Global Middle Ages History

The Global Middle Ages: A Radical New Way of Doing History

What do you know about gerbils? Did you know that gerbils carry worlds on their backs, worlds occupied by fleas? Did you know that in warmer climates fleas reproduce more? This leads to an increase in ‘flea-density’ as more and more fleas fight for space and sustenance on the gerbil’s back. When flea-density reaches its peak, the fleas spring off the gerbil onto other gerbils or other rodents or, if the gerbil happens to be in a human occupied region, onto humans. And if the gerbil had passed through somewhere the Black Death had touched, there’s a good chance the fleas would carry those microbes with them. Hot climate + gerbil mobility + humans = plague. This is what we might call a connection.

The Global Middle Ages is a radical new way of doing history. Stemming from a joint-project between the Universities of Oxford, Birmingham and Newcastle, this European and World History Finals option is at the cutting edge of historical study. The paper considers one thousand years of history (500 – 1500CE) from across the world. Week-to-week, there are opportunities to dance between Mongol camps and Aztec cities, Japanese courts and Abbasid harems, the Eurasian Steppe and the Indian Ocean. The reading lists offer insight from experts across a range of periods and localities, as well as disciplines as diverse as textile history, literary history, anthropology, archaeology, biology, ecology, and many others. Whilst it may seem overwhelming, I found the carefully curated reading lists and excellent tutoring introduced these topics in accessible ways. You certainly have to be brave, but the rewards are worth it.

The greatest gift of this paper is its introduction to the idea and techniques of ‘global’ history. Rejecting the notion that globalisation began with Columbus in 1492, the paper encourages the student to explore a history of human (and, often, non-human) connection and mobility. This was a period where people and ideas were constantly mobile. From nomadic steppe civilisations to merchants and pilgrims traversing silk roads and waterways, students are invited to consider the impact of mobility on social formation, world view and the spread of ideas. Mobility entailed connection and the meeting of different cultures and perspectives, and this paper offers an excellent opportunity to explore how these interactions were negotiated. My favourite essay from the term was on the role of food as societies met. When a Jewish traveller arrived in India, his hosts had to develop various strategies (differing uses of furniture, different methods of cooking) to allow them to eat together despite their contrasting cultural prohibitions.

Yet the paper does not shy away from the bleaker side of mobility and connection either. With the discussion of silk roads and waterways comes the acknowledgement that these structures enabled and encouraged the movement of slaves too. Though there is a specific topic covering war, disease, famine, refugees and slavery, we explored aspects of this darker side every week. In an essay on the spread of technologies and ideas, my tute partner had the opportunity to consider how often this came at a cost. The first paper mill is believed to have entered the West via prisoners of war taken in the 751 Battle of Talas, whilst European medical knowledge was often translated from stolen Arabic texts by enslaved Muslims. Indeed, whilst connection between different societies could be exciting, interesting and hospitable, it could also be on the battlefield, in the raiding of villages or the study of an enemy to be converted or fought. By questioning the capitalist narrative of ‘globalisation as progress,’ the paper challenges its students to not just approach history differently, but to rethink the modern world itself. You sign up for medieval history, and come away with a new perspective on the present.

These echoes also come out in the paper’s dedication to intersectionality. As avid readers of OHR will know, medieval history at Prelims has been criticised for its resistance to gender history (or even acknowledging women). The Global Middle Ages includes consideration of gender and the role of women every single week. How did state cosmologies enforce gendered expectations, what was the influential role of women in court culture, how was it different to travel as a woman compared to a man? Though many sources from this period were produced by and for men, we were always encouraged each week to explore female perspectives and to engage with variations in gender on the global stage. Where EWP1 considered women objects to be raided and traded by Vikings, EWF4 acknowledges, like Pegolotti’s handbook for Florentine merchants, that if women are to travel ‘it will be well that she be acquainted with [foreign languages] as well as the men.’

The Triumph of Death - a typical Global Middle Ages History piece of art.
The Triumph of Death, circa 1355, Pisa, Wikimedia Commons.

The paper’s intersectionality also extends to a passionate commitment to decolonisation. A paper centring on mobility and cultural connection must see beyond a purely White and Western perspective, offering opportunities to study indigenous societies in Africa, North and South America and Asia. Crucially, the paper also recognises that decolonisation doesn’t just mean studying non-western empires. There’s an anarchist streak running through the Global Middle Ages, an active desire to examine and resist all forms of oppression and subjugation. From consideration of what makes empires tick to inspection of the subtle hierarchies implicit in all forms of society, this is a paper that recognises decolonisation and emancipation is a journey rather than a destination, and – certainly for this student – it has provided an excellent set of directions.

‘Global,’ however, entails more than just the study of the world beyond Europe. It also challenges the student to consider the reality of living on the globe. The paper fuses its social and political history with the environment. How do societies exist within a space? Is prayer impacted by variable daylight hours? Is it inherently easier to govern plains than mountains, and how do states manipulate the landscape to make it more governable? Do certain climate conditions impact historical outcomes? Was the Mongol expansion a result of greater rainfall -> more grass -> stronger horses? For a modern era seeing the full effects of climate change, this paper offers an opportunity to grapple with the Anthropocene, to reflect on how we shape the world around us and how in turn that world shapes us.

But perhaps my favourite part of this paper is just how strange it has the potential to become. In its challenging, provocative and eclectic interdisciplinary nature, the Global Middle Ages invites the student to consider the wholly unexpected. Often in essays and tutorials we were asked to do history from the perspective of pathogens or animals. Following developments in ‘multi-species studies’ we began to view a fur merchant and his pack animals as worlds shambling across the Eurasian steppe, mortal assemblages of living and dead flesh in which microbes and parasites thrived. At other moments, we looked at the symbiotic relationship between humans and their landscape: the systems of oppression inherent in agriculture, the co-operation and mutual bond between shepherd and flock. At times, it might even feel a little too strange for some. I will never not be agog at the fact that to circumvent the fasting of meat, English Christians categorised beavers as fish, leading to the rapid depopulation of beavers, reducing the construction of dams and changing the landscape enough to result in flooding, but as odd as it became it never failed to be interesting. Once the Global Middle Ages invites you to view the world as it does, you’ll never see it the same again.

Altogether, I think the Global Middle Ages is everything an Oxford history paper should strive to be. It is thought provoking, passionate, challenging (both academically and personally) but always deeply rewarding. It feels true to the historical period it surveys, whilst remaining relevant to the present. It opens eyes to new opportunities and rewrites the possibilities of ‘doing history’ one essay at a time. But, most importantly, it is one of the most fun and exciting papers you could possibly dream of taking. Do yourself a favour when you choose your Finals and take this option. You won’t regret it.

Three articles to give you a flavour:

Anna Tsing’s ‘Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species’: Thirteen pages that start with mushroom foraging and end with the most compelling argument against imperialist capitalism I’ve ever read. A mind-expanding piece of anthropology, history and multi-species studies.

Amanda Powers and Caroline Dodds Pennock’s ‘Globalising Cosmologies’: Part of the project that created this paper, this article will awaken you to the possibilities of global history by investigating the cosmologies of the Aztecs and Western Christendom.

Elizabeth Lambourn’s ‘Abraham’s Luggage: A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean’: A bit of a dense one but an incredible example of what this paper can offer. With just a list of the luggage taken by a Jewish traveller, this book weaves a vibrant social fabric and explores the nature of inter-cultural connections.