Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jane Burbank & Frederick Cooper's "Empires in World History"

Jane Burbank is professor of history and Russian and Slavic studies at New York University. Her books include Intelligentsia and Revolution and Russian Peasants Go to Court. Frederick Cooper is professor of history at New York University. His books include Decolonization and African Society and Colonialism in Question.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, and reported the following:
Open to page 99 of our book and you are at a turning point in world history–the Mongol conquest. How could a small tribe led by Chinggis Khan create the largest land empire of all time?

Here we point to the legacy of earlier Eurasian nomadic empires, from whom the Mongols inherited the politics of tribal confederacy under a supreme leader–the Great Khan--a strong army organization, and effective means to raid or extort wealth from rich cities and great neighboring empires. On page 99 we discuss Mongol military tactics, including "bogus camps and mannequins on horseback" and their "formidable weapon...the double-arched wooden bow, made of layers of sinew and bone on a wooden frame." But we emphasize that it was a particular kind of social organization, adapted to their environmental possibilities, that made the Mongols' victory possible.
There were no more than a few hundred thousand Mongols in the early thirteenth century, but at the end of Chinggis Khan's life about 130,000 were in his army--between a third and a quarter of the size of the Roman army at its peak. This modest population controlled about half of the world's horses in the thirteenth century. Nomadic life meant that the whole society could be mobilized for war; women followed campaigns with supplies and sometimes fought with men. Going home was not a goal--the point of war was plundering, sharing out the booty, and moving on to get more. The Mongols took their provisions with them and deposited them in advance of battle. They knew where to find water. When caught away from their supply lines, they had their survival foods, including horse blood. All this meant that when Chinggis Khan put together his army he commanded a terrifying force.
Page 99 then turns to the emperor himself, not yet known as Chinggis.
Around 1167 a male child, Temujin, was born into a chiefly but not powerful family in Mongolia.... Temujin's fate took a perilous turn when, after a Tatar tribesman killed Temujin's father, the family was deserted by his father's clan. Temujin, his mother, and her other children were left to forage on their own.

In these inauspicious circumstances, Temujin displayed a forceful personality that brought him friends, enemies, and victims. With one of his brothers, Temujin murdered a third brother in a fight. In 1180, Temujin was captured and nearly killed by a clan formerly allied with his father's.
P. 99 breaks off as Temujin proves himself in murderous contests for power, becoming Chinggis, the Great Khan of Eurasia. He and his descendants extended Mongol control west to the gates of Vienna and east to the Pacific Ocean. Skilled horsemen with deadly bows and a system of cross-continental relay stations gave Chinggis the kind of military advantage the machine gun and telegraph provided in the 19th century. In the long run, the Mongols left a different mark. Mongol rulers sheltered Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and other faiths and followed diverse religions themselves. They became great patrons of arts and sciences, spreading Persian, Arab, Chinese, and Islamic culture across Eurasia. The Mongols' flexible approach to difference among their populations was distinct from the politics of Christianized Rome and other empires who privileged one religion or group over others.

When Chinggis died in 1226, his empire was divided among four of his sons, and their domains separated over time. But the Mongols helped to shape some of the world's most powerful and long-lasting polities, notably Chinese, Russian, Ottoman and Mughal empires. The interactions, clashes, and creations of these and other empires are the subject of our book.
Read an excerpt from Empires in World History and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue