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Book Review

 

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. 1
     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]." (360) 2
     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) 3
     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. 4
     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 5
Scott C. Bailey
University of Hawaii at Manoa

 
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