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.