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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Europe and the Mongol Empire

by Metatone 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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As an aside, I feel like this book, along with Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond and After Tamerlane by John Darwin are a great start to understanding how we got to where we are - or at least up to the early 20th Century.

In short: Diamond explains how Eurasia outpaced the other continents from the Neolithic to the 15th century. He also gives some pointers to the rise of Europe after the 15th century.

Weatherford explains how Asia grew and Europe tagged along in the Middle Ages until the Black Death fatally wounded the greatest Asian Empire.

Darwin (John, not Charles!) helps us understand how Western Europe came to dominate the competition between the various Empires that existed and rose up in the period from the 15th century into the 20th century.

All of them give a nuanced view, with due reference to geography, resources and luck that Ferguson and his ideological tribe refuse to acknowledge.

I hope to write a proper piece on all that one day.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 12:47:24 PM EST
I got Diamond's engrossing GG&S on my shelf, but will now have to add John Darwin and Weatherford. Never came round to move beyond the 15th century so far, got distracted first by the significance of Alexander the Great and his conquests, and then, interest piqued, moved into the Persian empire(s). Which fell off the wagon when I moved to Africa where I discovered that most of what I had learned about Africa was completely unfounded. I sort of should do China next, already half expecting that it will be the same epiphany all over again.

I still do not want to read Ferguson, even though I'll have to at some point. I'll wait for that piece of you first, and that'll be my excuse.

by Bjinse on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 04:23:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There's also ReOrient by Andre Gunder Frank ... its important to remember that while Europe is growing faster than East Asia when Voltaire is writing, its not yet wealthier than East Asia ... that the great trading fortunes of the 1600's and 1700's are based on taking New World silver to finance a stake in the East Asian carrying trade. It is in the 1800's that Europe advances in the Eurasian trading system from the position of rapidly growing semi-peripheral economy to core economy.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 11:37:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting book.

European Tribune - Comments - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Europe and the Mongol Empire

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.

The dominant historical narrative holds that coincidence - mainly in the form of Ögedei's death - played a huge part. Having come halfway across Europe the undefeated Mongol armies turned because their leaders needed to protect their interests in the succession.

Do Weatherford dispute this narrative, or does he simply place it within a larger context?

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by A swedish kind of death on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 02:13:12 PM EST
My bad - he talks about Ögedei's death - it's true that just before Ögedei's death Europe was teetering on the edge of collapsing before the invader and the death resulted in the leaders turning away but he also puts it in a larger context.

After all, many invasions took place after Ögedei's death, the reason the invasions weren't in Europe were because there were richer areas to attack.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 03:17:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course, that is one more piece of luck for the Europe that is...
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 03:19:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There were further invasions in Europe: in Eastern Europe, the Golden Horde kept invading the various Slavic principalities and kingdoms and even the re-born Byzantine Empire.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 03:51:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There was ongoing imperial warfare of subjugation waged on border states all around the Empire, including in Europe. I did not mean to intimate otherwise.

However, invasions on the scale of the Mongol absorption of the Sung Empire, or the drive to Baghdad simply didn't occur in Europe, largely because they didn't see the profit in it.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 03:59:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To be extra clear I'm speaking about the period up to the Black Death. The Horde survived beyond that as an independent state - overlords of the oppressed natives. They launched further wars, but at that point it's much more a history of Rus as a European power, admittedly ruled by a foreign/Asian ruling class, but it's a different situation.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 04:03:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Let me give a longer reply that is also a broader re-consideration of the issue (having slept one night on it).

  • I think one key factor for the Mongol withdrawal and more limited further action is imperial over-stretch. The Mongol armies tried to hold territory, and that territory got vastly bigger with each decade. Demanding tribute instead of direct occupation (as also in the attack against the Byzantine Empire) is another angle of that, from which follow wars against neighbours refusing to pay tribute. Note that in effect, the sack of Baghdad was a similar border war: the Abbasid Caliphate paid tribute earlier.

  • Another issue is the separation of the Mongol Empire into smaller units, which started well before the end of the nominal joint empire. The Golden Horde started out as the region controlled by Batu and later Berke, who were in a minority faction. The area controlled by Hülegü (a member of the majority faction), Persia and later Mesopotamia, later became another independent state as the Ilkhanate. In other words, there wasn't a monolithic force seeking profit, but various factions all seeking their own profit with their own border wars, some bigger, some smaller. In fact, the faction that became the Golden Horde began to fight the one to become the Ilkhanate and ally with non-Mongol forces just two years after the sack of Baghdad.

  • I submit the westward drive from the Ilkhanate is different from stuff like the destruction of Vladimir (but also the taking of the Song Empire) in the sending of auxiliary troops from the other sub-empires and the direct order from the Great Khan. However, the drive to Baghdad was apparently part of a broader westward drive, as Berke began another conquest of Europe (which ended when he fell out with Hülegü):

Golden Horde - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In 1259 Berke launched savage attacks on Lithuania and Poland, and demanded the submission of Béla IV, the Hungarian monarch, and the French King Louis IX in 1259 and 1260.[19] His assault on Prussia in 1259/60 inflicted heavy losses on the Teutonic Order.[20]


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 03:17:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
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.

Hm. From what I learnt at school and read later, in Hungary cities – including the one I live in now – were destroyed (it happened only West of the Danube that Mongol troops bypassed fortified positions because they were chasing the fleeing king and his remaining troops), so were villages, one third to half of the total population died, and although there was a one-year occupation period when the Mongolian army created civil administration, its main aim was collecting food supplies and it was marked by trade in women and widespread rape. While Ferguson is a racist apologist for European empires, I think the role of other empires in the spread of trade and knowledge shouldn't be used to airbrush out the brutal nature of Empire, either.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 03:32:08 PM EST
Fair enough - to be fair to the author I excerpted from his summing up and he is talking relatively, compared to Mongol campaigns elsewhere.

He does detail the Hungarian campaign and notes atrocities although he claims of all the Mongol campaigns, including the Hungarian one, that accounts of population deaths are regularly exaggerated.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 03:52:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I found a meta-study (in Hungarian) detailing the studies with numbers.
  • There is one contemporary source that definitely exaggerated, claiming total destruction. Another (an eyewitness monk who also reported on the civil administration and the rapes) gives no percentage but tells of walking across uninhabited land for days.
  • The 50% figure comes from a study on the basis of disappeared place-names. This is a figure for the whole kingdom; but east of the Danube, there were areas with 75% of places disappearing from records (the same areas that would face near-total destruction in the Habsburg wars to re-take these areas from the Ottoman Empire, BTW) while west of the Danube and in the mountainous region that is now most of Slovakia it was 10%.
  • A later study took into account the fact that different settlements have different populations and people can flee and hide, and also relied on later censuses. It estimated a 15-20% (300-400,000) death toll.
  • Another study challenged all earlier Middle Age population estimates on the basis of feudal records, significantly lowering them on the basis of village church sizes (church attendance was compulsory by civil law, a heritage of forced conversion). The population decline around the Mongol invasion is 10-15% (130-180,000).


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 04:25:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Post-conquest Mongol subjugation was rather light - a tithe (10%) compares favorably to the modern taxation and costs of financial services. Monasteries were exempt.

How does the Mongol cultural impact compare with Byzantine's? The language of this diary implies a very dramatic Mongol influence.

by das monde on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 03:39:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had been aware that the crusaders brought back a lot of technical advances such as the forge, water wheel and windmill, from the Muslim world, and I was aware that the Muslim world had been profoundly impacted by the Mongol invasions, but most of the crusades occurred before the Mongol invasion of the Persia and Mesopotamia. There was also a huge ship borne trade from China to India and the Arab world, including Basra and Egypt that had been ongoing for centuries. Might it be that the knowledge preceded the invasion and came by trade? Organizational and administrative practices would be more likely to only arrive with the people who used them.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 06:14:25 PM EST
Technological transfer can be hard to prove unless there is some high-status person doing it and having it documented as part of the process.

Read a paper in history of technology that argued that pre-Gutenberg printing was established in Arab lands independent of Chinese printing. This was shown in part by way of the low status of Arab printing, imported habits from China in general having high status. But because of the low status, it is rarely mentioned - I think there was a quote on whores, thieves and book-printers in the paper - meaning the amount of evidence is small. The author in the end argue that it is possible that printing moved with printers into Italy, where they for lack of local language focused on printing pictures, like Tarot cards. And that way it can have spread to Germany.

Arab printing was apparently out-competed by the more high-status habit of writing.

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by A swedish kind of death on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 06:52:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's an oblique reference, but David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years corroborate on this: the cultural supremacy and influence of the Far East, and the Muslim civilisation; the Muslim practice to separate trade and war (whereas Europeans invariably mingled the two; he state that before the European expansion the Indian ocean was a war free trade zone); also in Debt Graeber develop the thesis that the European expansion, and the savagery it entailed, was driven not because the Muslin conquests had cut the trade with the Far East, but for the reasons of extreme and violent commercialisation of European societies which resulted many were hopelessly in debt, and as consequence capable of absolutely anything.
by Ivo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 12:49:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Does Weatherford go into the relationship between the Mongols and the Turks? My understanding is that a primary reason for interest in finding a sea route to the Orient was that the fall of Constantinople to the Turks had disrupted an existing trade over the silk road to the Black Sea, and that access had been tightening for decades as the Turks took over more and more of Anatolia and the Black Sea shore.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 10th, 2013 at 07:13:13 PM EST
By the time of the fall of Constantinople, all Mongol empires except the Golden Horde were gone, and the Golden Horde was disintegrating. A breakaway part (which was to become the last surviving part), the Crimean Khanate submitted to the Ottoman Empire two decades after Constantinople.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 03:32:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Genoa had acquired trading and settlement rights in the Crimea in the Treaty of Nymphaeum in 1261 with Michael VIII Paleologos in return for the assistance in the defeat of the Latin state which emerged after the Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and in the re-establishment of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. Genoa had establishments all around the Black Sea in the 14th century and held Trebizond with its alum mines. They made agreements with the Cumanian Khanate that predated the Mongol Invasion. This made sense as they could carry trade to Italy from the eastern end of the silk road. Venice and Pizza also were deeply and competitively involved in this area, but Venice had more strength in the Mediterranean, as it held Cyprus. The Black Death followed the Mongols and seriously reduced the population of Constantinople. Both Genoa and Venice assisted in the defense of Constantinople against the forces of  Sultan Mehmed II, doomed though it turned out to be.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 11th, 2013 at 07:48:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dan Carlin has several episodes of his podcast Hardcore History about the Mongols.  They were the most prolific murderers in history, and that is saying a lot, considering the competition.

As for European civilization, all civilizations thrive and get renewed with the influx of new influences.  

by stevesim on Sun May 12th, 2013 at 08:42:26 AM EST
A while back: Tomgram: William Astore, We're Number One (in Self-Promotion)
What to make, then, of President Obama's pep talk last month to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known"? ...

In fact, this sort of description of the U.S. military has become something of a must for American presidents. Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" and "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known." Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.

... Still, the gold medal for the largest land empire in history -- and the finest fighting force of all time -- must surely go to the thirteenth century Mongols.

Led by Genghis Khan and his successors, Mongol horsemen conquered China and the Islamic world -- the two most powerful, sophisticated civilizations of their day -- while also exerting control over Russia for two and a half centuries. And thanks to a combination of military excellence, clever stratagem, fleetness of foot (and far more important, hoof), flexibility, and when necessary utter ferocity, they did all this while generally being outnumbered by their enemies.



Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Sun May 12th, 2013 at 11:33:33 AM EST
Oh come on. He's obviously using "world" in the same sense as "World series".
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sun May 12th, 2013 at 03:02:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Then again, the only reason the US military does not reach Mongol levels of effectiveness is that "kill everyone" is no longer an acceptable tactical or strategic doctrine.  It would have been a lot easier, and technologically possible even without nuclear weapons, to completely exterminate the entire population of Iraq and Afghanistan, than it was to occupy them with ground troops.
by Zwackus on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 08:05:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Then again, the Mongols were quite capable of occupying much larger areas with much larger populations than the occupying forces (China and Persia being the prime examples). The Mongol's more open reign of terror is just one factor in that, another is the modern US military's reluctance to put soldiers in harm's way.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 06:07:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think modern technology makes it really hard to make the comparison meaningfully.

On the one hand, we have air strikes, drones, artillery and what not - easy kills from a distance.  But on the other hand, pretty much anyone can put together a rather nasty bomb, and an AK-47 can turn just about anyone into a soldier.  

That wasn't the case in the medieval and early modern worlds, when weapons were hard to use effectively without training and experience.  It was harder for a popular resistance to be effective.

Another key difference in the modern world is the ideology of nationalism.  On average, ordinary people seem to care more about who their rulers are than in the past, and are much less likely to tolerate a foreign conquering power.  

by Zwackus on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 09:19:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is a  seriously wrong both fact-wise, and as a line of reasoning. Prior to the European expansion in the XV century major imperial conquests did not usually result in mass exterminations. The old type of empires were "soft-touch", aiming at some loose integration and exacting tribute without destroying economy and life in general. The kind of utter devastation that the Europeans brought to the Americas, Africa and Australia was unknown in earlier epochs. So, implying that Mongols' effectiveness was due to the "kill everyone" doctrine is deeply ahistorical.
by Ivo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 01:17:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Aztec empire would like a word with you.

But more to the point, "kill everyone" only makes sense as imperial doctrine if (a) you have surplus population in the imperial center that you want to resettle, (b) you have surplus population somewhere else in the empire, and the cost of killing everyone and relocating a workforce to exploit the resources formerly occupied by the people you killed is less than the expense of bribing or threatening the local strongman to force the locals to exploit the resources for you, or (c) the locals are annoying to the administration of neighboring colonies.

In ancient times, (a) and (b) were fairly uncommon. And I doubt that you'll find any ancient empire which didn't intermittently exterminate particularly annoying colonial populations.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 01:49:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hahah...  perhaps you better follow your own advice and have a word with the Aztecs as they were never an "empire" in the total-itarian sense that is used, and implied, today; they were rather a loose coalition of city-states more engaged with puppeteering their neighbours/vassals than razing everything to the ground.

Your way of reasoning is leading to nowhere because you extrapolate the (supposed) objectives of today's imperial doctrine to the past. Prior the industrial era, however, things were different: for starters there was never "surplus population", on contrary human resources were often scarce and valuable; and back then natural resources were abundant. What was valuable were manufactured goods as they involved (i)human labour; (ii)human expertise; and (iii)frequently long haul transportation. That is one of the reasons why successful empires of the old type (like the Ottomans) build a space essentially free of sharp antagonisms where normal life could continue with productivity and trade in relative peace.

I am yet to read the book that prompted this thread, but from reading the excepts and others' commentaries the same mindset apply to the "Mongols". While certainly violent they were focused on controlling, benefiting from, and advancing existing arrangements; conquered entities usually continued their existence more or less unchanged. Compare and contrast with the conquest of the Americas which was by all accounts the proto total war: populace dispossessed; almost completely exterminated; indigenous culture razed to the ground; almost nothing survived from the natives' way of life.

by Ivo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 03:08:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hahah...  perhaps you better follow your own advice and have a word with the Aztecs as they were never an "empire" in the total-itarian sense that is used, and implied, today; they were rather a loose coalition of city-states more engaged with puppeteering their neighbours/vassals than razing everything to the ground.

Well, the European empires were (are) a loose coalition of nation-states more engaged with pupeteering their neighbours/vassals than razing everything to the ground.

Razing everything to the ground, while admittedly spectacular, was never the dominant doctrine of the European empires. It was employed in some places at some times, of course. North America, Oceania and against some particularly restive colonial populations elsewhere. But you would be hard pressed to find any empire, European or otherwise, which did not have genocide as the final escalation point in their doctrine.

Prior the industrial era, however, things were different: for starters there was never "surplus population", on contrary human resources were often scarce and valuable; and back then natural resources were abundant.

I don't see where that contradicts any part of my reasoning: Scarcity of human resources led to genocide being reserved for excessively restive colonies, rather than as a routine precursor to re-settlement.

That being said, it is quite clearly false that there were no non-European empires which had a surplus of population with which to re-settle newly vacated land. Both the Indian peninsula and East Asia saw quite a few such migration waves, although it is non-trivial to determine the extent to which the conquered people were obliterated rather than assimilated, on account of the scarcity of disinterested contemporary commentary on such matters.

And of course, we have a great paucity of knowledge about the wars of hunter-gatherer societies, so it's hard to say one way or another whether "kill all the males, rape all the females" was the rule or the exception. We know from other primate species that it is a perfectly valid tactic for trooping primates, but how much of that applies to humans is unknown.

What was valuable were manufactured goods as they involved (i)human labour; (ii)human expertise; and (iii)frequently long haul transportation. That is one of the reasons why successful empires of the old type (like the Ottomans) build a space essentially free of sharp antagonisms where normal life could continue with productivity and trade in relative peace.

Of course that is just as true for the European empires (and, for that matter, for the American): Within the empire, there is relative peace, and the empire maintains and defends a trade system. War is something you have at the fringe, well away from anywhere it might become expensive.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 03:42:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
War is something you have at the fringe, well away from anywhere it might become expensive.

You hope.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 04:10:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
War is something you have at the fringe, well away from anywhere it might become expensive.

...and even that might be an illusion; what you see from the centre of the Empire – while further-away parts see incursions, revolts and retortions. I have a long-running suspicion that all the Roman Emperors with a bad name (Nero, Commodus, Caligula) got their bad name for being a meanie to some patricians of the capital.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 04:31:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is seriously wrong fact-wise, too.
  • Earlier empires weren't any less soft-touch and didn't mind genocides, if only as warning to others. The Mongols 'excelled' in parts of Jin China, Western Xia, Persia (where whole cities of up to one million inhabitants were slaughtered), parts of the Kievian Rus, and of course Baghdad. A memorable episode of the unification of Qin China was the 260 BC Battle of Changping, when the Qin army massacred the entire 400,000-strong surrendered army of Zhao state (note that late Warring States period armies were de-facto conscripted national armies). Rome had the destruction of Carthago, the conquest of Gallia (Caesar himself wrote of butchering one million of whom most were civilians), the putdown of the Great Jewish Revolt and the Bar Kochba Revolt.  Etc. etc.
  • Meanwhile, the modern European colonial empires did not usually result in mass exterminations, either. India, Indochina, Russia's eastward expansion was taken without large-scale butchering, and so was most of Africa (Kongo wasn't the model but the extreme). The Americas and Australia are special cases due to the effectiveness of diseases (though there was the Black Death, too) and the level of the techno-cultural gap.


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 03:23:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Africa you say? Same Africa which was ravaged on several occasions by the Europeans till it reached the present day nadir? What about the millions whipped out by the famines due to the incompetence, racism, and indifference of the British? Or they don't count? Part of the European savagery was the fact that they completely dehumanised their enemies/ victims so they simply didn't count. I suspect religion really did help here to whitewash conscience century after century.
by Ivo on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 06:48:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He is talking here about mass slaughter or genocide including slaughter of women and children not 'mere' brutal colonial exploitation or the deaths of male warriors, such as the Zulu, who died rebelling against British authority when they were confronted by soldiers equipped with artillery, rifles and machine guns.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 08:07:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You really like to move the goalposts. But no, "the millions whipped out by the famines due to the incompetence, racism, and indifference of the British" is neither a "mass extermination", nor does it contradict my claim that most of Africa was taken without large-scale butchering, nor is it unparalleled by earlier empires (for example the Mongols in East Europe again, Rome in newly conquered Dacia). As for completely dehumanising enemies, as a way to differentiate from earlier empires, come on! "Barbarian" wasn't a word invented in the last five centuries, nor "slave".

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 04:51:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Exterminating and enslaving entire populations who refused to submit without a fight was rather the norm prior to, I don't know, maybe the 18th century?

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 02:42:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
US military leaderships textbooks read by ROTC and Academy cadets have actually taught for a long time that Genghis Khan was probably the greatest military leader in history and that the Mongolian military forces he commanded were probably the greatest armed force ever put together.  An exercise for students is to analyze whether and how Native America Indian tribes could have overcome US forces and even whole US civilization had they had the benefit of someone with the organizational and strategic insights of Genghis Khan.
by santiago on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 11:32:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Crazy Horse was admired by the bluecoats for his strategic and organizational insights.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 04:29:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Mongols didn't create the Silk Road, or Chinese exports.  The Silk Road had been open and closed at various junctures throughout history, when the political situations in China and Central Asia allowed it, and several Chinese dynasties had encouraged it.  Others did not.

I'm no fan of Eurocentric history, but this really sounds like the author was trying to cash in on the recent popularity of "some ethnic group created the modern world", like that Irish book and the Jewish one not too long ago.

by Zwackus on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 12:07:35 AM EST
I'm kind of confused, because I don't think that's what I wrote, but if I suggested that the Mongols created the Silk Road or Chinese exports, then that is the fault of my poor expression and not the fault of the author.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 08:36:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I admit I double-checked our diary for "Silk Road", too; but in the end I assumed that Zwackus meant that the Silk Road and Chinese traders brought many of the innovations to Europe which Weatherford credits to the expansion of the Mongol Empire.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 09:25:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The overseas land empire that the Mongols created allowed for the largest, and final, flowering of the Silk Road, but this system of trade routes was not particularly new.  It was expanded and improved upon thanks to the greater degree of political unity brought by the Mongols, but it was only a difference of degree.

In terms of technology transfer, the biggest difference is that by the 1300's Europe had states worth mentioning, and people who could read - a much different situation than during the flowering of the Silk Road under the Tang in the 700's, or under the Han around 0 AD.  During the Mongol period, Europe was developed enough to be receptive to advanced technologies that it had ignored in the past.  One example is the Moldboard Plow, which was in use in China in the Han dynasty, but only adopted by the Europeans in the later Middle Ages.

The other thing I was responding to was the idea that the Mongols turned China into an export manufacturing center.  China was always an export manufacturing center - the Mongols just encouraged those exports to follow the Silk Road, as these exports had in the past under the Tang, but had not during the Southern Song, which was isolated from Central Asia and much more focused on the sea trade with East and Southeast Asia.

by Zwackus on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 07:56:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I suppose it was the phrase "Mongol Awakening" that grated on me in particular.  A lot of the stuff they are credited for in these excerpts were really generic Asian civilization, which had its own ebb and flow and happened to reach a high point (in some ways) during the brief window of Mongol supremacy, or were particular innovations of the Song Dynasty that were exported by the Mongols.
by Zwackus on Mon May 13th, 2013 at 08:08:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The eurocentrism lives on in this counternarrative if the importance of the Mongols is in their effect on Europe.

I also think questions on the form of "why did Europe conquer the world?" are getting outdated, even if their purpose is to counter older racist answers. The question should be "why did Europe for a while dominate the world?". In that it becomes similar to questions about the rise and fall of other empires and takes away the claim to uniqeuness.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 06:49:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Agreed entirely.
by Zwackus on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 09:21:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, partly. As Graeber suggests, there may have been a distinctly European mode of imperialism which dates back to Rome - possibly earlier - and which has a consistently violent, self-justificatory, and abusive character.

Unlike Graeber I'm still not convinced this is a particularly European approach to war and conquest. But Europe certainly evangelised it more effectively than any other culture, both physically with a greater geographic spread and intellectually with an impressive cultural carpet bombing.

The same mode is still active today, although it has been somewhat demilitarised except at the edges of the empire, and significantly abstracted into political and financial violence.

It's still evangelically potent, however. In fact it's pretty much the official state religion of the West, in the moral sense of ordering everyone's goals, values, and activities.

In comparison, the 'official' religions are just entertainment.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 09:32:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's still evangelically potent, however. In fact it's pretty much the official state religion of the West, in the moral sense of ordering everyone's goals, values, and activities.

In comparison, the 'official' religions are just entertainment.


This represents the true "dark side" of a major aspect of The Enlightenment Project - secularization  and universalization of what had been religious elements of the culture. Peter Dale Scott observed:
"that both outer and inner enlightenment (the current word is development) are damned, even murderous, if they do not honor each other." I think my writings most relevant to tikkun olam have been those, in both poetry and prose, seeking to reduce the tensions between these two strands of enlightenment.

Increasingly I see both communism and capitalism as twin offspring of the increasingly secular outer enlightenment of the eighteenth century. This has produced both radical progress and radical problems, along with Comte, Marx, Freud, and today's academic social sciences. This trend has lost sight of the truths of the eighteenth century right-lobe spiritual enlightenment, which eventually produced Blake, Hoelderlin, Kierkegaard, Rilke, and Eliot.




"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed May 15th, 2013 at 01:56:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That warfare and imperialism in the Mediterranean world may have been different, on average, than in other major centers of civilization seems possible.  I don't think you can say it dates back to the Romans, though, as the Assyrians seem to have set a strong precedent.

Then again, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the Qin Emperor was pretty damn nasty.

That Europe imperialized to a greater degree than other regional world Empires was entirely due to their luck of discovering the Americas first, and their ability to take advantage of the disease gradient.  Without that, the colonization of the Americas would have been a lot more like the colonization of Africa - which went absolutely nowhere until the the mid 1800's.  Without American gold and silver, Europe would have never been able to break the pre-existing trade networks of the Indian Ocean, and world history would have been so utterly and completely different that it's not worth discussing.

That Europe has culturally evangalized to a greater degree is debatable, given the immense spread of Islam.  It's too early to tell if the current fad for European culture and values is a passing fad, or a longer-term thing, but it's pretty clear that Islam is here to stay in Central, South, and SE Asia, and North Africa.  

by Zwackus on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:22:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The point for me is recognising that Western evangelism is evangelical in nature, and not - let's say - diplomatically persuasive.

And of course I mean capitalist evangelism, with its emphasis on buying, selling, and organised work as perfectible social aims, and competitive profit as the ultimate personal sacrament.

The rest of Western culture - the literature, music and the rest - is a side-show in comparison.

So is Islam, because evangelically there is no such thing, just as there is no such thing as Christianity. Instead, there are hundreds of competing sects, denominations, and value systems, many of which disagree with each other, sometimes violently.

Capitalist evangelism is comparatively uniform, and far more politically and culturally influential. It also squares neatly with the oligarchical political structures of supposedly religious states like Saudi Arabia, and of supposedly hostile states such as China and Russia.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 08:13:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd argue that the set of values being evangelized is slightly different, and that they're not necessarily Capitalist.

Atomized individualism, material accumulation as the ultimate goal, and an 'anything goes so long as you don't get arrested' morality would describe it better.

Capitalism itself is a different sort of thing, I think, and one that's on the way out, if the current elites have anything to say about it.  It's much easier to live based on feudal rent extraction than it is to engage in capitalist competition, after all.

by Zwackus on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 11:37:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As Graeber suggests, there may have been a distinctly European mode of imperialism which dates back to Rome - possibly earlier - and which has a consistently violent, self-justificatory, and abusive character.
I didn't see Graeber (in Debt, I presume) suggesting a peculiarly European mode of imperialism. He sees parallels between Europe and India's medieval structures after the end of the first age of empires ca. 300BC - 600AD. Of the three major civilizations born in the Axial Age (China, India, Mesopotamia), China seems to have had a different development, not having lost its empire in the "dark ages" of the late first millennium.

Maybe there was a lasting difference between West and East due to the difference between Alexander and Ashoka, but I don't remember that being one of Graeber's themes. I got more an impression that he argues that debts are one of the prime drivers of atrocity as heavily indebted people engage in high-stakes bets to try to get out from under heavy debts. He dwells on the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas, but he doesn't imply their behaviour is characteristically Western.

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 05:11:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
China seems to have had a different development, not having lost its empire in the "dark ages" of the late first millennium

Hm, I wonder about that. The Han Dynasty empire fell apart around AD 191, and wasn't re-unified until 581, although several rulers of the statelets in-between dreamed of it. In Europe, that dream existed, too, and Charlemagne came close.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 09:33:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I should look back at what Graeber says about the breakdown of the Empires and the organization in the early middle ages...

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 10:41:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Mongol Awakening seems to make sense to me as a relocation of the process that is described in Eurocentric terms as the Renaissance ~ clearly the Mongol Empire did not bring the East-Asian dominated long Axial world trading system into being, but they did re-awaken it after a period in which at least the land-based part of the trading system had gone to sleep a bit.

The thesis that as a peripheral region, Europe was not sufficiently compelling to bring the Mongol conquest to France on the western cape of the Eurasian continent is certainly not a surprising one ~ surely nobody can pretend that 1000AD Europe was anything but a peripheral region of the larger axial world system.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:00:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The thesis that as a peripheral region, Europe was not sufficiently compelling to bring the Mongol conquest to France on the western cape of the Eurasian continent is certainly not a surprising one ~ surely nobody can pretend that 1000AD Europe was anything but a peripheral region of the larger axial world system.

That's not the part to which I was objecting - does anybody seriously make the opposite argument, that only Europe was strong enough to stand up to the Mongols?

by Zwackus on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:23:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The traditional narrative was "a miracle occured" - the Khan died, the mongols turned around.
by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 04:20:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which fits nicely into both the conservative historical tradition where history is a morality play (directed by God, but nowadays they usually leave that out) and the liberal historical tradition where history is shaped by Great Men.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 05:14:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I never saw the "great men" theory of history as a "liberal" tradition. It's too close to the conservative adoration of kingship by the (grace of God)...

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 05:35:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Its the name it has in the history of historical traditions, so it is liberal in the 19th century sense. Could as well be called individualistic history. It was to a large extent defeated by the materialistic tradition, and after that history more or less gave up the grand narratives, leaving the exisiting in place while spending time to debunk them.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 05:52:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"...the liberal historical tradition..." ...in English historiography is usually called "the Whig view of history"...The Glorious Revolution, Constitutional Monarchy, religious toleration and the emergence of monied interests as at least co-equal with landed wealth in the political realm.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 10:43:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Most of the traditional historical narratives were invented in 19th century. By liberals of different liberal streams. The 19 century invented history and great historical narratives. In the popular perception of history, most of these narratives still rule.

To use an obvious example: The decadent byzantine empire, the middle age as dark ages - very much inventions of the liberal historians of the 19th century. And still holding sway.

by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 10:54:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The 19 century invented history and great historical narratives.
That is itself a narrative invented in the 19th century :D

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 11:26:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
never existed.

Since historical narratives didn't happen until our gradfathers were alive.

Historical narratives have been with us for generations. Maybe not in Northern Europe, but still.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:11:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And Pliny, and...

Maybe IM meant historiography rather than history?

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:15:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You mentioned four names, strewn about five centuries. Five Years in 19th century europe did see more (durable) output by historians.

The qunatity of historians and the reach of their published work in the 19th century had another quality.

by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:33:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
those historians of whom you speak...

German?

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:37:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, you know...
Modern historiography emerged in 19th century German universities, where Leopold von Ranke revolutionized historiography with his seminars and critical approach; he emphasized politics and diplomacy, dropping the social and cultural themes Voltaire had highlighted. Sources had to be hard, not speculations and rationalizations. His credo was to write history the way it was. He insisted on primary sources with proven authenticity. Hegel and Marx introduced the concept of spirit and dialectical materialism, respectively, into the study of world historical development. Former historians had focused on cyclical events of the rise and decline of rulers and nations. Process of nationalization of history, as part of national revivals in 19th century, resulted with separation of "one's own" history from common universal history by such way of perceiving, understanding and treating the past that constructed history as history of a nation. A new discipline, sociology, emerged in the late 19th century and analyzed and compared these perspectives on a larger scale.


In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:43:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I said most. And do you really want to claim our perception of the roman empire is more influenced by Livy than say Gibbons?

"Maybe not in Northern Europe"

Have I said anything about Northern Europe?

by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:37:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not yet.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill
by r------ on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 12:42:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Whats's that? Minority report?
by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 01:11:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"No, Livy is not yet more influential than Gibbons."

But we won't know for another handful of centuries whether Gibbons turned out to be just a passing fad.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 01:24:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...do you really want to claim our perception of the roman empire is more influenced by Livy than say Gibbons?

Perhaps by Livy through Gibbons.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 04:32:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Since they did treat different time periods, hardly likely.
by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 04:56:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The 19 century invented history and great historical narratives. In the popular perception of history, most of these narratives still rule.

Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume and Gibbon might beg to differ and all had viewed the period before the Renaissance as 'The Dark Ages'. Re-appraisal of the middle ages came from Romantic era historians in the 19th century. The rise of nationalism, increased literacy and the broadening of the political base during the 19th Century created a real need for historians to create suitable frameworks for viewing national histories.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 04:27:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Quibbling about some decades doesn't change much. Are the authors mentioned to the 19th century or e. g. Livy?
by IM on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 04:57:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All died before 1800. David Hume wrote a History of England, Voltaire best known history was The Age of Louis XIV, but also wrote The Age of Louis XV, The Chronicles of the Empire from Charlemagne to Ferdinand II in two volumes, a two volume history of Russia under Peter the Great, etc. The American historian of the enlightenment Peter Gay had high praise for Voltaire as a historian, as did my French History Professor. Gay from wiki:
Yale professor Peter Gay says Voltaire wrote "very good history," citing his "scrupulous concern for truths," "careful sifting of evidence," "intelligent selection of what is important," "keen sense of drama," and "grasp of the fact that a whole civilization is a unit of study."

Just previous in the same wiki article there is this:
Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and "Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations" (1756). He broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history and achievements in the arts and sciences. The "Essay on Customs" traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet's Discourse on the Universal History (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Arab civilization, but otherwise was weak on the Middle Ages. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to expose the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed. Although he found evil in the historical record, he fervently believed reason and educating the illiterate masses would lead to progress.

....

Voltaire's histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past, but he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, religious intolerance and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare


In many ways  Leopold von Ranke narrow focus on politics and diplomacy was a big step backwards from Voltaire, as was the rise of nationalist 'national histories' in the 19th Century. Voltaire was likely by far the best historian working prior to 1800.

But I agree with your point as to the change in the nature of writing history, the number of historians, etc. that characterized the 19th Century, as I noted in an earlier comment.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 16th, 2013 at 08:23:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Voltaire was likely by far the best historian working prior to 1800."

That was Vico.

But of course Vico was instantly forgotten and rediscovered

- in the 19th century(!), by Michelet.

by IM on Fri May 17th, 2013 at 03:10:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Michelet had an enormous advantage over his contemporaries - he had  access to the records of the French monarchy, going back who knows how far, before they were lost in a fire.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 17th, 2013 at 11:27:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You see, the paradigma for historians in the 19th century was quite different.
by IM on Fri May 17th, 2013 at 12:58:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But Vico was not widely read, even by 18th Centrry standards, as you note. Perhaps Voltaire read him. And Vico wrote much more about how to write history than actually writing history. Wiki only lists four works: "On Humanistic Education,"  "On the Study Methods of Our Time," "Universal right" and "The New Science", the latter of which was probably his most widely read work.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 17th, 2013 at 11:41:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But Vico was not widely read, even by 18th Centrry standards, as you note.

Exactly! Can you say the same of the 19th history historians? Totally different ballgame. Or paradigma.

And you said best historian pre 1800, bot best popular historian.

by IM on Fri May 17th, 2013 at 12:56:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I would still go with Voltaire. He and Vico are roughly comparable on the subject of critical historiography but Voltaire produced a healthy shelf of actual histories which were, by 18th century standards, widely read. His were the best works available at the time on the history of the Holy Roman Empire, Russia under Peter I and contemporary French History. Vico, though important, (he was discussed in some of my university courses), did not produce a comparable body of works of history. Of course in those days most educated people were more generalists in nature, but of all of Voltaire's literary accomplishments, wiki lists his histories first, and not without reason.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 17th, 2013 at 03:21:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I only have whatever portion of your objection that you expressed to go on. You said:
A lot of the stuff they are credited for in these excerpts were really generic Asian civilization, which had its own ebb and flow and happened to reach a high point (in some ways) during the brief window of Mongol supremacy, or were particular innovations of the Song Dynasty that were exported by the Mongols.

None of which is contradicted by the connotations of the phrase "Mongol Awakening", so none of which are a reason to find the phrase grating.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun May 19th, 2013 at 03:58:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Zwackus:
this really sounds like the author was trying to cash in on the recent popularity of "some ethnic group created the modern world"

I don't think so. I have just received a copy of Weatheford' work and find that he is, in fact, an anthropologist specializing in tribal cultures, author of Native Roots, Indian Givers and Tribes on the Hill among other works, but he is not, properly, an historian. Weatherford probably sees Genghis Khan as the most spectacularly successful warrior-herder in history and felt impelled to write the work, given his area of expertise.


"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 08:12:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
College where Olli Rehn (and I) went to school.

Small world.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Tue May 14th, 2013 at 03:48:30 AM EST
Thanks to this diary I bought Weatherford's Gengis Kahn. I am just starting Chapter 4 and find the work highly readable and informative. Weatheford's background in cultural anthropology and his focus on tribal cultures well suited him for this work. It appears that he was part, possibly a key part, of an international team that, subsequent to Soviet withdrawal from Mongolia, set out to untangle the Mongol past. This involved deciphering a 'secret history', that appears to have been a court history of the family which survived in a Chinese text written using Chinese characters to phonetically represent spoken Mongolia and correlating this with the physical places and an interior understanding of the practices and legends of the group. The book is fascinating and, to me, comparable to  Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the way it contextualizes the story into the culture in which it occurs.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 11:42:05 AM EST
Now that you mention it: Lawrence of Arabia - the Lost Critic and the Legend (Dining with Al Qaeda, February 28, 2013)
The one thing I couldn't persuade the publishers of Dining with al-Qaeda to change as we edited the text was their leading phrase in the jacket-sleeve blurb, which referred to the author as "Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia ..."

In January, for the magazine The Majalla, I finally got to write down the full reason why I felt a reference to Lawrence wasn't appropriate for a book like mine, which is in large part about how difficult it is to set facts straight about the Middle East. I've complained about modern journalists who claim to be strictly reporting what happened and yet do not always stick to the non-fiction high road (more here). "Faction" is of course not uncommon - some books of Ryszard Kapuściński were so light-footed they were dubbed "magical journalism" (more here). To be sure, both Kapuściński  and Lawrence appear to have told their friends that they were not trying to recount plodding facts. But the problem for me remains that most people don't realise that, and most publishers are not in a rush to tell them.

...

Then one recent day in Edinburgh, I came across the plain black cover of the first edition of Richard Aldington's Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, a book I had never heard of. Here, in the folds of what I judged was measured prose, was concealed a jeweled dagger of a polemic. It led me into a whole world of debate about the Lawrence story--the great film, the (lack of) sex, his genius, his psychology--of which I am no scholar. But Aldington's arguments did ring startlingly true as he portrayed Lawrence as one of my bugbears, a writer who exploits the confusion and magical reputation of the Middle East to play fast and loose with the facts.



In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 11:58:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
After I knew I was going to Saudi to help commission the sound system at King Khalid International Airport I undertook to read a little about the area, and I started with Lawrence. What ever faults he may have had he described spending years as a linguist studying various dialects of Arabic and had spent time with the Bedu as well as the marsh Arabs of north of Basra and his work was presented as being in large part an autobiographical account of the events in which he participated. The first portion contained the contextual background. Then I read The Kingdom by Robert Lacey and Sandra Mackey's Inside the Desert Kingdom while trying to pick up some rudimentary Arabic.

All I know about Aldington is the brief blurb about his book, Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, and the surrounding controversy from Amazon:

Fred Crawford provides the first examination of all parties and points of view embroiled in the controversy generated by Richard Aldington's 1955 biography of Lawrence of Arabia.

While researching Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, Aldington had made major discoveries, including the extent to which Lawrence had cooperated in the creation of the "Lawrence legend." For this and other reasons, he concluded that Lawrence was a charlatan, a poseur, and a fraud. A powerful group including B. H. Liddell Hart, Robert Graves, and A. W. Lawrence worked behind the scenes to suppress and denigrate the biography and to influence Aldington's publisher to force him to make changes to the manuscript before it was published.

Crawford demonstrates that an influential clique with money and power can damage the reputation of a book even before people have had an opportunity to read it. That Aldington's findings were nearly suppressed reveals how little freedom of the press can mean when a book displeases influential people with positions--or myths--to maintain.

Crawford is the first to compare the viewpoints of the three major factions involved in the controversy. Correspondence by and interviews with many involved directly in the dispute among the three contending parties--Aldington, his publisher, and the opposition coordinated by Hart-- make it possible for the reader to know more about the affair than did any of the parties directly involved.


I now have little doubt that there has been serious image manipulation surrounding Lawrence's activities for the British during WW I and perhaps his entire time in Arabia before WWI was in part or in whole financed by British Intelligence, and while it seems possible that the myth making extended to the background chapter he provided and to which I was referring, which was more broad stroke in nature, I subsequently found nothing that contradicted what I recalled of Lawrence by Albert Hourani in his earlier version of History of the Arab Peoples.


"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 02:51:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
fascinating diary and discussion, thanks for kicking it off, Metatone.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Jun 12th, 2013 at 03:56:43 PM EST


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