Trading Knowledge in the “Global Middle Ages”

AHA Session 194
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Nassau West (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Subah Dayal, New York University
Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Abstract

How did knowledge—in both elite and popular forms—move across land, seas, and oceans before the onset of modern globalization? And how did the transmission of knowledge interplay with long-distance trade routes, flows of commodities, capital, and other forms of economic and diplomatic exchange?

This panel puts into conversation a set of comparative but concrete case studies of the transmission of knowledge that spans the maritime trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Seas in the late middle ages. It defines knowledge and the mode of its circulation very broadly, as participants explore how secular, religious, and cultural knowledge was transmitted from a variety of methodological tools: archeology of shipwrecks, textual studies of medical literature, the history of painting, and the diplomatic history of Venetian-Ottoman relations. In doing so, this panel should attract a wide audience of pre-modern historians working across a number of regions and scholarly approaches.

One through-line that can be found in each of the panelists' presentations—which will be an informal discussion of works-in-progress—is the role played by Islamic historical actors and institutions in shuttling knowledge around the globe. Another commonality shared across these studies is that the finding that the transmission of objects—gifts, commodities, books, and portraits—also required the transmission of knowledge and expertise on the meanings and functions of those objects in the new regions and cultures to which they were transported.

This panel will conclude with a comment from a leading scholar in the field who will respond to the themes that connect the individual papers as well as interrogate the framework of ‘the Global Middle Ages’ itself. This framework was recently proposed in by the journal Medieval Globe, founded in 2014, and then again in a recent thematic volume of Past and Present, 238:13 (2018). How do these two parallel initiatives conceptualize a global medieval past, and what new frameworks do they propose for the transmission of knowledge in the middle ages?

In our Q&A, we will discuss what scholarly achievements have been made so far in this field, as well as the challenges and pitfalls the lie ahead.

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