This week the discussion of Abu-Lughod’s examination of the origins of the world system and the factors and characteristics of existence before the period of European hegemony began. Many perspectives are briefly mentioned, but in general the book takes the perspective that rather than being some unique positive characteristics of “the West,” the ascension of Europe to a hegemonic status is more of a result of problems in the Levant and the Far East.
Despite the notion that there were and are striking differences between the two extremes of the world system in the Middle Ages, the similarities are more compelling than the differences. Things like money and credit, group investments, and merchant wealth and supremacy spanned largely across the entire world system of that time. The fact that there are so many similarities is the main support for the idea that instead of Europe pulling forward, the Levant and Far East fell behind.
The examination of the pre-European dominance era begins with Europe itself. The early markets were called periodic as they followed a cyclic pattern that allowed merchants and traders to move along a predetermined route that allowed them to work many markets efficiently. These types of markets dominated as the population was sparse, there was little development and poor transportation mediums. These markets often started off small and grew as “bigger” merchants frequented them. These markets were the precursors to the world market and monetized system that later developed. Slowly elements like security, exchange currencies, and strategically placed markets allowed some cities to become major trading sites, like the Fairs of Champagne and later Bruges and Ghent.
However these places also eventually lost their significance and uniqueness. The factors that once made these cities the favored place for trade by merchants slowly faded. Examples include loss of security, political interference and development and industrialization in different places. The point of dependency on the Counts and raw materials also proved detrimental to both the Fairs of Champagne and the cities in Flanders, respectively.
I found it very surprising, yet compelling that many elements of present trade and modern day capitalism existed and dominated trade even during the Middle Ages. I knew that before capitalism, mercantilism dominated people and countries’ economic and political endeavors, but before reading Abu-Lughod’s rendition, I did not realize how seamlessly the two ideas work together. With so many examples, to me it is strange that is should be questioned whether these markets were capitalistic. I also found it interesting that the subsystems of the world during the Middle Ages were more self-sufficient than the subsystems today. It sounds counterintuitive at first glance, but when it is really contemplated the restrictions on transportation essentially made it necessary that these subsystems could survive independently; otherwise no real development would have occurred as everything would be limited by the speed and efficiency of the rudimentary transportation of that time.
Abu-Lughod states that there was no hegemonic power in the early world system as each benefited from the system but not through detriments to others (pg. 37). To me this does not make sense as it said repeatedly in the first week’s readings that the Italians came to different markets and through their expertise and better connections to the Levant and the Far East displaced local merchants and essentially dominated the trade. If, as Abu-Lughod does, the Italians are marked as a reason for Bruges and Ghent’s downfall, how can the mutual benefit without harm statement be true?
-Ragini Grace Gupta