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Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (2004) by C.A. Bayly

The Birth of the Modern World 1780- 1914 by C.A. Bayly

Book Review
The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914
 by C.A. Bayly
Blackwell Publishing, 2004

   The Birth of the Modern World is a global history of "the long nineteenth century;" a term that historians typically apply to the period between 1780 and the beginning of World War I .(August 1914- One hundred years ago!)  The Birth of the Modern World is a work of synthesis, with the author summarizing a variety of more recent historians who have combined to create a broad alternative to the narrative of "Western Exceptionalism" that used to dominate world histories of this time period.

   The idea that "the west won" the long nineteenth century still retains currency with the popular audience for history, and pop-historians like Jared Diamond have made an ample career out of explaining how and why "the west won."   Bayly explicitly writes to rebut that perspective, weaving in a "multi-center" perspective that incorporates the Muslim Empires of the early modern period (Ottomans, Mughals, Savfids) and the Eastern polities of China, Japan and South East Asia and showing that many so-called "Western" attributes had parallel developments in non-Western societies.

  The lack of original research gives The Birth of the Modern World a predictable structure, Bayly looks at the "conventional wisdom" of Western scholars on various issues related to the history of this time period, then he summarizes the work of non-Western and more recent Western scholars, then he draws measured conclusions that eschews the extreme interpretations of others.

  A major point that Bayly argues is that many of the changes of this early Modern period were the result of religions, particularly non-western religions, responding to the challenge of the west.  These non-western developments: the Wahhabi in Arabia and the reformers of East Asia in particular, are often excluded from "history" because of religious content, but really they are central to the discussion of the history of this period.

  Certainly, anyone familiar with the last decade of world history could understand how the development of the Wahhabi in the deserts of Arabia, would, two hundred and fifty years later, be viewed as a central development of world history, rather then a regional scrap between a failing Empire (Ottoman) and an oppressed minority (Bedouin Sunni Muslims.)

   One major point where Bayly seemingly agrees with past historians is that the pace of change did indeed intensify during the last two decades of this period (1884-1914.)

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