Defining the Global Middle Ages

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: History Faculty


The lives of communities, families and individuals today are shaped by pressures which come from outside local and national borders. High-speed communications, rapid movements of capital, complex migration patterns, and business organisations with world-wide reach are central features of modern globalisation. Historians are concerned to find the origins of the human interactions which have created this 'global' world. For the most part, they limit their search to those centuries when western Europeans began to travel, settle and govern outside their own continent. As a result global history is often inseparable from the need to explain the triumph of western Europe. But is this the only way of looking at global history?

Considerable evidence for long-distance contacts between peoples, goods and cultural practices in the centuries before 1600 suggests that there are older and alternative global histories to explore. Several recently-established research projects in the UK and beyond have begun the work of comparing ancient and medieval societies across the globe and identifying the connections between them. But this research into the pre-modern 'global' is at an embryonic stage. Quite what we mean by the pre-modern 'global' is unclear. We cannot be sure that applying Eurocentric and imperial models from the modern experience of the global will actually help us understand the medieval or ancient evidence or draw the most important conclusions from that evidence. As public interest in the history, texts and material remains of ancient and medieval societies from across the globe grows and is encouraged by museum exhibitions and TV documentaries, it is important that we do not interpret the interactions of those societies in anachronistic frameworks. As medieval global history develops as a discipline, it is important that academic historians and school teachers should be able to teach with confidence about unfamiliar cultures without falling back on hackneyed stereotypes about western superiority or eastern exoticism.

This project is designed to make medieval historians, those who study the period 500 to 1600, think about how we should define the global in the Middle Ages. In a series of workshops, historians with different regional specialisms in the history of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe will discuss problems of definition, evidence and approach. Given the urgency of establishing a framework for interpreting the global Middle Ages we will disseminate findings as quickly as possible through accessibly written reports and podcasts on a project website, where bibliographies and teaching materials will also be posted. The website, an edited book and a co-written article will provide key reference tools for the emerging field of global medieval history. But providing a framework for the development of a new area of study is not the only purpose of this project. Instead, by interpreting the evidence for connections and comparisons across the globe in the period 500-1600 we will also be able to enrich the study of medieval history itself, a subject that is often confined to western Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. By identifying the scope, nature and also the limits of the global in the medieval period we can also provide new questions for modern global historians. But above all, we anticipate that our investigations will reveal that global movements of peoples, goods, and cultural practices were often experienced in highly localised ways. Translation and assimilation of the global to local contexts were medieval constants as was the shaping of the global by the local. These processes could involve conflict but just as often peaceful communication. These insights are not merely relevant to the medieval period; they will help to illuminate present-day contexts, where multi-stranded interactions between the global and the local are the shapers of everyday experience.

Planned Impact

As medievalists we are committed to conveying to the widest possible audience the idea that the Middle Ages have relevance for the present day, and our network's global approach offers potentially powerful routes for engaging non-academic audiences. Highlighting what was global about the Middle Ages allows us to suggest that long-distance connections, communications and interactions between peoples are not just a feature of the modern world, but that all these linkages as well as shared experiences which developed without direct contact have been staples of human existence for two thousand years, not just two hundred. Identifying these connections and comparisons will help to break down the commonly articulated but artificial division between 'modern' and 'medieval'.

* Schoolteachers, pupils and undergraduates in the UK and US
Schoolteachers are increasingly seeking to prepare their pupils for a globalised world in which greater understanding of other cultures is ever more advantageous, if not essential. Providing web-based teaching materials on 'global' history topics associated with each of the network meetings will assist teachers who are likely to have little background in either medieval or global history, and accordingly will enrich their pupils' educational experience.
Access to our meeting reports, to be made available rapidly via the web, will also be a resource for extending the range of undergraduates taking History modules on medieval topics (currently usually confined to Europe) as well as in global, world and international history in the modern period. These reports and their associated bibliographies will provide these students' lecturers - most of whom will be expert in one but not all of these fields - with starting places from which to extend their students' investigations.
There is a ready-made audience for all of these resources in the US among high-school students and undergraduates taking mandatory classes in world history. We will offer new and critical analyses on pre-modern developments outside the western world that these audiences are unlikely to find elsewhere.

* Participants in curriculum design for schools and examination boards.
The benefit here is more speculative and long term, but there may be potential for the outcomes of our project and members of our network to provide input to recurrent discussions or consultations between government, exam boards, educators, and the general public about the content and intentions of the schools History curriculum. Our inputs would supply informed advice about two fields or approaches that could easily be overlooked given the distribution of expertise that one might reasonably expect among the pool of likely participants in such exercises.

* Museum goers, local communities and the general public.
There is considerable overlap between these three groups, all of which could benefit from exposure to new and challenging ideas through the network's web presence, the materials posted on the site and the media coverage we hope to elicit. Community groups might benefit from identifying very old or long-term historical phenomena that prompt reflection on their own experiences (such as examples of multiculturalism in Islamic Spain or along the Silk Routes). Museum goers could benefit from the collaborations we aim to foster between network members and colleagues in museums, which may produce educational materials focused on local collections, or even new exhibitions.


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Holmes C (2015) Defining the Global Middle Ages (AHRC Research Network) in Medieval Worlds

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Holmes C (2018) Introduction: Towards a Global Middle Ages in Past & Present

Description The DFMA network was set up to create a UK-based group of historians and archaeologists devoted to investigating global history in the medieval period. Through pooling their expertise from different world regions network members have sought to establish the basic contours for this fledgling field of historical inquiry. Our funding finished at the end of March 2015. By this point we had held four academic workshops at which we had discussed a variety of dimensions of the Global Middle Ages, as well as a fifth impact-outreach event, at which we disseminated our findings to a wider audience of teachers, museum staff and early career researchers.

Our first two workshop meetings laid essential foundations by considering the utility of concepts associated with global history in other periods ('empire'; 'divergence'; 'religion' etc.) as well as the thorny issue of periodization (does one standard periodization work for all regions of the world, or is 'medieval' too Eurocentric to be useful?). Subsequent workshops identified a series of characteristics of global history distinctive to our period (c.300-1600). A sub-group of the network is now preparing book-length study, The World Before Columbus: Towards a Global Middle Ages, in which some of the ideas that the network has discussed will be developed further. Each chapter in that volume will be co-written by experts from different regions of the world, an approach that we believe to be unique in this field. Publication as a Past and Present Supplement is scheduled for 2018. We have also developed a project website where the reports, bibliographies and programmes of all our workshops are alraedy on display. This website includes a section called 'Resources' which contains tools for school and early college audiences. This is a section that we intend to continue to enhance in the aftermath of the funded part of the project.

When we applied for funding we were keen to discover whether the 'Global Middle Ages' as a concept had any power and whether there were ways in which those coming with very different experiences of the medieval world could talk about such a concept. After our workshop meetings, we are confident that the Global Middle Ages is a viable idea and that we have made significant headway in developing the analytical toolbox for talking about it. We have also learned a great deal from each other about parts of the world we knew little about, another objective of our original application.
Exploitation Route We think that our collaborative mode of working, whether in workshop or co-written book modes, will provide templates that other teams of scholars may choose to use. Our bibliographies may provide useful starting points for other projects interested in the same or related sets of questions. We imagine that single scholars will also be able to gain from engaging with our publicly available materials whether they are working on global history in-the-round or on the history of specific regions in global context. Now we have put more of our materials aimed at a non-academic audience on our website, then teachers and students in the 14-18 year-old age group should be able to follow up more fully on our activities. We hope that our advice on accessible reading for students in this age-group will provide useful gateways into the Global Middle Ages specifically and Global History more generally.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Individual network members are already integrating the findings of the group into their own personal research and teaching agendas, exhibitions and publication plans, whether as individuals or as groups. The network has also enabled further research conversations and collaborations to arise among group members, both in the context of the edited book by CH and NS, to which some of the network members are contributing, and in other research contexts too. As I outline elsewhere in this submission, through our website, through engagement with school teachers and as a result of the outreach workshop with which our project concluded, we have already been able to disseminate our findings among wider academic and non-academic audiences. Just as important, we have been able to confirm how ready an appetite there is among school-age students and the museum-going public for more accessible information on the global Middle Ages as a whole and especially on societies in pre-modern regions of the world outside Europe. Two striking examples of how our project has enabled these wider audiences to come into contact with high-level research in areas outside western Europe came during our outreach workshop, when network members, Dr Anne Haour (UEA) and Dr Susan Whitfield (British Library) were able to alert teachers and museum staff to visual and textual evidence that has emerged from the archaeological contexts with which both have been involved. Both were also able to talk about how to translate such findings to non-academic audiences, with AH reflecting on her project in northern Benin, and SW talking about the riches of the Silk Road as exemplified in the International Dunhuang project (co-ordinated at the British Library):
First Year Of Impact 2014
Title Global Middle Ages as approach and method 
Description We have established a presence at the International Medieval Congress, the front-line European annual event for the study of the Middle Ages. Last year we held a very successful round-table discussion event at the congress (2016); this year we are due to hold three panels as part of a strand investigating the potential of thinking globally for historians studying all parts of the world in the period between roughly 500-1500. We have also offered our 'brand name' as support for a new graduate-run seminar series dedicated to global medieval history in the north of England, involving historians at Manchester and Lancaster. In 2017 at the Leeds IMC (see above), we held two panels in the medieval global strand which were well attended and which were dedicated to getting fellows researcher to think about the Global Middle Ages as both a period with characteristics but also as a research method (ie looking at the GMA as heuristic). In these ways we hope that our project with its focus on the Global Middle Ages as both the study of a period and the development of a method for thinking about global history can act as an umbrella for new initiatives in global medieval history, particularly those led by early career scholars. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact See above in description of research method. 
Title Project website which includes bibliographies and workshop reports which we make public for other researchers in this field to use 
Description Project website which includes bibliographies and workshop reports which we make public for other researchers in this field to use 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Correspondence with fellow academics from outside the network about findings of those within it 
Description Medieval history on-line 
Organisation Bloomsbury Publishing
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We are in preliminary discussions with a commissioning editor at Bloomsbury who is interested in involving members of the network in the editorial board of a new on-line resource for medieval history, particularly that with a global compass. The discussions are at a preliminary level but have been shaped in part by the findings of our final project workshop which was dedicated to outreach issues, including the extension of the global Middle Ages into schools and undergraduate teaching.
Collaborator Contribution As yet discussions are at a very preliminary stage.
Impact No outputs as yet.
Start Year 2017
Description One-off education partnership by one network member, Dr John Watts (Oxford) with a local secondary school 
Organisation Cheney School
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Professor Watts co-taught two classes to 14-year olds with a teacher, David Gimson, at Cheney School in Oxford using insights from his participation in the 'Defining the Global Middle Ages' network. He subsequently co-wrote a publication for 'Teaching History' with that teacher. This publication reflected on how high-level academic research can interact with the secondary school learning environment, on the vocabulary and conceptual building blocks which the study of history requires at different stages of education, and on the means and value of disseminating research to non-university communities. See We will displaying this link on the project website
Collaborator Contribution David Gimson, the teacher at Cheney School, co-taught the class with JW and co-wrote the article
Start Year 2014
Description Outreach workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The final workshop of our project was about communicating our project to a broad audience of school teachers, museum staff and early career historians (graduates and post-doctoral researchers) from across the UK. The workshop enabled a group of the DFMA network to present ideas that our network had generated about studying and researching the Global Middle Ages. Members of the network also talked about their own individual experiences in conveying the GMA to wider academic and non-academic audiences in classroom and museum-space contexts, with Dr Anne Haour, for instance, reflecting on her experience of curating an exhibition on medieval Africa at the UEA Sainsbury Centre, and Dr Susan Whitfield speaking about the International Dunhuang Project. Audience members with similar experiences were able to reflect on their own activities during the discussion periods. Mr David Gimson, who had worked in school with network member, Professor Watts, was able to talk in person about a practical example of translating the GMA to school-age students. Our principal concern across the workshop was to gauge audience response to our project thus far and to discover practical ways in which we could help promote the GMA among wider audiences. The round-table discussions enabled us to think about how we could amplify the 'Resources' section on our webpage, which is designed for school and early college-age students, particularly the 'good global read' section. We took on board a clear message that objects, maps and everyday scenarios from earlier periods are useful 'hooks' on which to hang the broader ideas behind the GMA. Discussion also provided us with a list of activities we could undertake in the future, especially if we applied for further funding, including running workshops for schools or organising teams of graduate and post-doctoral researchers to engage in school-based activities. Strikingly all teachers spoke about the need for academics to write accessible studies of world regions in the pre-1500 period, a pressing need given the current paucity of such books for pre-undergraduate audiences.

March 2017 - the report from this workshop helped in the development of a conversation with Bloomsbury about a potential digital teaching tool for the study of the Middle Ages which would have a potential international/global reach. See report in 'partnerships'

We received a big email post-bag after this event from members of the audience offering to help us in any future plans for wider dissemination of the GMA initiative and commending us on what we had achieved thus far. The website is clearly a very useful resource as it stands for more senior academics and those in these wider audiences in schools and museums.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2017