Hist 305-Digital Methods in History Arwen Maier
Prof. Smith Oct. 19, 2016
Contacts in the Medieval World: A Digital Historical Analysis
From the modern perspective, the medieval era can seem distant and alien, a time when people knew little of the world around, living in a kind of reactionary, instinctive state, not bothering to wonder or venture out of their local sphere. This generalization, while tempting, and for the better part of the last hundred years, the prevalent viewpoint within the historical profession, misses the actual level of connectivity in this time and space. From as early as the third century BCE, people were traveling far afield to engage in commerce and to procure goods unavailable in their homelands. As centuries passed, and with the addition of new economic actors like the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries, the pace of trade and exchange quickened and intensified, as merchants and sailors found new goods and new ways of getting them from one place to another. Along with the material goods traded within and between these networks, there were also intangible goods passed between these peoples, among these, ideas, religious movements, and thoughts about the nature of man and his place in the universe.
The purpose of this project will be to argue for a level of connectivity in the medieval world, which is often overlooked, or, at the very least, looked at in fractured segments within analyses of individual empires, kingdoms, and religious movements. During the medieval period, approximately 700 CE through 1300 CE, people of varied societies travelled, traded, and linked with others. Using primary sources in the form of material objects, grave goods, Viking rune stones, letters, and travel accounts, I will attempt to show the dialectic of trade and idea exchange active during the eighth through thirteenth centuries CE. The choice of these centuries as both a starting and a stopping point is significant. First, the rise of the importance of the Silk Roads networks in the eighth century and the subsequent rise of the Viking raiding and trading culture in the ninth and tenth centuries provides its own periodization, and the movement of both the Mongol forces and the bubonic plague during the thirteenth centuries also provides a convenient stopping point, as the trade networks in question took nearly a century to fully recover.
One of the many currents of exchange and movement that would potentially be examined would be the movement of Viking raiders and traders from the north, who brought their wares south to markets in Constantinople, and traded for goods brought from the east along the networks of the Silk Roads from China. This flow of goods is just one of the many examples of the web of commerce that linked north, south, east, and west. It is this “web” that I will attempt to illustrate and animate, to connect individual studies of the “Silk Roads”, “Viking Trade Culture”, and “Byzantine Culture”, to name just a few, to form a comprehensive narrative of connectivity and syncretism, that an individual analysis of a specific geographic location or society would not accomplish.
The holistic approach to the study of the medieval period is one that is lacking in contemporary scholarship. This gap in analysis adds to the sense in the historical community, and in society in general, that “globalization” is a purely modern concept. Through the data visualization offered by Palladio’s mapping software, and hosted on a WordPress website, I hope to challenge the modern notion that life in the medieval period was small and had small impact. I intend to map the flow of goods from their origin to their destination, in order to connect the cultures who both created the articles in question and the cultures who consumed them, many of which were at a great distance from each other. Additionally, I would like to include primary sources in the form of travel accounts from religious pilgrimages, Arab emissaries, and Byzantine or Roman expeditions, and with these will plot stopping points mentioned by the authors in these accounts. Clearly, the most difficult aspect of this project will be the size of the region to be analyzed. Second only to the size of the area, will be the age of the cultures at work during this time, many of which have long since disappeared.
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Darkness : Arab Travellers in the Far North. London: Penguin Books, 2012.
Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 2016.
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Wood, Frances. The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.