Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Rethinking the Medieval in World History

Very much like the modern discipline of history itself, the notion of a medieval period, or as it was called earlier, the Middle Ages, has its origin in the Western European collective memory and historical experience. This notion spread in Europe gradually in the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries and was linked with the association of the contemporary rediscovery of the ancient Greco-Latin civilisation as a cultural renaissance (re-awakening) after a long period of darkness and dormancy. With the rise of professional history-writing in the eighteenth century, this understanding crystallized into a tripartite periodisation between a celebration-worthy ancient, a gloomy medieval and a re-awakened modern.
As the European scheme of periodisation spread to different societies as a result of European colonisation, the notion of a middling period between a glorious past and a progressive and civilised present gradually came to be imagined and conceived almost everywhere. In case of the Indian subcontinent, the conception of the Middle Ages was intertwined with British imperial justification of empire and their vision of progress in history. In the British narratives of Indian history, the medieval period, which followed a glorious ancient Hindu past, represented a dark age of religious conversion, unremitting conquests and cultural sterility, from which only the British could lead the Indian people to a civilised modernity. In a similar fashion, the construction of the medieval, with its historical link with the notion of darkness and dormancy, had its different political agenda in different societies.
In the next session of the Medieval History Club, we rethink this very notion of the medieval, not only in the context of Indian history, but that of different societies of the world at large. The readings for the session will explore the complex processes of conceptualising the medieval in lands as diverse as Europe, India, the Arab countries, Iran, China and Japan. The basic questions that we have to engage with while reading and discussing these pieces may include some of the following.
1. What temporal span is signaled as the medieval in a particular society?
2. What are the characteristics of this medieval ?
3. What are the politics behind the branding of this period as medieval ?
4. When and in what historical situation did the notion of a medieval emerge in the society concerned?
5. How, if at all, does the nature of the medieval of a non-European society differ with that of the European Middle Ages?
It is, obviously, not essential to address all of these questions for every single article. The purpose of providing this set of questions is merely to suggest some directions of thinking about and questioning the notion of the medieval. The collective reading of these articles in our Second Session, we believe, will help us rethink what we understand as medieval in the context of India in particular and different parts of the world at large.


Anandi said...

As a second year history student, I appreciate this article wholeheartedly. But I'd like to add my two bits worth.
The notion of a bleak 'medieval' period in Europe didn't actually come into being in the 18th century. Humanists like Dante, Petrarch were quite vociferous in their condemnation of the 'medieval' past. Unlike sources that unwittingly become histories, figureheads of the Renaissance and Reformation were very conscious of the change that they were attempting to bring about and this necessitated a delineation of their present from the past. This pre-proposed idea was merely popularised by Burkhardt and others till recently.
The misrepresentations that mar the study of medieval India are not only limited to the mockery that an unsuitable periodisation bestowed by an alien population of academicians made of actual realities (or whatever we know of them). This same periodisation was not disputed by Indian historians, they adopted the same timeline and further propagated the image of a glorious, idyllic ancient, a wonky medieval and so on.
Periodisation is practice in history that has survived only by virtue of its convenience. Else, it's perhaps one of the damaging things that students and historian have to indulge in while studying history.

Anonymous said...

bleh. ._.

Olive Oyl said...

@Anandi: I didn't know that you are a student of history too. :) Good to see you drop by. :)

@anonymous: with due respect, 'bleh' is a very intellectual modern day word that has trickled into the modern dictionary with immense fervour. So you need not feel shy of coming out of your closet at all. This is a humble forum of convergence and divergence of ideas where your simple remarks too are graciously welcome. :) you can stop being anonymous from the next time you say bleh. i shall heartily bleh you back with equal fervour :)