The impressive physical bulk of a work of history sometimes reflects the enormity of the problem, sometimes the demand for a grand new overview, but often the simple majesty of the narrative. Whatever the cause, the writing of history has of late witnessed a discernable trend back to the big. Among these recent epic endeavours are three monumental overviews of the premodern history of the Mediterranean world. The authors of these panoramic studies have focused, above all, on the great forces shaping its history and on the meta-transformations from the ancient to post-ancient worlds of which the Middle Sea was part. All are by English-language scholars working in elite universities. Even so, there is little evidence to show that the writers of these large books directly influenced one other, or that they were aware of each other’s megaprojects as they wrote.footnote1 The convergence of historical interest seems, rather, to be of a more fortuitous and meaningful kind.
It is also manifest that these new interpretations of Mediterranean history have been shaped by the peculiar interests of each set of authors. In consequence, they reflect three different perspectives on a common problem. The first of the triad, The Corrupting Sea by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, which appeared at the turn of the millennium, unveiled an innovative historical ecology of the Mediterranean world. Their investigations of the Mediterranean core and its transformations emphasize the creative power of a fragmented human ecology, riven with intensity and difference. In this sea world, tiny developments—but widespread in their cumulative effects—led to big changes. Constant movement and adaptation produced, in their own words, a kaleidoscope of small, sometimes microscopic, bottom-up intensifications in production and consumption.
Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy, a vast tome covering the whole of the Mediterranean and western Europe in the great transitional age between the fourth and the ninth centuries ce, appeared the following year. By contrast, McCormick’s story draws attention to major continuities in the emergence of a peculiar northwest European economy—a grand narrative in which the big pipelines of exchange of high-value commodities, including, critically, the human cargoes of slaves, subsisted as channels of large-scale economic development. If the Roman state-based system was entering into a marked crisis from the third century onwards, the post-Roman states of the Baghdad Caliphate and Carolingian Francia recentred economic structures at the distal points of a prior Mediterranean system. Emphatic images of viscosity and constant movement, of travel and trade, pervade this history too.
The most recent of the triad to appear, and the object of this essay, is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages—another work on a meta-historical scale devoted to the same problem and to the same centuries covered by McCormick. The production of three large historical works, of nearly three thousand pages in combined length, that take on the problem of social, economic and political change on a globalizing scale, all in the first years of our new millennium, might be a sign of something significant. But of what?
All of these new studies stand in the long shadow of Fernand Braudel’s masterwork on the Mediterranean and its world in the age of Philip II. Braudel’s revolutionary perspective on the nature of historical change, originally published in France in the aftermath of the Second World War, began to have a substantial impact on the English-language historical profession following its translation in the mid 1970s—a critical moment for the generation of which these historians are part.footnote2 Braudel purposefully foregrounded the formative power of massive geomorphic and ecological forces—the sea itself, its prevailing winds and currents, the mountain highlands and plains surrounding it—as huge and impassive elements that were set in a structure against, famously, the froth and temporality of mere human events. So it is not unfitting that all three investigations emphasize the long-term impact of the geographic stage. Wickham, too, begins his work with an introductory survey of the interrelationship between geography and politics in the circum-Mediterranean lands although, tellingly, it is one of the briefest chapters (39 pages) of his large book.
The writers of these new histories are reacting not only to Braudel, but also to other fundamental changes in paradigms and models that disturbed the writing of history in the last decades of the twentieth century: the rise of ecological globalism; the search for new paradigms in various postmodernist strands of theorizing; and the demise of classical Marxism, certainly in its more ‘vulgar’ modes, as a sufficient explanatory model. Horden and Purcell, for their part, abandon Braudel’s grand visionary unity of the Mediterranean in favour of what might be called a postmodernist fragmented understanding of process as defining Mediterranean development. They question almost every shibboleth of received historical truth on the subject, from the need to think of set categories like towns and cities to the real existence of a great historical transformation marked by anything that might be usefully or honestly called a ‘middle age’.
Taking a different tack, McCormick focuses on the axial driving forces that fuelled the gradual movement from ancient to early-modern European economies. He has argued that highly profitable sectors such as the slave trade, that were at the leading edges of its dynamic, remained an important core element of Mediterranean-centred exchange systems (Wickham, as we shall see, dissents). The central arguments of both of these works insistently foreground the role of communications: the exchange of goods and materials, the movements of migrant populations, and the fragmented push-on flows of knowledge, innovation and information.