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‘We’ve Suggested Some New Hypotheses on Medieval History’

Pavel Uvarov
Pavel Uvarov
This year two volumes of the new six-volume academic publication ‘World History’ have come out. Pavel Uvarov, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Head of the HSE Department of Social History and chief editor of the second volume, which is dedicated to the history of Western and Eastern peoples in the Middle Ages, spoke to us about the book.

Writing world histories has become a global trend in recent years. There is a huge demand among readers around the world for books of this kind, and not just in Russia where the previous edition of ‘World History’, published over 10 years - 1956 to 1965 initially in 10 volumes, is still popular.

The new edition of ‘World History’ is a Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) project, and it is planned to run to six volumes, under the general editorship of Alexander Chubarian, Director of the RAS Institute of World History and Member of the RAS. So far, two volumes have been published: the first of them, dedicated to Ancient History, was launched in February this year, and the second, entitled ‘Medieval Civilizations of the East and West’, was presented to the academic community just recently.

This is the first academic publication of ‘World History’ published by the Russian Academy of Sciences since a similarly named Soviet edition. These editions, however, are totally different. Unlike the Soviet publication, which grew out of the general concept of consequential change in socio-historical formations, the new one has no general scenario. The lack of scenario reflects the state of modern academic approaches to history. Today there is no single concept shared by the professional community. That’s why we can’t speak about a general view on history among the authors of ‘World History’.

World History. Vol. 2. Medieval Civilizations of the East and West
World History. Vol. 2. Medieval Civilizations of the East and West
We tried, avoiding the extremes of Eurocentrism, to show the different historical processes taking place in different countries around the world at the same time. Most people have no idea what was going on in China and Japan while Vladimir Monomakh was writing sermons to his children, or what was happening in England at the time. So we structured all medieval events into five chronological sections, and the reader’s attention can swing over them like a pendulum moving from West to East and from East to West from one chapter to the next. The second volume focuses on the contacts between countries, since most of the societies we are looking at were not isolated, and contributed to each other’s development, even if they didn’t make contact with one another directly.

Speaking about the image of the medieval period, talk of  the ‘Dark Ages’ or stagnating feudalism holds no water among professional historians these days. On the contrary, with the establishment of feudal liege economies at the end of the 10th century, the West experienced a boom in demographic, economic and cultural growth, which lasted until the beginning of the 14th century. In my view, all further successes of Western civilization took place not despite, but because of the feudal legacy, which developed, became stronger, overcame its problems and transformed itself. Without it modernization would never have happened.

We don’t lay claim to any major new discoveries but in our book we have suggested some new hypotheses. Particularly, Alexey Ryabinin expressed an interesting thought about the decisive role of neighboring nomads in the creation of Eastern states. It is true that the Middle Ages’ ‘trademark’, besides world religions, is the nomads, who were ‘cruising’ between the Amur River basin and Hungary over several centuries. They were a constantly active factor forcing the neighboring peoples, particularly those living on the Great Steppe, to create certain socio-political structures inside their country – a strong centralized power structure, a standing army, and a vast and expensive bureaucracy.

Against this background, Western Europe was the only place not exposed to the threat from the nomadic hordes roaming the Steppe. Throughout the Middle Ages it developed unhampered by the necessity to create superstates, though since Charlemagne there have been many attempts to unite it and create a universal state. No one has done it yet.

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