On May 25th, the Oxford Centre for Global History had its first major event, a workshop exploring the methods, concepts and rationale driving the new field of Global History. It was very well attended, with over 50 participants from across the History Faculty and other disciplines, many of whom had found out about the event through our independent website.
The workshop comprised presentations by four speakers, covering the full chronological range from ancient to late modern history.
In the first paper, Nicholas Purcell (‘Circulation, Circuitry and Cycles: on joining up pre-modern histories’) explained how premodern historians have made use of a ‘global history’ approach, and demonstrated how their work can productively engage with those of later periods. By working through the concepts of circulation, circuitry and cycles, Nicholas set out a range of levels or scales below that of the entire planet in which human encounters could be explored. In the second paper, Catherine Holmes reported on ‘Defining the “Global” Middle Ages’, a new collaborative research project between historians at Oxford, Newcastle and Birmingham. Catherine drew particular attention to the tensions between pursuing comparative history and connected histories, and – through the vivid example of the global spread of chess – suggested a possible solution in the comparative study of connected systems.
Konstantin Dierks (‘Global representations of indigenous and unfree people, 1789-1870: Comparisons to Home?’) also raised questions of scale, asking us to think more carefully before eliding from the ‘local’ to the ‘global’, and to consider the possibilities of regional, hemispheric and other categories that have worked to mediate between them. Finally, Faisal Devji‘s paper (‘Militant Humanity’) sought to historicise the category of the global, explaining how the threat of apocalypse after 1945 – whether by nuclear holocaust, climate change or pandemics – led to the construction of ‘the human race’ itself as an object of enquiry.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the workshop was the enthusiasm and readiness with which the audience – many of whom study the modern era – engaged with the questions raised by historians of other periods. Facilitating meaningful debate across chronological divisions has been a central rationale behind the Centre, and its success at the workshop demonstrates that this should remain a central part of our work, and something that Oxford is particularly well-placed to do.
It was also an important objective of this initial workshop to identify the kind of big questions that a global perspective can best address, and we came away with plenty of suggestions: the interplay of sedentarism and mobility; a society’s embrace (or rejection) of a maritime orientation; concepts of frontiers, multilingualism, communication and ‘common experiences’; ecology and the environment; and rehistoricizing the ‘global’. All these and more will provide useful points of embarkation as the Centre looks to prepare new research projects.
James Belich, John Darwin and Rob Fletcher
Oxford Centre for Global History