I’m in Oxford for a workshop themed ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’, sort of following on from my visit here just over a year ago, but this time to a larger group of medievalists from around the UK.
The aim of the workshop, which is convened by colleagues from Birmingham, Newcastle, and Oxford, is to debate what it is that global history can gain by including the Middle Ages. Comparative work is obviously large part of this, but it is also about connections – a topic I suspect will be returned to later this month in Cambridge with a completely different group of people.
Anyway, yesterday afternoon we talked about empires. I presented an overview of Crossroads‘ ongoing work in Bénin and linked it more widely to a brief outline of the historiography of empires in West Africa, using Kumbi Saleh as an example. The notion of empire structures much of the popular and scholarly narrative of the West African past yet, as authors such as Pekka Masonen have shown, a serious critique of what empires mean in West Africa remains to be done. I guess for me the most interesting thing about ’empires’ (note the cowardly quotation marks… or states or kingdoms or whatever we want to call them) is that they were one of the ways in which contacts between people happened (I have a chapter about this in my liminality book) – basically how did it change things for people on the ground?
I am in a room in Balliol and look out onto the lovely lawn at Trinity college and it is (almost exactly to the day) twenty years since I came to Hertford around the corner as an undergraduate and ten years since I took up a three-year British Academy postdoctoral fellowship there. Round numbers are pretty interesting like that.