The First Great Divergence?

The First Great Divergence?

By Robert I. Moore

Medieval Worlds, Vol.1:1 (2015)


Abstract: The ‘Papal Revolution’ in late eleventh and early twelfth century western Europe and the unsuccessful campaign by Wang An Shi and his followers to reform the imperial administration of Song China at just the same time are regarded as critical turning points in their respective histories. They are strikingly similar in some crucial respects. Both represented the responses of dominant elites to fundamental challenges to their traditional positions. Similar crises seem to have occurred at the same period in other citied regions of Eurasia. Each resulted, to varying degrees, in the emergence of a new or newly defined learned elite which drew its authority from its role as custodian and interpreter of a body of texts and associated ritual practices held to have been inherited from antiquity or late antiquity. The cultural hegemonies thus established in their respective regions endured until c. 1800 or later, constituting the ‘civilizations’ which are seen as the building blocks of modern world history.

I have argued that in Latin Europe the crisis gave birth to an enduring clerical elite whose members accorded over-riding loyalty to nascent governing institutions in church and state rather than to their kin. Elsewhere the cultural power of the learned was essentially directed to sustaining the interests of their kingroups. In 2009, borrowing the phraseology of Kenneth Pomeranz, I suggested that these contrasting outcomes constituted a ‘First Great Divergence’ between western Europe and the other Eurasian ‘civilizations’. In this paper the appropriateness of that description is reconsidered and dismissed, as embodying a simplistic teleological polarisation of the kind that Pomeranz had rightly rejected. Rather, it is suggested that the outcome of the general – though not universal – crisis of elites in early second-millennium Eurasia would be better described as a Great Diversification.

Introduction: A couple of generations ago every student of western European history was taught that one of its formative episodes was the scene at Canossa in 1077, when the Emperor Henry IV knelt in the snow to seek absolution from Pope Gregory VII. This, they were told, was a decisive moment in the struggle of the church for freedom from the lay control which had irredeemably corrupted the clergy and reduced the sacraments to objects of commerce. Cardinal Humbert of Moyenmoutier had written the manifesto for that struggle in his Three Books Against the Simoniacs of 1058; the Roman papacy had been irrevocably committed to it by the pontificates of Alexander II (1062-73) and his successor Gregory VII. Gregory died in 1085, defeated and driven from Rome despite his triumph at Canossa. The bitter struggle in which he had embroiled most of Europe, remembered by posterity as the Gregorian (or papal) Reform raged on. It was a close-run thing, but by the middle of the twelfth century the reformers had secured control of the papacy. Their goals and the conception of the nature and conditions of clerical office which they embodied thenceforth prevailed unchallenged. In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, their successors drew together the programme, doctrines and achievements of the past century and a half, consolidating and greatly extending the role of the clergy in every aspect of personal life and public affairs.

1077 was also the year in which Wang An Shih, first Counsellor to Emperor Zhao Xu, was forced into retirement by the opponents of the New Policies which he had outlined in his Myriad Word Proposal of 1058, and begun to implement vigorously ten years later when he acceeded to the highest office. Zhao Xu, like Gregory VII, died in 1085, and under his successor the opponents of the New Policies, led by the historian Sima Guang, consolidated their ascendency at court. But Wang’s disciples, like Gregory’s, kept up the struggle, and several times regained the advantage, until the death of their last effective leader in 1155.

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