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Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989)

de Janet L. Abu-Lughod

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In this important study, Abu-Lughod presents a groundbreaking reinterpretation of global economic evolution, arguing that the modern world economy had its roots not in the sixteenth century, as is widely supposed, but in the thirteenth century economy--a system far different from the European world system which emerged from it. Using the city as the working unit of analysis, Before European Hegemony provides a new paradigm for understanding the evolution of world systems by tracing the rise of a system that, at its peak in the opening decades of the 14th century, involved a vast region stretching between northwest Europe and China. Writing in a clear and lively style, Abu-Lughod explores the reasons for the eventual decay of this system and the rise of European hegemony.… (més)
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Janet Abu-Lughod describes the system of global international trade in the 13th century, how it developed and why it broke down in the middle of the 14th century. She describes five distinct subsets of trading zones and works her way from west (Europe) across the Mediterranean, Middle East and India towards the east (China) and identifies the Black Death as the most important among many causes for the breakdown in long-distance trade.
This is a fascinating book. At the time it was published (1989) it must have been an eye-opener for many brought up on the idea that Europe was best and greatest and destined to rule the world. It is an idea she roundly demolishes, and in the course of doing so she tells an amazing story. There is the occasional lapse into inaccuracy (like situating Lübeck on the North Sea), she occasionally has to rely heavily on other people’s work, and I assume that much has since been superseded by more recent research. Still, it is a valid overview of the state of research at this point in time.
The theoretical construct underlying the analysis, the concept of world system, did not convince me. It looks to me rather like an excuse for sterile and artificial debate among initiates. But that is one of the attending ills of modern science.
On a less happy note: I found her way of arranging her notes by chapter/geographical area infuriating, because some of the names turned up elsewhere and you still had to leaf through the entire bibliography to find them. I also found it heavily biased in favour of English titles, the occasional French source gets a look-in, but usually with a reference to an English translation. ( )
  MissWatson | Jul 29, 2016 |
The Eurasian continent consisted of multiple overlapping regional networks of trade, stretching from Europe to China. Europe was by no means predominant at this time, just a periphery in this broader system of international trade. Those areas in Europe with greater proximity to trade routes (Genoa, Venice, the Byzantine Empire) received much economic benefit.

In order, Abu-Lughod discusses the Troyes and Champagne trade fairs of France, Bruges and Ghent, Genoa and Venice in modern Italy, the Mongolian Empire and its overland routes, Baghdad and its strategic location near the Persian Gulf, Cairo and the Mameluke Empire (and the importance of their contract/business law system and their merchant class), India, the Malacca Strait, and Yuan China.

This early system collapsed for several reasons - first, the bubonic plague of the mid-14th century caused massive population reduction and economic instability, and second, the further isolation of China, cutting off the then-predominant sector of world trade. One of the main reasons that Europe became predominant in later centuries is that it was slightly less afflicted by plague, and was thus able to aggressively move into more affected areas.

Those more central members of the world-system - that is, the nations occupying the 'Middle East', the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia, had several economic, social, and political benefits from this system, ranging from the invention of more complex money/credit systems, investment, and a proto-capitalist system of accumulation, leading to more complex international trade, which led to further internal economic growth and development, which led to increased political and social benefits (Abu-Lughod helpfully includes examples of contemporary art).

There are no fixed principles for world-systems, as Abu-Lughod notes, as the principal actors and connections between them are in a constantly changing state. It is only too easy to make a comparison to the 'globalized' world of the 21st century.

A broad historical-sociological survey with interesting big ideas. They're so widespread now that they seem obvious, which reveals little of how revolutionary they were before. Examining technology, society, and culture on their own are not the only determining factors, as they must be examined in further context.

I must note that Abu-Lughod's statement, that "Cores can become peripheries, and peripheries can become cores through no fault of their own," may become a political axiom similar to the opening of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. "The empire long united must divide, and the state long divided must unite." ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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The second half of the thirteenth century was a remarkable moment in world history.
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In this important study, Abu-Lughod presents a groundbreaking reinterpretation of global economic evolution, arguing that the modern world economy had its roots not in the sixteenth century, as is widely supposed, but in the thirteenth century economy--a system far different from the European world system which emerged from it. Using the city as the working unit of analysis, Before European Hegemony provides a new paradigm for understanding the evolution of world systems by tracing the rise of a system that, at its peak in the opening decades of the 14th century, involved a vast region stretching between northwest Europe and China. Writing in a clear and lively style, Abu-Lughod explores the reasons for the eventual decay of this system and the rise of European hegemony.

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