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


What's in a Date: Starting a World History Course at 1200 CE

Paul Philp


     If historiographers were to ask colleagues and educators to define periodization it is likely the most common answer would be "a period of historical time defined by shared characteristics." And if the same researcher followed up with an additional question about what the common periods in world history were, historians educated in the western historical canon would likely identify a Paleolithic and Neolithic Prehistory, an Ancient period of early civilizations beginning with writing and ending with the smelting of iron, a Classical age of empires, the beginning of extended trans-regional contacts with the spread of universalizing traditions, a Post-Classical Age beginning with the collapse of classical civilizations and spread of civilization across Afro-Eurasia, an Early Modern Period beginning around 1450 when the Europeans break out onto the world stage, a Modern period of political and industrial revolutions and a second age of global imperialism starting around 1750 leading up to Iranian, Turkish, Mexican and Chinese revolutions and First World and a Contemporary age of two World Wars, the Great Depression, Cold Wars, decolonization, globalization and environmental concerns.

     However, the birth of the world history movement led historians such as William McNeill, L. S. Stavrianos, Jeremy Bentley, Marshall G. S. Hodgson, and Andre Gunder Frank began to question the Euro-centric nature of historical discussion in the West and to challenge the accepted periodization and characterizations (see The New World History, A Field Guide for Teachers and Researchers, edited by Ross E. Dunn, Laura J. Mitchell, and Kerry Ward, University of California Press for a detailed discussion). Historians of Middle East and Asia would certainly concur. But despite the modern constancy of change in daily life and thought, many historians and educators seem reluctant to reexamine their tenets of periodization.

     This resistance is most recently highlighted by a spirited discussion and disagreement initiated by College Board's 2018 decision to split the Advanced Placement World History course into two classes. The new course, through which potentially could earn a high school student college credit, was titled A. P. Placement World History – Modern beginning at 1450 CE. A common concern was that professors and teachers wanted a survey course with more historical diversity – the feeling was that 1450 CE excluded too much of the Muslim world, China, the Americas, the Mongols, India and Africa in eras where these civilizations and peoples had great accomplishments which truly interest students. Gone were the Greeks, Romans, Achaemenid Persians, Umayyad and Abbasid Muslims, Zhou, Han and Tang China, Mauryan India, Olmecs and Ghana to name but a few civilizations. Instead three events characterize the start of the new course – the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, the development of the movable type printing press in Europe and the Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic and Africa. Moreover, the Europeans were not the predominant actors on the world stage until around 1750 CE. Still, the debate over the propriety of the 1450 CE debate did open a discussion on chronology and organization of world history into periods. Ultimately, the College Board's Test Development Committee was not willing to leave the old course in place, but it did listen to suggestions to move the start date back to 1200 CE. This led to more recriminations. and the debate continues.

     At the center of this dispute is periodization. The original start date of the course, 1450 CE begins the era of European ascendency onto the world stage as first Portugal and later other European nations explored and conquered lands on four continents. As we have seen, the new date removed three periods of the old course, especially the beloved Classical and Post-Classical Periods and focused on events driven by events of greatest significance in Europe and the Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic and Africa.

     One truism in any discussion about of periodization, whichever formulation historians choose to use, is that it is often predicated on culturally specific if not arbitrary beginning and ending dates. Jews order time since God created the world. Christians date their calendars from the birth of Christ. Muslims date their calendar based on Muhammad's flight—hegira—from Mecca to Medina. The Japanese organize calendars by the reign names of their emperors—the new emperor of Japan, Naruhito's reign began May 1, 2019 or 1 Reiwa. And while the Aztecs believed the world is in the Fifth Sun, Romans dated their calendars from the founding of Rome and divided its history into periods based on the kingdom, the republic and the Principate or empire. Within each period, each civilization organized smaller units of time often by dynasties—Egypt had arguably thirty-one or thirty-three in three kingdoms divided by intermediary times of illnesses when catastrophes befell the Egyptians. China uses both dynasties and the Dynastic Cycle to organize chronology while Americans often delineate time by presidencies or shared characteristics of an age. And there has been recent debate to reorganize time around the detonation of the atomic bombs in 1945 with the new date becoming Year 1 of the Atomic Era (AE). Predictably this has drawn more recriminations from the major faiths with their chronologies organized by religious events.

Enter 1200 CE

     During the argument over starting a world history course at 1450, many history teachers and not a few prominent historians raised the alternative of beginning the course at 1200 as a means of questioning the wisdom and validity using 1450. On the surface such a critique seems to have merit—after all, what happened in 1200 that constitutes a period break or beginning? History professors and teachers have been using the term Post-Classical beginning circa 500 CE and ending 1450 CE, so the date 1200 CE traditionally falls within the Post-Classical period. But any historian knows there are sub-periods within larger blocks of time. The Contemporary period begins in 1900 but the early Twentieth Century ends in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers and the advent of the atomic age while a new sub-period begins in 1945 with the Cold War, decolonization, the retreat of the West and globalization.

     Nevertheless 1200 CE does represent an end of one period and the beginning of another period. Two books demonstrate this assertion. Jerry Bentley's groundbreaking work Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in the Pre-Modern Times included discussions on the Silk Roads, missionaries and pilgrims spreading world religions as well as the nomadic empires, all of which saw important happenings around and after 1200 CE. Significant to this discussion is Janet Abu-Lughod's book Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 12501350. Although she begins with the vibrancy of the High Middle Ages economic system in Western Europe including the Flemish and the Italian trading cities, Abu-Lughod labels it a sub-system to the heartland of the Middle East specifically Cairo's Mamluk Sultanate, the late Baghdad of the Abbasids, and the Mongols. Her book concludes with the Indian Ocean trade network of India, the Malacca Straits and China. The argument made in the first chapter of Before European Hegemony was that earlier economic transformations reached their apogee in the 1200s when all parts of Afro-Eurasia knew of each other and were in some form of regular contact—Abu-Lughod also sees the period as a time of extensive cultural, artistic and intellectual achievements.1 Ultimately her argument is that the Old World was in the process of developing its first world economic system in the 1200s—her famous map of eight trade circuits aptly demonstrates this interconnectivity.2

Collapses and Disruptions

     Many of the vital Post-Classical civilizations and states suffered severe collapses and disruptions around the year 1200 CE. In fact few of the older states except in Western Europe, the Deccan, and parts of Southeast Asia survived the Thirteen Century intact. This was true of the Byzantines, Kievan Rus, the Abbasid Dynasty, the Turkish and Seljuk sultanates, the Almohadic Caliphate in Iberia, Srivijaya on Sumatra, Tibet, Heian Japan, Song China, the Toltec Empire, and Chichen Itza. Other states saw significant changes to existing structures whether political, social, economic or cultural to warrant the discussion of a change in a period. The creation of the Delhi Sultanate, the rise of Mali, the first shogunate in Japan, the increased power of the Khmer Empire, the birth of new empires in the Valley of Mexico and the Andes as well as the birth and expansion of the Mongol Empire clearly represent a changed period. There were significant changes both culturally and intellectually across Eurasia to denote a changed period—the Europeans experienced a Twelfth Century Renaissance while Muslims moved increasingly away from Aristotelian explanations in Islam to a Sunni resurgence around Sufi mysticism-Confucianism took a strong hold in China and Japan while Islam began to spread in Southeast Asia. At the same time Theravada Buddhism began to replace both Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism on mainland Southeast Asia. Western Europe would witness the pinnacle of the Papacy's influence within many aspects of European society whether religious or intellectual with the development of Scholasticism. Moreover trade made a major resurgence and became a defining characteristic of this period. The Mongols favored and supported increased trade across the steppe while trade across the Sahara and in the Indian Ocean expanded dramatically.


     In 1200 despite many challenges to its dominance, the two cultural, intellectual and economic centers of the world—albeit both were in political decline—remained: the Muslim ecumene stretching from the Atlantic to South Asia including Central Asia as well as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Neo-Confucian Song Dynasty in China.

     In Southwest Asia the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate had roughly fifty years to live. And while the caliph was in the daily prayers of Muslims the world over, he had little political power. The dominance of the Arabs in the Muslim political world of Southwest Asia and Egypt came to an end in the eleventh century, replaced by the Seljuk Turks in general and sultans specifically. The political power came to rest with Turkish military leaders who may have ruled in the name of the caliph but paid little attention to his existence. Throughout Anatolia Turkish princes warred as much with each other as with the Byzantines, Armenians and Georgians. The same was true throughout the traditional Levant and Egypt where Turks replaced Arab leaders and then battled Western European crusaders. Subsequently, the power of the caliphs was confined to a much-reduced Mesopotamia centered around Baghdad.

     In Egypt, Turkish "slaves" or Mamluks3 created the Mamluk Sultanate after ousting the Ayyubid sultans. This vibrant state would expand and conquer Syria and the Hejaz (the Eastern coast and hinterland of the Red sea) with its twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It would last until overthrown by the Ottoman Empire in 1517 and dominated the slave trade and markets out of Saharan Africa. And just prior to its extinction, the Abbasid caliphs acknowledged the prayers offered by the newly created Turkish Sultanate of Delhi. Turks had raided India from the tenth century onward choosing only to rule Afghanistan and lands west of the Indus. In 1206 Turkish soldiers created the Sultanate of Delhi which came to dominate much of North India until its overthrow by another Central Asian dynast, Babur who founded the Mughal Dynasty in 1526.

     Intellectually, the Muslim world was in the twilight of its Golden Age perhaps best represented by the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Over the previous centuries, countless older Mesopotamian, Greek, Persian, and Hindu works had been translated into Arabic. At the same time countless Muslim scholars had added to this extensive corpus of knowledge in mathematics, the sciences, the humanities, philosophy and religion. These accomplishments were being increasingly tested by a Sunni revival which found little of value in the study of science. Muslim religious schools and their leaders challenged the scholar for influence within Islam. Increasingly Sufi mystics and thinkers such as Ibn al-Arabi who died in 1240 felt Islam had stultified. Rather than explain the scientific world as Aristotle, Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd might have, one simply needs to know that God wills it to be. Without God, it would not be. And it did not help that the Muslim political world was in retreat. Rulers who might have had the time and finances to support scholars now increasingly focused on more immediate political concerns.

     The centrality of the Muslim world to the discussion is proven by the iconic Muslim traveler from Tangiers, Ibn Battuta. In 1325 this Muslim Qadi (a judge) set out on his first pilgrimage to Mecca—and did not return to his home town for decades. His itinerary of travels reads as a description of the powers, military, economic, religious and intellectual of the Muslim world and its neighbors. Additionally the article, "Southernization" published in 1994 in the Journal of World History by Lynda Schaffer highlights this development as did Abu-Lughod's book.

     On the periphery of the Islamic Middle East, the Byzantines remained but had gone into decline after the Turks defeated their armies at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Nevertheless the Seljuks could not conquer the Byzantines who remained a reduced power until the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins of the Fourth Crusade. Afterwards the Byzantines struggled to survive against Bulgars, Serbs, Albanians, more Western Europeans and eventually the rise of the Ottoman Turkish emirs in 1299 who would create the Ottoman Empire. During this period of decline until their extinction between 1450 and 1460, the Orthodox Byzantines nevertheless produced a renaissance in the arts and theology even while they were dying a slow death by a "thousand cuts". This Palaiologan Renaissance centered at Mistra in the Peloponnesus would help give birth to the Italian Renaissance as Greek scholars immigrated to Italy ahead of the increasingly apparent fall of Constantinople.

     Following the decline of Ghana in West Africa, the Manding peoples created the Empire of Mali which came to dominate most of the Sahel between modern Mauretania and Niger. Founded by the semi-legendary Sundiata Keita or Sundiata Ali, the "Lion King" in 1235, the fame and wealth of its rulers would attract Muslim merchants, scholars and religious leaders from all over the Muslim world to its most famous city, Timbuktu. The city of Benin in the Forest Region along the Atlantic Ocean was established while in Northern Nigeria the Hausa people were founding city-states which would become the commercial and military power of the region for centuries. Along the Congo River and in the interior of Central Africa, many Bantu states had begun to centralize power around hereditary chiefdoms and away from loose groupings of tribes as their cultures transitioned to the late Iron Age and the control of their immediate regions.

Around the Indian Ocean

     The Indian Ocean around 1200 represented a great continuity during a period of change. Trade had flourished and spread during the Post-Classical Era with the establishment of stable states across the littoral coasts of the Indian Ocean. This had accompanied a spread of state types, religions as well as cultural forms. No regions were more impacted perhaps than Southern India and Southeast Asia. While Chola and Srivijaya flourish between 1000 and 1250, their decline witnessed the rise of the Hindu-Buddhism Khmer Empire in the Mekong River Valley around Tonle Sap. The Khmer Empire reached its height during the reign of Jayavarman VII between 1180 and 1220, who built Angkor Thom and many magnificent Buddhist temples. On the island of Java Majapahit would grow to be a commercial power in the archipelago. In Southeast Asia state forms and religion followed Hindu and Buddhist models common to India. But the rise of the Sultanate of Delhi and its invasions of the Deccan and subsequent conflicts saw the end of the powerful Chola Empire and a resulting power vacuum for about 150 years. And it began the spread of Islam into the Eastern regions of the Indian Ocean.

     At the same time, East Africa witnessed the birth of a syncretic mercantile culture of the Swahili, blending Arab, Persian, Omani and Islamic elements with the Bantu cultures. The Swahili trading city-states would control trade out of the interior of Africa to the Indian Ocean and become major destinations in the vaster Indian Ocean trade network.

East Asia

     The Yuan China of 1345 when Ibn Battuta visited Southern China was a much-changed world from the Song China of 1200. Although the political power of Song China had been eclipsed by the steppe nomadic states of Liao, the Jin (Jürchen) and Western Xia long before its conquest by the Mongols, its reduced Southern Song territories formed the base for commercial, cultural and intellectual power that lasted until 1279 when Song China fell to the Mongols. Over the course of its 300 years, Song China would witness the birth of Neo-Confucianism and unparalleled scientific, technological, artistic and commercial successes even while paying tribute to some of the more aggressive steppe powers especially the Jin Dynasty of Northern China.

     During the same period, semi-Sinified states on the periphery, in Vietnam, on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan would begin to flower in the decreased dominance of China which accompanied the rise of first the Liao and later Jin nomadic states. Japan would witness the rise of the first shogunal dynasties, the Minamoto and Fujiwara of the Kamakura Shogunate. Japan had been dominated by the Yamato emperors and their courtiers during the Heian Period. In 1185 a disastrous civil war erupted between the Tiara and Minamoto clans for control of the imperial court. The victory of the Minamoto would usher in three military shogunates from 1192 until 1867 who ruled in the name of an isolated emperor confined to his palace in Kyoto. But it would also witness the birth of a distinctly Japanese culture. At the same time, in Vietnam the turbulent Ly Dynasty was overthrown by the Tran Dynasty in 1225. During the Tran Dynasty, Vietnamese culture bloomed. While the Confucian culture had spread during the previous Ly Dynasty and continued to be the language of education, the Tran were decidedly more Buddhist and nationalist than their predecessors. During this period, Vietnamese written in a modified Chinese script was used to render folk songs and popular literature that rivaled the Confucian elite culture.4 Meanwhile the decline of dynastic power in China had led to the rise of steppe nomads in particular the Khitan Liao Dynasty and cut off Korea from direct contact with the Chinese. The Goryeo monarchs resisted and defeated the Khitans to remain independent. And while the monarchs suffered a military takeover of the state around 1170, this period was a golden age of Korean Buddhism, which became the state religion of Korea. The separation of Korea from the suzerainty of China and Korea's orientation towards the nomadic powers in Manchuria and Mongolia distanced Korea from Chinese influence at a critical time in history.

And Europe

     Western and Eastern Europe in 1200 was peripheral to the Muslim and East Asian worlds. And while not isolated, European states were only beginning in 1200 to move from local to regional or international interests. The Crusades were part of the international venue as was commerce. The two were interconnected through the Italian trading states—Genoa, Venice, Pisa, and Amalfi—as well as German merchants who would found the Hansa. All had willingly and actively participated in the Crusades in order to obtain trading privileges in the Mediterranean and Black Seas or Baltic Sea. The Fourth Crusade would sack Constantinople in 1204 after which Venice no longer a dependency of the Byzantines rose to commercial and maritime prominence and came to control islands and enclaves in the Aegean and Black Seas. This tied Italy more directly into the older Middle Eastern and Silk Road trade networks. In the Baltic, cities of the future Hanseatic League cooperated with the Scandinavians and German religious military orders in their Northern Crusades beginning in 1172 against pagan peoples of the Eastern Baltic lands. Trade and the settlement of Christian agricultural peoples in the region followed.

     In 1199 France and England were locked in their continuing battle for control of Normandy and surrounding regions which would only end with the English expulsion from France at the end of the 100 Years War around 1450. After losing most of his French lands, English barons forced King John in 1215 to sign the famous Magna Carta. France was the wealthiest and most influential part of Western Europe. The centuries' old struggle between the German emperors and the popes for control of Northern Italy resulted in the diminished power of the emperors and the temporary supremacy of the popes. At the same time, the northern and central Italian cities used the long conflict to establish their independence by 1250 from both the emperors and the popes. In the Iberian Peninsula a Christian alliance of Portuguese, Castilian, Navarrese, and Aragonese forces decisively defeated the Almohad forces in 1212 at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The Christian states seized lands in southern Iberia and began the final phase of the Reconquista which would result by 1492 in the extinction of the last Muslim state, Granada. One state, Portugal was barely eighty years old while Aragon was beginning its expansion into the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily and Southern Italy against both Christian and Muslims alike.

     Often forgotten in comparison to the more famous Renaissances of the fourteenth and fifteen centuries, the Europeans were undergoing what is usually termed the Twelfth Century Renaissance. Beginning at the end of the twelfth century and ushering in the High Middle Ages, this renaissance would profoundly transform most aspects of Western European society—political, social, economic, cultural, religious and intellectual—and lay the foundations for the later Italian and Northern Renaissances. And like its more famous cousins two centuries later it was also tied to trade and commerce. At the same time this period begins the apogee of the influence and power of the Roman Catholic Papacy and Church.

     Eastern Europe whether the Balkans or Russia was in a state of transition and turmoil. In Kievan Rus, local nobles and their relatives began increasingly to influence affairs and fight over the succession to the throne. Fratricidal civil wars nearly destroyed the state long before its final extinction. Part of this decline was due to the reorientation of trade caused by the Mediterranean and Baltic crusades.5 Regions of the Kievan state such as Novgorod became increasingly independent and turned westward, trading with the Germans and Hansa. The arrival of the Mongols only signaled the end of a centralized Russian state which had been but a myth for about a century. In the Balkans with the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders and merchants of the Fourth Crusade, the Bulgars and Serbs (re)asserted themselves at the Byzantines expense. And in 1219 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would begin its rise to power stopping both the Mongols and the Teutonic Knights before uniting with Poland.

The Americas

     Isolated from Afro-Eurasian developments, the Americas of the 1200s saw numerous rebirths in the endless cosmic cycle of birth, growth, maturity and decline of civilizations. Even in upstate New York legend has it that the Iroquois Confederacy was born roughly around 1200 while in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest some cataclysmic event forced the ancestors of the Puebloan peoples—the Anasazi—to abandon their original homes and move south to the Rio Grande valley. And although dates are problematic by 1250 the Tula 'Empire' had collapsed and remnants of its peoples had migrated to Chapultepec on Lake Texcoco. At the same time, the Mexica also arrived in the Valley of Mexico after a long migration from their mythical Aztlan. By the late 1200s, the Aztecs had acquired rights to some small islands in Lake Texcoco which would eventually become Tenochtitlan and form the basis of the Triple Alliance. In the Yucatan, the Mayan city-states and civilizations were in their last cycle of civilization. Much reduced in size, accomplishments and influence, the Mayans revived for one last historical period. The city-state of Mayapan rose to dominate the Mayan world in the early 1200s only to collapse about a half-century before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Other city-states located near water and farming lands thrived during this autumn of Mayan civilization. In the Andes, Tawantinsuyu or the Incan Empire arose sometime in the early 1200s. It represented the last flowering of the Andean civilizations beginning with Caral (Norte Chico) and includes Tiwanaku, the Huari, the Chavin, the Chimu and the Moche. Each rebirth was characterized by intense continuity of state forms, social constructs, intellectual and cultural developments and economic structures.

Agency: The Mongols

     Probably by now many historians and teachers are wondering why there has been minimal mention of the Mongols. The "elephant in the room" of this historiographical discussion has always been the Mongols. Arguably the best reason to start a new period at 1200, it is impossible to ignore the Mongols as agents of change for a new period. In 1206 Temujin better known as Genghis Khan finally unified the steppe tribes in and around modern Mongolia. Afterwards the Mongols sweeping across Eurasia conquered China, Korea, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, Russia and the Ukraine. These conquests while strengthening connections between the civilizations and regions of Eurasia, also reoriented steppe trade and power away from older civilizations and led to the collapse of virtually every major state the Mongols encountered except Mamluk Egypt, Lithuania and the Sultanate of Delhi. It facilitated exchanges of peoples, the movement of whole tribes and ethnic groups and the spread of ideas and technologies. All of Eurasia was directly or indirectly impacted by the Mongols. Lands which the Mongols did not conquer often suffered devastating invasions such as Vietnam, Burma, Poland and Hungary. Lands not under Mongol influence or in a tributary relationship nevertheless were aware enough of the importance of the Mongols to send emissaries whether mercantile or diplomatic or missionary as the Western Europeans did. Marco Polo was only the most famous of many visitors to the court of the Great Khan. And prior to its collapse, the Mongol Empire facilitated the spread of Yersinia Pestis. The spread of this bacterium which likely caused the Black Death across Eurasia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean further devastated the regional states and civilizations.

Agency Environmental

     Behind the start of this period and the fall and rise of civilizations are some common agents—environment, migration, commerce, culture and warfare. Environmental factors were a major cause for developments beginning this period. Recent historical studies have noted that the Medieval Warming Period peaked between 1000 and 1300 CE but most likely around 1200 CE. While there is no consensus for its beginning, there is an increasing amount of evidence that the Little Ice Age began in the early 1200s. This cooling seems to have impacted the Norse settlements in Greenland and led to the collapse of Norse colonization there by 1400. The same period seems to have brought the migration of the Thule Inuit people into collision with the Norse as they spread across the Canadian Arctic. The Little Ice Age in Europe would increase in intensity throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Summers grew shorter and cooler and growing seasons produced lower yields. Increased cooling in the Eastern regions of North America and Europe would have also impacted Northern Eurasia and East Asia. The Twelfth and Thirteen centuries saw colder weather in the Artic, Sub-Artic, steppe and Caucasus regions, Central Asia and Caspian Sea area as discussed at a conference in Moscow in 2002.6 This would have driven semi-pastoral and pastoral peoples to seek warmer climes with better grazing lands for their flocks and herds. Increasing evidence shows that the decades preceding the rise of the Mongols saw severe drought which would have increased conflict between the tribes for scarce resources. This coincided with the rise of Genghis Khan's empire. However following his rise, the region experienced unusually heavy rains and cool temperatures, a condition which would have favored grasses critical to the raising of domesticated herds especially horses.7

     Climate changes also impacted the fate of civilization in the Americas. The ancestral peoples of the Puebloan peoples, the Anasazi left the Four Corners' area of the American Southwest and began their migration to the Rio Grande. Archaeological evidence indicates severe drought occurred in the region leading to the abandonment of their settlements and kivas and migration first towards cliff dwellings and later southward.8 This drought in the American Southwest peaked in the years just prior to 1200.9 It is likely that the drought affecting the original home of the Anasazi probably extended into Northern Mexico and could easily have motivated the Chichimec migration towards Central Mexico. In the centuries leading up to the rise of a post-Classical civilization in the Mayan area, there had been many severe droughts and climate conditions not overly favorable to civilization or surpluses in agriculture. According to modern research the severe drought lasted some 200 years ending around 1000 CE. But its worst side-effect was the devastation of the Mayan hydrological system of cenotes, reservoirs and underground rivers—the end of this severe period coincided with the last flourishing of the Mayan civilization and the rise of the Mayan city-state of Mayapan.10 This revival of Mayan civilization would have been preceded by an increase in agricultural surpluses and an expansion of trade—and likely more favorable climate changes including rainfall. It is likely that further research will discover a continual impact of the El Niño- La Niña Southern Oscillation cycle in Pre-Columbian as well as Australasian history. 11

     The general trend in history since the advent of agriculture has been that each successive civilization further damaged and eliminated forests world-wide increasing humanity's carbon footprint. However during the thirteenth century a recent study by the Carnegie Institution's Department for Global Ecology at Stanford University found that there may have been a benefit to the Mongol invasions after all. According to the study the destruction wrought by all the Mongol invasions decreased the carbon footprint of humanity by allowing the regrowth of forests during the reign.12 Of course this came with a price—the wholesale slaughter of populations especially in China which suffered a dramatic population decline. In Southwest Asia for instance, the Mongols slaughtered not only the populations of many cities and regions which resisted such as Persia and Khwarizmi Empire, but destroyed the irrigation systems of Persia and Mesopotamia, reversing thousands of years of progress. In Persia the Mongols salted and destroyed the qanats, many dating from the Achaemenid Empire of the fifth century BCE. It took centuries for these areas to recover.

Agency: Migration

     Another agent of change was migration or movement through trade. As already mentioned the Amerindian Thule Inuit and Anasazi migrated during this period. This period also saw the last major migrations of Central Asian peoples out of the steppe to more fertile agricultural lands. The Turkish peoples who created the Sultanate of Delhi invaded and settled the Indus-Ganges River Plain and pushed out of Anatolia into Europe. More significantly this is the period of explosive movement by the Mongols across Eurasia. From Northern Mexico the hunter-gatherer or semi-nomadic peoples, the Chichimecs moved into the Valley of Mexico, likely destroying the Toltec state before settling in the area. The Aztecs describe themselves as descending from the Chichimecs. While there is strong evidence that the name Chichimec did not represent a specific ethnic group but an amalgam of peoples, the Aztec association with this people ties into their cultural myth of a migration from Aztlan.

     In Sub-Saharan Africa, popular movement is a constant and recurring theme. While books often speak of the Bantu migration, in reality the Bantu experienced a series of migrations facilitated or hindered by geographical factors. If the Congo River halted southward movement of peoples for a long while, the grasslands north of the Central African rainforests and the Serengeti and Great Lakes area facilitated movement. The rise of the Swahili culture is the direct result of the intermarriage between the migrating Bantu cultures in East Africa and the visiting Muslim merchants from Arabia and Persia. It was further strengthened by the migration of Muslim clerics, architects and scholars to the cities as the wealth of the cities attracted visitors and settlers. Further south the ancestors of the Shona people moving from the declining or collapsed Bantu state of Mapunguwbe settled and founded the future state of Great Zimbabwe around 1220. Originating in modern Botswana and Northern South Africa the Bakalanga seemed to have traded ivory, gold, copper and other exotic commodities with the Swahili city-states and their merchants along the Indian Coast of East Africa. Nearer to home the rich grasses of the region facilitated cattle rearing permitting the rise of a vibrant state and culture. In southern Africa, the Ngoni semi-pastoralists spread throughout the region. And from Egypt and Libya Arab pastoralists forced out by the Mamluks migrated up the Nile into the Sudan beginning the destruction of an extremely old African Christian civilization, the Nubians.

     Two similar migrations occurred in the Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean as Indian especially Muslim merchants increasingly visited the region. Trading along Sumatran and Malayan coasts, Muslims settled in many of the city-states, married local women and began expanding the umma (Muslim community). Later local rulers converted to Islam as conversion brought with it benefits and increased ties with a more urban and sophisticated Indian sub-continent. This spread of Islam would gradually replace Buddhism and Hinduism in Malaya and the islands of Indonesia. Marco Polo identified the inhabitants of Peureulak on the island of Sumatra as Muslim in 1276 when he visited it on his way home.13 At the same time a new wave of Malayo-Polynesian immigrants sailed to Madagascar bringing new varieties of rice, banana, yams and other crops as they mixed with earlier immigrants and recent Bantu settlers.

     In Europe, the Germanic peoples were pushing eastward into Slavic and Baltic lands in what is called the Ostsiedlung in German. Spurred onward by Hanseatic merchants and endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, German religious military orders mostly famously the Teutonic Order conquered lands in Pomerania, Prussia, Poland, Estonia, and Latvia. Only the Lithuanians were able to resist. After conquest, bishoprics were established to Christianize the people, free cities such as Riga in 1201 arose to house Hanseatic commercial operations and German farmers were settled on now vacant and confiscated lands. While much historical work has focused on the military aspects of this movement, the economic concerns of the Hansa should not be discounted.

Agency: Warfare

     Increased warfare in the Twelfth Century was an important agent of change and led to more collapses perhaps than rebirths. Along the borders of the Dar-al-Islam, there were constant clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims as well between Muslims themselves. The Sultans of Delhi waged constant warfare as they attempted to expand their borders southward into the Deccan and Punjab. Turkish leaders battled the Mongols up to their submission and then turned, depending on their location, against the Byzantines, Bulgarians, Serbs, Armenians, and Georgians. Mamluk Egypt after halting the Mongols, pushed into Africa to secure its slave trade. The Almohad, a puritanical Berber sect under the influence of al-Ghazali rejected centuries of Islamic developments as too polytheistic and overly in debt to outside—non-Islamic—influences of philosophers such as Aristotle. Expanding across North Africa, they came into conflict not only with less radical Muslims but also Christian kingdoms when they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Andalusia. And the nascent Ottoman Empire at this time but an emirate would begin its career as a ghazi state on the periphery of the dying Byzantine Empire.

Elsewhere, increased warfare also led to the migration of peoples to avoid Mongol armies, for instance. Rather than surrender to the Mongols, the ancestors of the Thai—the Tai Shan peoples of modern Yunnan—migrated increasingly first into Burma before ultimately continuing on to settle in the Chao Phraya River Valley. The Mongols also depopulated much of modern Ukraine through warfare or the voluntary migration of the Kievan Rus people into the taiga forests further north around Moscow, a biome that did not favor the Mongols and their horses. And after their rampage in Central Asia and the Middle East many leading Muslim Arab, Turkish and Persian nobles, scholars and artists found their way to settle in the Sultanate of Delhi.

     The constant warfare in Southwest Asia led to the radical decline of native Christian populations. Coptic and Nestorian Christians willingly or unwillingly became associated with the Western crusaders and often suffered retributions from Muslim leaders. While the Mongol invasion of the region laid waste to cities where Christians often dwelt, Georgians and Armenians put great faith in the Mongols and flocked to their banners. The subsequent conversion of the Ilkhanate, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai to Islam boded ill for centuries' old Christian populations in both the Middle East and Central Asia, who were increasingly slaughtered or forced to convert.

     In Europe, Northern Africa and Sahel West Africa, the late 1100s and early 1200s witnessed the Almohad clash with the Christian Iberian kings. The previous century also saw both the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties of Morocco and Iberia increase their contacts across the Sahara into Ghana. While Ghana lacks written records, its decline coincides with this interest from the Muslim Maghreb and the military rise of Mali under Sundiata Keita. And while most historians end the discussion of the European crusades around 1291 with the expulsion of the "Franks" (the from the Holy Land, that century in Europe began with a crusade against the heretical Albigensian as well as a Germanic crusade against the remaining pagan peoples of the Eastern Baltic. At the same time Philip Augustus of France began and ended his reign driving the English Angevin kings out of France. His defeat of King John—nicknamed Lackland because he lacked any lands after the loss of his French possessions—set in motion the events resulting in the Magna Carta. In Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick II Hohenstaufen tried through countless wars to secure the position of the emperor within the empire and the empire against rivals states and the papacy. His death represents the beginning decline of the Holy Roman Empire, the ascendency of German great lords, and the independence of Italian city-states.

     As to Inner Eurasia, the explosion of the Mongols under Genghis Khan witnessed decades of warfare as the Mongols conquered first Central Asia, much of Southwest Asia and the steppe and taiga regions of Russia before finally pushing south into China. And while they were stopped by the Lithuanians, the Mamluks, and the Turks of the Sultanate of Delhi, Mongol raids whether successful or unsuccessful devastated whole or in part the Levant, Anatolia and Mesopotamia, Central Asia, much of the Western Eurasian steppe, the Caucasus, Poland, Hungary, Wallachia, Moldavia, Burma, Vietnam, Japan and Java. Even after the empire split into the four khanates, warfare continued if not intensified as now the khanates often fought each other as well.

     In the isolated Americas Tula was abandoned after a period of great warfare in the Valley of Mexico. The Toltecs had the historical reputation in Aztec records of being a fierce, warlike people. Often conquerors themselves are conquered by other peoples. The record says the Chichimec destroyed the Toltecs. A group of peoples to the north of the Valley of Mexico, the Chichimecs invaded the region in the process of migration. Warfare increased during the period as city-states and semi-nomadic peoples battled for limited resources. The Aztec legend says that they were told by their chief deity to settle where they found an eagle clutching a snake while perched on a cactus. The island in Lake Texcoco where the eagle was located is much more likely the result of the lack of arable land on which to settle due to competition. Afterwards the Aztec Triple Alliance engaged in constant warfare to obtain land and resources. In the Yucatan, according to the Mayan chronicle, the Book of Chilam Balam, Chichen Itza declined and was conquered by Mayapan. According to the Incan traditions, Manco Capac founded the Incan state when he conquered land around Cusco in the early 1200s beginning two centuries of expansion.

Commercial and Cultural Renaissances

     Two other characteristics delineate the start of this period, one cultural and the other economic. Janet Abu-Lughod noted that the thirteenth century saw a brilliant intellectual explosion in not only Western Europe but a Silver Age in the Byzantine world during the twilight of its existence. This was the height of the High Middle Ages in Europe, the Gothic Age and the Age of Cathedrals. It also witnessed the high period of scholasticism and the rebirth of the influence of Aristotle just as the Muslim world abandoned his influence. At the same time the Roman Catholic Church and the popes reached the pinnacle of their secular power and theological influence before the Avignon Papacy and Great Schism with multiple popes simultaneously. Pope Innocent III restored the influence, power and prestige of the Papacy and Papal States following centuries of conflict with the Holy Roman emperors. The same pope approved the creation of two of the greatest religious orders of the Catholic Church, the Franciscans (1209) and the Dominicans (1215) who would do more to reform the church and to bring the faith to the laity than did the popes and bishops. Simultaneously both the Italian trading city-states of Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi as well as the future leaders of the German Hansa, Hamburg and Lubeck broke free of their restrictions by emperors, popes, princes and bishops to enter an expanded period of commercial growth and wealth. These developments coincided with the rebirth of urban centers and life in the twelfth century across Europe. Increasingly commercial classes came to dominate many urban centers as the number of free and imperial cities grew.

     The accomplishments of the Song and development of Neo-Confucianism surpassed the accomplishments of this early Renaissance in Europe while Neo-Confucianism blending Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism led to the birth of the Chinese religious complex. The Song Dynasty oversaw a commercial revolution with mercantile interests driving if not managing the state. The same merchants and state supported all forms of artists and musicians on their payrolls. Elsewhere in the East Asian world, Korea and Japan were also having their own creative explosions which would put definitive stamps on their cultures. In South Asia, Vietnam and the Khmer Empire were developing equally vibrant cultures.

     Within the Muslim world, the contact with the Turks and Mongols led to a blending of Arabic, Turkic, Indian, Persian and Central Asian influences into a culture which blossomed in India under the Delhi Sultanate and the Ilkhanate in Persia. Mali internalized Muslim and native elements into a syncretic blend producing the great mosque of Sankore at Timbuktu. The Swahili culture accomplished a similar syncretic blend. At the same time the Muslims religiously were undergoing a transition as they increasingly abandoned a form of Islam open to the teachings of the likes of Aristotle for a more mystical Islam influenced increasingly by the Sufis.

     In the Americas millennia of developments had their last flowerings before the arrival of the Spaniards in the Aztecs, Mayapan and late Mayans of the Yucatan, and the Incan Empire. Building on centuries of developments, these worlds represented great continuities in cultural developments stretching back to Caracol and the Olmecs. Although some scholars feel that their artistic accomplishments pale in comparison to earlier peoples, there can be no doubt that each of these cultures produced incredible buildings and supported many notable accomplishments.

     Additionally, the flowering of arguably the first world system of international commerce and local trade characterizes this period. While international trade had existed since the earlier Ancient period ending around 1500 BCE, by 1200 CE, the economic links between regions and continents had intensified despite all disruptions and warfare. The fact that Black Death spread so quickly is the result of this commercial development and trade networks. Merchants could sail easily between Tanis on the Black Sea where the Mongols carried the plague to Constantinople and from there to many different ports on the Mediterranean Sea whether cities in Italy or North Africa. Merchants, missionaries, ambassadors and jurists just as easily moved between Morocco, Italy and all points in between as exemplified by the travel exploits of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Rabban bar Sauma but to name a few. The book, When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the Riches of the East by Stewart Gordon details this interconnected network. And the Aztecs for all of their conquests were equally as concerned with tribute trade as evidenced by their tribute lists and the importance of their pochteca or long distance merchants who also functioned as ambassadors and spies. While lacking similar zones for the Americas, Abu Lughod's map of the thirteenth century clearly indicates the overlap and interplay of Afro-Eurasia's commercial zones. And while few merchants could or would move from one end of the map to the other in pursuit of profits, many operated in one, two or three of the trade zones. And goods from one part of the world did end up

A New Region to Study: Southeast Asia

     In some ways, the history of Southeast Asia—the mainland of peninsulas and the islands as well as archipelagos—represents a microcosm of this period, its trends, and developments. But for many educators and students of history it is probably the first time trends in the region enter into discussion largely because their influence extends into, overlaps with and parallels developments in the wider world—and not just the Indian Ocean but Europe, China and Japan. Southeast Asian chronology fits easily into the period between 1000 and 1450. Victor Lieberman's seminal two volume study Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830 makes this argument. The sub-titles of Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland and Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia and the Islands clearly identify this connectivity.

     Relatively late to the development of civilization, this period began with the decline of two of the first major states of Southeast Asia, Srivijaya and Champa. During the early Post-Classical Era both states thrived on the control of commerce and trade, arising as a result of commercial contacts with South Asia and China. At the same time, three states would begin to consolidate power in the region with wider implications for global studies. The expansion of the Khmer Empire in the Mekong River Valley limited the influence of Champa, while the rise of Majapahit and Malacca replaced Srivijaya in the islands and Malay Peninsula. The Khmer Empire was land-based and dependent on control of the vast rice harvest. It reached its height between 1200 and 1350 but would come under increasing threat from the newly independent and expanding Kingdom of Sukhothai. Majapahit and Malacca were commercial cultures controlling not only trade through the region but the spice trade from select islands. Pushing out from the Red River Valley and Chinese influence, the third state, Vietnam put increasing pressure on Champa. And while the Chinese form of government was confined to Vietnam, the other states of the region as befitting their commercial contacts with South Asia developed their own versions of Indian rule under the title of chakravartins (emperors) and/or under the umbrella of deva-rajas (God-Kings), with monarchs deriving their authority from the Hindu Lords Shiva or, Vishnu or from Buddha.

     In many ways the development of the region is similar to the mainland-rimland cultural concept in the Caribbean region. Mainland populations—the Khmer Empire, Vietnam and Sukhothai—were dense and heavily dependent on agriculture and with it peasant labor while rimland populations —Srivijaya, Malacca and Majapahit—were smaller and dependent on the export of luxuries and specialized populations. Mainland cultures were more uniform while their governments more powerful. The islands and peninsulas of the region, the rimland, had great diversity and variation in governance, culture and economic specialization. Governments in both the rimland and mainland followed patterns which while there are differences have many similarities to feudalism in Post-Classical Western European and Early Modern Tokugawa Japan. Most notably the ruler at the center was owed some form of loyalty and support. The suzerain was owed support, often financial and gave gifts to the vassal or tributary state. Additionally there were military obligations between the suzerain and vassal. Critically as with European lords, one vassal might have his own vassals or he might owe tribute to different lords. Victor Lieberman prefers a model based on the solar system with planets (states) nearer to the sun (central power) under increasing gravitational influence and the heat as well as light of the sun—social or cultural traits—than the more distant planets. However many of the planets have their own satellites (smaller states) dependent on the gravitational pull of the planet and less so the sun.14 On both the mainland and in the islands during this period, there was an increasing trend towards consolidation and standardization. Overtime many state actors were reduced as larger states absorbed smaller neighbors. This trend would continue into the next period.15

     Culturally the rimland region experienced a blending of Hinduism, Buddhism (all varieties) and local traditions. Islam would later arrive with merchants and wandering Sufis. Yet because of the original paths of transmission by the traditions to the areas as well as the geographic diversity of region, the peoples of the region put a very definite local face on each of the cultural traditions and religions that they adapted. And while migration and movement muddied the rimland populations and cultures, cultures on the mainland at least at the center had more uniformity over a larger area with less variety and diversity than the islands. Much like Europe however, the faith, culture and social practices of the elites and the cities clearly differed from the practices of the villages and the peasants or serfs. Over time Theravada Buddhism would replace Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism on the mainland—with the exception of Vietnam where shamanistic practices of the countryside coexisted with Mahayana Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism amongst the elite and cities—and Islam would replace both Buddhism and Hinduism in the islands and archipelagos of the region.

     Equally influenced by the monsoon system of the Indian Ocean, environmental factors as an agent of change in the region likely caused the decline of the Khmer Empire. The capital city of Angkor was very dependent on water supplies not only for its vast rice fields but also its canals and reservoirs. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, severe droughts broken by periods of intense rainfalls and flooding may have led to the decline of the Khmer state.16

     Migration is a recurring theme during this time period. South Asian Brahmin priests, Kshatriya officials and warriors, and Vaishya merchants and craftsmen introduced Hinduism along with its political, intellectual and cultural traditions. Buddhist missionaries carried Buddhism to the region which was reinforced by visiting Buddhist merchants. Local Buddhist scholars visited Nalanada in India. The same routes and similar actors from India later introduced Islam to the islands and peninsulas of the region. And when the Silk Road was closed, Chinese Buddhist pilgrims often used the maritime route through Southeast Asia to visit India. The Vietnamese used the increasing weakness of China to push southward against Champa while the ancestors of the Thai from modern Sichuan migrated across Burma into the Chao Praya river valley to avoid increased pressures from the Chinese and Mongols.

     Warfare was a constant reality. Chola fought Srivijaya and the Khmer fought Champa. Srivijaya occasionally challenged the Khmer Empire as well. And the region often relied on its own technologies of war—war elephants and war fleets. The Mongol onslaught did not bypass the region either. While Sukhothai and the Khmer Empire accepted tributary status to avoid war, other states chose resistance. Land campaigns against the Burmese, Vietnamese and in Yunnan Province were successful but very costly to the Yuan Mongol Dynasty. On the other hand, Mongol naval campaigns against Java were a disaster and led to the rise of Majapahit whose leaders defeated the Mongols. Majapahit subsequently conquered Java and most of the islands of the Great and Lesser Sundas as well as the Malay Peninsula. Vietnamese campaigns would lead to the conquest of Champa while Thai pressure led to the decline of the Khmer Empire.

Final Thoughts

     Students of history should look upon the period from 1200 to 1450 as context to the world which followed. While the accomplishments of Rome and Greece drove the Italian Renaissance as much as the accomplishments of the Han, Tang and Song influenced Ming China, what really had the most influence on the world beginning in 1450 was arguably the world which began in 1200. Developments, whether political, economic, spiritual, or cultural, were fresher in the minds of the leaders around 1450 than the periods prior to 1200. And while the Renaissance artist, the Yongle or Aztec emperor and many a Muslim cleric looked back to much earlier times for inspiration, it is equally clear that Mongols, Turkish monopolies, Marco Polo's writings, the results of the Black Death, and the legends of Mansa Musa, as well as trans-regional trade and profits were of greater importance to the immediate future of many people.

Paul Philp received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a Master's Degree in Modern World History from Texas A&M, Commerce. He teaches at John Paul II High School in Plano, Texas. One of the original consultants for the birth of AP World History in 2002, he still consults and reads for the College Board. He can be reached at


1 Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 3

2 Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, 33.

3 Mamluk, an Arabic term applied to slaves, was used to designate non-Muslims enslaved in Turkestan and other central Asian regions, often while young, but in any event, converted to Islam and employed by Arab and Persian Muslim administrators as warriors. These leaders believed their foreign origins disqualified them as rulers and thus were safer to employ than their own kin. They were wrong on both counts as mamluks, slave or freed due their excellent service, overthrew their masters and set up their own Sultanates.

4 David G. Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 141.

5 Michael Kort, A Brief History of Russia (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008), 12.

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11 Marylyn Masson, "Maya Collapse Cycles," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. November 6, 2012. Available at (Accessed 10 Aug. 2019).

12 "War, Plague No Match for Deforestation in Driving CO2 Buildup," Carnegie Science, Video Press Release, January 20, 2011. Available at (Accessed 10 Aug. 2019).

13 John Mansfield, ed., and introduction, Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd, reprint 1914), 338.

14 Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 33.

15 Lieberman, Strange Parallels, 38.

16 Brendan Buckley et al, "Climate as a contributing factor in the demise of Angkor, Cambodia," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107, no. 15 (2010), 6748–6752. Available at (Accessed 10 Aug. 2019).

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