The ‘Global’ Middle Ages

What was ‘Global’ in the Middle Ages?

The current turn towards ‘global history’ only rarely reaches back before the sixteenth century for evidence or models of interpretation. Yet, studied effectively the medieval period can shape important debates within the broader field of global history while at the same time being enriched by global perspectives.  But in order for this mutually beneficial relationship to emerge, we need to ask: what exactly was ‘global’ in the ‘Middle Ages’?

Since 2009 medievalists from across Oxford have been searching for answers to that question. Through a series of intra-university workshops and a two-day colloquium involving other UK specialists (sponsored by the John Fell Fund) we have explored concepts and concrete case studies from across the globe in the period 600 to 1600.  To date we have thought about themes as diverse as medieval Eurasia, law and justice at frontiers, resident minorities, multilingualism, charter polities, networks, and clerical power (see Oxford Centre for Medieval History Past Events for the intra-Oxford workshops).

Following these initial probes, Catherine Holmes (Oxford), Naomi Standen (Birmingham) and Scott Ashley (Newcastle) have co-operated to create a UK-based network of medievalists with interests in the global which has recently gained an AHRC network grant. This network, ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’, includes scholars working on Eurasia, the Americas and Africa.  For more details about this group and its activities see globalmiddleages.history.ox.ac.uk

There are quite evidently different ways to determine ‘what was ‘global’ about the medieval period. One approach is to draw on perspectives offered by other historical timeframes in order to identify medieval phases in phenomena such as empires, state formation, long-distance trading contacts, trans-continental migration, the exchange of ideas, and the development of regional political cultures.  But, it is quite possible that the unquestioning application of theories and models from other contexts serves neither global nor medieval history well. Instead, the more pressing task is to analyse the global as it was experienced in the Middle Ages itself: we need to point up parallels and connections with other periods when appropriate, but also to identify differences and suggest alternative interpretative paradigms.

In its next phase the project will tackle questions of definition, particularly the thorny issue of periodisation. The ‘Middle Ages’ does not happen in the same place at the same time. It may not even be identified as a period at all in some places. Are these insuperable problems? The project will also interrogate some of the basic assumptions associated with the pre-modern global, above all bipolar competition within Eurasia (e.g. Christendom versus Islam; China versus the West). It will investigate the suggestion that a more creative way of discovering the nature and extent of the global in the middle ages is to consider how different communities communicated with each other over space and time.

Looking for a global middle ages which makes sense in its own terms is not ivory-tower purism. Instead by working out the scope, limits and nature of the global in the centuries between 600 and 1600, a period that was characterised by multiple centres, porous boundaries, and plural societies, we will be examining contexts that resonate in striking ways with an increasingly de-centred and interconnected twenty-first-century global community.