Whose Middle Ages?
I was reading my newletter from the Medieval Academy and one of the articles really struck me. It struck me because i've been trying to articulate why I have serious doubts about World History as a substitute for Western Civ. The article (sorry -- I think it's only available in print) discussed an experiment in a World History course for grad students, team-taught by people who specialized in many different areas and focusing on cultural interaction. I admit that it sounded like everyone in the class found it enjoyable, and perhaps even fulfilling, but I wasn't really convinced that it had been useful.
You see, I've always found the cross-cultural studies interesting, and have always brought up the ones that really fit into the storyline, if you will, for my Western Civ. classes. The problem for me is, how much connection is a connection? Does the fact that the Europeans are getting material goods from, say, Muslim traders who may have gotten the stuff from sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia mean that there's a valid point of study in the connection between medieval Europe and Southeast Asia? I'm not so sure, if it's mediated, even if it's mediated by a somewhat 'western' culture. (I hope that last does not offend the Islamicists out there -- I mean it only in that I tend to see at least the first 500 years of Islam as being more connected to the Mediterranean west and Rome's successors -- since it is also a successor, in many ways -- more than a particularly non-western phenomenon).
Mediation aside, one of the things that I just can't get my head around is periodization. It's kind of a big thing in History; it's one of the harder things for many students to understand, in the sense that periodization traditionally relies on a bundle of factors, not least (but really, not greatest) of which is chronology. When we speak of the Middle Ages, we are talking about the West. It's the middle part -- between the ancient and the modern. Heaven knows, we medievalists have enough of a problem trying to define them chronologically, and we continue to debate the whole Early MA (or is it Late Antiquity? or is late Antiquity a period of its own, followed by the Early MA?) - high MA -- Late MA thing. But if World History is in some was a way of addressing or redressing the dominance of western culture, isn't it problematic to define the period to be studied in terms of the West?
Say we all accept that the Middle Ages were from roughly 476 (unless late Antique is sepaate) to roughly 1400 on the continent and 1500 in England. For simplicity's sake, pretend that England does't rate the exception, or we'll never move on. Is there any articular reason to think that this same period is valid for Medieval Africa? Is there such a thing as Medieval Africa? It's a pretty big place, with more than a few different peoples, religions, governmental systems, etc. Do Africanists see Africa as a single (if having manifold variations) culture in the way that Europeanists see Europe or Western Civ people see the west? I honestly don't know, but I'm not sure why they should. The same is true for Asianists: despite various clear cross-cultural influences via conquest, trade, or travel between China, Korea, and Japan or between India and Southeast Asia, or the Steppes and pretty much anywhere those Khans could get to, do area specialists see any truly valid reason for studying the World in the MA that doesn't include the MA having been defined in the traditional, West-based manner?
I mean, just thinking about Japan and China, I suppose one might say that Japan's Middle Ages could range from the 1100s (by Western reckoning) to 1868. Maybe. In which case, would we say that Japan missed out on the Early Modern period? Was Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate Medieval (there's that whole 'F'-word thing and all) or Early Modern? After all, Reformation and Counter-reformation Christianity, mostly the latter, hit Japan at about that time, and Europeans did bring in firearms, which are more Early Modern and Modern than Medieval. What about China? Are the Mongols Medieval nomadic conquering tribesmen? What about the Ming? If we measure periods by any standards other than time, the dates cannot hold across the cultures.
I don't really have anything more than questions at this point, so I'm open to suggestions. A World Middle Ages class just seems to me to be a pretty artificial and problematic construct at best, and a continuation of the imposition of Western standards on other cultures -- supposedly one of the things World history is supposed to help do away with -- at worst.