In regard to a global society, the global society exists in the most accurate sense today, where great leaps in technology and the global mindset have simplified trade, making it more accessible and rapid than it has ever been before. However, these great leaps have only been realized as a result of the great leaps in trade and diplomacy that have come before them. In fact, the advances made in the world system of the thirteenth century may even be considered more monumental than ones taking place in the present day, because it was the prior global society that laid the framework for the global society of today.
In “Before European Hegemony”, Abu-Lughod aims to discern how a global society with the European nations at the core could evolve from the earlier and radically different global society of the thirteenth century, where economic power was shared by various powers from across Asia and the Middle East, as well was some emerging influence from Europe. She does this first through analyzing the world system as it existed in the thirteenth century, as well as contrasting the European powers with the rest of the world. She attempts to find “the unique characteristics of western capitalism” (15) that may have led to the emerging prominence of the west in the coming centuries. At the time, both used a currency as a method to aid in the exchange of good, which led to the invention of credit as well as the role of the banks in the exchange of money. Both also used methods for pooling capital to fund trade voyages, usually among family or religion-based lines. It is the differences that were most interesting to Abu-Lughod, as the chief difference being “that in the thirteenth century Europe lagged behind the Orient whereas by the sixteenth century she had pulled considerably ahead” (18), and all of the supplementing differences providing the reason behind this. The first, she reasons was the fragmentation of the trade routes that had been peacefully maintained by the Mongol empire. As the trade routes across Asia became less prominent, the economic prosperity shared between these regions declined as well. The second is the far reaching and devastating influence of the black plague from 1348-1351. Because the east was more involved in trade and travel, the plague traveled quicker across Asia and devastated the densely populated areas there. In contrast, Europe was more isolated and as a result felt a smaller impact. The devastation resulted in an “opening-up” of the global stage for European merchants to take advantage of, a hole in the market that Europe was soon to fill as it emerged a global economic power.
Abu-Lughod raises an especially interesting point regarding some of the problems with studying a historical system such as this. She points out what is to be learned from a lack of information, and what it can teach us about a global perspective. For example, some Arab geographers believed that in areas beyond exploration there lived dog-faced people as well as people covered with hair but having no knees, who were called “Chin-Chin”. Chinese accounts include descriptions “of water sheep that grow cotton instead of wool, or western accounts of special Chinese trees whose leaves are covered with silk floss” (32).
The study of this drastic shift in power leaves much up to speculation, which the rest of the novel will intend to explain. Most interesting would be a further explanation of effect of the Black Death on both Europe and the rest of the trading world. Why exactly was it that the “die-off rate” was lower in Europe than it was in the rest of the world? How did Europe recover its strength so much quicker than Asia and the Middle East?