Friday, September 11, 2009

Before European Hegemony - Blog 1

Janet Abu-Lughod believes that the first world system developed during the thirteenth century, despite the fact that most historians maintain that it occurred much later. As proof, she describes the system of trade, including routes and methods (such as bartering and currency), that was used in the world at that time. She also examines why Europe became the dominant world power instead of another area. This topic is the basis for her book, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Abu-Lubghod begins by exploring the concept of fairs in the European subsystem, which were used as markets during the thirteenth century. Some were ephemeral while others were permanent, but all of them acted as centers where foreign and local traders could exchange wares. As a result of the complexities of trading across borders, a more complex system developed. Italians, who were more knowledgeable in banking practices due to their interaction with Muslims, generally controlled all foreign trade. They, along with other bankers, would exchange currencies or write “bills of exchange,” which allowed goods to be traded on a type of credit. The first major fairs that Abu-Lubghod refers to are those of Champagne because merchants were able to safely travel there, be assured that the trades would be fair, and enjoy trading in a place that was free from royal restrictions. However, as vessels improved and other places were more conveniently located between centers of production, the fairs also moved to places such as Bruges and Ghent. Unfortunately, dependency ruined both of those towns. England stopped selling wool to Flemish weavers because they were able to create their own products out of it, and Italian investors started putting their money into enterprises that were not declining. The Black Death also took a heavy toll, which contributed to the trade system shifting east.

I thought it was most interesting how complex but seemingly coincidental changes were. Abu-Lubghod tries to explain that the fairs at Champagne ended after a king took control of the towns, it was less safe and more expensive for merchants to travel there, easier sea routes to direct trading points were discovered, better vessels had been created, and the Black Death killed many people. However, she also mentions that the fairs really only dissipated once the Italians stopped coming. The same type of thing happened with the fairs at Burges and Ghent: the natural movement of silt blocked the ports and the Black Death took lives there as well. But as Abu-Lubghod points out, those fairs also ended because England had complete control over the wool that was needed to make the Flemish textiles and the Italians in Flanders ended up with control over where the money from the sale of the textiles was invested. Therefore, England withheld wool and the Italians invested the money in more profitable locations outside of the towns. It seems to me like Europe gained power through a series of chance events. The likelihood of all of these occurrences lining up, especially since even the Black Death hit the Orient and coastal regions much harder than it hit Europe at large, seems highly unlikely. Abu-Lughod provides a convincing set of evidence that Europe took power instead of the Orient because of chance, not because of destiny, as others have believed.

Something Abu-Lughod could have explained better is how these fairs relate to the modern world. For example, a connection between the desire of the French merchants to be protected from cheaper outside prices and the same desire of modern American companies is able to be drawn. Another connection between England withholding wool from Flanders to make a political statement and any of the numerous embargoes that have occurred throughout history could have been made. The Italian bankers and the complex exchanges that were transacted could also have been compared to modern macroeconomic exchanges of goods and credit. Such comparisons would have made for a very good discussion.

-Jessica Feldbauer

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