Quick! Which classical composer was writing at the same time as the American Revolution? How does the expansion rate of the Mongol Empire compare with the spread of the British in South Asia? Can you compare water management systems across time? Should you? Why is European deforestation particularly bad when compared to China, the Moche, or the Mississippian Cultures? [Hint: It’s not. Europeans re-forest. The others didn’t, or don’t.]
Welcome to my world. I’m one of those dreadfully annoying history people who insist on having data in order to make comparisons across time. We tend to do terrible things to popular wisdom about history.
I build two different types of mental chronological frameworks: comparative and global. In some ways the global networks have taken the longest for me to assemble, because of how I learned history and how it is written (usually.) For example, it was only eight or ten years ago that I realized that the Enlightenment and Baroque music were happening at the same time. For some reason I set Baroque earlier, and had Classical lining up with the full-run of the Enlightenment. But Mozart is early classical, and he’s contemporaneous with both the American Revolution and the development of shape-note singing in the (new) United States. Or that Henry VIII could be considered part of the Renaissance. The late-Classical Maya coincides with Charlemagne (or vice versa). The conquest of the Aztecs came 38 years after the end of the Reconquista of Iberia from the Moors. Building the large, and easily accessible mental database that allows those kinds of co-locations requires a lot of learning and studying, at least for me. You may find it much easier. I’m slow.
Comparative chronologies are a little different. But they can be rather attitude-rocking. A recent example came as I was digging around for information on something about early Islam, specifically a title. I know what the cover looks like, but the title . . . So I was browsing thumbnails on Amazon and found something else that looked useful, cross-checked with the local library and got it locally.
I’d always taken at face value the oft-repeated statement that the spread of Islam from Arabia to Spain happened at a very fast rate, with the implication being unusually fast. Sometimes authors suggest that the rate came about because of all the willing conversions and enthusiastic new believers. It is often framed as something like, “Within a hundred years after the death of the Prophet, Islam extended from northern Iberia to modern-day India.” Implication being that this is a good thing, and an impressive accomplishment.
Er, except. . . Per this book I was nibbling, and when I started looking at other dates, that’s not unusually fast. The Huns expanded that quickly. Ditto the Mongols and Vandals. It is about as fast as most nomadic peoples expanded their ranges if they were not also stopping, establishing semi-permanent villages or settlements, and then moving on. Heck, the Magyars raided farther, faster in the late 900s before they were “firmly encouraged” to settle down and behave. So the spread of Arab raiders was not especially rapid. Given that recent research suggests that the Byzantines were trying to encourage the Arabs to go their own way anyway in the early 600s so they could focus their resources and energies on Europe and Asia Minor, the Arabs moved into a bit of a power vacuum, at least at first. Arabia and Syria in 640 to Spain in 710? No big deal.
And that no big deal shifts how I look at the expansion of the Arabs and of early Islam. Doesn’t change the facts. The facts were always there, but I had nothing to compare them to in order to put them in a frame of reference.
Building the frames of reference is hard for someone like me. I tend to specialize. I’m like Isaiah Berlin’s famous hedgehog: I know one thing. I know it really well. I’m a well digger, not a sapper. But it is by sapping, by sniffing all over for the big picture like the fox, that I can assemble what I need to have a solid world historical framework. Which means not only reading omnivorously, but chewing over what I’ve read and putting it up against other things and comparing.
And that’s hard. That uses mental muscles I don’t want to use. I want to read interesting monographs, curled up in my cozy hedgehog nest.