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Diffusion, Comparisons, and Periodization in the Pre-modern World


Introduction to the Forum: Diffusion, Comparison and Periodization in Premodern World History

Marc Jason Gilbert


     This Forum is a response to some recent challenges facing premodern world history.1 Many societies are now more than ever eager to re-write their ancient, classical, and medieval eras to serve present cultural and political needs. The blowing up of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra in Iraq and the destruction of "priceless ancient manuscripts" in Mosul are part of an increasing campaign against the cultural achievements of the pre-Islamic Middle East, while India is currently witnessing an intensification of a continuing effort to rewrite its medieval Islamic past.2 That some of the inhabitants of these two cradles of civilization are at odds with their premodern histories would seem to encourage its study in countries critical of these developments, such as the United States.3

Premodern History in the United States

     However, over the past five years, many of the established two-semester world history surveys at many American institutions of higher learning have been reduced to a one-term course focused on the modern world, usually 1500 CE to the present. Many General Education Programs and also Departments of History that once required a course in premodern world history, no longer do so.4 Moreover, the treatment of premodern history in the expanding C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards national curricular reform scheme, while not without value, is so fragmentary as to inhibit meaningful discussion of pre-modern historical processes.5 The reduction in undergraduate courses and the current trends in curricular reform may benefit the universally growing sub-fields of early modern world history and also Global History, which focuses on world historical developments after 1500. However, in the United States, a pioneer in the modern revival of world history, it is likely that fewer premodern history courses will lead to fewer graduate students planning a career at the college and university level in premodern world history.6 Accordingly, fewer aspiring school instructors will have access to such courses and perhaps find less expertise and time devoted to premodern history during in-service training.

The Value of Premodern History

     Two recent developments, one tragic, and the other long a subject of discussion in world history classes, demonstrate what premodern world history continues to contribute to our understanding of the human experience. They may also offer encouragement to those interested in research and teaching in that field in the United States and elsewhere.7

     Due to COVID-19, Giovanni Boccaccio's plague account, The Decameron (1352), is enjoying bumper sales.8 However, it has long been a staple of courses that address premodern society. As Professor Martin Eisner of Duke University has observed, though students "think of the 14th century as a time that's punishing people, [we] can use these stories to study the historical past and to learn about Boccaccio's time. We read it to study the emergence of women as storytellers and individual agents, as well as to see the vindication of forgotten classical myths as a past that we should celebrate and not jettison." 9 Editors of major media as well as medical journals note the importance of not only learning about, but also from, past plagues dating from at least the Eastern Roman Empire in the 6th Century CE to the "Black Death" in Boccaccio's day.10 COVID-19 has led The New York Times to devote its usually fashionista-oriented "Style Magazine" of May 17, 2020 to an examination of the Silk Road, "Because while it reminds us of our desire for connectedness, it is also a reminder that although open borders and movement bring wonder and awe to our lives, they can also bring war and disease."11 Yet, our ability to learn from past global epidemics and the patterns of, and response to transmission is literally dependent on discourse among premodern world historians past and present. It is easy to forget that as spectacular an achievement as was William H. McNeill's seminal Plagues and Peoples (1976), it became dated as new data and approaches emerged, justifying a second edition of McNeill's masterwork in 2016.12 For those policy-makers facing global epidemics, one of the most overused adages about history applies with a vengeance regarding the history of the premodern period: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

     Much the same can be said of premodern world historical data for those who track changes in current global economics. World historians such as Andre Gunder Frank (ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, 1998) have long since established that around 1,000 CE China and India accounted for two-thirds of the world's economic activity and that this Asia-centered global economy ultimately shifted to the West due, in part, to the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to such foundational work, the historical record of that shift is now being used to help guide Western investment and production strategists in their effort to adjust to a possible return of Asia to the center of the global economy: much of the world's industry already has.13

The Forum

     The articles in this Forum offer further evidence of the value of discourse about the premodern period in terms of how it can provide insight into world historical processes. They also provide the means to communicate that insight to students. While each of these articles is rich in theoretical analysis, they make either direct reference to, or provide detailed appendices with exemplary active learning activities.

     The first of the Forum articles addresses the diffusion and use of war elephants in southern Asia, North Africa, and western Eurasia between the rise of the Mauryan Empire and the end of the Roman Republic. It is written by Stanley Burstein, arguably the doyen of world historians concerned with the ancient world. He uses his subject, one of the "longest government-sponsored transfers of technology" in premodern history, to demonstrate not how cultural diffusion works, but what conditions render them still-born.

     In the second article, Joseph Snyder addresses the globally relevant dimensions of the "Axial Age" in epic literary production. He acknowledges the risks attendant in comparative approaches to pre-modern world literature but seeks to demonstrate the value of such approaches to student populations in terms of providing them with enhanced skills in ethical and critical thinking.

     The third article, by Paul Philip, offers a brief discussion of the recent controversy over the decision of the Educational Testing Service to supplant the former Advanced Placement course in World History that in some instructors' hands began with the Big Bang, with a new AP course that begins in 1450. He also traces the compromise that led to the new course beginning in 1200. Disengaging himself from the debate, Philip discusses how it served to focus his mind on the place of 1200 as a watershed in world history, evidence for which he finds in the trajectories of the history of most regions of the world. In doing so, Philip convincingly demonstrates that there are advantages to looking more closely at 1200 in terms of periodization in world history.


     Those familiar with William H. McNeill's foundational works in world history, including Plagues and Peoples (1976) mentioned above, will find that his pursuits and values resonate throughout this Forum. Like McNeill, its authors have sought to take a fresh look at diffusion (Burstein), are fearless in engaging in comparative work (Snyder) and generous to a fault in facing academic controversies (Philip).14 They also share McNeill's life-long dedication to engaging students in world historical processes.15 These parallels render the articles in the Forum all the more worthy of our attention.

Marc Jason Gilbert is a past President of the World History Association. He is also Emeritus Professor of History and National Endowment for the Humanities-supported Endowed Chair in World History at Hawai’i Pacific University, having served in those positions from 2006 to 2019. Since 2008, he has been Editor of World History Connected. He has published widely on World and Asian history and is a coauthor of the survey text, World Civilizations: The Global Experience. He continues to teach courses in world history at Hawai’i Pacific University. He can be contacted at


1 For the discussion over periodization in world history among specialists, see Ross E. Dunn, Laura J. Mitchell, Kerry Ward, eds., The New World History: A Field Guide for Teachers and Researchers (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016), 187, 296–302. Teachers may find especially useful the classroom-ready chart (note use of 1453 CE) and discussion provided by Paul Conolly, "Modernity in the Sequence of Historical Eras," at Accessed April 15, 2020. Support of the use of the year 1200 CE as a proximate global date for the transition from the pre-modern to the modern world can be found in Paul Philip's contribution to this Forum. A growing number of scholars would push the date earlier. See Valerie Hansen, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020).

2 "Islamic State photos 'show Palmyra temple destruction," British Broadcasting Corporation, February 25, 2015, at; Muna Fadhil, "Isis destroys thousands of books and manuscripts in Mosul," The Guardian, February 26, 2015, at; and Rupam Jain and Tom Lasseter, "By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India," Reuters Investigates, March 6, 2018, at All accessed May 22, 2020. For the roots of China's continuing efforts in this direction, see Jin Guantao, "Interpreting Chinese History through the Theory of Ultrastable Systems," in Gloria Davies, ed., Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 157–184. For Vietnam's more than 2,000- year effort to re-write the role of women in its history, and Keith W. Taylor's pioneering of its earliest example, see Marc Jason Gilbert, "When Heroism is Not Enough: Three Women Warriors of Vietnam, Their Historians and World History," World History Connected, Vol. 4, no. 3 (2007) at

3 "US Condemns Islamic State Destruction of Syria Temple," Agence France-Presse, September 2, 2015, at Accessed May 25, 2020.

4 The causes of this decline may be attributable to larger issues such as those which have led to a marked reduction in History Majors in general. For that, see Emma Pettit, "Why Are Students Ditching the History Major?," The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2018, at Accessed April 20, 2020. Loss of student interest in history naturally means fewer students, fewer students mean fewer sections and ultimately fewer related undergraduate courses, and the elimination of those courses that are perceived as less popular or simply to save other programs due to the general reduction in the U. S. of college age students. The latter may have been the case at Sacramento State University in California, which repositioned World History from its previous status as a required course in its General Education Program to one among a myriad of courses placed under the rubric of "global studies," though it remains well-represented in the History Department's requirements. Changes in the New York State Regents Examination, which used to require of high school students the passing exams in World and American History in order to graduate, now require students to be examined in only one of those fields. Students overwhelmingly choose the American History exam (a subject last taught in the 11th grade) over World History (a subject taught as early as the 9th grade). Some educators in New York see this effort (to mandate one exam instead of two) as an attempt to achieve a higher rates of success on the exam. The clearest result was the flight of students to the American history exam, attributable by instructors to American history being fresher in their minds and further along in their intellectual development.

5 See the "C3" curriculum at Accessed April 15, 2020.

6 As is suggested by a non-scientific poll of recent graduates and advisors of world history programs in the United States conducted by the author.

7 Notably, scholars of Southeast Asia are actively developing new approaches as well as new technologies to study the premodern history Southeast Asia. See, for example, John N. Miksic, Geok Yian Goh, Ancient Southeast Asia (London, UK: Routledge, 2017) and Goh Geok Yian, ‎John Miksic, ‎Michael Aung-Thwin, Bagan and the World: Early Myanmar and Its Global Connections (Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2018).

8 Norman Vanamee, "Decameron and Chill? Why a 14th-Century Italian Masterpiece Is on Everyone's Coronavirus Reading List (It's trending on Twitter and number one on Amazon's list of Best Sellers in Italian Literature . . .), "Town and Country, March 16, 2020, at and Emily Clark, "Medieval lit on plague sees big sales," Plymouth WickedLocal News (Gannet), April 19, 2020, at Both accessed May 1, 2020.Accessed May 1, 2020.

9 Geoffrey Mock, "You Should be reading 'The Decameron!' It's fun: Why a 14th Century Italian Writer Still Makes for Good Reading," Academics (Duke University newsletter), September 16, 2016, at Accessed May 1, 2020.

10 See, for example, Theunis Bates, "Editor's Letter," The Week (May 1, 2020), 3; Tim Newman, "Comparing COVID-19 with previous Epidemics," Medical News Today, April 19, 2020, at Accessed May 1, 2020.

11 Hanya Yanigahara, "The Way Home," The New York Times Style Magazine, May 17, 2020, 32.

12 See for example, Johannes Sommerfeld, "Plagues and peoples revisited," Science & Society, May 9, 2003, at EMBO Report Accessed May 13, 2020. See also Andrew Noymer, reviewed of J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 13461353: The Complete History, in Population and Development Review, Vol. 33, No. 3 (September 2007), 616–627.

13 Ana Swanson, "The Surprising Way the World is Becoming More Like it was in the year 1000 CE," Washington Post, June 3, 2015, at Accessed May 1, 2020.

14 McNeill, in the Rise of the West (1963), "does not address the issue of periodization directly but nonetheless contributes to its understanding by offering an integrated history of the world from a global point of view." See Dunn et al, World History, 301–302, fn 3.

15 Dunn et al, The New World History, 71.

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