In Before European Hegemony (Chapters 1 and 2), Janet L. Abu-Lughod depicts the vast economic, social, and cultural integration of the thirteenth century’s world system. She opposes the common “Eurocentric” view that in the sixteenth century Europe was the first to develop what modern scholars call the modern world system. Abu-Lughod argues that the thirteenth century was a necessary precursor to the world system that we have today. She also confidently asserts that there was no “inherent historical necessity” that pushed the West to eventually dominate the world system or to stop the East from becoming the hegemony. For instance, there were already world- economies developed in different parts of the world before a hegemonic European system prospered in the sixteenth century. Consequently, she focuses on the fact that there was no one hegemonic power in this system, unlike our current world economic system. Furthermore, today there is a large focus on the economic aspect of our world system, but Abu-Lughod emphasizes the cultural growth and development that ensued from these “global” interactions in the thirteenth century. Consequently, she makes it very clear that she believes “no world system is global, in the sense that all parts articulate evenly with one another…” (32). With this statement, she is emphasizing the fact that even today, our advanced world system is not completely global. However, in the thirteenth century when trade spanned from Western Europe to the Far East, the most global network up until that time was formed.
For organizational purposes, Abu-Lughod describes the eight, self sufficient, interlinked subsystems involved with the world trade. She then groups them into three circuits; the Far East, the western European, and the Middle Eastern. The first part of the book explains the European subsystem and breaks it down into three important arenas; east-central France, Flanders, and the trading ports on the Italian peninsula, Genoa (34-35). These were the centers for meeting that connected the intricate network of trade. Abu-Lughod also identifies the common traits of the various arenas within the system—the invention of money and credit, mechanisms for pooling capital and distributing risk, and merchant wealth.
I found the readings extremely interesting, especially the discussion of the idea of capitalism throughout the work. At some points it seems as though capitalism was developing; for instance, Abu-Lughod mentions the large amount of luxury items that were being traded and developed. On the other hand, however, at the end of Chapter 2, she mentions that the Flanders and the Italian city states often had a role in regulating commerce and trade. The “state” made laws that aided its own merchants and disadvantaged others. Furthermore, in the Middle East and some parts of the Italian states a feudal system still ensued. One of the only criticisms I have is a lack of firsthand evidence to her conclusions; she has a long list of secondary sources but not much evidential proof. However, Abu-Lughod mentions this problem herself in the introduction.