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A27 World Orders

World Orders in Transcultural Perspective: Pre-modern Concepts of Continents and Empire

Coordination: Bernd Schneidmüller, Klaus Oschema

Abstract

Emperor Augustus as shown in the Liber floridus by the monk Lambert of Saint Omer (ca. 1120). 
The emperor’s claim to universal rule is symbolized by the traditional T-O-map he holds in his left representing the entire world. The map is oriented towards east (on top) and shows the three parts of the world: Asia, Europe, and Africa.
(Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Ms. 92, fol. 138v. )

Emperor Augustus as shown in the Liber floridus by the monk Lambert of Saint Omer (ca. 1120).
The emperor’s claim to universal rule is symbolized by the traditional T-O-map he holds in his left representing the entire world. The map is oriented towards east (on top) and shows the three parts of the world: Asia, Europe, and Africa.
(Ghent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Ms. 92, fol. 138v. )

Broad meta-categories like ‘Continent’ and ‘Empire’, which serve to order the social or physical world, play an important role in the self-perception and self-description of societies: They contribute to the construction of a specific world-view and enable social actors (individuals and institutions alike) to position themselves in this larger framework, but also to orientate their actions accordingly. The project ‘World Orders in Transcultural Perspective’ focused on the mutual relations, changes, and influences between such meta-categories in the pre-modern period. This chronological focus allowed us to analyse a period, which was profoundly marked by the growing contacts and exchanges between the European and Asian societies and cultures; we could thus analyse divergent developments as well as processes of mutual perception and influence.
The chosen approach might be illustrated with some of the central findings on the category of ‘Empire’: In the Latin-European Middle Ages, the notions of imperium resp. imperator developments were commonly used to designate the superior authority of a ruler, which exceeded the position of a ‘mere’ king. In this sense, it was applied in different contexts, which can roughly be divided into two main strands: On the one hand, imperial titles could be used as self-designations—e.g. by the ‘Roman Emperor’ (imperator Romanorum), but also by a number of Anglo-Saxon or Iberian kings (imperator Anglorum, imperator Hispaniae). On the other hand, the title imperator could also be used by a number of authors to seize and describe the power and authority of ‘foreign’, non-European rulers with a terminology that the authors themselves, but also their audience were familiar with. These effects became particularly relevant from the 12th century onwards, when Latin Christians were increasingly implied in ever more dense transcultural contacts and exchanges. As a consequence, in Crusade chronicles the Seljuk Sultan could be called the imperator Persidis, while a number of later-medieval travelogues called the Mongol Khan the imperator Tartarorum. Based on this tradition, and seen in a global perspective, empires became ‘countable’ and constituted a category that was employed to order the entire world: Writing around 1420, the chronicler Ulrich Richental from Constance, for example, listed no less than nine empires, explicitly underlining that seven of them were to be found in Asia.
The tripartite order of the known world, which was usually subdivided into three continents, constituted one of the central features of the world-view in the Christian World as well as in Islam. Especially in the Latin-Christian perspective, Asia was perceived to have precedence before Europe and Africa: it was described as being not only the largest continent, but also the home of immense riches, miraculous creatures and, not least, particularly powerful rulers. To the ecumene’s extreme east, far away from the Christian kingdoms’ they were familiar with, many authors located earthly paradise. The tripartite order, but also the topical attributions to the continents prove to be astonishingly stable throughout the Middle Ages in the Latin-Christian tradition: even though numerous travels entailed an enormous growth of empirical knowledge from the 13th century on, Asia (or the ‘Orient’ in general) continued to be widely perceived as a space of wonder and superlatives.
An inclusive approach to structures and categories of ‘world-order’ that includes phenomena from the Islamic or Chinese tradition cannot only show that the choice of categories and their parameters were culturally determined. In addition, it also enables us to identify the existence of alternative categories and structures, as well as their intimate relation with further cultural features. This can, e.g. be demonstrated with the tripartite structure of the geographic world-view that became particularly prominent in the Christian tradition, where it resonates with further features from the realms of religion, politics, and culture. On the level of political order, European cultures were increasingly characterized, towards the later Middle Ages, by a plurality of kingdoms—a phenomenon that was already deliberated by contemporary authors. Asia, on the other hand, became a ‘space of imagination’ for Latin-Christian authors, which was characterized by the existence of mighty empires.
Our own work in the context of this project, which focused on the categories of ‘continent’ and ‘empire’, culminated in an inter-disciplinary conference under the title “Order into Action” (Heidelberg, 10-12 November 2016). Not least in order to inspire future research in transcultural perspective, the contributions to this conference seek to explore if and in how far the structure of political, geographical, or religious categories of order influenced the actions of individuals or groups.

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