“How to Write Fake Global History”

A review of Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright, 2020) in Cyber Review of Modern Historiography. Excerpt:

Mikhail’s book is part of an unfortunate trend by which “global history” has become an excuse for authors to make outlandish claims, based on the belief that they will not be subject to the usual scholarly scrutiny. A flagrant example from France is the prize-winning book by political scientist Romain Bertrand, L’histoire à parts égales (Le Seuil, 2011), a pell-mell compilation of undigested materials lifted from the work of specialist scholars and wrapped in a package of politically correct Left Bank tiers-mondisme. Bertrand has set a trend in France, in which histoire globale has often come to stand either for indifferently conceived encyclopedias like L’histoire mondiale de la France (Le Seuil, 2017), or for works that borrow heavily and with scant acknowledgment from English-language scholarship. More recently, in the Anglophone world, we have a trade book by another Yale historian, Valerie Hansen, entitled The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalisation Began (Scribner, 2020). In this work Hansen produces the same generic descriptions of “exotic” eastern marketplaces as Mikhail, both of which seem to be taken from tourist brochures. (Selim’s Trabzon, according to Mikhail already had “flaming Indian red pepper,” long before these peppers arrived in India from America: GS, p. 67). But Hansen also claims that in the year 1000 CE, the circumnavigation of the globe was possible for the first time, because the Vikings (or Norsemen) had made contact with north-eastern America, and – in a dubious leap not supported by leading specialists – also allegedly with the Mayas. As the noted historian Noel Malcolm has written in a critical review of this book in The Telegraph (19 April 2020): “Hansen triumphantly declares that in 1000 these Norsemen had thus ‘closed the global loop,’ and that ‘for the first time an object could have travelled across the entire world.’ But one has to ask: even if archaeologists were to find a Viking-owned bronze Buddha in Newfoundland, would that really tell us anything about the start of a global process? This key part of the ‘process’ was not resumed until the voyages of Columbus; and even if the Vikings had stayed in place much longer, they would not have found any large-scale North-East American trading network to connect with. Globalisation surely means more than one pin-prick contact on the edge of a continent.” Authors like Mikhail and Hansen seem in turn to draw on earlier speculative and dubious global histories to build their houses of cards. In another skeptical review, the Columbus specialist Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote in the Wall Street Journal (17 September 2011) of these earlier works – notably one by Carol Delaney on Columbus – that they demonstrated “incompetence in research, a lack of critical discrimination and a chutzpah reminiscent of Columbus’s own,” and further that the authors (Delaney included) “have embarked on their odysseys in leaky vessels, with sails full of hot air instead of a speeding wind.” Now the authors dealt with by Fernández-Armesto were not professional historians, with positions in the history departments of prestigious universities. Yet, Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (Free Press, 2011), a book that the critic describes as “indifferent to coherent narrative or rational chronology,” is heavily drawn upon by Mikhail (and cited thirteen times) in the lengthy first section of his book which tries improbably to link Columbus to the Ottomans. What the specialist critics had said was obviously of no interest to him.

Read the whole thing. I have a review of Hansen’s The Year 1000 to be published soon in Arthuriana

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *