The World System in the Thirteenth Century: Dead-End of Precursor?

Janet Abu-Lughod

The complete version of this essay will soon be available on E-Reserve. The following is a synopsis of the article that synthesizes quotations from the essay with a few additional words of explanation.


Most Western historians writing about the rise of the West have treated that development as if it were independent of the West’s relations to other high cultures. Western scholars tend to begin their histories around 1400—just when both East and West were at their lowest points and when the organizational system that had existed prior to this time had broken down. Selecting this point to start their narratives, the West ‘rose’ apparently out of nowhere.

What would happen to the assumption that the peculiar form of Western capitalism that developed in 16th century Europe was a necessary cause of Western hegemony* if one found wide variation among earlier economic organizations? Then it might not be correct to attribute Europe’s newly gained hegemony to ‘capitalism’ in the unique form it took in Europe. It might be necessary instead to test a new hypothesis: that Europe’s rise was substantially assisted by what it learned from other, more advanced cultures—at least until Europe overtook and subdued them.

Janet Abu-Lughod’s book Before European Hegemony (on which the essay "The World System" is based) provides an overview of the economic organization of the world in the 13th century. Before this publication, no single book provided a ‘global’ picture of how international trade was organized at that time. Her research shows that prior to the West’s rise to preeminence in the 16th century, a complex and prosperous predecessor existed. At its peak toward the end of the 13th century, a preceding system of world trade and cultural exchange integrated a large number of advanced societies stretching between northwestern Europe and China.

The century between 1250 and 1350 seemed to constitute a turning point in world history, a moment when the balance of the East and West could have tipped in either direction. In terms of space, the Middle East linked the eastern Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean; the Middle East was a geographic fulcrum on which the East and West were roughly balanced.

The 13th century international trade system involved merchants and producers in local and yet worldwide exchange. As measured by time, the distances involved in these trade routes (overland caravans, rivers, and sea lanes) were calculated in weeks and months, and it took years to traverse the entire circuit. Agricultural items like spices could travel long distances while manufactured goods like textiles and weapons were traded over shorter distances.

Abu-Lughod describes these complex trading networks (she identifies a European, a Middle Eastern, and an Asian sub-circuit). After which she asks

1) Why didn’t the 13th century world trade system persist?
2) Why did the West ‘rise’ when it did?

During the 15th century almost all parts of the then-known world experienced a deep economic recession. Why? The spread of the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague probably broke out first in the 1320s in a Mongol-patrolled area near the Himalayas and infectious fleas were probably carried in the saddlebags of Mongol horsemen into China. From China, fleas were diffused to the steppes of central Asia, whey they attached themselves to rats. The spread of the disease was propelled along the trade routes (see map).

The plague stirred the pot of social change but not in the same way everywhere. In Europe the labor shortage ended serfdom. In contrast similar die-offs in Egypt had no such effect—the new Mamluk rulers never reduced their pressure on the peasants. In China, the political effects had far-reaching consequences.

The 1368 Ming rebellion in China that deposed the Mongol Yuan dynasty, may have been inspired by the plague’s weakening of the Mongol troops. The successful rebellion restored Chinese home rule and autonomy—but it also split China off once again from central Asia. It was only during Mongol rule in China in the 13th and first half of the 14th centuries that the settled populations of China and the tribal groups of central Asia were unified politically. When this connection was broken, so was a crucial link in the world trade system.

The Ming dynasty ultimately allowed for the collapse of the Chinese navy in order to focus exclusively on internal issues. In the early 1400s Chinese ‘treasure ships’ made numerous long distance voyages around the Indian Ocean and to Africa (and some say to the Americas as well, before Columbus). These voyages where halted in the 1430s and no one really understands why.

Abu-Lughod emphasizes that the significance of the Chinese withdrawal from the sea cannot be overestimated. The disappearance from the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea of the only large and armed Asian navy left that vast expanse defenseless. When Portuguese ships arrived after Vasco de Gama paved the way (rounding southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1498) there was no one to stop them.

The rest, as they say, is history. Abu-Lughod adds to our understanding of this history with the argument that the ‘fall of the East’ preceded the ‘rise of the West’ and opened up a window of opportunity that would not have existed had matters gone differently.

Many historical narratives that track the upward trajectory of the West only look at Western capitalism and technology and treat the rest of the world as background or as passive raw material to be shaped according to western will. However, we should keep in mind that before the West’s dominance there were earlier eastern civilizations whose achievements had far surpassed those of 15th and 16th century Europe.


*hegemony means domination—authority or influence over others