Dr Catherine Holmes, University of Oxford

 

The lives of communities, families and individuals today are shaped by pressures which come from outside local and national borders. High-speed communications, rapid movements of capital, complex migration patterns, and business organisations with world-wide reach are central features of modern globalisation. Historians are concerned to find the origins of the human interactions which have created this ‘global’ world. For the most part, they limit their search to those centuries when western Europeans began to travel, settle and govern outside their own continent. As a result global history is often inseparable from the need to explain the triumph of western Europe. But is this the only way of looking at global history?

Considerable evidence for long-distance contacts between peoples, goods and cultural practices in the centuries before 1600 suggests that there are older and alternative global histories to explore. Several recently-established research projects in the UK and beyond have begun the work of comparing ancient and medieval societies across the globe and identifying the connections between them. But this research into the pre-modern ‘global’ is at an embryonic stage. Quite what we mean by the pre-modern ‘global’ is unclear. We cannot be sure that applying Eurocentric and imperial models from the modern experience of the global will actually help us understand the medieval or ancient evidence or draw the most important conclusions from that evidence. As public interest in the history, texts and material remains of ancient and medieval societies from across the globe grows and is encouraged by museum exhibitions and TV documentaries, it is important that we do not interpret the interactions of those societies in anachronistic frameworks. As medieval global history develops as a discipline, it is important that academic historians and school teachers should be able to teach with confidence about unfamiliar cultures without falling back on hackneyed stereotypes about western superiority or eastern exoticism.

This project is designed to make medieval historians, those who study the period 500 to 1600, think about how we should define the global in the Middle Ages. In a series of workshops, historians with different regional specialisms in the history of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe will discuss problems of definition, evidence and approach. Given the urgency of establishing a framework for interpreting the global Middle Ages we will disseminate findings as quickly as possible through accessibly written reports and podcasts on a project website, where bibliographies and teaching materials will also be posted. The website, an edited book and a co-written article will provide key reference tools for the emerging field of global medieval history. But providing a framework for the development of a new area of study is not the only purpose of this project. Instead, by interpreting the evidence for connections and comparisons across the globe in the period 500-1600 we will also be able to enrich the study of medieval history itself, a subject that is often confined to western Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. By identifying the scope, nature and also the limits of the global in the medieval period we can also provide new questions for modern global historians. But above all, we anticipate that our investigations will reveal that global movements of peoples, goods, and cultural practices were often experienced in highly localised ways. Translation and assimilation of the global to local contexts were medieval constants as was the shaping of the global by the local. These processes could involve conflict but just as often peaceful communication. These insights are not merely relevant to the medieval period; they will help to illuminate present-day contexts, where multi-stranded interactions between the global and the local are the shapers of everyday experience.

 

University of Oxford project page

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