This article briefly summarizes the crucial chapters of Wiesner-Hanks’ A History of World Societies (2018). By understanding humanity’s first steps towards modern civilization, we can acquire context to contemporary society and better realize our collective successes and failures.
Part 1 – Humanity’s Great Triumph (10,000 B.C.E.)
For better and worse, every civilization was defined by the results of the agricultural revolution. The cultivation of crops enabled farmers to stay in a fixed location and have a consistent source of nutrients, as opposed to continuously traveling long distances in search of food. Likewise, the domestication of animals encouraged the further development of humankind – bringing the way to modern farming and a more efficient division of labor. These innovations sparked the beginning of the Neolithic era and, in many ways, human civilization as a whole. In its wake, came unprecedented convenience and difficulty, most of which remain with society to this day.
As a result of the agricultural revolution, early settlers enjoyed an unprecedented abundance of food, time and energy. No longer did survival require the constant scavenge for nutrients and resources. Instead, Neolithic settlers could indulge in the newly discovered practice of horticulture and, by planting seeds with hoes and sticks, could enjoy more food from a reliable source. First practiced in the Fertile Crescent roughly eleven-thousand years ago, the intentional planting and cultivation of crops have been crucial to the success of early communities and nearly every civilization which followed. The discovery of horticulture enabled, not only unprecedented health and convenience but also the ability to settle in a single location and organize a complex society. This made life far more manageable, as early settlers were then able to better conserve resources, time and energy.
Coinciding with the innovation of horticulture came the domestication of animals, which further revolutionized humankind and reinforced the agricultural lifestyle of early societies. One notable example of this is the practice of domesticating wild sheep and goats to provide a consistent source of meat, milk, skins, and, eventually, fleece. This discovery further enabled the ability of early settlers to remain in a fixed location while also enjoying a reliable abundance of resources. They soon realized that animals could also be used to replace human labor in the fields, allowing for a more efficient division of labor, incredible convenience, and more overall efficiency in generating food and resources. Like the discovery of horticulture roughly three-thousand years before it, the domestication of animals marked another crucial step towards the modern civilization of efficiency and abundance.
In those ways, life in the early communities was far more comfortable than any human experience prior. However, alongside the creation of a surplus, came the creation of the first ruling classes to direct this abundance. Within mere generations of agricultural society, there came to be established hierarchies based upon sex, class, and status – most of which continue in similar forms to this day. Unfortunately, these ruling classes were mostly self-serving, and their power relied upon the exploitation of others through early practices of slavery, sexism, and hoarding. As early civilizations became richer, there grew a wider gap between those who claimed this newly acquired wealth and those who were unable to. Even during these first years of human civilization, our intelligence is precisely what enabled both our positive innovations and negative oppression of others.
Ultimately, the Neolithic Age brought with it unprecedented convenience for those who enjoyed the ultimate product of innovations such as the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops. However, alongside the abundance of resources, came a social structure which directed the wealth inequitably. Both defining characteristics of early civilization – a newfound abundance of goods and social inequality – remain crucial pillars of our society today, for both better and worse. We can thank innovative Neolithic settlers in the Fertile Crescent for the contemporary pantries full of food, as we can for the many empty ones as well. However, no matter your place in the newly formed socioeconomic hierarchy, life changed dramatically in the Neolithic Age as everyone soon endured the hardship and convenience which still comes along with modern civilization.
Part II – A Mandate From Heaven (1050 B.C.E.)
Nearby the advanced city of Shang laid the rapidly developing domain of Zhou, which culturally and militarily consumed the Shang around 1050 B.C.E. In the period which followed, there arose an abundance of influential text such as The Book of Documents – a crucial collection of writing which outlined Zhou belief, culture, and societal structure. Among the important concepts included in The Book of Documents was the Mandate of Heaven; a political and religious philosophy which claims that the king is “Son of Heaven” and ruling on the divine right so long as he continues serving in the interests of the people. This concept was crucial to shaping the political and social history of early China and eastern civilization as a whole.
The Mandate of Heaven likely originated from early Zhou leaders, who utilized the message as propaganda to gain the support of former subjects of Shang. By spreading the philosophy of the Mandate, alongside the argument that the Shang were no longer ruling in favor of the people (and thus lost their divine right to govern), the Zhou were able to manufacture validity in their new regime and govern more effectively with the support of the people. This method of utilizing pre-existing religious beliefs to justify political systems would soon become standard practice throughout world civilization, as its effectiveness was first demonstrated in China through the Mandate of Heaven.
Throughout the following era of widespread Zhou rule, elements of the Mandate continued to play a crucial role in Chinese society. As political power became increasingly decentralized amongst regional feudal lords, the king’s authority became increasingly undermined and disobeyed. The king was assassinated in 771 B.C.E by an alliance claiming his rule to be longer justified by the Heavens, and his son took his place in the new capital of modern Luoyang. Not only was the Mandate invoked for that and the many more regime changes to follow, but it was also reflected in ordinary life as well. Throughout the early Zhou period, new deities appeared to influence social life through spirituality and religion, most notably in the southern state of Chu. Great cultural innovation arose from this region, whose artists praised elusive new deities. This transformation of religious practice is uniform with the ideals of the Mandate of Heaven, and further encouraged the embracement of religion in Zhou ideology.
This role was later played by the influential philosopher Confucius, who fondly reflected on the early Zhou era for its qualities of obedience and devotion to social roles. His followers, most famously Mencius, spread the message that any ruler successful in governing would succeed in unifying “all under Heaven.” Confucian philosophy replaced the actor of the benevolent from God to whoever can succeed in governing, thus elaborating upon the core ideas of the Mandate of Heaven and creating a renewed respect for authority.
Chinese philosophy has traditionally been respecting of those in power. From the early days of the Zhou period, the Mandate of Heaven has taught the Chinese that there is a divine right for rulers to govern, and we must fulfill our roles as citizens. This philosophy epitomizes the ideological foundation of Chinese politics and the relationship with the state. Although its ideas have been elaborated upon by the many philosophers and rulers who have followed, the Mandate of Heaven has remained prevalent in Eastern thought throughout the history of China.
Part III – The Greek Foreshadowing (800-500 B.C.E.)
The Archaic Age (800-500 B.C.E) was primarily defined in Greece by the emergence of the influential poleis Athens and Sparta. Although they were not the first city-states, the poleis of Greece had a significant distinction from any civilization prior – they lacked formal autocratic kings and embraced democratic principles in one form or another. However, Athens and Sparta, though sharing some aspects, were incredibly different in their cultures, values, and government styles. Studying these differences is crucial to understanding human civilization at this period, as well as the ideological framework for many governments to follow.
Throughout the Archaic Age, Sparta served as the leading military power in Greece, primarily because of its militaristic culture and governing style. In the conquered region of Messenia, the indigenous population was enslaved by the Spartan aristocrats and forced to work state lands. However, the Messenian helots were difficult to control and effectively organized revolts that would exasperate the Spartan military for thirty years. Even after the Messenian revolution was successfully suppressed, Spartan aristocrats continued to face increasing pressure from their population to reform the state, which they finally agreed to sometime in ninth century B.C.E. Under the new system attributed to Lycurgus, the purpose of citizens was to serve the polis of Sparta – mostly through combat and conquest – while military leaders cooperate with democratic bodies to govern the nation.
Most male citizens were expected to undergo intensive military training from the age of seven before becoming a lifelong soldier. A male’s closest relationships were expected to be amongst other soldiers, thus to reinforce a militaristic mentality and brotherly solidarity amongst the Spartan soldiers. Women were supposed to be obedient wives and strict mothers to future soldiers. These values of obedience and respect for authority were crucial in crafting Spartan culture and enabled effectiveness in battle and an appearance of social uniformity.
Alongside the rise of Sparta, came the success of another Greek city-state – that of Athens. Although not as militarily powerful as contemporary Sparta, Athens still held significant influence over the region and, indeed, the many republics which were later constructed in its image. Instead of mending their socioeconomic issues with militarism (as the Spartans had), the Athenians restructured their society in the image of democracy. Around 600 B.C.E., the aristocrat Solon gained widespread respect throughout Athens by both the lower classes and fellow noblemen by recognizing Athenian inequality and proposing democracy. By 590 B.C.E, Solon had been elected archon and chief magistrate of the Athens and had utilized his power to enact massive reforms of democratization such as allowing certain common people into the old aristocratic assembly to vote. This practice of early democracy was later refined and elaborated upon by Athenian leaders throughout the Archaic Age.
However, democracy was more than a governing style to the Athenians – it was a pillar of their culture, which was reflected in the great works they produced. We can accredit contemporary Western architecture, arts, and philosophy to the Athenians, who deeply valued the pursuit of individual expression and fulfillment. Athenian philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle created the foundation for contemporary Western philosophy by contemplating crucial concepts such as logic, ethics, politics and art. These works are not unrelated to the practice of democracy as they expose the Athenian pursuit of individual fulfillment and well-being, which is uniform with the values of democracy. They exemplify both the sophisticated culture of Archaic/Classical Athens as well as the lasting legacy of Athenian society in the modern world.
When studying world history today, it may seem random to focus on a specific time and place such as Greece in the Archaic Age. However, the development of these poleis mark a fundamental step towards crafting the ideological landscape of contemporary society. Both poleis had a unique sense of independence and philosophical innovation, however, they also contained extreme differences which were reflected in both their cultures and societal structures. By studying these differences today, we can better understand the origins of contemporary society, specifically modern democratic culture and social structure.
Part IV – The Rise of Muhammad (570-632)
In the late sixth century, the Arabian Peninsula housed the development of a religious leader who profoundly influenced the course of human civilization. After receiving a vision from God (Allah), the Arab merchant Muhammed (ca. 570-632) began preaching in Mecca of a new monotheistic religious doctrine which would become known as Islam. By transmitting messages of holy unity and reform, Muhammed helped unite the Arab tribes in a religious revolution which founded the Islamic world. By studying Muhammad’s rise as a religious leader, the tenets which he preached, and the factors which guided the spread of Islam, we can better understand contemporary Muslim belief, culture, and society.
Since much of the Arabian Peninsula is desert, ancient Arab populations were concentrated on advanced oasis-towns such as Mecca, the economic and cultural center of early Western Arabia. However, there also existed significant Bedouin tribes outside these oasis towns who farmed the land, held considerable control over trade, and competed with one another for tribal political power. Early Arab society was organized by tribal confederations (led by warriors based on fighting ability) in the north and powerful religious aristocracies in the south. This divided social landscape was the social and economic environment in which Muhammad arose and forever changed by his teachings of Islam.
Around the age of forty, the Muhammad (ca. 570-632) envisioned an angelic figure who instructed him to preach the holy revelations which would later be called Islam. In the Arabian oasis city of Mecca, Muhammad first began preaching his religious doctrine; however, he failed to initially attract followers because of his radical challenging of elite power and the pilgrimage-based economy. For this reason, the townspeople of Mecca forced Muhammad and his followers to flee to Medina. This banishment, or hijra, occurred in 622 and is a crucial moment for Muslims as they later dated it as the beginning of the modern era. Muhammad gained a large following in Medina primarily composed of Bedouins who survived by raiding caravans en route to Mecca. Although this triggered division and an eight-year violent conflict between Mecca and Medina, it also united the previously competing Bedouin tribes. By displaying excellent leadership skills and creating a sense of umma, or community that consists of all those under Allah, Muhammad made Muslims prioritize unity under a higher authority over devotion to individual tribes; a belief which would reflect itself in both Muslim religious and political beliefs. The Muslims soon defeated Mecca and, in 632, Muhammad passed away.
In 651, scribes organized Muhammad’s revelations and published the gospel of Islam, the Qur’an; a revered text which has transmitted the message of Islam across generations and allowed the religion to survive for centuries. Written on behalf of Allah, the Qur’an presents a strict code of moral behavior which requires followers to adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam; requiring Muslims to address Allah and Muhammad properly, pray five times a day, fast during the holy month of Ramadan, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and aid the Muslim poor. The Qur’an also describes restrictions on alcohol, gambling, usury in business, and more. Finally, the Qur’an describes an Islamic Judgment Day when Allah will reward his followers and punish those who reject Islam.
A strictly monotheistic religion, Islam is solely based upon the belief in Allah’s omnipotence and oneness with the universe. The word Islam itself means to “surrender to God” and Muslim, the term commonly used for those who subscribe to Islam, means “a person who submits,” presumably to Allah. Muslims believe much of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (such as Moses’s laws about ritual bathing, circumcision, and restrictions on pork and shellfish), although they also reject many of its core aspects. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the belief in Muhammad’s and the Qur’an’s holy legitimacy. Unlike Christians, Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last prophet and that the gospel which resulted from his teachings, the Qur’an, is the legitimate successor to the Old Testament.
Islam quickly spread far beyond Arabia after the Prophet’s death. As the centuries-long territorial war of the Geek-Byzantine and Persian-Sassanid empires engulfed the Middle East in war and disorder, the successors of Muhammad, Umar (r. 634-644) and Uthman (r. 644-656), launched attacks on both empires from Arabia. The Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, weakened after a century of war and illness, rapidly lost territory to the Muslims – beginning with the capture of Syria and Palestine. From there, the Muslims conquered the rich province of Egypt while simultaneously sweeping into Sassanid territory. The Muslim’s finally defeated the Persians at Nihawand in 642 before continuing eastward to reach the Indus Valley in 713. Simultaneously, Arab forces moved into North Africa to the west eventually reached Spain by 732. By the beginning of the eleventh century, the crescent of Islam had reached from Iberia to northern India.
There are many elements which contributed to the rise of Islam; the fertile environment for a new religion to grow, Muhammad’s excellence in convincing and rallying the people, the Arab’s incredible effectiveness in territorial gains, and more. However, perhaps most important of these elements is the sense of umma which Muhammad created; a perceived sense of holy community which continues to unite the Muslim world today. Although intense divisions soon arose amongst the Muslims (i.e., between the Sunni and Shi’a alliances), the story of Muhammad and the revelations he preached continues to be studied, cherished and interpreted to this day.
Part V – Christian Conquest (1096-1270)
As the papacy’s influence increased, it strongly desired an expedition to conquer the Muslim world and strengthen their power. The Pope believed that such a war would increase the legitimacy of both Christian society, and his rule over it. Pope officials gained widespread Christian support for the expedition by justifying it as a God-given task to capture the holy land. Preachers communicated promises of divine rewards and wisdom to those who joined the campaign and killed for the Christian God. As this rhetoric began influencing and inspiring Christians, many began pilgrimages to holy places such as Jerusalem. Although they were rarely met with hostility by Arab Muslims in Jerusalem, the traveling Christians eventually soon harassed and looted when the Seljuk Turks captured Palestine. This was the perfect opportunity for Pope Urban II to launch the Christian holy war, which he soon declared in 1095. His call to arms marked the beginning of the First Crusade; an expedition which would invoke religious zeal in Christians for centuries to come.
Urban’s call was answered by thousands of people who joined the army traveling East for three years, besieging city after city along the way. After a monthlong siege, the Crusaders finally captured the holy city of Jerusalem in July 1099 – officially accomplishing the mission of the First Crusade. Christians then established institutions, towns, and fortifications throughout the four “Crusader states” of Jerusalem, Edessa, Tripoli, and Antioch. Although the Muslims retook Jerusalem in 1187, I would still consider the First Crusade to be successful. Besides the implicit goals of the papacy, the objective of the First Crusade was to capture the holy land of Jerusalem and ensure the safety of Christians pilgrimaging there. After three years of conquest and slaughter, the Christians reconstructed and secured the sacred city for nearly a century – therefore, the First Crusade was a successful expedition.
However, none of the eight Crusades (between 1096 and 1270) paralleled the success of the original. Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem resulted in two more Crusades; both of which unsuccessful besides the promise of safe pilgrimage to a Muslim-controlled Jerusalem. From this point on, the Crusader states were isolated to port towns and served as important trading outposts, rather than influential religious centers. There were six more Crusades after this point, all attempting to reclaim Jerusalem and failing. Since none of the Crusades after the original achieved their objective, I would consider them a failure. Not only did the second to eighth Crusades fail to accomplish their mission, but they worsened Christian relations with Arabs, Jews, and more; reinforcing rivalries which unfortunately remain today. Although one could argue that the Crusades were ultimately successful because of their long-term cultural impact on the West, I would disagree because the legacy of the Crusaders is far from their intended objective – which was to capture Jerusalem. Ultimately, I believe that the First Crusade was a successful (though gruesome and expansionist) expedition which, unlike its successors, succeeding in capturing the objective of Jerusalem. For this reason, I believe that the First was the only successful Crusade, and the others were failures.
Part VI – Times of Division and Discovery (1517-1550)
The Middle Ages and the age of exploration were crucial times for Europe. Both periods witnessed an unprecedented change in multiple spheres of European life, including religion, economics, and geopolitics. In many ways, the Middle Ages were a time of general stagnation for Europe; a period of relatively little conquest and innovation. However, this time of rest is crucial nonetheless as it led to the age of exploration; a remarkable era which witnessed new levels of discovery, wealth, and social change. Understanding the primary challenges which faced Europe at this time (as well as how these issues were addressed) is essential to acquiring the context of modern Europe and the contemporary Americas.
Firstly, Europe was undergoing a massive and bloody shift in widespread religious beliefs. Although most Europeans were highly religious, they were also incredibly skeptical of the papacy. Centuries of conflicts with ruler, widespread corruption, and papal tax collection methods hindered the prestige of the church. As a result, European Christians started branching off from the Catholic Church – marking an enormous (and problematic) shift in European culture and religious dynamics. German Augustinian friar and professor, Martin Luther (1483-1546), concluded that salvation and holy justification come through faith alone, as opposed to moral action. As he developed these ideas, Luther gained followers known as Protestants; a new branch of Christianity which would conduct tumultuous change throughout Europe. Martin Luther attacked the Catholic Church in 1517 and the religious differences which resulted led to the French Religious Wars, Civil Wars in the Netherlands, and the Great European Witch-Hunt. Within a mere decade, the religious unity which once bounded Europe was shattered, and civil warfare ensured. The religious and cultural differences between the Catholics and Protestants would continue to divide European Christians though the age of exploration, as they both sought to spread their competing belief systems to the regions, they conquered in the New World.
Christopher Columbus, an experienced Spanish seaman, was funded by the Spanish monarchy in 1483 to conduct an expedition to the West Indies. He instead accidentally landed in Hispaniola, an uncolonized island in the Bahamas, where he was introduced to an indigenous hunter-gatherer population. On his second voyage, Columbus took control of the island and enslaved its people. Although the Nordic peoples had previously discovered the Americas, most Europeans have not yet realized the potential wealth of the New World until Columbus’ conquest. In pursuit of slaves, resources, and prestige, more European monarchs began sponsoring expeditions to the Americas; a practice which would forever change not only the Americas but also Europe itself. Although many expeditions failed, many succeeded in profiting from their conquests – primarily those who plundered the native civilizations. The success stories of “Conquistadors” such as Hernán Cortés (who famously toppled the mighty Aztecs) inspired Spanish merchants to seek sponsorship, and monarchs to fund them. Although this new age of discovery may seem objectivity good for Europeans, it is ultimately questionable whether it is a time to remember fondly. These early conquests were ethically detrimental to the Europeans as they massacred millions of indigenous peoples for wealth; a challenge which devastates not only the indigenous population, but also the unity of Europeans back home. The early expeditions also resulted in the recreation of global trade; a phenomenon which provided new benefits and even more significant challenges for Europe as the age of discovery progressed.
Specific Catholic missionaries quickly denounced European abuse of the Americans; sparking the crucial debate over the nature of Native Americans and how they should be treated. Such debate was epitomized in 1550 when King Charles I ordered influential lawyers and churchmen to discuss the issue in Valladolid. The assembly was critically divided amongst those who believed that the Natives deserved protection from advanced civilizations (led by Las Casas) and those who believed that conquest was actually saving the Natives from their ‘savage lifestyles’ (led by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda). The Valladolid Debate and the national conversation which followed was pivotal as it decided the future of both the Americas and European colonialism as a whole. The Valladolid Debate was also closely tied to a greater debate as well; that over race, gender, and slavery. Ever since the time of the Roman Republic, black Africans have been utilized as slaves in Western Europe; mostly because of their fewer numbers and lesser status. By the time of the transatlantic slave trade, most Europeans had group Africans into the despised categories of pagan heathens or Muslim infidels. As the Natives proved challenging to control, the Europeans successfully turned to Africa for new sources of slaves. The powerful slave trade which resulted served as a primary challenge for the Western world; one which would heavily reinforce the dynamics of social hierarchy and racial inequality for centuries to come.
Throughout the Middle Ages and the age of exploration, Europe faced multiple pressing challenges. The papacy had long crafted the widespread European belief system, but that all changed upon the emergence of Protestantism. Early European expansionism had also conducted a large-scale massacre in the Americas, dividing the people of Europe and decimating the peoples of America. In the wake of this brutality, arose more division than ever on how to proceed with slavery and institutional racism, specifically that targeting Native Americans and Africans. Ultimately these challenges were the most definitive crises facing Europe at the time as their decisions on those three issues chose the course of Western civilization in the Americas. Within mere centuries, there was the creation of a powerful Anglo-American nation founded on Protestantism, imperialism, and racial slavery; the United States of America.
Wiesner, Merry E. A History of World Societies. 11th ed., Vol. 1, Bedford/St. Martins, 2018.