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Tue May 14th, 2013 at 01:38:44 AM EST
Since Niall Ferguson is back in the news it seemed like a good time to write about Jack Weatherford's excellent book - Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World as it is a great antidote to many previous attempts by Ferguson and others to rewrite the history of the world and create a narrative of inherent European superiority. As usual, serendipity was the key element.
Fundamentally, Europe's renaissance was built on the flowering of civilisation inside the Mongol Empire:
Although never ruled by the Mongols, in many ways Europe gained the most from their world system. The Europeans received all the benefits of trade, technology transfer, and the Global Awakening without paying the cost of Mongol conquest. The Mongols had killed off the knights in Hungary and Germany, but they had not destroyed or occupied the cities. The Europeans, who had been cut off from the mainstream of civilization since the fall of Rome, eagerly drank in the new knowledge, put on the new clothes, listened to the new music, ate the new foods, and enjoyed a rapidly escalating standard of living in almost every regard.
Of course, Ferguson and his ilk would leap to the "never ruled by the Mongols" as the first evidence of European superiority. However, this seems to be a real misunderstanding. Rather, when the Mongols invaded in the East of Europe they won some huge victories and large areas of territory. However, the booty gained was not on the scale found in other areas neighbouring the Mongol Empire - notably the Sung Kingdom in China and the Muslim states in the Middle East. Thus, the Mongols turned their armies back towards more profitable regions. In effect, Europe escaped being part of the Mongol Empire because it was too poor and backward to be a target.
This turned out to be a stroke of luck, because Europe was able to receive the benefits of all the cultural and technological advances in the Mongol Empire through trade, but it was separate when a cataclysm destroyed the fabric of the Empire.
front-paged by afew
First a word on the fruits for Europe and their origin:
One technological innovation after another arrived in Europe. The most labor-intensive professions such as mining, milling, and metalwork had depended almost entirely on human and animal labor, but they quickly became more mechanized with the harnessing of water and wind power. The transmission of the technology for improving the blast furnace also arrived in Europe from Asia via the Mongol trade routes, and it allowed metalworkers to achieve higher temperatures and thereby improve the quality of metal, an increasingly important material in this new high-technology era. In Europe, as a result of the Mongol Global Awakening, carpenters used the general adze less and adapted more specialized tools for specific functions to make their work faster and more efficient; builders used new types of cranes and hoists. There was a quick spread of new crops that required less work to produce or less processing after production; carrots, turnips, cress, buckwheat, and parsnips became common parts of the diet. Labor-intensive cooking was improved by mechanizing the meat spit to be turned more easily. The new tools, machines, and mechanical devices helped to build everything, from ships and docks to warehouses and canals, faster and better, just as previously the improved Mongol technology of war helped to tear down and destroy quicker with improved cannons and firepower.
There's a long section on Gutenberg's debt to the Mongols, both regarding paper and movable type, but I won't quote it for brevity, moving on to the ideas fired by printing and paper:
The new technology made the relatively minor trade of book making into one of the most potent forces of public life. It stimulated the revival of Greek classics, the development of written forms of the vernacular languages, the growth of nationalism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the birth of science, and virtually every aspect of life and learning from agronomy to zoology.
But all this flowering came not just out of the technology, but the life and learning of the Empire:
The ideas of the Mongol Empire awakened new possibilities in the European mind. New knowledge from the travel writings of Marco Polo to the detailed star charts of Ulugh Beg proved that much of their received classical knowledge was simply wrong, and at the same time it opened up new paths of intellectual discovery. Because much of the Mongol Empire had been based on novel ideas and ways of organizing public life rather than on mere technology, these ideas provoked new thoughts and experiments in Europe. The common principles of the Mongol Empire--such as paper money, primacy of the state over the church, freedom of religion, diplomatic immunity, and international law--were ideas that gained new importance. As early as 1620, the English scientist Francis Bacon recognized the impact that changing technology had produced in Europe. He designated printing, gunpowder, and the compass as three technological innovations on which the modern world was built. Although they were "unknown to the ancients . . . these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world; first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation." More important than the innovations themselves, from them "innumerable changes have been thence derived." In a clear recognition of their importance he wrote "that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries." All of them had been spread to the West during the era of the Mongol Empire.
Under the widespread influences from the paper and printing, gunpowder and firearms, and the spread of the navigational compass and other maritime equipment, Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture.
So of course, the cataclysm is no mystery - it affected Europe too - The Black Death, the Plague. But in the vast free-trade zone of the Mongol Empire, the effects were so much more catastrophic.
In 1331, chroniclers recorded that 90 percent of the people of Hopei Province died. By 1351, China had reportedly lost between one-half and two-thirds of its population to the plague. The country had included some 123 million inhabitants at the beginning of the thirteenth century, but by the end of the fourteenth century the population dropped to as low as 65 million. China functioned as the manufacturing center of the Mongol World System, and as the goods poured out of China, the disease followed, seemingly spreading in all directions at once. Archaeological evidence of graves near trading posts indicates that by 1338 the plague crossed from China over the Tian Shan Mountains and wiped out a Christian trading community near lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The plague was an epidemic of commerce. The same Mongol roads and caravans that knitted together the Eurasian world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries moved more than mere silk and spices. The roads and way stations set up by the Mongols for merchants also served as the inadvertent transfer points for the fleas and, thereby, for the disease itself. With the luxurious fabrics, exotic flavors, and opulent jewels, the caravans brought the fleas that spread the plague from one camp to another, one village to another, one city to another, and one continent to another. If plague destroyed only a single, crucial station in a mountain pass or blocked one route through the desert, it potentially isolated a large region within the vast empire.
The reality is, the Empire collapsed. Beating off the plague required regions to become insular and turn to local government. In a Europe of patchwork kingdoms, this changed little, but the Mongol Empire was doomed.
For nearly a century, the Mongols had exploited their mutual material interests to overcome the political fault lines dividing them. Even while sacrificing political unity, they had maintained a unified cultural and commercial empire. With the onslaught of plague, the center could not hold, and the complex system collapsed. The Mongol Empire depended on the quick and constant movement of people, goods, and information throughout its massive empire. Without those connections, there was no empire.
But offshoots survived and remained renowned for their wealth and power. To mention just one:
The descendants of Timur became known in history as the Moghuls of India. Babur, the founder of the new dynasty in 1519, was thirteen generations descended from Genghis Khan's second son, Chaghatai. The Moghul Empire reached its zenith under Babur's grandson Akbar, who ruled from 1556 until 1608. He had Genghis Khan's genius for administration as well as his appreciation of trade. He abolished the hated jizya tax, the tax on non-Muslims. Akbar organized his cavalry along the traditional Mongol units of ten (up to five thousand) and instituted a civil service based on merit. Just as the Mongols made China into the most productive manufacturing and trading center of their era, the Moghuls made India into the world's greatest manufacturing and trading nation and--contrary to both Muslim and Hindu traditions--raised the status of women. He continued the universalist attitude toward religion and tried to amalgamate all religion into one Divine Faith, Din-i-Illah, with one God in Heaven and one emperor on earth.
As a result of the survival of these mini-Empires, Europe never understood that the Mongol Empire was no longer what it had been:
With so many empires striving to maintain the illusion of the Mongol Empire in everything from politics to art, public opinion seemed obstinately unwilling to believe that it no longer existed. Nowhere was the belief in the empire longer lasting or more important than in Europe, where, in 1492, more than a century after the last khan ruled over China, Christopher Columbus convinced the monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand that he could reestablish sea contact and revive the lost commerce with the Mongol court of the Great Khan. With the breakup of the Mongol communication system, the Europeans had not heard about the fall of the empire and the overthrow of the Great Khan. Columbus, therefore, insisted that although the Muslims barred the land route from Europe to the Mongol court, he could sail west from Europe across the World Ocean and arrive in the land described by Marco Polo.
As time passed and Europe developed towards technological supremacy, this forgetting would aid the rewriting of history, casting the Mongols as mere barbarians and rejecting any sense that Europe stood on the shoulders of giants to reach the stars, rather than growing alone.
Just one example:
Whereas the Renaissance writers and explorers treated Genghis Khan and the Mongols with open adulation, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in Europe produced a growing anti-Asian spirit that often focused on the Mongols, in particular, as the symbol of everything evil or defective in that massive continent. As early as 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu set the tone in his treatise The Spirit of the Laws, holding the Asians in haughty contempt and blaming much of their detestable qualities on the Mongols, whom he labeled "the most singular people on earth." He described them as both servile slaves and cruel masters. He attributed to them all the major attacks on civilization from ancient Greece to Persia: "They have destroyed Asia, from India even to the Mediterranean; and all the country which forms the east of Persia they have rendered a desert." Montesquieu glorified the tribal origins of Europeans as the harbingers of democracy while he condemned the tribal people of Asia: "The Tartars who destroyed the Grecian Empire established in the conquered countries slavery and despotic power: the Goths, after subduing the Roman Empire, founded monarchy and liberty." Based on this history, he summarily dismissed all of Asian civilization: "There reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off, and it is impossible to find in all the histories of that country a single passage which discovers a freedom of spirit; we shall never see anything there but the excess of slavery." Genghis Khan became the central figure of attack. Voltaire adapted a Mongol dynasty play, The Orphan of Chao, by Chi Chün-hsiang, to fit his personal political and social agenda by portraying Genghis Khan, whom Voltaire used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. The Orphan of China, as he renamed it, debuted on the Paris stage in 1755 while Voltaire enjoyed a safe exile in Switzerland.
So there you have it:
A sense of how two random circumstances, the poverty of Europe and the arrival of the Black Death set the scene for the growth of European empires. Remember this, the next time Niall Ferguson tries to sell you some nonsense about the inherent superiority of the Western mind/body/character.
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