Thursday, September 10, 2009

Before the West Won

Abu-Loghod stated that the thesis of her book was “that there was no inherent historical necessity that shifted the system to favor the West rather than the East, nor was there any inherent historical necessity that would have prevented cultures in the eastern region from becoming the progenitors of a modern world system” (12). And she certainly makes a strong case to argue that statement. Between 1250 and 1350 CE, Europe was still recovering from the fall of the Roman empire and the former unification of Charlemagne’s reign. Europe certainly had important trading centers and played a key role in the so-called “world system”, but was in no way superior to Middle Eastern or Mongolian culture.

            What I thought to be extremely interesting was Abu-Lughod’s juxtaposition of Roger and Francis Bacon. This very clearly illustrated the changing attitudes of Europeans towards eastern cultures. The fact that Roger Bacon was preoccupied with gaining knowledge from the “higher” civilizations (21) of the Muslim world was telling. This shows that during his lifespan, the East had a good chance of becoming a world power, rather than Europe overtaking the Middle East and China. But three centuries later, Francis Bacon thought nothing of the East; he “believed that little could be gained from others” (24).  So why did admiration of “the East” evaporate in “the West”? And where did the nationalistic arrogance that developed in Europe come from?

            As Americans, fond of our “Dogma of Otherness”, we would never suppose that “the West” was inherently superior, hence its rise to power. Rather, a more diplomatic explanation is that Europe was simply lucky, so to speak. To put it better, the circumstances that Europe found itself in during the 14th century were favorable to their rise to a more hegemonic status, although these circumstances were due to external, uncontrollable factors.  I won’t repeat the details that we’re all familiar with, but Europe cannot take credit for its rise to dominance due to factors such as the Black Death, their favorable location, China’s decision to isolate itself, etc. China easily could have been the dominant power, I believe, had it not gone into isolation. World history as we know it would have been immensely different, because in many ways the Mongolian empire had advantages over Europe. They had possession of vast amounts of natural resources, a formidable population, and the advantage of being unified, whereas Europe was severely fractured into miniscule kingdoms.

            One thing that I could really like a more clear explanation of was what the political atmosphere was in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. Could someone sum up what the basic organization was? Was it mainly feudal systems or small kingdoms? Thanks.

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