Towards a Comparative Political History: Mediation and Communication, c. 1000-1500

John WATTS and Hilde DE WEERDT

This paper is a report on an ongoing experiment to engage regional historiographies on politics and political transformation in an effort to critically re-examine conventional repertoires of comparative and global histories of politics. The larger methodological questions addressed in this paper are also those central to the workshop: Can a global history of politics be synthesised from ways in which political history is done in regions such as western Europe, the Byzantine Empire, or the Chinese territories? Can a regionally-inspired comparison produce the potential for different grand narratives/approaches? We will focus on mediation and communication in the exercise of power and authority as these are areas of historical research that have recently attracted interest, in Chinese and European history in particular, and that have proven critical of standard comparative political history focused on state formation, institutional development, or comparative political economy. We first review recent work on mediation and communication in Byzantine, Chinese and European historiography (ca. 1000-1500) asking how work on, for example, literati government, local elite interests, Inner Asian aristocratic cultures, and the proliferation of an imperial imaginaire in the Chinese case, or petitioning, preaching, the history of the book, the notion of the public sphere, and popular politics in the European case, refines assumptions, methods, and findings of earlier comparative political history and historical sociology. This review of core questions, methods, and findings in regional historiographies serves as the basis for a discussion of new comparative and connective histories of political practice. In this second part of the presentation we explore how different regional historiographies on power and communication can reflect back on each other (comparison), treat cross-regional developments (connections), and lead to a better and more inclusive understanding of major political transformations in global history.

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