Questions of Periodization
What Defines this Era?

Change over time occurs for many reasons, but three phenomena that tend to cause it are:

  • Mass migrations - Whenever a significant number of people leave one area and migrate to another, change occurs for both the land that they left as well as their destination
  • Imperial conquests - If an empire (or later a country) deliberately conquers territory outside its borders, significant changes tend to follow for both the attackers and the attacked.
  • Cross-cultural trade and exchange - Widespread contact among various areas of the world brings not only new goods but new ideas and customs to all areas involved.

During the classical era (about 1000 BCE to 600 CE), all of these phenomena occurred, as we saw in Unit I. With the fall of the three major classical civilizations, the stage was set for new trends that defined 600-1450 CE as another period with different migrations and conquests, and more developed trade patterns than before. Some major events and developments that characterized this era were:

  • Older belief systems, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, came to become more important than political organizations in defining many areas of the world. Large religions covered huge areas of land, even though localized smaller religions remained in place.
  • Two nomadic groups - the Bedouins and the Mongols - had a huge impact on the course of history during this era.  To a lesser degree, the Turkish migration were important too.
  • A new religion - Islam - began in the 7th century and spread rapidly throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
  • Whereas Europe was not a major civilization area before 600 CE, by 1450 it was connected to major trade routes, and some of its kingdoms were beginning to assert world power.
  • Major empires developed in both South America (the Inca) and Mesoamerica (the Maya and Aztec.)
  • China grew to have hegemony over many other areas of Asia and became one of the largest and most prosperous empires of the time.
  • Long distance trade continued to develop along previous routes, but the amount and complexity of trade and contact increased significantly.  The Silk Roads, Indian Ocean, and Trans-Saharan African trade routes became extremely vigorous.

This unit will investigate these major shifts and continuities by addressing several broad topics:

  • The Islamic World - Islam began in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century CE, impacting political and economic structures, and shaping the development of arts, sciences and technology.
  • Interregional networks and contacts - Shifts in and expansion of trade and cultural exchange increase the power of China, connected Europe to other areas, and helped to spread the major religions. The Mongols first disrupted, then promoted, long-distance trade throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.
  • China's internal and external expansion - During the Tang and Song Dynasties, China experienced an economic revolution and expanded its influence on surrounding areas. This era also saw China taken over by a powerful nomadic group (the Mongols), and then returned to Han Chinese (ethnic group) under the Ming Dynasty.
  • Developments in Europe - European kingdoms grew from nomadic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. During this era, feudalism developed, and Christianity divided in two - the Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east. In both cases, the Church grew to have a great deal of political and economic power.
  • Social, cultural, economic patterns in the Amerindian world - Major civilizations emerged, building on the base of smaller, less powerful groups from the previous era. The Maya, Aztec, and Inca all came to control large amounts of territory and many other native groups.
  • Demographic and environmental changes - Urbanization continued, and major cities emerged in many parts of the world. Nomadic migrations during the era included the Aztecs, Mongols, Turks, Vikings, and Arabs. Long distance trade promoted the spread of disease, including the plague pandemics in the early fourteenth century.



The era from 600 to 1450 C.E. was a time when civilization spread geographically, covering many more parts of the world than previously. However, it was also a time of great migrations of people that had wide impacts on the people in settled areas. Arabs, Vikings, Turks, and Mongols, Turks all moved from one part of the globe to another, instigating change wherever they went.

  • Arabs - The most significant effect of the Arab movement from the Arabian Peninsula was the spread of Islam. Arabs invaded, settled, and eventually ruled, the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern Europe. Although the political structure of the caliphate did not survive, Islam held the areas together culturally as it mixed with natively customs and religions. Despite the political disunity and the splits between Sunni and Shi'a, the Islamic World emerged as an entire cultural area during this era.
  • Vikings - The Vikings swept into many parts of Europe - from Normandy, to Mediterranean areas to Russia - during the 8th and 9th centuries, looting and destroying communities, churches, and monasteries. Some settled and intermarried with natives, forming new groups such as the Normans and the Rus (Russians). However, a very important consequence of their invasions was the development of feudalism in Europe. The attacks convinced Europeans that protection was vital, and so they organized into a network of lords and vassals, that eventually built kingdoms with great armies ready to fight.
  • Turks - The Turkish people were originally Indo-Europeans who migrated into the Middle East during various times of the era. The Seljuk Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire, sparking another great migration from Europe to the Middle East - the Crusaders. Seljuk Turks were indirectly responsible, then, for Europe's growing interest and involvement in long-distance trade. By the end of the era the Ottoman Turks were on the rise. They captured Constantinople and many other parts of Europe, and they gained control of trade on the Mediterranean. Turks even invaded India, forming the Delhi Sultanate, and introduced Islam to India with such force that the consequences reverberated though the rest of Indian history.
  • Mongols - The Mongol conquests have been depicted as assaults by savage and barbarian people who brought nothing but death and destruction to the areas they attacked. Whereas no one can deny the brutality of the Mongols, their conquests had a much more varied impact on world history than has been acknowledged by many historians in the past. At the peak of their power, the Pax Mongolica meant that once-hostile people lived together in peace in areas where most religions were tolerated. From the Il-Khan in the Middle East to the Yuan Dynasty in China, Mongol rulers established order, and most importantly, provided the stage for intensified international contact. Protected by Mongol might, the trade routes carried new foods, inventions, and ideas from one civilization to ther others, with nomadic people acting as intermediaries.
  • Bantu-speaking people - Another important source of cultural diffusion during this era was the Bantu Migration, which took place in Africa. Bantu-speaking people originally lived in an area south of the Sahara, but probably because the desert was spreading southward they began to migrate to better land. They spread south and east into many parts of Africa, and their language became a basis for the formation of many later languages. The Bantu Migration is generally believed to be a major source for Africanity, or a set of cultural characteristics (including language) that are commonly shared on the continent. Examples include music, the use of masks, and scarification (permanent beauty etchings on the skin).


Cross-cultural exchanges had deadly consequences for many parts of the eastern hemisphere during the 14th century. As Eurasians traveled over long distances, they not only exchanged goods and ideas, but they unwittingly helped disease to spread as well. Since people who have had no previous exposure to a disease react to it much more seriously than those that have, the consequences were profound. The bubonic plague erupted in epidemics throughout most of Asia, Europe, and north Africa. Even though it abated in subsequent centuries, it broke out sporadically from place to place well into the seventeenth century.

The plague probably originated in southwestern China, where it had been incubating for centuries, but once long-distance trade began, it spread rapidly during the 14th century. The pathogen was spread by fleas that infested rats and eventually humans. Mongol military campaigns helped the plague spread throughout China, and merchants and travelers spread it to the west. By the 1340s it had spread to Black Sea ports and to Italian cities on the Mediterranean. From there, the plague spread rapidly throughout Europe as far as the British Isles.

Europeans referred to the plague as the Black Death because its victims developed black or purpose swellings caused by buboes, internal hemorrhages that gave the plague its name. Once the plague hit a community, typically 60-70 percent of the population died, and in some cases, no one survived. Important results of the plague (other than individual death) are:

  • Decline in population - In China decreasing population caused by the plague contributed to the decline of the Yuan Dynasty and lent support to the overthrow of Mongol control there. Europe's population dropped by about 25% during the 14th century. In Egypt population levels did not recover to pre-plague days probably until the 19th century.
  • Labor shortages - The plague was no respecter of social class, and the affected areas lost craftsmen, artisans, merchants, religious officials, farmers, bureaucrats and rulers. In many areas farms fell into ruin, towns deteriorated, and trade almost came to a standstill. Labor shortages turned into social unrest, and rebellions popped up in many areas.


The era from 600 to 1450 C.E. was not a period of massive environmental change. The most significant changes occurred because of population growth. The structures of civilization spread across sub-Saharan Africa, northern Europe, and Japan. As civilizations spread, agriculture claimed additional land, with some deforestation (especially in Europe) taking place. However, soil depletion around the Mediterranean was not nearly as great as it was during Ancient Roman times. The most severe effects were probably felt in central America, where population density increased significantly. Small civilizations and nomadic groups that were easy on the environment were replaced by ever larger empires that claimed rain forest and other natural habitats.

The process of urbanization continued during this era, and cities grew larger and more numerous. As Islam spread, administrative centers appeared in the Middle East, and many grew into cities that attracted people to live under the protection they afforded. China especially during this era became urbanized, with the Tang and Song emperors building roads that connected cities to one another. Trade from the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean circuits enriched these cities, and great differences in status were accorded those that lived in urban vs. rural areas. Great cities grew up in the Americas, and towns in Europe grew to be the cities of Paris and London. However, agriculture still remained as the primary occupation of people in civilizations around the world, so that large numbers still lived in rural areas.


During this era several major religions spread across large areas, creating cultural regions that unified based on their belief systems. As historians, we may speak of "Islamic lands" or "Christendom" or "Confucian Asia," and these terms are handy for comparisons. They may be used effectively to point out commonalities as well as differences. However, cultural areas are imperfect as units of analysis. Some problems include:

  • Imperfect boundaries between areas - If you are comparing political units with definite boundaries, the geographic differences are clear. However, in using cultural labels, how do you categorize areas of mixed influence? For example, parts of the Middle East during this era had significant numbers of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, with a mixture of customs from all three religions. Southeast Asia, a crossroads area for trade, had virtually every religion imaginable.
  • Wide differences within the culture zones - The areas are so broad that the categories often blur important cultural differences within. For example, Christendom's two parts were very different, and Christianity was interpreted in many ways. Muslims in Mali had only limited commonalities with Muslims in Central Asia.

Still, political boundaries do not provide perfect units to measure either. Boundaries often cut through cultural areas and represent artificial categories for analysis.

Change over time during this era was more characterized by modification, rather than innovation, with the notable exception of the Tang and Song economic revolutions. Nomadic groups during this time period probably reached their peak of influence on the course of world history. Whereas change emanated from both nomadic groups and civilized areas, the effects of the great migrations of the Arabs, Vikings, Turks, and Mongols during this era have been unmatched to the present day. However, little change occurred in other areas, such as gender and social class structures. Patriarchal families continued to be the norm, and social class distinctions that we saw in the river valley and classical civilizations tended to be drawn along the same lines: peasants v. aristocrats and rural v. urban. Elite women seem to have suffered the most, with ties to the home reinforced through practices such as veiling and footbinding. Although in these cases differences were accentuated, gender roles went through no basic structural changes. Long distance trade grew significantly, but it continued to follow the old routes established in the previous era. The western hemisphere still was not drawn into regular contact and communication. However, by 1450 the previously inconsequential Europeans were on the cusp of changing all of that, as worldwide trade began to develop in the 1450-1750 era.