Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Back to the future with Renaissance Man


The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.


Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.

After the plague


The establishment of the Mongol khanate resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (40 million is a common guess). There was some recovery in population once the empire was in place, and new opportunities opened up for trade across the Eurasian steppe. But, just as with the earlier trade involving Rome, China, and the Indian Ocean,, there were also new opportunities for microbes to spread. The Black Death probably killed even more of the world’s population than the Mongols. Western Europe, spared Mongol invasion, lost perhaps a third of its population to the plague in the fifteenth century.

In China, the plague probably struck Mongols even worse than Chinese, and coincided with the overthrow of Mongol rule and establishment of a native dynasty. The new dynasty, the Ming, was more authoritarian than the native Sung dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Sung state got most of its revenues from taxes on trade, internal and external, and was solicitous of mercantile interests. The Ming returned to the more traditional practice of getting most of its revenues from taxing the peasantry; it returned as well to the traditional Confucian distrust of merchants. State patriarchy in China had earlier resisted the disruptive influence of ascetic religion; now it resisted the disruptive influence of mercantile wealth.

In Eastern Europe, two states did well during this period: the Ottoman sultanate and Poland. The Ottomans expanded into both Anatolia and the Balkans. And Poland, which had been defeated, but not subjugated, by the Mongols, mostly avoided the plague somehow. It would go on to occupy a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. But below the level of states and empires, something else was going on. Aristocracies in Eastern Europe responded to the loss of population by intensifying serfdom, binding peasants ever more firmly to their estates. Eventually the “second serfdom” east of the Elbe would be far more intense than the first serfdom of the medieval West had ever been.

In Western Europe by contrast, the loss of population in the Black Death helped to end serfdom. At first, European aristocrats, like their eastern counterparts, tried to prevent workers from taking advantage of the law of supply and demand. The Statute of Laborers in England (1349-51) complained that

The servants, having no regard … but to their ease and singular covetousness, do withdraw themselves from serving great men and others, unless they have livery and wages double or treble of what they were wont to take … to the great damage of the great men and impoverishment of all the commonalty.

The Statute forbade servants and small-holders from taking higher wages. But these efforts largely collapsed by the end of the century, partly thanks to the economic and political clout of West European cities, which had no stake in seeing peasants tied to their lords. Aristocrats would continue to hang onto their lands and rents, but serfdom largely disappeared.

Tales of the South Pacific


1) News flash: Melanesians may be carrying DNA from a fourth species of humans, not H. sapiens, Neanderthals, or Denisovans.

2) Polynesians in America

Before the great Western voyages of exploration, the Austronesian expansion settled new lands all the way from Madagascar to Polynesia. And Polynesian sailors probably got even further east than Polynesia. Scholars have long been aware of archaeological evidence for contact between Polynesia and America. For example, the Chumash Indians who lived around the Channel Islands in Southern California built distinctive sewn-plank canoes unlike anything in the rest of Pacific North America, but very much like Polynesian vessels. And it’s hard to explain how sweet potatoes could have gotten from the New World to the Pacific islands without human contact – floating in salt water isn’t very likely. A recent scholarly review of a wide range of evidence for contact – linguistic, technological, biological – is here.

Ultimately DNA may provide definitive answers, although a report from several years ago that some New World chickens are genetically close to Polynesian chickens now seems questionable. And research published last year found no Native American DNA in Easter island skeletons predating European contact.

3) The Statues That Walked.

Easter Island was settled around 1200, based on the most recent carbon-14 dates. (Earlier dates, going back as early as 300, are apparently mistaken.) There are two very different accounts of the subsequent history of the island. Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale of ecological overshoot and collapse. After the initial settlement, the island’s population boomed. Without Dr. Seuss’s Lorax to advise them, the islanders cut down all their palm trees.


With no more wood for sledges or rollers, the famous moai statues could no longer be moved from their quarries. And with no more wood for boats, fishing and inter-island trade became impossible. The loss of forests also led to soil erosion. A famine-stricken population rebelled against the hierarchical social order, and wound up resorting to cannibalism in the midst of a population crash. “Easter’s isolation makes it the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”

But Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, anthropologists who have worked on the island, differ on almost every part of this account.


They suggest that the deforestation of the island resulted from the introduction of rats, accompanying the first colonists. Rats, with no natural enemies to limit them, ate tree seeds. This wouldn’t have had noticeable effects at first, but eventually led to the forests not replacing themselves. Hunt and Lipo also dispute the claim that pre-contact Easter Island experienced a population crash; they argue that the crash came later, with European contact and the introduction of diseases to which the population had no resistance. They also see little evidence of over-exploitation of the environment. Locals were doing the best they could to make a living under marginal conditions. And as to how the moais got from one place to another, well … the islanders said they walked.

This video shows they could be right.

And some back-and-forth between Diamon and Lipo and Hunt is here.

Homo hierarchicus


The Rajatrangini (River of Kings) is a history of Kashmir, dating to about 1150. A striking thing about it is that it is pretty much the only work in Sanskrit that clearly qualifies as history. Other material about the past in traditional Hindu India is heavily mythological, or limited to genealogies and chronicles, and contains virtually no dates. The paucity of historical works in pre-Muslim India is striking, given that the country has an impressive intellectual tradition, with important achievements in mathematics, linguistics, literature, and literary theory. Hindu India is very different in this respect from China, where there is a rich historical record and the study of history, and the lessons of history, has been a major intellectual concern for millennia.

Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has worked in Southeast Asia. He became curious about why some Southeast Asian societies seem to have been more interested than others in developing an accurate understanding of the past. His eventual conclusion, after reviewing evidence from many societies, is that historical consciousness is underdeveloped in societies with closed, hereditary systems of stratification. India of course is famously a caste society. True, there are scholars who argue that Indian caste-consciousness has been exaggerated by Western Orientalists bent on making the place seem exotic. But recent DNA evidence shows that high levels of caste endogamy have been characteristic of India for at least 1500 years. And in economist Gregory Clark’s recent analyses of surnames and social stratification in a number of societies, India is an outlier, with exceptionally enduring associations between surnames and social class, reflecting the caste system. (Kashmir may have been an atypical part of India in this regard.)

In societies with hereditary ruling elites and caste-like social stratification, according to Brown, history is an inconvenience. The preference (at least out in public – people may talk differently in private) is for mythological accounts of caste origins that link caste hierarchy to the order of the cosmos. There are other differences as well associated closed versus open hierarchies. Individual personality receives less attention in societies with closed hierarchies; behavior is explained by role, office, and social category. The art of biography is less developed. Closed societies are less interested in divination (presumably you don’t need a fortune teller to know what your future holds). The differences extend even to visual art: closed societies show less interest in realistic portraiture; artists depict types rather than individuals. In sum, there is a real difference, Brown argues, between historical knowledge and ideology, and caste-like societies generate more of the latter.

In addition to India vs. China, other closed vs. open pairs of societies in Brown’s review include Egypt vs. Mesopotamia+Israel, Sparta vs. Athens, Early vs. Imperial Rome, Medieval West vs. Islam+Byzantium, and Venice vs. Florence.

Donald Brown also wrote Human Universals, a book that argues, against a strong tradition of cultural relativism in anthropology, that there is a wide assortment of cultural universals.

And Donald Brown is also co-author of The Penis Inserts of Southeast Asia, a short book about the penis inserts of Southeast Asia.

A cycle of Cathay

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why:

The nomad brake. By 1000, Western Europe has largely tamed its barbarians, folding them into a settled, stratified, Christian society. But the civilized folk bordering the Eurasian steppe, in Eastern Europe and continental Asia, are in for a rougher ride. During the whole Song period, China faces a threat from nomads to the north. In the Northern Song period (960-1126), the Khitan empire, founded by steppe nomads, occupies Mongolia, Manchuria, and part of northern China. In the Southern Song period (1127-1279), the Song lose all of northern China to a new barbarian dynasty, the Jin. Finally, the Song dynasty ends when all of China is conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan, with the loss of about a third of the population. For all the wealth and sophistication of the Song, the succeeding native Chinese dynasty, the Ming, does not regard them as a model to be emulated.

Rice economics. Rice is the main food crop in southern China, the most populous and developed part of the country. Here’s a basic fact about rice versus wheat production (hat-tip pseudoerasmus): diminishing marginal returns to labor are less pronounced with rice than wheat. In other words, with rice, you can produce a lot more if you’re willing to put in a lot more work. With wheat, you more quickly reach a point where additional labor yields little additional production. This simple fact has far-reaching implications. Imagine an economy with two sectors, agriculture and manufacturing. And imagine that population expands up to a Malthusian limit. Under these assumptions, and given standard economic reasoning, it makes a big difference whether the principal crop is rice or wheat. With rice (diminishing marginal returns less pronounced), equilibrium population density is greater, output per capita is less, and more of the labor force is in agriculture.

So an economic model incorporating information about labor productivity of rice and wheat seems to account for some basic differences between China and the West. But rice cultivation may have more subtle implications.

Rice psychology. An older generation of humanist scholars was willing to generalize about Chinese thinking.

It is quite clear to all those who have been in contact with this world that it is quite different from the one in which we ourselves have been moulded. … China does not know the transcendent truths, the idea of good in itself, the notion of property in the strict sense of the term. She does not like the exclusion of opposition, the idea of the absolute, the positive distinction of mind and matter; she prefers the notions of complementarity, or circulation, influx, action at a distance, of a model, and the idea of order as an organic totality. … Chinese thought does not proceed from an analysis of language. It is based on the handling of signs with opposing and complementary values.

Gernet p. 29

Within the social sciences, sweeping pronouncements like this are suspect. To hard-headed materialists and quants they look hopelessly fuzzy and unscientific. To post-colonialist critical theorists, they reek of old-fashioned, condescending Orientalism. But there is now a substantial body of research demonstrating real differences in cognitive style across cultures, and between the West and China (and other East Asian societies), in line with the quotation above.

Of note here: there is also regional variation within China. Rice paddy farming requires high levels of cooperation, including joint work keeping up irrigation systems, and reciprocal labor exchanges. And research shows that there are differences in psychology as well between wheat and rice growing regions in China. Chinese from rice growing regions are more inclined to holistic, context dependent thinking. Chinese from wheat growing regions have a more independent, individualizing cognitive style. In other words, the expansion of rice cultivation in China may have reinforced some of its characteristic cognitive inclinations.

In conclusion: the history of the Song period poses in particularly clear form the “Needham puzzle” of why the Industrial Revolution did not originate in China. The answer, it seems, is complicated, combining (at least) political and social responses to external threat, the nature of agricultural economies, and more intangible (but still measurable) differences in cognitive style.



Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I mess up genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.

Empires and barbarians

The fall of Rome involved the disintegration of the Roman state; the collapse of long-distance trade; the disappearance of mass-produced pottery, coinage, and monumental architecture over large areas; declining literacy among commoners and elites; great insecurity of life and property, and demographic collapse. The process was drawn out and played out differently in different regions. In the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, central government supported by taxation continued; in the West it largely disappeared. The nadir in the West was perhaps the tenth century. We might set the turning point at the battle of Lechfeld (955): a last set of invaders off the steppes, the Magyars, was defeated by the Emperor Otto, and then adopted Christianity, gave up nomadic marauding, and settled down as feudal lords in Hungary.

The fall of Rome illustrates a general lesson. The overall trend of history is for more complex societies to replace less complex. (Important note: “more complex” is not the same as “nicer.”) But the process is an uneven one, in part because military effectiveness is only loosely coupled with social complexity. Tribal peoples with states next door often react by developing states of their own, partly to defend against their civilized neighbors, partly to prey on them. The resulting societies – no longer tribal, not really civilized, but barbarian – have sometimes been more than a match militarily for their more complex neighbors. In Europe, the result over nearly a millennium was a great leveling process. Rome declined under barbarian assault, while state organization, class stratification, and Christianity spread eventually as far as the Slavic East and the Scandinavian North. (See Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians.)

By the end of the first millennium, Western Christendom had some consciousness of itself as distinct from the Islamic world; this would later help motivate the Crusades, but it would never be enough to spur unification. Much later, in the twentieth century, Europe would be divided by a different set of meta-ethnic frontiers, centered on the clash of ideologies, rather than civilization versus barbarism. But that’s a story for later.