Regurgitating World History
Developing Historical Formats
Histories of the portion of the earth known to the writer are properly classed as world histories inasmuch as they seek to record the whole significant and knowable past. By that standard, therefore, Herodotus and Ssuma Ch'ien were world historians as well as founders of their respective historiographical traditions. Among the Greeks, however, Thucydides promptly discarded Herodotus' discursive, all-embracing approach to history, offering instead a pridefully accurate, sharply focused monograph, dealing with twenty seven years of war between Athens and Sparta.
These alternative models remained normative throughout Greco-Roman antiquity. Livy's vast, patriotic history of Rome approximated Herodotean inclusiveness; and Polybius may have deliberately aspired to combine the logical rigor of Thucydides with the scope of Herodotus. Though impossible to equal, Thucydides' precision was easier to imitate than Herodotus' inclusiveness, and most Greco-Roman historians accordingly inclined towards the monographic, political-military focus that Thucydides so magnificently exemplified.
Jewish sacred scripture elaborated a different historical vision, according to which Almighty God governed all peoples, everywhere, whether they knew it or not. For about a millennium, defeats suffered by successive Jewish states made such a vision of human history implausible to unbelievers; but Christianity, when it emerged to dominance within the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D., brought to the fore a modified, expanded, but fundamentally Jewish, and entirely God- centered, view of history. Christians subordinated secular pagan to sacred Biblical history, and thereby reversed the balance between Herodotean and Thucididean formats for history, since, from Jewish and Christian points of view, all history was world history, being part of God's plan for humankind.
The Christian epos - Creation, Incarnation and Day of Judgment - owed nothing to pagan historiography, but Christian historians, from Eusebius (d. 340) and Orosius (d. 417) onwards, felt compelled to fit bits and pieces of the pagan record into their histories of how God had dealt with humankind. Innumerable medieval chronicles, therefore, begin with Creation and hurry through familiar landmarks of the Biblical and pagan past in order to attach local and recent events - at least perfunctorily - to the central, sacred meaning of human experience on earth. History, detached from God's purposes, was blind, pointless, misleading; and for something like a thousand years, Christians refused to consider such folly, even though their most painstaking recording of recent events left God's purposes stubbornly inscrutable.
In China, no such transformation of prevailing views ever took place. Instead, Ssuma Ch'ien's vision of how to write and understand history prevailed from his own time until the collapse of the Manchu dynasty at the beginning of the twentieth century. The central idea was that Heaven chose virtuous hereditary rulers; and allowed (or contrived) their overthrow whenever a ruling dynasty became corrupt. Each new dynasty began virtuous and strong only to decay, sooner or later, provoking the transfer of Heaven's mandate to a new ruler, whose virtue was attested by his practical success in reducing China and surrounding barbarians to obedience. The power of Ssuma Ch'ien's vision is attested by the fact that his dynastic frame for Chinese history still dominates scholarship, even among westerners, who have never believed that the ruler's personal virtue assured supernatural support.
Moslem, Buddhist and Hindu outlooks upon history also took shape during the Middle Ages. In general, these learned traditions paid less attention to history than Christians and Chinese did; but all agreed on the overriding importance of supernatural intervention in human affairs; and by subordinating events of earth to God's will, as Moslems did, or to supernal processes and interventions, as Buddhists and Hindus did, all agreed that world history was the only meaningful kind of history, since supernatural entities governed human affairs along with the rest of universe according to rules of their own.
Consensus concerning the decisive role of transcendant beings or forces in history was challenged when a discordant, man-centered version of history found voice in Italy soon after 1500. What inspired the new type of history was the palpable convergence of Italian city-state politics with patterns of Greek and Roman antiquity. Study of pagan writers in privileged circles of a few Italian towns revived as this convergence became evident; and by about 1500 such studies had ripened sufficiently to allow Machiavelli (d. 1520) and Guicciardini (d. 1540) to reaffirm the autonomy of human actions by writing local, monographic and entirely secular histories in the Thucydidean mould. They derived their inspiration unabashedly from pagan writers, and settled accounts with the Biblical framework of universal history simply by leaving God out, not mentioning Him as an actor in history at all.
This was both shocking and unacceptable to most Europeans. Accordingly, a renaissance man like Walter Raleigh (d. 1618) in England, and, almost a century later, the pious and eloquent Bishop Bossuet (d. 1704) in France, reaffirmed the centrality of sacred history and attempted to weave what they knew about the Biblical and pagan past into a more perfect whole. Their works remained incomplete and never approached their own time: partly because both were bogged down by a rapidly increasing fund of knowledge about events of the more recent past, and partly because God's will remained obscure (or at least radically disputable) when called on to explain the tangled record of those same events.
Meanwhile, a flood of information about the Americas and other formerly unknown parts of the earth assaulted European consciousness. A few gestures towards fitting the newly discovered peoples into the inherited Christian frame of history were indeed made. In particular, how the inhabitants of America descended from the sons of Noah became a subject of debate. But for the most part, European learning reaffirmed (or at least paid lip service to) Christian truths; explored new fields of knowledge, accumulated more and more information about the past, and about far parts of the earth, and dodged the question of how to fit all the new data together. This remained the case until the 18th century when radical efforts to organize empirical knowledge systematically (stimulated partly by Newton's spectacular success in physics and astronomy) began to meet with apparent success in such fields as botany.
In these same centuries, the Chinese, Moslem and Indian traditions of learning were far more successful in resisting challenge from without, improving upon the Europeans by refusing to pay attention to new and discrepant information. When a few self-styled Enlightened thinkers, located mainly in France, began to abandon the inherited Christian framework of knowledge entirely, guardians of inherited truth in Asia were not impressed. Instead, serious efforts to come to grips with what eventuality became undeniably superior European knowledge and skills were delayed until almost our own time.
Against this norm, the volatility of European learning in general and of historiography in particular should perhaps excite our wonder. At the least, we ought not to scorn the centuries-long lag time needed to accommodate new and discrepant information. The historical profession persist in the same behaviour today, remaining for the most part content to work (often unconsciously) within a liberal, nineteenth century interpretation of history whose principles, if overtly affirmed, mostly embarrass because no one believes them any longer.
Vico (d. 1744), Voltaire (d. 1778), Gibbon (d. 1794) and Herder (d. 1803) pioneered the eighteenth century effort to improve upon the inherited Biblical frame of history. Each in his own way desacralized the past, even though both Vico and Herder remained Christians. Like Guicciardini and Machiavelli, they assumed that human will and actions shaped events; unlike their Florentine predecessors they undertook macrohistory, finding largescale patterns in the past, whether cyclical, as Vico and Herder did, or cumulative and, at least sporadically progressive, as Gibbon and Voltaire did. Classical history and philosophy played a central role in shaping their outlooks. Only Voltaire in his Essai surs les Moeurs (1756) paid much attention to non-Europeans; and his praise for China and his respect for Moslems was largely inspired by his distaste for the Christian church. Hence nothing like a global view of the past emerged from eighteenth century efforts to correct the Christian interpretation of history; but the autonomy of human action was vigorously affirmed, with or without an ultimate, increasingly distant, Divine control.
This compromise between pagan and Christian heritages carried over into the nineteenth century, when the liberal vision of history took shape. This is what still lurks in the background of contemporary American historiography The core idea was simple enough: what mattered in history was the sporadic but ineluctable advance of Freedom. This allowed nationalistic historians to erect a magnificently Eurocentric vision of the human past, since Freedom (defined largely in terms of political institutions) was uniquely at home among the states of Europe, both in ancient and in modern times. The rest of the world, accordingly, joined the mainstream of history when discovered, settled or conquered by Europeans. A somewhat spurious global history was easy to construct along these lines. Still, for the first time America, Australia, Africa and Asia found an admittedly subordinate but still significant place in world history, and the entire globe became a theatre for the advance of human Freedom.
Within the European past, attention focused on times and places where Freedom flourished or faced critical challenge. Classical antiquity, the barbarian invasions, the rise of representative institutions in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment and all the magnificent advances of the nineteenth century were what deserved to be studied; eras of darkness and despotism could properly be skipped over since they made no contribution to the main stream of human achievement.
The United States, of course, enjoyed a specially privileged place in this version of history, since the Revolution of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789 were beacons of Freedom's advance; and the expansion of American wealth and power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries offered an equally obvious example of the rewards Freedom could bring to its faithful and favored practitioners. This, as I say, is still the scheme that underlies most professional study of history in the United States, even though some rebels have turned everything inside out by making the wickedness of European aggression against other peoples the main theme of modern history, while attacking the white male establishment of the United States for its no less wicked exploitation of various subordinated populations, both at home and abroad.
Obviously enough, this liberal, progressive view of world history (as well as the inside-out inversion thereof) was a naive secularization of the Christian epos. Freedom replaced God as the governing, supernal actor; and privileged free peoples played the terrestrial role assigned to faithful Christians in the divine drama of salvation. Insofar as the professional pursuit of history finds its meaning in this schemes (or in its inversion) we clearly remain bounded by the Christian inheritance, however faint it has become in contemporary consciousness.
World War I was hard to accommodate within what has been called the liberal view of history. Freedom to live and die in the trenches was not what nineteenth century historians expected liberal political institutions to result in. Moreover, the agonizing years of stalemate seemed to many participants to arise from circumstances entirely independent of human will or intention. Spengler and Toynbee were the two most significant historians who responded to this apparent loss of control, and to the strange disembowelment that Freedom suffered in World War I. The sense of being caught up in processes overriding to human purposes, and of reenacting in 1914-1918 struggles for power like those that had wracked ancient Greece and Rome, persuaded first Spengler and then Toynbee that human history could best be understood as a more or less foreordained rise and fall of separate civilizations, each recapitulating in essentials the career of its predecessors and contemporaries. Quite consciously, they both drew on their classical education to reaffirm a cyclic vision of human affairs proposed by Plato and elaborated by other philophers of antiquity down to the Stoics, and applied to history by such diverse writers as Polybius and Virgil.
Their impressively learned books won wide attention between 1918 when the first volume of Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes was published, and 1936-54, when Toynbee's ten volume A Study of History came out in three separate installments. To many thoughtful persons, their books gave a new and somber meaning to such unexpected and distressing events as World War I, Germany's collapse in 1918, the onset of World War II, and the breakup of the victorious Grand Alliances after both wars.
Today, when these political resonances have faded, a quite different aspect of their work seems more important, since, by cycling through the recorded past, Spengler and Toynbee put European and non-European civilizations on the same plane. This was a real change from the myopic concentration on the glories of Europe's past that had prevailed in the nineteenth century; and, at least potentially, distinguishes the historiography of our age from its predecessors.
To be sure, Toynbee was not long satisfied with his initial scheme, and in the later volumes of A Study of History (published in l939 and l954) explicitly reintroduced God as an actor in history, subordinating the rise and fall of separate civilizations to a progressive revelation of God's will that came to sensitive souls in times when the moral rules of a given civilization were undergoing irremediable breakdown. This way of combining linear and cyclical macrohistory and of introducing God once more into public affairs won few adherents among historians; and after 1957 his reputation suddenly collapsed, as Spengler's had before him.
One empirical (and probably trivial) reason for this swing of public and professional attention was that the separate civilizations that Spengler and Toynbee had declared to be unable to communicate with one another, (save for Toynbee at special sensitive moments in their development), did in fact interact with one another whenever contacts occurred. Adaptation to borrowings across civilizational boundaries was especially important in technological, artistic and military matters, where the charms of novelty and the rewards of innovation were particularly obvious. By contrast, literary learning resisted intrusion from afar, partly because mastering an alien language in which interesting ideas might be set forth was always difficult; but also because to admit that outsiders had something to say that was worth attending to seemed a confession of inadequacy that faithful transmitters of a revered literary canon were not prepared to make. Nonetheless, defenders of literary and religous truth sometimes borrowed ideas from outsiders, with or without acknowledeging alien inspiration.
Cultural and technological borrowings were often incidental to economic exchanges, which have the advantage for historians of leaving material traces behind even when literary records are missing. Long distance trade existed even before the beginning of recorded history, when the river valley civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt began to import strategic goods like metal and timber across quite considerable distances from barbarian lands. Inter-civilizational trade, too, was very old. Mesopotamian commercial contacts with India dated back to the third millennium B.C. or before. Indirect and far more tenuous contacts between Mesopotamia and China started a few hundred years later, though caravans only began to move more or less regularly across the oases of central Asia about 100 B.C. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, the scale and range of trade exchanges within Eurasia expanded into Africa and then, after 1500, began to embrace all the inhabited earth.
Historians have, a bit hesitantly, begun to react to the increasing evidence of long distance interactions that cross the boundaries of traditional scholarly specialization; and a number of persons have set out to construct a more adequate world history than Spengler and Toynbee envisaged by highlighting Eurasian and subsequent global interactions. No one writer stands preeminent in this company, which is divided between those who put primary emphasis on economics - often Marxists or quasi-Marxists like Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank - and others who think that religious, artistic, and scientific encounters played an autonomous and more or less equal part with economics and technology in defining the course of Eurasian and then of world history. One can also point to such figures as Ross Dunn, the first President of the World History Association, and the company of scholars associated with the International Society for Comparative Study of Civilizations, among whom John Hord and David Wilkinson are among the most vigorous. The very existence of these two organizations, each with its own learned journal, attests to the liveliness that world history has attained in American academic circles; and, as a sign of their vigor, both journals are presently fumbling around in search of a more adequate conceptualization of human history as a whole.
To be sure, terminological confusion is as dense as ever. Yet even though there is no perceptible consensus about what the term 'civilization' ought to mean, and no agreed word or phrase to describe the 'interactive zone' (to use a coined term) embracing different Eurasian civilizations, it would be correct to assert that recognition of the reality and historical importance of trans-civilizational encounters is on the increase and promises to become the mainstream of future work in world history. We badly need a word or phrase to describe the human reality arising from encounters with strangers who bring locally unfamiliar skills and knowledge to the attention of stay-at-homes. Ross Dunn's interactive zone seems clumsy. A favourite would be ecumene, which however carries cramping ecclesiastical associations. Wallerstein's world system is perhaps the leading candidate at present; but it is awkward as a description of such relationships before 1500, when separate world systems existed in Eurasia, America and presumably elsewhere as well, although we know very little about historical change initiated by the non-literate peoples' interactions, and can only hope that sophisticated archaeology may someday make some of the facts accessible.
Still, even though we have yet to agree upon what to call it, the fact that civilized and uncivilized peoples communicated across relatively long distances from very early times, and altered their behavior from time to time in response to encounters with attractive or threatening novelties from afar seems more and more obvious. It follows that world history ought to be constructed around this reality -the largest and most inclusive framework of human experience, and the lineal ancestor of the One World in which we find ourselves so confusingly immersed today.
Let's now sketch the landmarks in the history of the interactive, ecumenical world system of Eurasia, hoping that even a thumb nail sketch may clarify the concept, and promote the emergence of more coherent, intelligible approach to world history.
Past ideas about the importance of cultural borrowing were largely shaped by social anthropology, as developed in the United States in the 1930s. Clark Wissler had studied the diffusion of 'culture traits' among the Plains Indians with elegant precision; and Ralph Linton's textbook, The Tree of Culture, adduced other persuasive examples of far-reaching social change in Africa and elsewhere as a result of cultural adaptation to some borrowed skill. But a man of great influence was Robert Redfield: he constructed a typology of human societies, setting up two ideal types: folk society at one extreme, civilized society at the other.
Folk society was one in which well established customs met all ordinary circumstances of life, and fitted smoothly together to create an almost complete and unquestioned guide to life. Redfield argued that a remote Yucatan village he had studied approached his ideal type of folk society. Nearly isolated from outside encounters, the people of the village had reconciled their Spanish Christian and Mayan heritages, blending what had once been conflicting ways of life into a more or less seamless whole. Conflict and change were reprehensible, checked by the sacralizing power of binding custom.
Civilized society, exemplified by Yucatan's port city of Merida, was at the opposite pole. There Catholicism clashed with residual pagan rites; and continual contacts among strangers meant that customary ruies binding everyone to a consistent body of behaviour could not arise. Instead, conflicting moral claims provoked variable, upredictable conduct. Social conflict and change was obvious and pervasive, feared by some and welcomed by others.
Armed with ideas like these, it seems somehow obvious that historical change would be largely provoked by encounters with strangers, followed by efforts to borrow (or sometimes to reject or hold at bay) specially attractive novelties. This, in turn, always involves adjustments in other established routines. A would-be world historian therefore ought to be alert to evidences of contacts among separate civilizations, expecting major departures to arise from such encounters whenever some borrowing from (or rejection of) outsiders' practices provoked historically significant social change.
The ultimate spring of human variability, of course, lies in our capacity to invent new ideas, practices and institutions. But invention also flourished best when contacts with strangers compelled different ways of thinking and doing to compete for attention, so that choice became conscious, and deliberate tinkering with older practices became easy, and indeed often inevitable. In folk society, when custom worked as expected, obstacles to most sorts of social change were all but insuperable. But when clash of customs created confusion, invention flourished. Civilization, as Redfield defined it, was therefore auto-catalytic. Once clashing cultural expections arose at a few cross-roads locations, civilized societies were liable to keep on changing, acquiring new skills, expanding their wealth and power and disturbing other peoples round about. They did so down to our own day, and at an ever increasing pace as the centuries and millennia of civilized history passed.
Approaching the conceptualization of world history in this fashion, separate civilizations became the main actors in world history - accepting or rejecting new ways come from afar; but in either case, altering older social practices, since successfully to reject an attractive or threatening novelty might require changes at home quite as far reaching as trying to appropriate it. Over time, civilizations clearly tended to expand onto new ground; and as they expanded, autonomous neighboring societies were engulfed and eventually disappeared. Such geographical expansion meant that in the ancient Near East what had begun as separate civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt eventually merged into a new cosmopolitan whole, beginning about 1500 B.C.; and an analogous cosmopolitanism began to embrace all the civilizations of the earth after about 1850, when the effective autonomy of China and Japan came to an end.
But one should note these instances without diverting the focus of attention from the separate histories of separate civilizations. The idea of a Eurasian (eventually also African and then global) ecumenical whole, embracing all the peoples, civilized and uncivilized, who were interacting with one another, dawned very slowly. Only after convincing oneself that Chinese commercial expansion energized the sudden upthrust of trade in Latin Christendom after about 1000 A.D., does one realize, with Wallerstein and Dunn, that a proper world history ought to focus primarily upon changes in the ecumencial world system, and then proceed to fit developments within separate civilizations, and within smaller entities, like states and nations, into the pattern of that fluctuating whole.
One may define civilization as a style of life, to be recognized by skilled and experienced observers in the way an art critic discerns styles of art. But that analogy is not really a good one. Works of art are tangible; whereas 'life' is too multifarious to be observed in the way art critics can observe and more or less agree about stylistic affinities. In particular, within any civilization, different groups lived in very different ways. What principally held them together was their common subjection to rulers, whose continued dominion was much assisted by the fact that they subscribing to a set of moral rules, embodied in sacred or at least semi-sacred texts. This is the proper definition of a 'civilization.' Rulers who knew how to behave -- paying lip service to prescribed canons of conduct and acting with a more or less exactly agreed upon disregard of the letter of those rules -- could and did cooperate smoothly enough to keep a lid on turbulent subordinates for centuries on end across scores, then hundreds and, eventually, thousands of miles. Privileged ruling classes thus constituted a sort of iron framework within which a civilization could thrive. But among subordinated groups widely diverse local, occupational, and sectarian ways of life prevailed. All that united them was the fact that each group had some sort of tacit (or, occasionally, explicit) understanding with other groups, and especially with the politically dominant segments of society, so that they could act as they did without suffering too many nasty surprises.
In such a view, civilizations become rather pale, inchoate entities in themselves. Internal diversity looms large and merges almost imperceptibly into the diversity of neighboring peoples who retained varying degrees of local autonomy but still entered into negotiations with civilized rulers and traders, and, mayhap, with missionaries, craftsmen, refugees and, sometimes with colonizing settlers as well. No single recognizable style of life can be imputed to such a social landscape. Diversity, conflict and imprecise boundaries, yes; coherence and uniformity, no.
Even the canon of sacred writings, to which dominant segments of civilized society subscribed, was full of discrepancies. Consider the Bible, Buddhist and Hindu sacred writings, and the Confucian classics! It required judicious commentary to educe a practicable guide to life from such diverse materials; and, of course, initial diversity implied perennial flexibility, inviting commentators to adjust to ever-altering circumstances by appropriate reinterpretation, age after age, while claiming, characteristically, to be restoring the true, original meaning to the sacred texts. This was the primary function of the literate (often priestly) classes; and explains why new, discrepant, data was (and still is in many branches of learning) so persistently disregarded.
If civilizations were as internally confused and contradictory, it puts them very much in tune with the confusion and complexity of the Eurasian ecumenical world system. That system was larger in geographic area, of course, and more attenuated in its internal structure, being without any articulated overriding canon of conduct because it embraced a plurality of civilizations (and interstitial peoples), each with its own literary definition of moral principles and its own political and cultural rulers. But, for all that, the ecumene was not so very different from the diversity to be found within the borders of any of the larger civilizations that by 1500 were participating in the Eurasian and African circle of exchange and interaction.
The reason was that mercantile practice had, in fact, slowly created a workable code of conduct that went a long way towards standardizing encounters across cultural boundaries. Even the arcanum of religion made room for outsiders and unbelievers, since the principal religions of the Eurasian world - Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Islam - all agreed in exhorting the devout to treat strangers as they would wish to be treated themselves. Thus, despite the fact that no single set of rulers had ever exercised political sovereignty across the whole Eurasian-African ecumene, a bare-bones moral code did arise that went a long way towards reducing the risks of cross-civilizational contact to bearable proportions. Little by little across the centuries, local rulers of every stripe learnt that they could benefit mightily by taxing instead of plundering strangers. Subordinate classes also learned to tolerate outsiders - even alien merchants, whom hardworking peasants and artisans regularly regarded as dishonest exploiters who reaped profit unjustly, since what they sold dear was exactly the same as what they had previously bought cheap from honest men, i.e., from themselves. All the same, the poor gradually got used to being cheated by outsiders in the marketplace, just as their forerunners at the dawn of civilization had gotten used to surrendering unrequited rent to self-appointed, strong armed landowners.
As these attitudes became general, so that an enforcible (and remarkably uniform) law merchant arose in the ports and other great urban centers of Eurasia, and was supplemented by an informal body of customs for dealing with strangers that extended into the rural hinterland, the structure of the ecumenical world system approximated very closely to that of the separate civilizations embraced within it.
What, then, were the major landmarks in the historical evolution of this, the largest and, eventually, world-dominating framework of human experience?
As one would expect, if one is right in claiming that encounters with strangers were the main drive wheel of social change, the earliest complex societies arose on the river flood plains of Mesopotamia, Egypt and northwest India, adjacent to the land bridge of the Old World, where the largest land masses of the earth connect with one another. Continental alignments and climatic conditions made this region the principal node of land and sea communications within the Old World, and it was presumably for that reason that civilization first broke out there.
Sumerian literary tradition accords with this notion, since it held that the founders of their civilization had come by sea from the south and subdued the 'black headed people' who were indigenous to the banks of the lower Tigris - Euphrates. The newcomers eventually learned to irrigate the swamp lands that bordered the rivers, and thanks to regular and assured harvests were then able to erect earth's first cities on an alluvial plain that lacked timber, metals and other essential raw materials the Sumerians needed. From their inception, therefore, shipping, supplemented by overland caravans, kept the cities of the Mesopotamian plain in touch (directly or indirectly) with distant sources of raw materials and diverse peoples living within a radius of several hundred miles. And, before long, inhabitants of Egypt and of the Indus valley erected civilizations of their owns thanks partly to borrowed skills and ideas acquired through contact with Mesopotamia, and by doing so promptly established their own zones of interaction with peoples round about, just as the Sumerians had done before them.
Initially, water transport was the main link across long distances. When, at an early but unknown date, human beings discovered the use of sails, the coastal waters of the Indian ocean and its adjacent seas became an especially easy medium of transport and communication. Winds blew equably throughout the year, and their direction reversed itself with each monsoon. This made safe return from lengthy voyages exceptionally easy, even for ships that could not sail against the wind. If Sumerian tradition is to be believed, the founders of the world's first civilization emerged from this sea-room, bringing with them superior skills that had been accumulated, we may surmise, before the dawn of recorded history thanks to contacts with strangers provoked by sea travel.
About 4000 B.C. sailing ships also began to ply the Mediterranean, where comparably benign (though not quite so convenient) sailing conditions prevailed in summer time when the trade winds blew gently and steadily from the north east. Safe return to home base often required going against the prevailing wind. Rowing was one possibility, and remained important in Mediterranean navigation until the seventeenth century A.D. Taking advantage of short-lived off-shore winds created by differential heating or sea and land was another possibility. Ship and sail design that permitted tacking into the wind was a more satisfactory solution, but was not fully attained until the late middle ages. Yet ships that moved up-wind with difficulty, and could not sail the stormy seas of winter safely, were quite enough to provoke and sustain the emergence of Minoan, Phoenician Carthaginian and Greco-Roman civilizations. Borrowings from Egypt and Syria were critical at the start - and most such contacts were by sea.
Geographically speaking, the south China sea was about as hospitable to early sailing ships as the Mediterranean. But the possibility of seasonal navigation in south east Asia and among adjacent off-shore islands did not lead to the early development of cities and literate civilizations, perhaps because no developed civilized centers were at hand from which to borrow critical skills and ideas. Similarly, the most congenial sea spaces of all the earth were the vast trade wind zones of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; but they too were not exploited until large ships that could tack against the wind had been invented, though Polynesian canoes did carry human settlers to remote islands of the Pacific throughout the trade wind zone. The North Atlantic and North Pacific were far more formidable for early sailors since stormys variable winds were further complicated by the high tides.
Thus climate and wind patterns set definite limits to early shipping, though it is worth noting that small coracles, made of wickerwork and hides, did begin to fish the coastal waters of the North Atlantic in the third millennium B.C. Fishermen also embarked from the shores of Japan from an unknown but presumably early date. Accidental drift voyages across the breadth of the oceans must have set in as soon as fishing boats started to venture onto these stormy waters. Drift voyages of Eskimo kayaks from Greenland that fetched up in Scotland in the seventeenth century, and Japanese fishermen who came ashore in Oregon in the nineteenth century offer a well attested sample of the random, ocean-crossing dispersals suffered by small craft lost at sea.
A few resemblances between Amerindian artifacts and those of east Asia may result from drift voyages; but fishermen did not carry much cultural baggage with them, even when they survived weeks of exposure; and it is unlikely that the real but trivial trans-oceanic contacts (including Norse settlements in North America) had enduring consequences of any importance before 1492. Instead, a separate ecumenical system arose in the Americas, centered in Mexico and Peru; but in the absence of an extended literary record we know far less abut its development and, since archaeology is inherently local, connections among separate sites frequently remain obscure.
Eurasian ecumenical history is far more accessible, even though historians have not yet studied its growth and consolidation in detail. Nonetheless, it is clear enough that the initial primacy of sea transport and communication in holding the ecumene together was gradually modified by improvements in transport overland. Human beings, of course, were rovers from the start: that is how they populated the earth. With the development of agriculture, the diffusion of useful crops set in. Slash and burn cultivators, for example, carried wheat from the Near East to China, where it arrived before 2OOO B.C. Rice spread from somewhere in south east Asia and became an important crop in both India and China about a thousand years later. Other, less important crops spread as well, altering human life profoundly wherever they began to provide a new source of food for the population.
Before the dawn of literacy, human portage and wandering had been supplemented, at least in some parts of the world, by caravans of pack animals, which made carrying goods much easier. Long distance exchange became routine in Sumerian times, when donkey caravans brought metals and other precious commodities from as far away as the Carpathian mountains of Romania and distributed textiles and other manufactured goods in return. Caravan trade thus came to resemble trade by sea, with the difference that carrying valuable goods through inhabited lands required the negotiation of protection rents with every local ruler, whereas ships usually only had to pay tolls at their ports of destination. Since risk of plunder by some local ruffian was far higher than the risk of piracy at sea, costs of caravan transport remained comparatively high, so that only precious goods could bear the cost of long distance land transport.
Overland contacts took a decisive new turn after about 1700 B.C. when light, manoeuverable chariots were invented somewhere in the Mesopotamian borderlands. A team of horses hitched to such a vehicle could carry driver and bowman across open country faster than a man could run; and, when new, an array of charging chariots proved capable of overwhelming opposing infantry with ease. As a result, charioteers overran the river valley civilizations of the Near East and India before and after 1500 B.C. Others penetrated Europe and China, where the earliest archaeologically well-attested Chinese dynasty, the Shang, established itself about 1400 B.C. with the help of war chariots. As the spread of wheat (and of some pottery styles from western Asia) shows, swift wheeled transport and the military superiority of charioteers that resulted did not initiate trans-Asian encounters; but the establishment of the Shang dynasty through the exploitation of military techniques that originated in the Mesopotamian borderiands apparently did inaugurate many of the historical forms or Chinese civilization. This is strikingly attested by inscriptions on oracle bones discovered at the Shang capital of Anyang which are directly ancestral to the characters of contemporary Chinese writing.
Communication between China and western Asia remained sporadic and indirect for many centuries after 1400 B.C. Even when Chinese imperial initiative inaugurated more or less regular caravan trade after 100 B.C., goods that survived the long journey remained mere curiosities and expensive luxuries. A few fashionable Roman ladies did indeed clothe themselves in semi-transparent silks from China; and the Chinese emperor did succed in importing large-boned 'blood sweating' horses from Iran, only to find that the scrawny steppe ponies, with which Chinese soldiers had already come to terms, were so much hardier and cheaper to keep that the imported breed could not displace them for anything but ceremonial purposes.
Yet the inauguration of more or less regular caravan trade across Asia did connect east and west as never before; and when, after about 300 A.D., camels were brought into general use, caravans became capable of crossing previously inhospitable deserts. The effect was to incorporate vast new areas of Eurasia and Africa into an expanded trade and communications network. Tibet, Arabia and the oases of central Asia, on the one hand, and sub-Saharan West Africa on the other entered firmly into the ecumenical system, which simultaneously expanded northward by penetrating the whole of the steppes from Manchuria to Hungary, and even filtered across mountain passes and along river courses into the forested fastnesses of northern Europe.
New and highly lethal epidemic diseases and the so-called higher religions were the two most significant novelties that spread through this expanded caravan world from shortly before the Christian era to about 1000 A.D. Material exchanges, like the spread of south east Asian fruits and other crops to the Middle East with the elaboration of oasis agriculture, or the diffusion of Greco-Roman naturalistic sculptural styles to India, China and even Japan were trivial by comparison with the epidemiological and religious changes that this transport system precipitated.
This balance between economic/technological and cultural/biological exchanges altered after about 1000 A.D. when the ecumenical world system began to respond to innovations within China that expanded the role of market behavior by bringing poor peasants and urban working classes within its scope for the first time. What made this possible was cheap and reliable transport within China, resulting from widespread canal construction. Most canalization was initialty undertaken to regulate water supplies for the expanding carpet of rice paddies upon which China's food more and more depended. Then with the construction of the Grand Canal in 605, linking the watershed of the Yang-tse with the Yellow river system, accompanied and followed by other engineering works designed to facilitate navigation through the Yang-tse gorges and other critical bottlenecks, the most fertile parts of China came to be linked by easily accessible and easily navigable waterways. Under the distant sovereignty of the Emperor, canal boats could carry comparatively bulky cargoes across hundreds of miles with minimal risk of shipwreck or robbery. This, in turn, meant that even small differences in price for commodities of common consumption made it worth while for boatmen to carry such goods from where they were cheap to where they were dear.
Then, when, soon after 1000, the Sung government found it more convenient to collect taxes in cash instead of in kind, as had always been done previously, common people, including the poorest peasants, were forced onto the market so as to be able to pay their taxes. This enormously accellerated the spread of market behaviour throughout China. Thereupon, to the general surprise of officialdom, whose Confucian training classified traders as deplorable social parasites, the advantages of specialized production, which Adam Smith was later to analyze so persuasively, started to come on stream throughout the varied landscapes of China. Wealth and productivity shot upwards. New skills developed making China the wonder of the rest of the world, as Marco Polo and other visitors from afar soon realized. Among the new Chinese skills, some proved revolutionary: most notably, for Europe, the trinity of gunpowder, printing and the compass, all of which reached Europe from China between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.
China's westward reach was enhanced by the development of ocean-going all-weather ships, capable of tacking against the wind and of surviving most storms. Such ships, based mainly along the south China coast, where inland canal construction was checked by the mountainous interior, allowed enterprising merchants to extend a new (or perhaps only intensified and expanded) trade network across the south China sea and into the Indian ocean. There stoutly-built Chinese vessels had to compete with the light craft and experienced mercantile population indigeneous to those waters. As happened subsequently, when European ships penetrated the Indian ocean by circumnavigating Africa, local shipping and trading networks proved capable of undercutting the higher costs borne by large, all-weather, stout-built intruders. But all the same, a comparatively massive infusion of Chinese commodites and Chinese demand for spices and other Indian ocean products gave a fillip to the markets of the southern seas that soon slopped over into the Mediterranean and helped to stimulate the remarkable revival of European trade in the eleventh century and subsequently, with which historians have long been familiar.
Traders' needs, in turn, provoked Europeans to develop all-weather ships that were capable of traversing the stormy, tide-beset seas of the North Atlantic and have a reasonable chance of getting back to home ports safely. Inventions introduced between about 1000 and 1400 such as double planking nailed to a heavy keel-and-rib frame, powerful stern post rudders, decked-over holds, and multiple masts and sails made this possible. European ship building followed a course of its own, independent of Chinese or any other foreign model, even though European sailors were always ready to borrow anything that worked in practice, like compass navigation coming from China and triangular sails coming from the Indian ocean.
Their most fateful borrowing and adaptation, however, was the marriage European seamen made between stout-built, ocean-going ships and cannon, developed initially to knock down castle walls on land. Such big guns, once adapted for use on shipboard, provided European ships with an armament far superior to anything previously known. As a result, when European ships began to sail across all the oceans of the earth, just before and after 1500, they were remarkably safe against attack by sea; and could often overwhelm local reisistance on shore with wall-destroying broadsides.
The recoil from such guns was so powerful that only heavy ships could sustain it without shaking apart. The Chinese might have matched European ships in this respect, but for reasons domestic to imperial politics, the Chinese government prohibited the construction of ocean-going ships after 1434, and made private Chinese oceanic enterprise illegal. Operating as pirates systematically handicapped Chinese (and Japanese) sailors thereafter and deprived them of any chance or arming their vessels with heavy guns like those European traders carried routinely.
The consequences of European oceanic discoveries are well known, as are the consequences of the extraordinary improvements of transport and communication that came after 1850, when European, American and more recently also Japanese inventors utilized mechanical and electrical forms of energy for railroads steamships, telegraph and then for airplanes, radio, TV and, most recently, for the transmission of computer data as well. The most obvious effect of these successive transformations of world communications was to expand the reach of the Eurasian ecumene throughout the globe, engulfing the previously independent ecumenical system of America, together with less well-known social complexes in Australia and in innumerable smaller islands. The shock was enormous, and the world is still reverberating to the ecological, epidemiological, demographic, cultural and intellectual consequences of the global unification of the past five hundred years.
Among other things, global communication and transport made world history a palpable reality. Historians, being the faithful guardians of every level of human collective identity, are beginning to adapt to that circumstance, almost half a millennium after it began to affect human life everywhere. The historical profession still clings to more local (and more sacred) forms of history, and has not yet agreed upon how to approach the human adventure on earth as a whole.
In struggling with this question, it seems appropriate to emphasize two distinct levels of human encounters that took place across the centuries within the communications networks I have just sketched for you. First is biological and ecological: how human beings fared in competition with other forms of life, managing to not only to survive but to expand their share of the earth's matter and energy, age after age, and in a great variety of different physical environments. No other species comes near to equalling humanity's dominating role in earth's ecosystem. Major landmarks are obvious enough, starting with initial diffusion of hunters and gatherers from Africa, followed by intensified broad-spectrum gathering leading to agriculture; and then the rise of civilizations with enhanced formidability vis-a-vis other societies due to their military specialists on the one hand and their adaptation to crowd diseases on the other. The growing importance of the Eurasian ecumenical world system then takes over, diffusing diseases, crops, technological skill across larger and larger areas, until after 1500 the process became global. Each time a previously isolated population entered into contact with the ecumenical world system debilitating exposure to unfamiliar diseases, ideas and techniques ensued; often with disastrous results for the previously isolated peoples and their cultures.
Uniformity never emerged, and there is no reason to suppose it ever will. Differences of climate and other circumstances require different behaviour, and being both intelligent and adaptible, human beings act accordingly. Some forms of life have been destroyed by the human career on earth; many more are endangered, as we all know. Others have been carried into new environments and made to flourish as never before. Some disease organisms and weed species still defy human wishes successfully; but domesticated plants and animals have been radically altered and some entirely new species of plants and animals have been invented to nourish us and serve our wants (and wishes) in other ways.
What makes the human career on the face of the earth so extraordinary from a biological/ecological point of view is that in becoming fully human our predecessors introduced cultural evolution, as soon as learned behaviour began to govern most of their activity. The consequent cultural attainments of humankind, and their variability in time and space, thus constitute the second level of world history. Attention has traditionally and quite properly centered here because what has been learned can change whenever something new and attractive comes to conscious attention. And since consciousness is extremely motile, cultural evolution immediately outstripped organic evolution, introducing a radically new sort of disturbance into earth's ecosystem.
Yet in some respects cultural evolution still conforms to the older patterns of organic evolution. Initial, more or less random variation and subsequent selection of what works best is enough to set the process in motion. Contacts among bearers of different cultural traditions promoted further change; but as already argued, changes were often initiated to defend local peculiarities rather than to accept what was perceived as an alien, and often threatening, novelty. It follows that even the instantaneous communication that prevails today is unlikely to result in any sort of global uniformity. Human groups, even while borrowing from outsiders, cherish a keen sense of their uniqueness. The more they share, the more each group focuses attention on residual differences, since only so can the cohesion and morale of the community sustain itself.
The upshot has always been conflict, rivalry and chronic collision among human groups, both great and small. Even if world government were to come, such rivalries would not cease, though their expression would have to alter in deference to the overriding power or a bureaucratic world administration. In all probability, human genetic inheritance is attuned to membership in a small, primary community. Only so can life have meaning and purpose. Only so can moral rules be firm and definite enough to simplify choices. But membership in such groups perpetuates the gap between us and them and invites conflict since the best way to consolidate any group is to have an enemy close at hand.
Until very recently, rural villages constituted the primary communities that shaped and gave direction to most human lives. But with modern communications and the persistent spread of market relations into the countryside, this has begun to change. Multiple and often competing identities, characteristic of cities from ancient times, have begun to open before the astonished and often resentful eyes of the human majority. How to choose between the alternative collective identities, and how to reconcile conflicting obligations that different identities impose is the perennial moral problem of all human society. In the past, most rural communities worked out more or less unambiguous rules for making such choices, so that moral behavior was usually obvious to all concerned. In urban contexts, friction and uncertainty were far greater; and today, as urbanity expands into the countryside, ambiguity and uncertainty multiply everywhere.
How to reconcile membership in vivacious primary communities with the imperatives of an emerging cosmopolitanism is, perhaps, the most urgent issue of our time. The material advantages of global exchange and economic specialization are enormous. Without such a system, existing human populations could scarcely survive, much less sustain existing standards of living. But how firm adhesion to primary communities can be reconciled with participation in global economic and political processes is yet to be discovered. Religious congregations of fellow believers emerged in antiquity in response to analogous needs; and possibly something similar may happen again. But contemporary communications expose the faithful to a continual bombardment by messages from outsiders and unbelievers. Moreover, if that could somehow be successfully counteracted, rival religious communities then might clash, with results as disastrous as those arising from the twentieth century's clash of rival nations.
Human affairs are trembling on the verge of far-reaching transformation, analogous to what happened when agriculture emerged out of broad-spectrum gathering, and village communities became the principal framework within which human lives were led. What sort of communities may prove successful in accommodating their members to global communications, world wide exchanges and all the other conditions of contemporary (and future) human life remains to be seen. Catastrophe of unprecedented proportions is always possible. We are all aware of potential ecological disasters, due to pollution of land, air and water. Social breakdown due to deficient or misguided nurture is perhaps no less threatening.
But human ingenuity and inventiveness remains as lively as ever; and perhaps satisfying and sustainable inventions will indeed occur locally and then spread, as other inventions in times past, having proved themselves in practice, also spread through imitation and adaptation, thus adding to the sum of human skills and enlarging the scope of human life, age after age, through emergency after emergency and crisis after crisis, from the beginning of the human career on earth to our time. Risks may be greater than ever before, but possibilities are correspondingly vast.
We live, whether we like it or not, in a golden age when precedents for the future are being laid down. It seems apparent that by constructing a perspicacious and accurate world history, historians can play a modest but useful part in facilitating a tolerable future for humanity as a whole and for all its different parts. The changing shape of world history is a worthy and fascinating study, apt for our age, and practically useful inasmuch as a clear and vivid sense of the whole human past can help to soften future conflicts by making clear what we all share.
- ~ Main e-reference: Wikipedia (thank you, Wiki!)