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
- 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
- Major empires developed in
both South America (the Inca) and Mesoamerica
(the Maya and Aztec.)
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.
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
DEMOGRAPHIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES
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
forming the Delhi Sultanate, and introduced Islam to India
with such force that the consequences reverberated though the rest of
- 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).
CULTURAL DIFFUSION AND THE 14TH CENTURY PLAGUES
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
- 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.
IMPORTANT ISSUES: 600-1450 C.E.
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
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.