Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D.
1250-1350 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). 443 pp, $24.95.
Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony has justifiably earned
itself a place in the literary canon of world history. The book is eminently
readable, intellectually provocative, and effectively argues for the existence
of an early Eurasian world system. Abu-Lughod both complements and questions
the seminal ideas of Immanuel Wallerstein and his world-systems approach
by asserting that the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the first
modern world system (chronologically preceding Wallerstein's sixteenth-century
model). This earlier economic system was made possible by the Mongol empire
and its successor states, by allowing safe and reliable trade links to exist
across both the Eurasian landmass and the Indian Ocean. She also contends
that the fourteenth century was a period of remarkable artistic and cultural
achievements, which was not unrelated to the high degree of Eurasian economic,
political, and social integration.
Abu-Lughod finds that in the fourteenth century
there was no "inherent historical necessity" (12) that the Europeans would
later achieve global hegemony. The relative positions of East and West were
to some extent reversed in this earlier system, economically and "culturally."
She finds that (looking backward) the most likely candidate to achieve hegemony
would have been China. Had China not experienced a major economic collapse
in the middle of the fifteenth century and an ensuing massive shutdown of
naval exploration and trade, it would likely have taken the place as a world
economic core for many centuries to come. (371) The failure of China, and
this thirteenth/fourteenth century world-system, is linked to two overarching
factors. One was the significant drop in Eurasian population from "the Bubonic
Plague and/or other epidemics that ravaged much of the system."(359) The
second reason was the Mongol loss of China in 1368, in which "the world
lost the key link that had connected the overland routeâ and the sea routes
through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea [which all terminated in Beijing]."
The map on page thirty-four of this volume
diagrams how this world-system worked. There were eight circular zones of
intense, overlapping trade interactions that tied the continent together.
Abu-Lughod divides these eight sub-systems into three larger units that
included Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Of these three,
the Middle East was crucial, as it served as a conduit linking the two ends
together. Important trading centers often developed in places where traders
found convenient or efficient transport networks and/or access to raw materials.
For these reasons, the regions around Flanders, Cairo, and the Strait of
Malacca all developed as important commercial centers, as more foreign trading
nations and their merchants sought out these convenient crossing points
for trade. For example, in the Strait of Malacca, Chinese, Arab, and Indian
traders converged. For that reason, Abu-Lughod finds that "external geopolitical
factors are absolutely crucial in determining whether or not a location
will be ´strategic' for world trade." (73) She likewise identifies several
common traits of different areas within the system such as the "invention
of money and credit," (15) "mechanisms for pooling capital and sharing risk,"
(16) and the accretion of merchant wealth independent of the state. (17)
All three factors were present anywhere in the system where trade was active.
Thus, Abu-Lughod casts doubt on the notion that these characteristics only
developed in Europe in the sixteenth century due to "her internal inventiveness
and the virtues of her ´unique' entrepreneurial spirit." (18)
In part, this book is a corrective to some
accusations that world-system analysis is inherently Eurocentric. Abu-Lughod
highlights European backwardness, superstition, and naivet│ while accenting
the relative scientific, cultural, and financial sophistication of non-Christian
and Asian populations. Before European Hegemony devotes a lot of
attention to the Mongols' contribution to this world-system and serves as
a crucial piece of evidence for the case that Central Asia was, at least
for some time, truly "central" to world history. One must remind oneself
that Abu-Lughod's book was originally published in 1989, a time when most
historical scholars still viewed Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia,
and the Near East as peripheral at best to world economies. While the book
does a lot to highlight the role of these previously overlooked regions,
the active trading centers of the East African Swahili coast (Kilwa and
Zimbabwe) and the important West African state of Mali (heavily involved
in the trans-Saharan trade) are absent from Abu-Lughod's world-system.
Although some have criticized this book for
a lack of statistical evidence of trade, Abu-Lughod's extensive bibliography
of secondary sources should serve as an adequate pacifier for those with
a thirst for more documentation. As with most world-systems approaches to
history, an inordinate weight is placed on economics as the overriding factor
in historical interpretation. However, Abu-Lughod does allow for occasional
biological, technological, or geopolitical factors to sneak into her causations.
Before European Hegemony has had a substantial impact on the field
of world history and has established itself as a "must-read" for world history
scholars and graduate students
Scott C. Bailey
University of Hawaii at Manoa