (331). Without some substantive definition about what makes the period unique, the volume risks becoming a collection of ephemera about social phenomena that existed in all times and places, like trade or political brokerage, occluding any particular insights about the Middle Ages. Strathern offers some ideas that future periodization-minded global medievalists might take up. He suggests that the global Middle Ages might be characterized by unusually separate cultural spheres within which clerisy and state struggled during a time of diminished imperial surveillance. He also urges global medievalists to think carefully about how classical intellectual breakthroughs survived and expanded after the collapse of the empires that gave birth to them.
Like Strathern, I believe that this volume would have benefitted from more conceptual and narrative coherence. In particular, I hope that future global medievalists, collaborating with global classicist colleagues, will ask explicit questions about the nature of an era of post-hegemony after widespread (though uneven) imperial collapse and retreat. Climate history offers another indubitably global framework. The sixth century opened with a cluster of volcanic eruptions that cooled the planet for about 300 years, and the Medieval Warm Period that began thereafter gave way to the Little Ice Age in the mid-fourteenth century. Everyone in the world lived with these fluctuations, though not with the same consequences. I also hope that global medievalists, inspired by Joan Kelly's famous question, will explore whether everybody had a middle ages. In spite of the editors’ best efforts, I am not persuaded that the western hemisphere had a Middle Ages comparable to the Afro-Eurasian one. I am also curious to learn more about whether, or how, women, peasants, and foragers lived during the medieval millennium in ways distinctive from their experiences during other historical eras.
I ask these questions as a global medievalist myself, as a colleague and friend of participants in this project, and with profound admiration for this volume. This volume also has much to offer to the global late ancient scholars, who can learn a great deal about ruptures and continuities between the classical worlds they study and the medieval ones that followed. The editors and authors have opened the door to a new field, and they have written an important book with an extraordinary bibliography that I trust will shape conversations for many years to come.