From Vienna to Istanbul and Beijing: A Social History of Rulership Across the Globe

Tuesday 15th November 2016, Senior Parlour, Gonville and Caius College, 5-6pm

Professor Jeroen Duindam (Leiden University)

Supported by the DAAD Cambridge Research Hub with funds from the German Federal Foreign Office (FFO)

Many historians have serious doubts about comparative history, particularly about global comparison. It has been argued that global comparison necessarily views the world through the prism of one region, defining one culture as universal yardstick. Profound cultural differences are buried under bland general clichés, or forced into teleological typologies. Indeed, after the cultural turn the effort to define patterns of behaviour shared by people in many places and periods has found few outspoken advocates. Most global historians nowadays focus on connections and exchanges; they examine the process of globalisation. Global comparative history, conversely, deals primarily with the ‘divergence’ debate: when and why did the West obtain its marked advantage? These two very different forms of global history therefore usually consider only a limited number of cases: either the zones connected by the traffic of people, goods, and ideas, or the winners and near-winners of the global economic contest. They are global in inspiration rather than in scope.

Rulers and their courts are ubiquitous in premodern history. Any scholar familiar with the primary sources generated by these centres of power will recognise certain recurring questions related to rulers with their retinues of relatives and servants. Such questions form the starting point of my recent experiment in global comparative history: Dynasties. A Global History of Power 1300-1800. The book is a statement about the significance of comparison, and an attempt to resolve some of the problems of global comparison. How can Habsburg Emperor Leopold I’s ruminations as well as the candid thoughts of his Chinese contemporary Kangxi help to clarify challenges experienced by many rulers? What makes dynastic succession and the place of women near the throne suitable themes for global comparison? What criteria did I use to select my cases, and how can it be helpful to compare African chiefdoms without script with the Chinese empire, in terms of scale and development as well as the immense difference in source materials? I will illustrate these questions with examples and outcomes, outlining some of the book’s main themes and questions about rulers, dynasties, courts and their place in the realm at large.