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Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250-1350.

Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250-1350

Janet L. Abu-Lughod, professor of sociology and historical studies in the Graduate Faculty at the New School for Social Research, in this stimulating work of synthesis adopts the analytical underpinnings and terminology of world system theorists in order to examine the international economy of the "long" thirteenth century. In so doing she challenges a major point of world-systems analysis as set forth by its most noted practitioner, Immanuel Wallerstein, in his The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy (1974) and subsequent volumes: to wit, the argument that there was but one world system and that its origins are to be situated in sixteenth-century Europe. In a friendly sort of way, she is "spoiling the Egyptians."

Abu-Lughod's world-system (incidentally not to be understood as a global system) consists of the linkage between three subsystems, or cores: China, the most advanced; the Arab world, essentially Egypt and the Near East; and bringing up the rear chronologically, Western Europe. In discussing Western Europe's role in the thirteenth-century world economy, she is insistent on the point that there was nothing inherently superior in the technological, cultural, psychological, or economic structures inherent in Western civilization that could have foretold the ultimate dominance of Europe over Wallerstein's sixteenth-century world-system that "reconstructed" out of the "devolution" of the thirteenth-century structure. Indeed, in Abu-Lughod's recreation of the economic relations between the three subsystems, Europe not only entered the existing Sino-Arab connection late but brought little, if anything, novel or advantageous for doing or organizing business that might have given it a leg up for the future. All three areas were riding a simultaneous tide of economic expansion and prosperity that carried them along in symbiosis. None of the thirteenth-century subsystems was "hegemonic" over the whole and none constituted a core hegemon such as northwest Europe did in the sixteenth-century system.

Following an introductory chapter that carefully explains her theoretical premises and explanatory plan, the author turns in part 1 to a consideration of three "core" participants within the European subsystem. These were the Fairs of Champagne "that handled Europe's new interactions with each other [sic] and with the East," the industrial-commercial towns of Flanders and the Italian seaports of Genoa and Venice that linked northwestern Europe to the entrepots of the Middle East.

Part 2 deals with the Mideast heartland that not only constituted one of the major regions of the world-system but was also the main area linking the West with Asia. The "core" centers here were Baghdad and Cairo, although crucial to this connection of Far East and Europe was the overland route controlled by an uneasily united Mongol state created in the wake of the conquests of Genghis Kahn in the early thirteenth century. The measure of security and stability provided by the Mongols over the central Asian steppes allowed feasible passage between the Near East to China and was the principal route over which the silk of Cathay found its way to the West. Functioning at the same time were two sea routes uniting the West with Asia, largely through the mediation of Muslim traders and traversing the Indian Ocean entering through the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.

In part 3, Abu-Lughod considers Asia. The Indian Ocean was divided roughly into three spheres of influence, albeit with a high degree of overlap, between Muslim traders in the eastern circuit, Hindu and Buddhists in the middle zone, and a third circuit that was Chinese space and included the South China Sea as well as the strategically crucial Strait of Malacca. The Indian Ocean thus served as an indirect connection between the Far East, India, and the Mediterranean in the heyday of the medieval world-system. Also examined in this section are the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China. Here Abu-Lughod emphasizes the productive superiority of China, as well as its advanced business practices and institutions relative to the other core regions involved in thirteenth-century international trade and commerce.

Given the vitality of this integrated system as described by Abu-Lughod, the question remains as to what happened to cause its disintegration and the emergence of Western Europe in the sixteenth century to a position of hegemony. As the author explains it, world systems evolve in a tightly unified way. What occurs in one part of the system inevitably affects the system as a whole. All subsystems experienced the disastrous demographic plunge caused by the plague of the mid-fourteenth century. Population loss in turn led directly to a decline in the overall volume and value of international trade and commerce. Also the plague fostered a fundamental geopolitical change. The Mongols, weakened by the Black Death, were unable to hold China and gave way to the Ming dynasty in 1368. The Ming shifted their attention to the north and to Peking, abandoning China's role in the South China Sea and ultimately giving up an active sea trade. The withdrawal of China's navy consequently created a vacuum that was filled by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. In Abu-Lughod's words, "the 'Fall of the East' preceded the 'Rise of the West.'"

Whether or not one accepts world-systems theory and its methods in whole or part--and I have reservations in this case about, among other things, matters of chronology that seem rather wished away--this is a rich, stimulating, and challenging book. The author has skillfully brought together and assimilated a vast literature. Not only medievalists and economic theorists but anyone interested in the dynamic of today's world economy can read this cogent, tightly reasoned work with great interest.

Thomas W. Blomquist is professor of history at Northern Illinois University. His many articles on the economic history of thirteenth-century Lucca have appeared in, among others, journals such as Speculum, Journal of Economic History, Business History Review, and Journal of European Economic History. He is currently engaged in a study of the economic and social relationships between city and country in medieval Lucca.
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Author:Blomquist, Thomas W.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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