Book review : Before European Hegemony by Janet Abu-Lughod


In what is certainly one of the most well-written books on Geo-politics of the 13th and 14th century that I have read, Janet Abu-Lughod makes a compelling argument that the world-system of that century gave rise to the European Hegemony of the 16th century and there were several factors responsible for it. Key among them being : The Black death, changes in geo-politics of the time. She makes a strong case for rejecting any exclusive use of one or two factors to explain European “superiority”, either in the realms of religion, culture or other factors.

The book starts off with a background of why she considers this century so critical in world-history. “This period is considered the “fulcrum “ or “turning point” in world history and the Middle East is the heart-land of this transformation, the thesis of this book is that there is no historical necessity for this to have happened” she points out.

There is also a break-down of the manner in which certain cities in Europe rose to prominence during that period, and how changes in other parts of the world contributed to that. “Richard Haepke’s phrase “Archipelago of towns” comes to mind, to describe the spottiness of of development. Cities were important trade centres not countries in this scheme”, she says.

Similarities more than differences:

Abu-Lughod points out that Middle East was more developed than Europe, but had large swathes which were relatively under-developed. Cairo and Baghdad were developed, but not other areas, while China was a miasma of three regions, each distinct;  The Indian sub-continent was similarly complex and divided into sub regions . The similarities between the world regions were more than the differences:  both used Gold, money and credit systems (Florence and Genoa) minted their own money, Paper money was introduced in the ninth century China,  Credit was more prevalent in Middle East before it become popular in Europe and merchant wealth – was also quite independent in the Middle East, which is contradictory to popular opinion

The key differences were  :

  • By 13th century Europe was behind the East, while by 16th century it has pulled ahead.
  • Lughod argues that the context is important to explain Europe’s ascent and the Orient’s descent
  • Genghis Khan’s lands had fallen into disarray
  • The Black death of 1348 to 1351 had decimated most parts of Europe but had left England somewhat less affected, which helped it come to prominence

She makes the case that the separation of church and state had something to do with this as well, as she examines the lives of Roger Bacon, from 13th Century and Francis Bacon of the 16th century – while the former was firmly in the religious realm ( writing to the Pope about Crusades) the latter was entrenched in the secular sphere.  She also points out that there is the problem of sources as well as historical narratives which are often complicated by lack of details, which make forming a narrative difficult.

European sub-system :

The European sub-system is analyzed in the context of the 2nd Century Roman Empire being  the first “world-system” and the later 5th century, there were invasions and fragmentations of the western portions of the empire among the Gauls, Vandalas and Visigoths . This was followed by emergence of feudalism in France later on the most disturbing trend in this period was the passing of power of Holy land to the Muslims.


Abu-Lughod makes the connection that though the crusades failed, they managed to unite Europe against the “common-enemy “ of Muslims – and they even reached out to the Mongol kings to fight the Muslim rulers.

The emergence of Flanders, Genoa, Venice can be seen as precursors to the modern trade system – as they laid the ground work for much of commerce that was to take place in that region.

Their decline is traced to political as well as demographic changes (including Black-death).

Mid-East heart land

The Mid-east was significant and the crusades actually enhanced trade in the region. Mongols under Genghis Khan had ventured west-wards. The Huns had sped overland as far as Germany, while the Turkic Seljuks had conqured Egypt, parts of Iraq and Fertile Crescent . There was a shift in Baghdad’s status after it was sacked by the Mongols.


Mongols and the North east passage

The importance of Mongol conquests cannot be discounted while studying this system, as it unified large parts of the world, opened up trade routes as well as brought safe passage to traders – facilitating trade.

Abulughod points out that there was much trade between Muslim and Christian lands during this time and this was disrupted for some time after Il-Khan’s conversion to Islam.


Cairo is treated separately, as it was one of the largest cities in the world at that point and militarily strong, after having warded off the crusaders and established its trade routes through the slave dynasty. She says Cairo was the vanguard for the world-system and a precursor of Portugal.

Abu-Lughod points out that Islam was friendly to capitalism and business , as the Quran gave clear moral injunctions about trading and commerce to all. Partnerships and commenda existed (one partner put up capital and another accompanied the goods abroad), this was a capitalist tool par excellence. Another indicator of this is that merchants used credit, money and banking was in vogue as well and promissory notes and Suftajas  were in use in the Middle East quite early on


While speaking of Asia and China, there is a careful analysis of both political and economic factors at play in the regions.

Trade was as much influenced by climatic factors ( Monsoons) as other political forces. And the Indian sub-continent played a pivotal role in the trade route’s development.

There were three circles of influence and Arabs took part in one of them through trade. She points out that If geo-strategic position is key, then India should have been hegemonic, but Vijayanagar empire was more focused on local agriculture.  “Indian Sub-continent : On the way to everywhere” captures the essence of how important the Indian spices and cotton was to the world economy. South India was a key trade entrepot to the South East and all traders vied for influence.

There has been trade between India and rest of the world since ancient times – Romans desired more from India than the Indians desired from Rome. The Indian sub-continent also became prominent in the 13th century as North India was part of the Silk Route, the Mughal rulers expanded the region  and made it part of the world’s trade route.


While China had the technological know-how, population ( about 70 million ) and economic strength to become a world-power, it chose not to; as the Ming dynasty became inward looking towards the 14th century.

This is seen in the context of the global shift of power and also demographic shift. It can be argued that China also suffered from Black death, she points out.

Conclusion :

While accounting for a theory of world-systems, one cannot just have a a simplistic technological, cultural or social explanation for Europe’s rise. There has to be  a contextual explanation for what went on during that time in the world system that existed , points out Abu-Lughod.

This bears out well, when considering all the proofs that she offers – including but not limited to the complex dynamics of power and trade that existed in the 13th century.

She also calls for analyzing how each region “rises” and the others “fall” contextually and in a nuanced manner.

While the world-system of the 20th century is also undergoing a radical shift, it must be seen in the context of multiple players rising rather than just one big power dominating the other.

The phrase “Cores can become peripheries and peripheries can become cores, for no fault or virtue of their own” is a good way to sum up the spirit of the book.