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Organizing World History


Motion as an Organizing Principle in World History

Jonathan T. Reynolds


     In this brief essay, I'm going to make an argument for using motion as a key theme and guiding principle for organizing world history.  I think motion is a useful way to complicate how we organize and present history.  This is largely because I believe that motion helps to blur the boundaries that historians are forced to create in order to break world history up into the sort of manageable sized pieces that we (and our students) are able to wrap our minds around.  To this end, in this essay I'm going to argue that by focusing on a carefully selected set of objects and concepts in motion, we can approach world history not as not a bunch of different things happening to different people at different times in different places but rather as a never-ending process by which people, stuff, ideas, the environment, and our understanding of ourselves and history are themselves ever moving, interacting and changing.


     All historians face a common problem.  All history, even local history, is for all practical purposes infinite.  If presented in their totality, pretty much every event, topic, or issue is overwhelming.  Even a day in our own lives is effectively infinite in its complexity.  We interact not only with family and friends who are near, but with people physically or temporally distant – whether via electronic means, writing, reading, or memory.   When we eat, we are not just consuming food, but taking part in a system of exchange that connects us not only to farmers far away, but also to a chain of transport, wholesale, retail and regulatory workers in between.   By eating we are also connecting to our global environment, the Columbian Exchange, and to the work of ancient foragers who helped create the domesticated animals and plants that we routinely consume today.  For the thoughtful student of history, every single act in our daily lives is a potential connection to a complex and deep set of interactions and processes, present and past, which have made that act possible.

     To be so aware of the complexity of history is an important awakening, but it is also tends to be a bit overwhelming.  If we look at every single historical influence relating to a topic– every political, economic, cultural, and environmental factor, to say nothing of the influences from the capricious nature of human free will and motivation on both the individual and collective levels – then that topic, because of its infinite nature, becomes impossible to really understand.  This is especially challenging for world historians, because, with apologies to our colleagues in mathematics, while all fields of history are infinite, some fields are more infinite than others.  And, you guessed it, world history is as infinite as they come.  Creating a coherent narrative of world history is thus perhaps the most challenging task in the discipline.  And, it says much that is interesting about world history that the most fundamental tool of world history instruction, the core textbook, is also the most fundamental expression of the state of our field's methodology.

     Historians have developed a shared set of tools with which to pare down, organize, and give meaning to the infinite quantity of events that we call history.  Key to this toolbox are filters which we apply so as to define and highlight that which we identify as significant, and hence worthy of our attention.  By necessity, these filters exclude the vast majority of events, themes, and stories, in history, yet they still leave us with something only slightly more manageable.  Thus, to impose order on this still massive amount of information, we break it up into units of analysis.  Again, historians all apply a set of shared tools break history into manageable pieces.  Thus, our units of analysis are pretty much all the same.  We have continents, regions, states, nations, empires, or even cities as units of geographical analysis.  In terms of time, we break history up into epochs and eras of our own making so as to create systems of periodization to help give meaning to and define the past.  Finally, we divide the world up into themes, sub-themes, and specializations.  Some of us study economics.  Some politics.  Some of us take that nation over there.  Some that continent or ocean.  Others take the people who speak a particular language.  You do it for the 19th Century, I'll handle the Bronze Age.

     By and large, this system of breaking history into manageable bits and pieces was a success.  It allowed historians to focus their efforts and improve our knowledge of certain times and places.  It also produced a lot of scholarship that people could easily identify with. If you wanted to read about the history of white people, you read Western Civilization.  If you wanted to focus on white people in Europe, you could read European history.  If you wanted white European people who spoke German, you could study Germany history. The down, side, however, was that creating these areas of specialization also created boundaries between these various fields of historical scholarship.  Africanists were trained to do research and create scholarship about what happened inside the shape we call Africa.  Southeast Asianists did the same thing for their field.  Systems of study and funding were built around, and served to reinforce, these units of analysis.  Neither field encouraged their students to read work by scholars in the other – why waste your time outside your field when your field was, of course, effectively infinite?  Academics went to conferences focusing on and read articles published in journals specific to their field, sub-field, or even country or city of study.   Mind you, for much of the 20th century, people thought this was fine.  And during much of the latter 20th Century, World History textbooks followed an "Area Studies" framework of organization and presented the history of the world as a series of distantly related case studies.  Often, the emphasis of such histories was on what made each region of the world different and unique, be it geography, climate, or culture.

     However, with the rise of the "New World History" scholars began to look for and stress not what was different about the various populations who lived in the various (different) parts of the world, but rather what it was that these far-flung human populations shared and had in common.  That meant looking at people in different places in comparative context – looking at them at roughly the same time and asking similar questions about them, rather than asking questions that were "specific" to their ostensibly unique histories.  Doing so required that world historians cross all those intellectual, academic, and institutional borders that our necessary units of analysis had created.  Doing so wasn't impossible, of course, but it was hard.  Breaking ranks with one's fellow specialists and focusing on what your previous field of study shared with others, rather than what made it special (or even better), was often viewed as a form of academic sedition.

Motion and Borders – a historical rumination

     One of the interesting things about using the theme of motion to complicate our understanding of world history and blur our constructed historical borders is that it was once used to do exactly the opposite.  For much of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, historians argued that most of the world's inhabitants were outside of history because they had not shown enough "motion" – defined both in terms of change over time as well as actual physical motion as evidenced by migration, exploration, or conquest.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in his early 19th Century Lectures on the Philosophy of History stated Africa " no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit."  Over 100 years later, Hugh Trevor-Roper would express a similar perspective, writing that

     "I do not deny that men existed even in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists; but history, I believe, is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too (emphasis added). It is not a mere phantasmagoria of changing shapes and costumes, of battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations, social forms and social disintegration. If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped…"1

     Thus, for Hegel and Trevor Roper and, dare I say it, for the vast majority of historians during their times, the alleged absence of motion was a tool to filter out the vast majority of events in world history so the really important stuff, in this case roughly what we came to call "Western Civilization" could also be defined as world history.

     In recent decades, however, world history has become much more ambitious.  In defiance of Trevor-Roper's admonition that we 'cannot study it all,' that is precisely what we aspire to do.  Perhaps it is also because I'm an Africanist as well as a world historian that I so relish using motion to expand, rather than restrict, our notion of what is real world history.  This is because the New World History is all about challenging the silences and complicating the borders that our field once created. 

     So how, exactly, does embracing motion as a key organizing principle help us to challenge these silences and complicate these borders?  It does so in two ways.  First, from the macro perspective of world history, things are always moving.  If we look at a place close up during a short period of time, it may not seem like a lot is going on.  But zoom out to the macro big data perspective of world history in terms of both space and time, and all of a sudden there is a degree of motion apparent that could not be seen close up.  Where once there seemed to be nothing more interesting than a bunch of people growing crops, now we can observe the introduction of new crops and perhaps political change wrought by the slow but significant introduction of new religious ideas by merchants traversing the region in the course of long-distance trade.  And when you pay attention, then you realize just how much motion there is.   People move, goods move, ideas move, and even the environment upon which humans build so much of our endeavors is constantly moving under our feet.  More so, how people think of themselves, that is the identities they create, are also constantly changing.  And, finally, how we understand the past, our very notion of history, is also constantly in motion.  All of these things in motion will be examined in more detail shortly.

     The theme of motion is important in a second way in that when these people and things move, they cross those very borders that historians have created to define their units of analysis.  Take for example one of the most cherished borders of Western Civilizaton, the Bosporus.  This narrow bit of saltwater between the Black and Mediterranean seas has served as the border between Europe and Asia, between East and West, between progressive rational civilization and primitive oriental despotism, between Christianity and Islam, and between us and them.  Yet, like all borders, it appears to have been built as much to connect as divide.   People have never stopped crossing it. One side might be predominantly Christian and the other Muslim, but they are both offshoots of a brand of monotheism that started somewhere else.  Both sides love to invade the other side.  The Greeks on the west side might drink Greek Coffee and the Turks on the east side might drink Turkish coffee, but people who have had both know they are the same dang thing – and they go great with baklava. 

     The point here isn't that historians shouldn't create borders.  It is inevitable that we do so.  But, we also need to recognize that these borders are more than a little permeable to history and as a result, are more than a little blurry.  They are not lines as much as regions where multiple forms of transition are taking place.  One of the most pernicious legacies of the 19th and 20th Centuries is that we became obsessed with clear, clean, historical borders just as we did with national borders.  How many maps have you looked at of ancient China that show a clear border identifying what is China and what is not?  Such maps, like so much of history, are only convenient fictions.   When we focus on just how much was moving across these borders, we come to realize just how blurry they were.  There was no single spot where China stopped and Tibet began.  There were places where Chinese power or Tibetan power was greater or lesser and where there were more or fewer Chinese or Tibetans.  Even things like walls create borders that are as much symbolic as reality.  Chinese power often extended beyond, or failed to reach, the Great Wall.  The Berlin Wall, while pretty good at slowing down the movement of people, was permeable to things like ideas, Rock-n-Roll, and blue jeans.

Stuff that Moves: A slightly closer look.

     The whole idea that from the macro perspective of world history things have always being in motion bears a bit more examination.  What follows here is a list of just a few of the categories of things that are always moving, with examples of how such forms of motion are relevant to our analysis, construction, and understanding of world history.

People in Motion 

     Oh my, don't we get around.  One of the most dramatic examples of motion ever is how an African tropical biped came to inhabit an entire planet.  The story of how humans created culture and used it to adapt to a seemingly endless variety of climates and even adapt those environments to themselves is, in a way, the very story of world history.  And we did it using what we now consider primitive tools and in only a few tens of thousands of years.  To do so we crossed not only a host of environmental borders in the form of deserts, mountains, and icy tundra, but we also crossed seas as we spread across Austronesia and the Pacific.  You go, people! 

     And people didn't just stop when we had populated darn near the whole world, we kept tromping back and forth across each other.  Sometimes the pace of this movement was so slow as to be almost imperceptible to the historical tools we had available.  For example, we once thought the Bantu Migration to have been a rapid conquest spurred by iron technology.  Instead, linguistic, genetic, and archaeological evidence now points to a gradual expansion of a broad linguistic group over thousands of years, driven largely by the cultivation of a new set of crops (yams and oil palm) and facilitated by the spread of malaria rather than the use new weaponry.   Conquests can often set off rapid population movements, sometimes creating a chain-reaction of human migration, as in the case of Mongol conquests pushing Turkic populations ahead of them across Eurasia.  Following Columbian contact, Europeans began a massive sea-borne migration, spreading themselves to the far corners of the world, often at the expense of pre-existing populations.  Other populations, such as Africans during the Atlantic Slave Trade, were moved unwillingly in massive forced migrations.  Today, political unrest in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere is sparking one of the great population movements in recent human history.

Goods in Motion

     People don't only move as large groups.  One of the most important, though often smallish groups in world history have been merchants, who Curtain dubbed "professional boundary crossers" and "cross-cultural brokers."   Because travel in the ancient world was often so slow, merchants often had homes and families in multiple locations. When they gathered together in merchant's quarters, ports or, trade cities, merchants were also creating some of the first cosmopolitan multi-ethnic centers in human history.   In so doing, they were blurring the lines of ethnicity, language, and culture.

     Merchants are important not only because they move as small groups or as individuals, but because of what they take with them.  Scarce and valuable goods have been part of human exchange for thousands of years.  The movement of these goods shows how even people who have never met one another face to face can be connected by trade.   Someone on the Island of Crete in 6000 BCE might make a trade for a piece of obsidian that had traded hands multiple times since being found or mined on the Island of Melos.  Even longer-distance trade networks were established to facilitate the trade in obsidian in the Middle East and in Andean, Meso, and North America.   In many parts of Afroeurasia, long distance trade in tin wrought significant social changes because tin was not only rare, but crucial to the manufacture of bronze. Bronze in turn enabled the development of centralized states built around military elites, since control over the manufacture of bronze translated to a control over the military advantage brought by bronze weapons and chariots.

     Time and space do not allow me to identify the great variety of things that humans have found valuable enough to move around.  Trade goes far beyond practical items like tools and weapons. The trade in high-status items, such as gems, gold, silk and spice is also crucial to human economic, political, and cultural history.  There is a reason    Crucial also to the history of trade is the human conquest of distance, wherein new technologies, such as ships capable of navigating oceans and trains capable of crossing continents have allowed the movement of less valuable things every greater distances.  The ever-accelerating motion of raw materials, finished goods, and foodstuffs around the world is one of the most important themes in human history.   It is the reason why those of you reading this essay wear clothes made in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and are reading it on computers made of components produced across Asia.

Ideas in Motion

     Ideas are, in many ways, the ultimate trade good.  They are weightless and cost nothing, or at least add no additional cost, to be move from one place to another.  Merchants, of course, are famous for carrying ideas around with them, but they do not have a monopoly on this particular action.  Any human who moves carries ideas with them.  Whether one be a merchant, a pastoralist, a soldier, an enslaved concubine, or one of any number of other varieties of mobile person, he or she is a possible vector for the spread of ideas.  Indeed, ideas often spread not unlike diseases – through interpersonal contact.  Sometimes the transmitted ideas are practical, such as in the case of the process for smelting iron, an idea that spread around much of the world after perhaps only one or two independent innovations of the process.  Other ideas can be far more esoteric, such as the idea of salvation, which helped launch a religious transformation that over only a couple of thousand years has managed to influence almost every human community on the planet. 

     Crucial to the spread of ideas was the development of writing.  While ideas once needed to be carried from one place to another or transmitted from one time to another by people talking to people, now it was possible for the ideas to travel independent of a person who knew or understood them.   Writing became a vehicle for the transmission of a host of ideas, not the least of which were the ideas behind the spread of religions, philosophies, and ideologies.

     In more recent years, musical, artistic, and recreational ideas have taken on a global component, driven in part by new ways of transmitting information.  In 1933, the recording of a Cuban Rumba band performing a song called the "Peanut Vender" became perhaps the first world-wide hit single.  Transported around the world on platters of vinyl encoded with tiny bumps, also known as 78 RPM Records, this song launched a global Rumba craze that transformed, and continues to influence, musical traditions in almost every corner of the world.  As I write this essay, this year's summer blockbuster film is Wonder Woman.  As populations around the world watch this movie, whether in theaters, on line, or via bootlegged torrents and DVDs, they will be introduced to a number of ideas, including the radical notion of female superheros defeating evil men.  And try as hard as some communities or governments do to create borders impermeable to ideas, they almost always fail.

The Environment in Motion

     But it's not just people and their things that move around in world history.  The very environment upon which we human beings have played out our short existence on this planet has also changed dramatically in a host of ways over the few hundred thousand years since the appearance of modern humans.  Part of this change has, of course, been human-driven, and thus an examination of how human communities have transformed their environment through both intentional and unintentional action is a crucial theme to be examined in world history.  But the global environment is not simply something which humans meddle with.  The earth often has its own cycles, though we are only beginning to understand the mechanisms behind them.  How these environmental shifts influenced historical human communities is also an important form of motion to keep in mind.

     In recent years, the idea of the Anthropocene, the "human era" has become popular in academic circles. Many place this era in recent history, such since the advent of global warming or the use of plastics and atomic power.  But, from a deep history perspective, the human story is in part the story of our transformation of the earth to suit what we think are our own needs.  This is because, as already mentioned, humans are unique in that we use culture to not only adapt to different environments, but to adapt those environments to ourselves.   New research has improved our understanding of just how radically early humans transformed the environments in which they lived.  Early hunters in many parts of the world may well have driven numerous species to extinction well over 10,000 years ago.   New research has revealed that the creation of cultivars and sedentary agriculture was a gradual process taking thousands of years, but which nonetheless set in motion the tranformatation of our planet's biogeography as cultivars and domesticated animals spread across the world.

     Indeed, if we are to take the human-induced motion of the global environment seriously, it means that we should dedicate considerably more time in our teaching and study of world history to the study of environmental change.  Rather than the Columbian Exchange being taught as a minor or single component in the history of the early modern world, it deserves to be treated as a crucial and ongoing theme in human-induced environmental change.  Similarly, the impact of industrialization, mechanized agriculture, and commercial fishing need to be considered as key components of human history.

     But even as we study the human influence on the world's environment, we also need to keep in mind that the environment has also acted as an independent factor in human history.  Glacial and interglacial phases created the environmental settings during the period when crucial early stages of human evolution and migration took place.  As human beings migrated across the world, they were faced by expanding and shrinking ice sheets across much of the Northern Hemisphere.  Early human migration out of Africa may have been in part driven by the actions of the Saharan pump, as a drying and expanding Sahara pushed out early human populations.  The fact that humans were an unusually adaptive species is thus no doubt one of the reasons we were able to thrive in such periods of climatic instability.  Further, these radical shifts in climate also redrew the very outline of the continents and oceans as global sea levels rose and fell by hundreds of feet. While climatic change has not been quite so dramatic during the past few thousand years, it is nonetheless important that we seek to understand how periods of shift in temperature and rainfall can spark large scale migrations, such as the movement of Germanic and Turkic speaking populations out of the northern regions of Eurasia during the 4th and 5th Centuries CE, and are perhaps also a contributing factor behind migration out of Western Africa and the Middle East today.

     Returning to the subject of borders, our emphasis on the idea of a static or "natural" global climate oversimplified.  Think how radically it might change students' understandings of our world's climate if we were to complicate it with maps that show a green Sahara?  What if they were to come to understand that prior to human habitation, the Nile Valley was densely wooded from the Sudan to the Nile Delta?  How might learning that tomatoes and cattle are both forms of life that have been intensely modified to meet human dietary needs? What if they understood that every forest they walk through in the US, though apparently "wilderness," has been transformed by the introduction of dozens upon dozens of non-native plants and animals, ranging from species of flowers and trees to brown trout, honeybees and earthworms?  Treating the environment as a crucial and ever-changing element of world history that is both influenced by and influences humanity allows historians to expand our relevance out of the social sciences and into a deeper understanding of the natural sciences.

Identity in Motion

     Perhaps one of the greatest sins that the 19th and 20th Century visited upon the field of history was how the field was drafted into the service of certain forms of identity.  In almost every state in the world, history has been taught not as a means of understanding the complexity of our lives and our world, but instead as a tool to create identity.  Mostly this has been in the service of notions of national identity, perhaps because our modern conception of history as a field was born out of much the same era and setting as gave us the nation as the foundation of political and social identity.  Of course, many other forms of identity, including religion and race have also been reinforced through the writing and teaching of particular historical narratives.

     Such an outcome is hardly surprising.  As I tell my students, "the past is always political."  By this I mean that any position one takes regarding past events has contemporary ramifications.  As such, it is all too predictable that those in positions of power would seek to use history to reinforce interpretations of the past and present to serve their own ends, whether benevolent or malevolent.  In these narratives, certain forms of identity were natural and proper, perhaps even inevitable.  More so, in the dominant nationalist model of history, all other identities were to be subjugated to that of the state.  You were welcome to be Christian in early 20th Century France, so long as your Christianity did not conflict with the state's demand that you go to war with and kill Germans who also happened to be Christians.

     But just because it is not surprising that the writing and teaching of history has been subjugated to the reinforcing of identities does not mean this is a good outcome for our field or our students.  Quite to the contrary, treating identity not as something fixed by birth in terms of nation or race, but instead as something which is always changing and multi-faceted, offers a very different insight.  Many of my students are perplexed when I tell them not to use the word "country" or "nation" about societies prior to the 18th Century.  And if I inform them that very few, if any, people living in the Roman Empire thought of themselves as "Romans" the way we now think of being "Americans," they appear downright befuddled. 

     People who want power want you to believe the past is simple.  History needs to show that the past is complicated.  We can do that by highlighting the great complexity of identities that human beings have created over time.  We can show that, for example, it is possible to be Tanzanian, British, Swahili, Muslim, Shia, Socialist, a nurse, a Manchester United fan, and Queer, all at the same time.  Further, it is important to note that one's hierarchy of identities is often situational.  Certain events, situations or factors might bring one aspect of an individual's identity to the forefront.  On another day, a different identity may be dominant.

     By helping students to recognize that some forms of identity, such as nation and race, are recent developments in human history, we can encourage them to think about how their own identity developed and influences their lives in more complex ways.  Similarly, by helping them to understand how various interest groups play upon identity may well help make their own engagement with the wider world somewhat more sophisticated and independent.

History in Motion

     If the powers that be have visited certain forms of violence upon the field of history, it is also important to note that the field has also often been a victim of self-inflicted wounds.  In particular, our reticence to share with our students just how dramatically our understanding and representation of history has changed over the past century or so is a case in point.  As a field, we tend to treat historiography as something of a state secret.  History students don't learn real historiography until they are near the end of their undergraduate or even beginning their graduate degrees.  Courses, including world history, tend to present the most recent state-of-the-field perspective on topics as if they are simple fact.  Early in the course you get a fixed version of our understanding of human evolution.  Towards the end you get a fixed version of the history of the Cold War.  Listen, read, remember, and then feed it back to us on the exam.  Off you go.

     Teaching history this way is a disservice both to our students and our field.  Instead, we need to build the fact that our understanding of history has itself always been in motion into our teaching of world history.   We often justify the absence of historiography from our courses by saying that it makes history too complicated and confusing.  I would argue instead that students are confused that they received one version of history in one class (perhaps in High School) and another in college.  But when they are provided with a sense of how the teaching of world history has changed over time, they may well be able to recognize the different versions of history they have received in different settings.

     Students need to get a sense for why and how the teaching of world history has changed so radically.   From a methodological standpoint, they need to know that over the years historians and our colleagues in other fields have developed ever more sophisticated techniques for bringing the past into focus.  Historians of a century or more ago did not have the tools such as linguistic analysis, oral history, zooarchaeology, paleoethnobotany, carbon dating, and genetics that we can today bring to bear on the past.  As a result, we now know far more about what happened in, say, 1500 CE than did people living in 1600 CE.  The same goes for 2100 BCE and 2200 BCE.  We see the past differently today because it is in many ways closer to us now than it was 100 years ago.  From this perspective, the world historians of 1910 said precious little about ancient Mesoamerican history in part because they lacked to the tools necessary to uncover that history.

     Of course, the question of historiography is more complicated than just the tool set available to historians at a given point in time.  Most historians of 1920s dismissed the history of most of the world (remember our earlier discussion of the filter of motion as tool of exclusion) in part because of their own identities and biases.  In 1925, the vast majority of professional historians were white men of privileged background.  Not surprisingly, they tended to favor a version of world history that celebrated and justified the achievements and actions of people with whom they identified.   As teachers of world history, we thus need to not only teach about the content of world history, but how the content of world history has changed as different populations and generations of world historians have taught the course.   Students should, ideally, exit a world history course with an understanding of the foundations of Western Civilization, Marxist, civilizational, world systems, and area studies models of world history.  A basic grasp of all these perspectives (and perhaps others, too) will help students to understand why we now do world history the way we do, and even realize that the "New World History" inevitably will one day be overtaken by yet another school of world historical thought.

     Also crucial to the recognition of motion in our study and understanding of history is the fact that old schools of history never die, and they're not quite ready to fade away.  As such, while the vast majority of active world historians would now scoff at the race-based exclusionary history of Breasted's story of the "Great White Race," it is nonetheless alive and well in the political philosophy of groups like the alt-right.  Indeed, listen to Richard Spencer talk about history, and his version of history is functionally identical to the high-school world history my parents were taught in Alabama during the 1950s.  All too many high schools and colleges still teach a warmed-over "West and the Rest" version of world history (which often means Western Civilization with China and a few Mayans thrown in).  This is in part because it is the version of history the teachers themselves received some decades ago.  Sometimes it's what is presented in the aging textbooks they hope to wring a few more years out of.  And occasionally it plays to the interests and politics of certain majority constituencies.   My key point here is that by teaching historiography as part of teaching world history, we provide our students with a critical skill in helping them to be able to recognize the intellectual foundations of the various versions of world history they may have or will someday encounter.  Such a skill is probably far more important than being able to list the Chinese dynasties in order.


     So, is motion the perfect concept and principle around which to organize your world history survey?  The answer, of course, is no.  Any book as massive as a world history survey that is built around a guiding concept (be it motion or encounters or connections or voyages or whatnot) is going to highlight certain things and leave out others.  Every world history text is a continuous commission of sins of omission. When Erik Gilbert and I were putting together the first edition of Africa in World History, he dubbed this the "Where are the Bemba?" problem, because the Bemba didn't fit as easily with our theme of Africa's World Historical connections and comparisons as did other populations living closer to the coasts, more directly tied to long-distance trade, or involved in global salvation religions.  If we had tried hard enough, we could have squeezed the Bemba in one way or another, but other groups would have suffered the same fate and we would have had to rename our problem.  We were probably already over our allotted word count for the text, and catching flack from our editor, too.  You are always over your dang word count in world history, even as you leave all that stuff out.  But that's OK.  One of the beautiful things about world history is that given its immensity, there are probably infinite ways to do it well.  And thinking hard enough about how to do it well puts you well on your way to doing just that.


1 This quote from Trevor-Roper was initially made during a public lecture at the University of Sussex in October of 1962.  His presentation was deemed significant enough to merit a live broadcast in Britain.  Trevor-Roper was also proud enough of them that he reproduced them in a chapter for his 1965 work, The Rise of Christian Europe.

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