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'medieval' outside Europe

Books + Ideas — December 2011

For a long time, possibly over a decade, I have had a disclaimer at the bottom of the "medieval history" category of my book reviews which says:

"I realise the inclusion of works on areas outside Europe and West Asia in a 'medieval history' category is problematic."

Recently I read two books which apply the term 'medieval' to Japanese history, but using quite different periodisations and definitions. And then I went to a talk on Chinese history that was included in a medieval history seminar series. So I have taken another look at this.

What happens when we try to extend the term 'medieval' to other regions?

One classic analysis is "Medieval: Another Tyrannous Construct?" (Timothy Reuter, The Medieval History Journal, April 1998, vol. 1, no. 1, 25-45), which concludes:

"the term is too conventionalised to be of much use in any dialogue between medievalists of different parts of the globe: it does not clearly define either a social formation or a stage of development".

A more recent statement along similar lines can be found in in Christopher Tyerman's "Expansion and the Crusades" (a chapter in A Companion to the Medieval World, edited by Carol Lansing and Edward D. English, Wiley 2009).

"The idea of a 'medieval world' is a peculiarly West European construct, even if it has been embraced by other historical traditions, such as the Japanese. The idea of medieval China, medieval India, let alone medieval America, medieval sub-Saharan Africa, or medieval Australia makes no sense. In a global context the term 'medieval' is vague, if not suspect, with no necessary agreed or unambiguous material or intellectual substance."

And even with Japan there are clearly problems, as the two books I mentioned above show. François Souyri's The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society (1998) defines a medieval Japan, running from 1185 to 1573, in terms of social structures, using 'feudalism' and associated terminology quite freely, along with many comparisons with other aspects of European history. William LaFleur in The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (1983) suggests a Japanese medieval period starting in the 9th or even 8th century, defined by the ideological hegemony of Buddhism, but doesn't make any comparisons with Christianity in medieval Europe. The 'indigenous' Japanese notion of chūsei didn't appear till the late 19th century, has a complex relationship to European models, and has shifted in the last thirty years. Tom Keirstead's "Medieval Japan: Taking the Middle Ages Outside Europe" (History Compass 2 (2004) AS 110, 1–14), a history of the Japanese idea of a Middle Age, concludes: "the upshot of [Amino Yoshihiko's] idea that Japan experienced revolutionary change over the course of the fourteenth century may well be a Japanese history that has no place for a medieval era". Which all seems to support Tyerman's "vague, if not suspect, with no necessary agreed or unambiguous material or intellectual substance".

This view does not, however, reflect either popular or scholarly use. Here are the counts from some searches on Google and Google scholar (in thousands of hits, or kGh to use LanguageLog terminology):

'medieval Europe' - 3200 - 85
'medieval England' - 2400 - 39
'medieval Germany' - 680 - 4
'medieval China' - 730 - 5
'medieval France' - 400 - 8
'medieval Japan' - 370 - 4
'medieval India' - 330 - 7
'medieval Africa' - 110 - 0.2
'medieval Java' - 7 - 0.05
'medieval Australia' - 2 - 0.002

Now the absolute numbers here aren't terribly meaningful, but their relative values suggest that the application of the term 'medieval' to at least China, Japan and India is as widespread as its application to parts of Western Europe.

And here is a graph from Google Ngram viewer showing the changing popularity of four of these terms.

(Interestingly, this seems to show a decline in the application of 'medieval' to France and Germany, starting around the publication of the 1998 Reuter article quoted from above.)

Also, there are plenty of eminent Sinologists who happily use the term "medieval". Can European historians really tell them that "the idea of medieval China ... makes no sense"?

The reason European medievalists are prepared to do this is that they've stripped their own use of the term of any generalisable foundation. My impression is that in European history the most common approach now is to define 'medieval' by extension — by pointing at a (or, in fact, the) historical instance — rather than by intension. So the term can be used quite freely, without explanation or analysis, for Europe in the period from 500 AD to 1500 AD, for any period roughly corresponding to that, or when appropriately qualified for any subdivision thereof. But, whatever the exact period and whatever the topic, the application of 'medieval' does not allow the assumption either of continuity throughout the period or of discontinuity at its ends. It is a convenient label, not an explanatory schema.

Perhaps the key event here was the debate over 'feudalism' that followed Susan Reynold's Fiefs and Vassals (1994) and the acceptance that this, the leading candidate for an definition of 'medieval' in terms of social structure, simply couldn't carry that weight.

Such an approach raises obvious problems with generalisation to other parts of the world.

If the whole of Eurasia had sufficiently strong internal links to give it a common history, that would support a shared 'medieval' label across the continent, while disallowing 'medieval Java' and suchlike. This is the approach taken by e.g. Christopher Beckwith, who uses terms such as "early medieval history" as part of a Eurasian-wide periodisation. I think it's fair to say that Beckwith is in a small minority here, however.

One could simply apply the same 500 to 1500 period worldwide. But this doesn't reflect local traditions — in the sense that 476 and 1517 are important symbolic dates in Europe — and even with flexibility isn't necessarily compatible with any regional periodisation. Also,this would allow terms such as 'medieval Australia' which seem clearly confused.

One possibility is that regional specialists could use 'medieval' in the same way as European historians, but completely independently, with no generalisation or comparison implied. It would become simply a convenient way to avoid having to write "period of Buddhist ideological hegemony" or "in the millennium from 200 to 1200 AD" repeatedly, not an explanatory scheme required to carry any inferential weight. This seems more than a little confusing, however: certainly for lay readers, but probably for historians themselves.

The broad popular use of 'medieval' — based on some or all of a 'feudal' social structure, particular technologies (especially military), and a Catholic religious and intellectual hegemony — is not going to go away. And the term carries such power, and has such resonance, that its application to other parts of the world will continue. I remain convinced, however, that historians are better off avoiding it: the danger of unwanted and unpredictable associations with European history seems to me to outweigh any convenience.


  1. Medieval just means of the Middle Ages. The first part of your graph will probably just be the switching from Dark Age. Dark Age was first reduced to the Early Middle Ages then became politically incorrect entirely.

    It Europe Mediaeval refers to the time from when the Romans ceased to be able to write about history till the time when the Italians were able to write about what had gone before as inferior.

    Other places may have different middle ages and you will be looking at English writings or translations of Japanese and Chinese history.

    Comment by David Watford — December 2011
  2. Yes, the original term "Middle Ages" was coined by Italians in the Renaissance, describing a period distinguished from both the present and a classical past. The use of the term by historians has a history of its own, however - as you can see from the Ngram chart, it doesn't really take off till quite some way into the 19th century.

    None of China, Japan, or India had any directly comparable concept, so the modern use of a term like "medieval India" is entirely by generalisation from, or analogy with, the European use. The problem is - I argue - that the current use of "medieval" by European historians isn't capable of such generalisation, since it is extensionally rather than intensionally defined.

    Comment by danny — December 2011
  3. Allow me to digress, this is definitely pre-medieval stuff. http://www.asiaticfathers.com/speech.htm

    Would the US Library of Congress allow a woman to rant incoherently on some preposterous subject? I think not. I have neither the research skill nor background or training to make an objective assessment. It makes good reading though, but do the many links included provide scientific (or pseudo-scientific) clues?
    Given my my own heritage, I may be accused of a biased or one-eyed view of early Chinese exploration. One does not link the Chinese with adventurism. It defies all conventional wisdom on who and what the Chinese are.

    Gavin Menzies' work is called "junk" science ( punt intended in original text), and likened it to fantasy works like Chariots of the Gods. Simon Winchester said it in his biography of Joseph Needham : that people used to think the Chinese made beautiful porcelain and fine silk brocade and nothing more. That is until Joseph Needham devoted his lifetime's work to Chinese civilisation and technology.

    Many centuries of self-imposed isolation, sole excellence on Confucianism scholarship and discouragement on scientific enquiries brought on the undoing of China and a century of humiliation. http://www.videosurf.com/video/china%27s-century-of-humiliation-trailer-1288258755 http://china-thedocumentary.com/

    Comment by DL — December 2011
  4. Marx, at least in the formulas of his successors, taught that history passes through specific periods: slave (ancient), feudal (mediaeval), capitalist (modern), socialist and communist. So any historian claiming to be Marxist had to use these categories, explanatory power or not. The smarter just adverted to the formula and then moved on to their real history.

    Comment by Martin — December 2011
  5. Danny,

    Frankly, I can't claim to know much about the philosophical/academic questions involved.

    But in a more mundane sphere, I bear witness that the terms "medieval China" and "medieval Japan" are quite frequent: martial arts (which I used to practice, when I had good knees, many years ago).

    Comment by Magpie — January 2012

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