Friday, September 11, 2009

Misconceptions of Europe's Role in History

What Abu-Lughod investigates in Before European Hegemony and essentially what we’re trying to figure out together in class is why did Europe emerge as the dominant hegemonic power and what exactly were the processes that led to its domination. Abu-Lughod presents her argument to us upfront:

The thesis of this book is that there was no inherent historical necessity that shifted the system to favor the West rather than the East, nor was there any inherent historical necessity that would have prevented cultures in the eastern region from becoming the progenitors of a modern world system.

She then goes on to explain the factors that contributed to the Orient’s increasing disarray in the sixteenth century which allowed Europe to pull ahead in terms of economic power and control. A couple of the major factors include the Black Death, which started in China and destroyed much of the city populations along the coastal trade route, and the fragmentation of regions providing trade routes and declining security.

One of the things that most fascinates me is that in her historical analysis of these events and the nature of trade before European power, is that she continues to refute many preconceptions I’ve developed from grade school about Europe’s role in history. I don’t think that I’m alone when I say that history and social science classes never exposed Europe’s utter insignificance in the world trade system in the times before its hegemonic period. Dimly, I think it was assumed that Europe always had the upper hand and was presented at the center of action and importance. Learning more about the complex and rich interactions of everyone else during the Middle Ages is all the more interesting adds a more objective perspective to my understanding of world history.

It's upsetting to me that the natural (it seems) tendency toward ethnocentrism corrupts the relation of "truth" in history in classrooms. Can we really get at a "truth" anyway though? This is a question that Abu-Lughod reflects on early in her book while explaining the various complications of historical analysis. For example, the recorders of history cannot be trusted as unbiased and the records themselves can be lost or damaged. To construct a picture of what it was truly like from 1250-1350 becomes a very daunting task - like attempting to fit puzzle pieces together whose shapes and edges were changed from the original. It is important to keep this in mind while reading about history and noting historical sources because you cannot assume their validity.


  1. Liz brings up an interesting point on ethnocentrism, that our narrow minded focus on Europe has corrupted the "truth" of history in classrooms. From my own experiences as a student, I agree that my study of history has terribly neglected the East, and Africa. Our only study of those regions was in their relation to Europe, as minor points of interest. For example, our study of the black death focused entirely on its effect on Europe, only mentioning that originated from Asia. The havoc wreaked on the Asian side of the Pax Mongolica system was not mentioned. In fact, I'd never even heard of the Pax Mongolica system until this class. So I question David Brin's "Dogma of Otherness" meme. I disagree that this meme has come to take a hold on the West to the extent he suggests. Yes, our modern culture is by far more tolerant than any in history, as today's "political correctness" and focus on diversity exemplify. And though many of us thirst for exposure to foreign ideas and unfamiliar traditions, its more as a novelty, an hour long entertainment or weekend trip to enjoy and forget. We are certainly moving towards the realization of the "Dogma of Otherness," but we are far from reaching it. Today's school children know far more about other cultures and their histories than our parent's generation, but the "Dogma of Otherness" has yet to fully integrate into our homes, our minds and our classrooms.

  2. I completely agree with Liz: I have never been taught about a period in history before Europe was the dominant power. Africa, Australia, and the Middle East to some extent are all relatively ignored in my school experience. I am thrilled that Abu-Lughod is able to better fill in my education by giving me a less Euro-centric point of view. It's very interesting to me how Europe came to power since I had never previously thought about a time when they didn't have that power.

  3. I agree. I definitely had a different view of Europe's role before reading this. It amazes me how quickly Europe got into the swing of trade and eventually stood at its core.