Thursday, September 10, 2009

The World System

At first glance, the network of exchange during the thirteenth century seems rather mediocre, consisting mainly of agricultural products like spices, but the expansion of this world system includes a series of important concepts to grasp. First and foremost, contrary to many beliefs, European hegemony was not always present. When it came to capitalism, much of what Europe had built up was similar to that of many other countries. Paper money was already being used in China since the ninth century, and the idea of credit was already well developed in the Middle East and Asia. The Middle East already had partnerships and a certain percentage of returns for merchants. Also, merchant wealth thrived in Asian, Arab, and Western forms of capitalism because merchants at this time were independent from the various forms of government.

Clearly during the thirteenth century Europe was no better off than other countries around the world, but then questions arise when Europe considerably pulls ahead during the sixteenth century. Abu-Lughod explains why the fragmentation of trade route regions that had once been unified by Genghis Khan play a role in the significant change throughout networks of trade, but I am still unsure of the reasons why. I also would appreciate a more elaborate analysis of the Black Death because the significant population drop must have had a greater impact on the world other than simply just changing “terms of exchange ” temporarily. I was thoroughly surprised by how the Black Death hardly changed trade in the long run in countries such as Italy, where the mortality rate was rather sizeable.

I did find one comparison of Europe in the thirteenth and sixteenth century very enticing. Abu-Lughod depicts Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon as two representations of this change (more specifically in England) over time. Roger lived during the thirteenth century, Francis during the sixteenth, and both were philosophers who possessed a commitment to the natural sciences, appealed to authority, and faced disgrace eventually. There sharp differences, however, portray the change in an exceptionally vivid manner. Roger had sacred beliefs and thus appealed to the pope, but Francis had secular beliefs and thus appealed to the monarchy. Directly related to the world system, Roger saw knowledge in the East, and of course a few centuries later Francis believed knowledge was right in front of them and had to be newly achieved. This made the alteration in European motives a bit more clear.

Also, I became more aware of how Italy (specifically the trade centers at Genoa and Venice) mediated foreign trade and determined what investments would be made. Establishment in the Middle East also began early for Italy around the Black Sea, coast of Palestine, and Egypt, although slightly more constrained, through beachheads. This is just one of the many examples of how elaborate the world system already was, even without the advanced technology that we know so well today. If anyone can help me better interpret Abu-Lughod’s interpretation of the effect of fragmentation and the Black Death on the change in trade networks, I would greatly appreciate it.


  1. I also think a better explanation of why the Black Death ravaged other cities and caused their downfall [e.g. Bruges and Ghent], while it did not detriment Italy the same way. As you said, it really does not make sense in the way the information was presented in the readings as it is stated that Italy suffered a sizable population loss because it was so heavily connected to the Levant and the Far East through the Mediterranean trade. What made Italy so invincible?

    Your explanation of the Roger/Francis metaphor really helped me focus on the point of the metaphor. Now I am waiting for an explanation of how and why European mindset changed the way it did as depicted in this comparison.

  2. I also thought the comparison of Roger and Francis Bacon was very interesting. Even though Abu-Lughod didn't bother explaining why their attitudes change, you're right, it made the transition very clear. I think the mindset changed because as Europe gained wealth and power, nationalism set in. McNeil said that nationalism became prevalent in the 18th century, but that doesn't mean it didn't exist before then. It was clearly a big part of the reason why Francis Bacon had no use for Muslim culture the way Roger did. By the time that Francis lived Europe had probably already adapted for themselves many of the things that Roger admired the Islamic world for, and Francis was not even aware of the effect that "the East" had already had on his own culture.