Guest Essay: The Global Middle Ages, by Alfred J. Andrea

The following essay is by Alfred J. Andrea, the former president of the World History Association and a noted medieval historian. In it, he provides his insights on the development, and challenges, of studying the Global Middle Ages.


Most historians who specialize in medieval Europe are ambivalent about the term “the Middle Ages.” While proudly calling themselves “medievalists” (from the Latin medium aevum—middle age), they insist that the millennium or more separating late Roman antiquity from the so-called early modern period was not a middle period in any meaningful way. And it certainly was not a valley of darkness between two lofty golden ages.

Even more problematical or worse in the eyes of many medievalists is the term “the Global Middle Ages.” How, they ask, can one apply such a questionable label as Middle Ages, itself the misbegotten product of out-of-date historical thinking, to the rest of the world? What did India’s Gupta Empire (ca. 320-ca. 550) have in common with the roughly contemporaneous Visigothic Kingdom or China’s Tang dynasty (618-907) with the Carolingian dynasty? What possible connection was there between the twelfth-century Toltecs of central Mesoamerica and the Hohenstaufens of central Europe, or between Mali’s Epic of Sundiata and the Nibelungenlied? Although historians who promote study of the Global Middle Ages might claim that finally medieval history has been shorn of its Eurocentrism, conceivably their critics could counter that applying an obviously Eurocentric label to non-Western cultures is another example of Western academic imperialism.

Resistance to the Global Middle Ages is reminiscent of similar attacks on world history and its advocates in the 1980s and ’90s, and yet today world history is entrenched in the curricula of most schools, even though it still has its disparagers and apparently is in retreat in some regions of Europe and the USA in the face of assaults by counter-revolutionary Western exceptionalists.

From the beginning, the practitioners of world history have largely come from the ranks of modernists, their argument being that world history began in and around 1492, with the creation of a global ecumene, or connected community. The minority of world historians who specialized in medieval studies respectfully disagreed, and since the early years of the current century, they have been increasingly promoting the Global Middle Ages.

In 2018, Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen co-edited The Global Middle Ages, which appeared as an open-access supplement of Past & Present and should be read by all world historians, not just medievalists.[1] Also coming out of England is the on-line Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages (2019).[2] Additionally, two peer-reviewed journals are exciting quite a bit of attention. The older, which published its eleventh volume this year, is the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ open-access Medieval Worlds: Comparative and Interdisciplinary Studies. Focusing on the period 400-1500, but not rigidly so, its stated mission is “to overcome disciplinary boundaries, regional limits and national research traditions in Medieval Studies”[3] The University of California Press’s on-line Journal of Medieval Worlds, which published its second volume in 2020, focuses primarily on the period 750-1600 with the goal of fostering innovative, multidisciplinary research and approaches to pedagogy “that explore interconnections across regions or build meaningful comparisons across cultures.”[4]

Medievalists from across the world, but primarily from the U.S. and Western Europe, have annually gathered in cohorts of thousands at two international medieval congresses, an early May meeting at Western Michigan University and an early July conference at the University of Leeds in England. The cancelled 55th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2020) at Western Michigan had scheduled two (of its three) plenary addresses on topics relating to the Global Middle Ages.[5] Anticipating it by two years, the 2018 International Medieval Congress at Leeds offered thirty-three panels devoted to the Global Middle Ages.[6] Even more emblematic of the coming of age of the Global Middle Ages was the 94th annual meeting of the venerable Medieval Academy of America at the University of Pennsylvania in March 2019.  Once a bastion of conservative academia, the MAA showed its twenty-first-century consciousness by devoting the entire three-day meeting to “The Global Turn in Medieval Studies.”[7]

Moving from learned publications and academic conferences, the Global Middle Ages are finding a home within several universities. In 2004, the Medieval Studies Program at the University of Texas at Austin introduced collaborative, team-taught, interdisciplinary graduate seminars on “ an interconnected medieval world,”[8] In 2016, faculty at the University of Sydney inaugurated a multi-disciplinary group dedicated to a non-Eurocentric Global Middle Ages,[9] and in February 2019, the University of Michigan sponsored a two-day symposium titled “De-centering the Global Middle Ages.”[10] Yes, as this triad suggests, medieval global history still has a long way to go before it is an everyday part of the curricula of schools, colleges, and universities. But that fact does not deter those historians who, laboring in the vineyard of the medieval past, work to make the Global Middle Ages a fully accepted subset of both world history and medieval studies.

Global medievalists approach world history before 1492 along three pathways. Mindful that students of world history should have a basic grasp of the principles and historical evolution of the major cultural traditions around the globe, these historians have created courses of study that explore the early histories of multiple discrete peoples and polities. In this way, they lay down basic introductions to ways of thought and action that originated in antiquity or the Middle Ages but continued to influence behavior for centuries or millennia thereafter. Such an approach is based upon their response to questions such as: can one understand China in the twenty-first century without first knowing of its foundational philosophies and early history? This cataloging of multiple histories, however, is not world history at its best, and global medievalists have realized that fact. Modes of analysis are necessary to give coherence to history, especially a history as vast and unwieldy as world history. For this reason, global medievalists (and global classicists, who are an even rarer breed) have adopted the dual perspectives of trans-cultural exchange and comparative analysis, both of which enable them to present a coherent vision of the pre-modern world.[11]

Focusing on the vast networks of interchange across and around Afro-Eurasia and the Americas that served as pathways for the transit of peoples, goods, and ideas long before 1492, medieval global historians have greatly enriched our understanding of how trans- and inter-continental exchange functioned long before the Age of Globalization.[12] But there is a problem with this approach. Although irrefutable evidence exists for Polynesian contact with coastal South America and Norse contact with coastal North America well before the age of the Columbian Exchange,[13] these contacts had little or no long-term impact on the cultures that met ever so briefly (except for the introduction of the American sweet potato into Polynesia).  The fact is, concentrating on cross-cultural contacts and exchanges before 1492 forces the global medievalist to look at Afro-Eurasia and the Americas as two isolated “world islands.”

The third method, comparative analysis, offers the best means through which historians of the Global Middle Ages can look at Earth and its peoples holistically, and it is that mode of investigation that most global medievalists have elected to employ. Imagine, for example, if someone were studying the phenomenon of holy war in the Global Middle Ages. The standard Euro-medieval approach to holy war would have been to engage in a comparative analysis of crusades and jihads. Perhaps a more ecumenically minded but still traditional medievalist might add Byzantine wars and address the controversial issue of whether or not Byzantium ever waged holy wars. But that is as far as the Euro-centered medievalist would go. The global medievalist, however, would range so much wider.

The millenarian Dacheng Rebellion of 515, waged to cleanse China of its demon monks and foreigners, could be profitably compared with the millenarian Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320 that sought to rid France and Aragon of corrupt clerics and Jews. The warrior saints of Christendom, such as George, who is the protective patron of Ethiopia, Lithuania, Greece, Catalonia, England, and myriad other lands, certainly merits comparison with Buddhism’s terrifying protector bodhisattvas, such as Vajrapani (holder of the thunder bolt). The wars of conquest and conversion in the name of Inti, the sun god, that Pachacuti Inca conducted in the fifteenth century offer interesting similarities and striking differences with the Baltic Crusades that Germans, Scandinavians, and others carried on in the name of the Virgin Mary from 1147 to about 1525. Examples can be multiplied many times over, but that would be unholy overkill.


A temple guardian, Xumishan Grottoes, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China. Constructed between the fifth and tenth centuries, many of the 130 Buddhist caves and shrines at Xumishan have menacing guardians to ward off evil forces. The upraised right hand would originally have held a thunderbolt or a mace. The guardians are believed to be manifestations of Vajrapani, a bodhisattva who originally had been a guardian of the Buddha. Vajrapani, who is represented in numerous fearsome forms as a manifestation of the power of the Buddhist Dharma, or Law, is worshipped in a wide variety of Buddhist sects.


Because all historians are the servants of time, the question arises as to the chronological boundaries of the Global Middle Ages. Euro-medievalists (a rather strange-sounding term) divide on the issue of the chronological boundaries of the Middle Ages, although the span 500-1500 has become somewhat standard by default. Even more so, global medievalists debate when this era began and ended, but there is an emerging consensus that the edges are flexible, especially so when the historian employs the tools of comparative analysis. Consequently, starting and ending dates depend on the phenomenon under consideration.

The imaginary historian studying holy war in a medieval global context, for example, might well argue for the dates 300-1600. Beginning in the fourth century enables her or him to study the holy wars of Constantine I (r. 306-37), which might or might not have served as a model for subsequent Byzantine holy wars, such as those of Emperor Heraclius in the early sixth century. Ending in 1600 enables the same historian to study the holy jihad that the Somali emir, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi of Adal, known to his enemies as Gragn (Lefty), waged against Christian Ethiopia from 1529 to 1543.  A comparative analysis of that bloody war of conversion and destruction with the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) would not be unprofitable.

This imaginary historian, by the way, is not so imaginary. In fact, my mentioning it is a way of shamelessly promoting the forthcoming Sanctified Violence: Holy War in World History (Hackett, March 2021), co-authored by—wait for it—Andrea and Holt. Although it ranges over 5000 years, this should be not be a problem for medievalists. After all, we medievalists are an ecumenical lot. You might say we are global in our far-ranging interests.


[1] Free access is at (accessed August 6, 2020).

[2] The encyclopedia is available by subscription at (accessed July 30, 2020).

[3] (accessed August 6, 2020).

[4] (accessed August 6, 2020).

[5] (accessed August 6, 2020).

[6] The congress programme is at (accessed August 6, 2020).

[7] (accessed August 6, 2020).

[8]  (accessed July 29, 2020).

[9] (accessed July 30, 2020).

[10] (accessed July 30, 2020).

[11] A textbook that illustrates all three forms of presentation and analysis is Volume 1 to 1500, of Alfred. J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History, 2 vols.,  8th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2016).

[12] Studies of cross-cultural interchange across medieval Afro-Eurasia are legion. A few worth noting are: Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); and J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Studies of cross-cultural exchange across the medieval Americas are far rarer—so far. A good beginning is Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Random House, 2005).

[13] Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).