Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hegemony and Historical Necessity

In the first part of her book, Before European Hegemony, Janet L. Abu-Lughod discusses the lack of an inherent historical necessity to create a European hegemony. She also argues that there were no historical necessities that would have prevented a Middle Eastern, or Eastern society from becoming the “progenitors of a world system.” These concepts are examined through the economic and political systems of the “Pax Mongolica” system of the fourteenth century. This system displays an unprecedented global “golden age” of wealth and surplus production, resulting in extensive international trade and presented what Abu-Lughod describes as a “fulcrum of history” in which any of the major regions could have gained hegemony. Abu-Lughod carefully examines the international trade, focusing on the major cities, (i.e. Troyes, Bruges and Ghent) and the foundation and decline of periodic markets.

Personally, this reading presented a lot of unfamiliar history. My experience with Asian and Middle Eastern medieval history is extremely limited, and Abu-Lughod’s thesis presents a new look at European dominance. I had known that Europe gained many technological advances from Muslim and Asian interactions, but I had not realized the extent to which Europe was behind in international trade. I believed that Europe founded the medieval international trade system, rather than entering a pre-established economic network. The sophistication of currency exchange and the credit lines of Asian and Middle Eastern merchants both surprised and impressed me. The reading definitely altered my understanding of Europe before Western global dominance.

One unclear concept is Abu-Lughod’s definition of an “inherent historical necessity.” Europe and the West obviously came to dominate the global system while Asia and the Middle East fell into the periphery. Abu-Lughod presents the disintegration of trade routes within the Mongol empire, and the Black Death as reasons for their decline, but these are not "inherent historical necessities." So I ask, what would a “historical necessity” for decline or hegemony be?

Colleen Moroney

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