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READ: Era 4 Overview - Collapse and Restructuring

In Era 3, we saw the emergence of large states, empires, and networks that connected them to each other and to surrounding peoples. In Era 4, we see that both states and the networks between them can collapse – and frequently did! But were these collapses and recoveries or restructuring? We ask the simple question: does history teach us that big changes are always progress? Maybe it’s not so simple.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. The article mentions that some people describe what comes after collapse as recovery, but others believe reorganization comes after collapse. What’s the difference?
  2. What are two different, extreme ways in which historians have sometimes used the term collapse?
  3. How does the author describe the histories of Africa and the Americas in this period?
  4. What was the strong center that helped growth resume in Afro-Eurasia in the seventh century?
  5. In general, what role did religion play in the reorganization of the Afro-Eurasian system in this period, according to the article?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. If we just look at the Paleolithic Era to today, we see bigger communities, more complex networks, and more production and distribution. But the author of this articles suggests that change in these three frames isn’t always happening in that direction. Do you agree with the author? What kind of evidence would support their argument?
  2. What evidence in this article suggests that Europe recovered quickly after the collapse of the Roman Empire? What evidence suggests a slow recovery? Which do you find more convincing?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Era 4 Overview: Collapse and Restructuring

A photograph from the inside of a rounded, open building without a ceiling. There are arches built out of stone bricks and a layer of square shaped windows on top of the arches. Through the arches we can see a blue sky.
Trevor Getz and Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
In Era 3, we saw the emergence of large states, empires, and networks that connected them to one another and to surrounding peoples. In Era 4, we see that both states and the networks between them can collapse—and frequently did! But were these collapses and recoveries or restructuring? We ask the simple question: Does history teach us that big changes are always progress? Maybe it's not so simple.
You already know from the opening of this course that people construct stories about the past in the form of narratives. These narratives have beginnings and ends, and describe change over time. On a global scale, many of these narratives give a sense of progress. Populations generally rise. People make and consume more stuff. Communities become bigger. Networks expand and become richer and deeper. But reality is more complex. If you take only two moments in human history as data points—the Paleolithic and the world in which we live—all of these stories seem to work. But up close, they get a little bit iffier. Sometimes populations decrease. Sometimes communities get smaller, and networks close. Often, there is a restructuring. Things change, but don't necessarily get bigger or smaller. Instead, their overall shape and organization changes. So we ask the question: Does history teach us that big changes are always progress? Maybe it's not so simple.
Era 4 (c. 200-1500 CE) was an era of great change that also looks like a straightforward story if we look at just the beginning and the end of the period from a great distance. At the beginning of the era, we see lots of states and complex societies in many regions of the world, and some connections between them that allowed for quite a bit of production and distribution and also the exchange of ideas. In particular, Eurasia in 200 CE featured two very large states—the Roman Empire and China under the Han Dynasty—each on one end of a long-distance trade route.
If we were to look much later in the era, in the fourteenth century, we would again see that long-distance trade route across Eurasia. Now it is even thicker, with more people and products moving east and west across this vast land-mass. And it is wider as well, connected to trade routes reaching out from East and West Africa and into more regions of Asia. Another big network also has developed in the Americas. But if we look closer at the trading system in Eurasia, we no longer see one big state on either side. Instead, we see a very big state—the Mongol Empire—dominating much of the system, with smaller states all around.
A map shows the vastness of medieval trade networks, which covered a large part of the world.
Medieval trade networks, map by Martin Jan Månsson.
This change to the Eurasian system is a clue that something—or things—dramatic happened in between those two dates. Historians and other scholars have hints about what happened. We know that several states—including the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty China—broke up early in this era. We know that the system that connected them similarly broke down, at least for a while, and that the networks we see in the fourteenth century were in fact only rebuilt through great struggle.
Many observers think this transformation looks like a collapse, followed by a recovery. To them, it resembles a stop in the middle of the story, and then a long pause before the Eurasian network could re-emerge. To others, it looks more like a reorganization of who is participating and how the system was formed. Certainly, whatever happened, it was something that challenges the description of "progress as normal."

Collapse

Let's talk about the idea of collapse first. "Collapse" can describe a lot of different situations. It might mean the total destruction of a society and all of its institutions—the burning of cities, the decline of population, the loss of knowledge. It might, in some cases, be used to describe little more than a change of government or ruler.
The collapse of the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty China are not alone in this category, either! Even within Eurasia, several other states, including the Gupta Empire in South Asia, experienced collapse as well in this period. Indeed, these incidents seem to have had widespread effect across a broad region. So, for example, while human population overall grew during this era, in large areas of Eurasia, the population sharply declined between 300 and 600 CE.
Impressive ruins of a Roman temple. There are tall, stone walls, as well as carved columns
Temple of Bel, part of the Roman Ruins in Palmyra, Syria, left behind when the Roman Empire collapsed. By Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0.
But not everyone agrees about what "collapse" means, and not everyone even agrees that the history of Afro-Eurasia in this era was principally a period of collapse. In the centuries that followed the decline of the ancient world system, some regions of Afro-Eurasia moved in different directions. China alternated between times of unity and division. Much of the Eastern Roman Empire held on as the Byzantine Empire. In southwestern Asia and North Africa, Roman rule ended. In its place rose a political infrastructure built around an emerging and easily spread religion known as Islam. In western Europe, by contrast, the empire's infrastructure disappeared. Roads and city walls, its system of authority—including courts of law and soldiers—quite literally vanished. This led many historians to describe the time as "a dark age."
Other regions of the world experienced their own patterns of growth and decline in this period. In East Africa, the once-powerful state of Aksum declined rapidly, but Swahili-speaking city-states arose on the coast and came to play a big role in global production and distribution. For a time, they dominated trade between the Indian Ocean and the African interior. In West Africa, large states began to emerge for the first time as well. Mali was one of these new large states, and it was a unique kind of political community but one with a vast reach. In Mesoamerica, however, states and systems also grew and collapsed. This included the network of small states that we know as the Maya. Many of these reached their heights and then seemingly disintegrated in the ninth century.

Reorganization

Wherever there was a collapse, there was also a recovery. Exactly how long this took varied in different regions. Some scholars argue that recovery began in many cases almost immediately. They argue that maybe some "collapses" weren't really so dramatic. Maybe recoveries were really just reorganizations. In the previous era, the system of collapse and recovery was defined by two strong powers on either end, such as the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty. However in Afro-Eurasia, this reorganization was defined more by a strong center. Islam emerged in the seventh century. It provided trading links, a shared moral compass, and political stability. All of these things allowed for the great east-west commerce of the Silk Road to re-emerge. The Indian Ocean also became, more than ever, an important trading circuit. Rising trade created new possibilities for taxation. Governments strengthened on the back of these commercial opportunities. Sometimes, as in the Crusades, political clashes were provoked and strengthened by conflict between religious communities.
Religion also played an important role in the recovery and reorganization of the system. Europeans lacked a strong, central government. But Christianity provided a sense of unity. In Southeast Asia, Buddhism and Hinduism acted as networks to support traders. They also offered ideologies and organizing principles for states.
But the relationship between the state and religion was not exact or perfect. In western Europe, the Christian (Catholic) Pope wielded great authority. But he did not generally rule over vast territory. Moreover, the Christian world was divided. The Orthodox Church based in Byzantium was at times friendly to and enemies with Catholic powers. The Muslim world was also frequently divided among large and small states. Moreover, some stateless peoples could survive and thrive as part of a reorganized system. This was true in particular of the Jewish community.
Sculpture of a male person wearing a tall, pointed hat and a long red tunic.
Tang Dynasty sculpture of a foreign merchant from Central Asia, a sign of recovering trade in the 7th century, public domain.

Conclusion

All of the evidence about recovery leads us to ask more questions about the collapse—both as an idea, and as specific historical events. What do historians mean when they say that some societies "collapse" or "fall"? What actually changes? Who is affected by those changes? How do things either change back, or start growing again, if differently? Finding some kinds of answers to these questions about the past might help us to look at our own society in the present, and maybe even to plan for the future.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is a professor of African and world history at San Francisco State University. He has been the author or editor of 11 books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and has coproduced several prize-winning documentaries. Trevor is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, Bridgette has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course world history and US history curricula.

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