I’m in Newcastle at my second meeting of the Defining the Global Middle Ages network (see here for the one I attended last year in Oxford). The theme this time was ‘networks’ , resonating well with my current preoccupations, which revolve around connections and what people knew about the wider world about them – the world of experience in a deep-time perspective, if you like.
So, my paper at the workshop ranged gaily from Viking Age Europe to contemporary potters in Niger, drawing from a series of papers I have been reading lately and hope to apply in Crossroads. All are underlain by a common concern with networks and their actors: more precisely, with viewing networks from their actors upwards. From then, the question is how archaeology can hope to track connections in the past and, in particular, the movement of people and objects through trading activities and the diffusion of technical processes. I am compelled by the thought that in medieval times travel may have been commonplace amongst a small, specialised subset of the population (an example here) – their minds’-eye ranged widely over long distances, but their mental map was like that of a constellation or a Tube map: disconnected from its background, including political entities which have traditionally structured our narratives.
However Crossroads may develop these ideas, being at the Newcastle workshop has been a stimulating opportunity to learn more about China and India, among others. In each case, historians have precise ideas about what periods constituted the ‘heyday’ of civilisation. Needless to say, these ideas are prone to frequent rewritings and increasing debate. Given China’s current economic strength I was curious to hear that the medieval Song Dynasty was a time of huge economic development.