In Before European Hegemony, Abu-Lughod examines the world system of the thirteenth century and the roles that various regions had in forming and strengthening their connections while no one region rose to international domination. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the world saw an economy dominated by Europe, a clear distinction from the non-hegemonic world system that connected northwestern Europe to the Far East through a variety of trade routes. In the thirteenth century, however, Europe was still not fully recovered from the fall of the Roman Empire and the resultant economic decline amidst centuries of war and unrest (though there are examples of economic successes and political unity i.e. Italy’s continued trade in the Mediterranean and Charlemagne’s reign). Europe as a whole, especially northwestern Europe, did not experience any period of rebirth until the Crusades. Despite their military failures, the Crusades did succeed in integrating northwestern Europe and the world system through the extension of the existing trade circuits between Italian ports and the Middle East, India, and China. Regions outside of Europe were also experiencing cultural, artistic, and economic growth, all of which contributed to motivating the world trade system that developed. This system, while primitive when compared to those of future centuries in terms of technology, transportation, and finances, did link several geographic subsystems and their dominant cities, creating for the first time a world system. This first part of the book discusses the development of Europe as a player within the world system following centuries of “darkness” and remoteness.
An area of discussion that particularly interested me was the involvement of Islam in the development of the world system. As early as the seventh century, Islam was widespread, expanding to Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and China. In looking at the map of the regions involved in the first major world system, the areas of Islamic influence form an extensive core of Pax Mongolica. Beyond its geographic reach, Islam obviously also served as an inspiration for the Crusades after its sphere of influence stretched into the Holy Land. Once Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, much of its attention moved to regaining this lost territory and restoring Christendom in the Holy Land. As mentioned above, while the Crusades ultimately failed, they did serve to unite Europe under a common goal and insert the continent into the world system of trade. Without Islam, it may have been many more years until these regions came into contact and took advantage of the economic benefits that each had to offer. Finally, without the increased prospects of trade provided by contact with the Middle and Far East, Europe would not so soon have undergone the same period of growth and urbanization inspired by the necessary development of exchangeable goods.
The points of discussion that remain vague involve the fragmentation of this world system and its varying effects inside and outside of Europe. Warring factions disrupted overland trade routes in Central Asia, obviously a factor in disrupting continued economic growth. At the same time, however, Europe also often found itself in a state of war. Following the same logic, the Black Death hit Europe in the same way it hit China and everywhere in between, creating as the book says, “fluidity in world conditions that facilitated radical transformations, benefitting some and harming others.” So why was Europe able to rise as a dominant power centuries later? Why did Europe supposedly benefit and rise to become the core region while the Middle East, India, and China fell to semi-periphery levels? Italy was devastated by the plague due to its concentrated dealings with the Middle East, so what allowed it to rebound while most of Asia was left behind?