Bjorn Wittrock: The Age of trans-regional reorientations: cultural crystallization and transformation in the tenth to thirteenth centuries

Just finished reading chapter 8 of The Cambridge World History Volume V (just published) by Bjorn Wittrock. Wanted to take more detailed notes and write more detailed thoughts on this chapter. Thus this post.

First, let me note that this chapter does not include much about the Islamicate world during the 10th-13th centuries. Second, Wittrock seems to be with a group of (European?) researchers (S. N. Eisenstadt, Johann P. Arnason, Thomas N. Bisson, Pierre Francois Souyri) whose work (many on medieval Japan) up till now I have not been familiar with.


- Essay started with Axial age (800-200BCE), and and its legacies in the 1st millennium CE. Axial Age: "premised on a cosmology that made a sharper distinction between a transcendental and a mundane sphere than had earlier philosophies and religions. These modes of thought also involved the articulation of notions of temporality, of agency, and of belonging ..." (p.206)

- Axial Age "was characterized by three central developments in five civilizations: ancient Israel, China, Greece, India, and Iran." (p.207) "First, the great world religions emerged and spread ... Second, new forms of political order developed, ... in which kings and emperors ... could not legitimately claim to be gods. Third, the new imperial orders helped further regional and trans-regional trade networks ..." (p.207)

- " ... in ... the first millennium CE ... it became more difficult to contain religious practices within the frameworks of existing political institutions." (p.207) "In general, imperial rulers in civilizations in which non-deistic religions and philosophies exerted a dominant influence were perhaps less well placed to draw on Axial religions for instrumental purposes than were those where deistic religions flourished. However, they may have been better placed to avoid some of the major tensions and problems involved in such use, as well as less exposed to the violent outbursts of politically focused zeal that were a potential consequence flowing from the articulation of divergent religious standpoints among adherents of deistic Axial religions." (p.208)

- Then the essay turned to its main concern of cultural crystallizations. "I shall use the term 'cultural crystallizations' to designate articulations of new conceptions of cosmology, temporality, agency, and belonging that come to have deep implications for the emergence of new societal arrangements and institutions." (p.209)

- The result? "... it was only in these centuries at the beginning of the second millennium CE ... that the major civilizations of afro-literate societies were distinctly formed and became clearly demarcated from each other, both in their self-image and in the view of other societies." (p.212)

- After these general theoretical statements, the essay described some changes in the short section "Contexts of change." for several world regions. China: Neo-Confucian literati gained institutional autonomy (on the local level, per research by Peter Bol), Western Europe: political plurality with "intense deliberations and controversies about the relationship between the traditions of Latin Christendom and the philosophical and linguistic traditions of classical antiquity." (p.214) and new monastic orders with closer links to local communities. In South Asia: Hinduism "entailed claims to universal significance as well as a further strengthening and revitalization of the role of Sanskrit as a language, which formed the basis of a vast array of cultural practices also on the most local level." (p.215) "... as in Europe, India experienced a shift towards vernacularization of linguistic practices and a localization of religious practices." (p.215)

- The core of the essay is a two-page section called "Conditions and causes. Extract: "Several interlinked processes affected ... civilizations across the Old World during the period from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, and led to cultural crystallizations and reorientations in many regions. First, there was remarkable demographic growth, more so it appears than in the centuries both before and after the period. ... Second, there was pronounced agricultural growth, which resulted from changes in land use and also in production techniques ... Third, agricultural growth in turn allowed for the growth of new cities and new types of urban life. ... Urban developments were furthermore related to efforts at articulating notions of rights both in agriculture and in urban life. Fourth, commerce grew. ... Fifth, in most civilizations, elites formed and were contested, with conflicts between traditional ... older elites, often with relationships to imperial courts, and emerging and increasingly influential military and clerical elite. Sixth, new types of institutions for the training of clerical and religious elites emerged, capable of articulating an interpretation of often quasi-judicial rules and laws. ... Seventh, the rise of new elites had important implications for the overall social order as well as for the nature and regulation of social interactions outside of the realm of government proper, what might perhaps even be termed new kinds of public spaces. ... Eighth, elite contestations tended to focus on ... contestation about the nature, rulership and control of political order. Jointly these processes set the stage for longer-term trajectories of the afro-literate societies of the Old World, and created some of the conditions for the world of intensified global interactions and encounters that was to follow ... " (p.216-217)

- This leads to a section of differences across regions. The Japanese portion is particularly interesting. In China where an economic shift from North to South China happened, in Japan there is a shift of political center from Kyoto to Kamakura. "However, rule in the Kamakura period took place within severe financial constraints ... This reduction in income meant that the expectations of members of the warrior class for rewards ... could not be met." (p.221) I made a note here that Song also has a financially constrained government despite a thriving economy - not unlike what is happening nowadays across the world.

- This section also recasted the Weberian analysis as described by Wolfgang Schluchter 1996 with 4 transformations: Papal Revolution, Feudal Revolution, Urban Revolution, and intellectual revolution.

- Also emerged here are some common themes across regions, e.g. threat and integration of nomads, shifting of economic / political centers, shrinking away from cosmopolitanism, stricter emphasis on patrilineal descent, etc.

- What the author also seems to hint at: " ... the consequences of Mongol conquest  ... While both worlds came to preserve their ecumenical cultural languages ..." this compares with vernucularization of Europe and South Asia.

- Interesting Bibliography:

> Said Amir Arjomand (ed.), Social Theory and Regional Studies in the Global Age (2014)

> Arnason and Wittrock (eds.) Eurasian Transformations, Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries: Crystallizations, Divergences, Renaissances (2004)

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