Interview: Peter Frankopan on the state of global history

The Silk Roads catapulted Peter Frankopan to the top of the bestseller lists. Five years on, as he’s announced as chair of the jury for the 2020 Cundill Prize, he speaks to Matt Elton about the state of global history

Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle, June 2020. “Accounts of the past have failed to properly address persecution,” says Peter Frankopan. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Matt Elton: It’s five years since your book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World was first published. What do you think has changed in global history since?

Peter Frankopan: There’s now a much more vigorous discussion about what ‘global history’ really is. As is often the case with such terms, its precise meaning can vary. For some people, it means drawing together big strands of history, which presents challenges as well as opportunities. For others, it means looking at parts of the world that have been left behind or ignored by the discipline – areas of study such as pre-Columbian America or southeast Asia, for instance.

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But the thing that’s changed most of all is that there is now a great awareness in the United Kingdom, both at a university level and among the general public, that history has up until very recently focused heavily on western Europe. For a long time, we were very narrow-minded about which aspects of the past we explored. But history books are less Eurocentric now, and that’s a reflection of the fact that publishers and readers, at all levels, are increasingly open to the idea of looking at other parts of the world.

When I wrote The Silk Roads [which explores the ancient networks of trade and ideas that ran through Asia and the Middle East], I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. I knew that most historians were working on 19th and 20th-century British, European and, to some extent, American history. But it turns out that the demand for global history is there – it’s just a very difficult thing to do well.

What are the challenges of writing a good global history book?

It’s challenging partly because the technical side of languages is not easy, and very few cultures are monolingual. I’m quite good on languages, but I remember meeting the historian Valerie Hansen at Yale – she’s the author of this year’s fantastic The Year 1000 – and her rattling through a range of Sino-Tibetan and Tocharian languages. I had to look at my feet and think, well, I did quite well to be able to get through the 22 languages I read while I was writing The Silk Roads!


Listen on the podcast: Peter Frankopan explores some of the major themes in global history and how they relate to life in 2020


Another challenge is that, unlike those established, popular fields I mentioned above, in which a historical tradition has already built up, sometimes the less crowded fields of study involve doing some of the foundational work from scratch. Very basic questions about chronologies and sources just won’t have been asked because the intention hasn’t been there, and because it’s an empty field means it’s going to take longer to develop. But the fact that there are now readers out there who want to be informed about all kinds of areas of the past is great for history writers – because the more that’s written and the more that’s read on any given subject, the better.

Are there certain things that you think mark out a particularly good global history book, or that you particularly look for?

I tend to look for work that includes a great deal of detail. Normally, that means close engagement with primary sources and work to better understand their context. You often encounter broad-brush histories that are generally unobjectionable, but the detailing isn’t there. Indeed, it seems that an increasing number of books are being produced that don’t have any footnotes at all. When I told my publishers for The Silk Roads that I was going to include 2,500 footnotes, they were completely fine about it. But I’ve been surprised to hear, when I’ve spoken to a few early-career scholars recently, that their commercial publishers have restricted what they put in their notes or set a maximum number of books for the bibliographies.

That’s worrying because I think that really good history works from the primary sources outwards. It’s true that it’s not always easy to work through those kinds of texts, or to know how best to look at material written a long time ago in different ways and formats than we’re used to. And it’s not just the written materials, either: it’s also the study of legal texts, inscriptions, religion and so on. But really good history should ensure that it satisfies the general reader and avoids making academic historians get their pencils out to crossly underline everything.

Is it the case that too little non-western history is being written outside the west?

I think we’re still very bad at finding, reading and incorporating the scholarship of historians writing in parts of the world outside of the west. A lot of the work being done on non-western countries is through western institutions, and to some extent that’s a reflection of the global state of affairs and of the wealth that goes into education.

Non-western scholars can earn far more money in the US or the UK than they might domestically, even taking the cost of living into account. So a lot of the engine of history writing, if you like, is in western Europe and North America. But, having said that, there are still fantastically good scholars writing about their own parts of the world outside of the west, too.

Which books or authors have stood out for you over the past few years?

There are quite a few! Walter Scheidel has written a fantastic book, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity, about empires and how they hang together and how they fall. I’ve been reading Daniel Markey’s terrific China’sWestern Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia, about China and the way it sees its western provinces and Silk Roads.

Corey Ross’s Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire: Europe and the Transformation of the Tropical World is also great, on the way in which colonialism had an impact on how we look at the natural world. And Sujit Sivasundaram, a colleague of mine at Cambridge, has written a really exciting book on Oceania, Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire, exploring centuries of global history from the perspective of the peoples of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

I’m a voracious reader, too, and never quite know where that’s going to lead me. Some of the things I read aren’t books at all, but instead reports issued by banks, for instance, or the findings of non-governmental organisations in south Asia. I think it’s important to be open-minded, because one of the problems about becoming a historian, particularly an academic historian, is that you have your tramlines of what your ‘subject’ is. Staying within those tramlines is tricky, particularly if you’re in a very populated field, because there are a lot of people working within it and using the same materials. So I’ve always been tempted to look over the sides of those tramlines to see what else is happening.

In a funny way, lockdown has probably made that easier because time has become, for many of us, much more elastic. I’ve been using it as an opportunity to try to broaden my mind. I think one of the challenges we have in education is that we think education stops when you finish university or you finish your PhD. But I’m very interested in the idea of what education should mean for a middle-aged man like me, who’s got the time and ability to access materials and read in a way that isn’t haphazard.

And it sounds as if you think some of the value of that is in making links across different subjects and types of evidence?

Yes, that’s true. A few years ago, somebody asked me what it is that I’m most interested in, and it made me stop and think. Instinctively, I’d use geography or chronology to answer – the Byzantine empire, for instance, or the period from 284 until 1453 – but, actually, what I’m really interested in is the history of connections and exchanges. I’m interested in trying to find ways of joining the dots together and discovering parallels across periods, places and cultures.

Part of the challenge is to not close off any doors, but that’s what makes me wake up every day excited to be a historian. I love 12th and 13th-century Byzantium, and I’m sure I’d be thrilled to solely research that. But I do like the fact that I can drift off into South America and think about isotopes of maize, or into Asia Minor to think about where wheat is grown, and so on. Sometimes what you’re looking at doesn’t solve any problems, but it raises new methodologies that help you think about your own backyard a bit better.

You mentioned Valerie Hansen’s book earlier. I wondered what your thoughts were about her argument, which – put very broadly – is that globalisation started much sooner than we often think, not in the year 1492 with Columbus and da Gama but in around AD 1000?

Valerie is terrific, and has been working on the Silk Roads for years. She’s an inspiration to me in many different ways, so it’s probably not a surprise that I broadly agree with her argument that globalisation is nothing new. I might even push its start date back another 1,000 years, because we can find exchanges going on then – and even before that.

I’ve talked about all of this with her, though, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with the points she makes in her book. Indeed, I think that terms such as ‘globalisation’ and ‘the Silk Roads’ are, in a way, the least interesting aspects to focus on. What Valerie’s really doing in her book is painting a picture of the deeply interconnected world of the year 1000. That’s the hook that allows her to talk about pre-Columbian and Central American cultures, and about regions of the world from south-east Asia to Ethiopia. I’m very taken with the idea of trying to find a good excuse to write about those kinds of things, and Valerie does it very well. She writes lucidly and beautifully, too, so I’m not surprised it’s had such good reviews. I’m a real fan.

The past five years have been full of incident, from political unrest to social changes to huge international stories such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Do you think that such things make it more important than ever to properly understand global history?

It’s the other way around: global history should start with a need to understand which things really affect everybody. Disease is probably number one on that list, but we have been much more focused on looking at how humans kill each other – episodes such as the rise of the Third Reich – than how the biological side of things work. Again, we’re getting much better at this, and writers such as Monica Green have been real trailblazers in trying to put disease at the centre of our understanding of history.

Disease is number one on the list of things that affect everyone – but we’ve been much more interested in looking at how humans kill each other

I talked earlier about the need to look outside of the tramlines of your subject area, and this is an example of the way in which just being able to read and to write intelligently isn’t enough. The current pandemic demonstrates that historians also need to be able to understand genomic materials, DNA, and indeed the sciences more generally.

Another trend of the past few years has been the rise of a kind of populist nationalism. Do you think that its growth challenges our view of a globalised world, or is it a distraction from more important patterns?

Leaders who pander to their majorities are deeply recognisable in long-distance history as well as in the recent past, so I think that populism isn’t at all new – and, in some ways, isn’t even necessarily that interesting. Leaders like to stay in power; they like to mobilise, polarise and antagonise; they like to get people angry and turn on each other – and you can see that in many different areas of history. The Roman emperor Theodosius I, for instance, was supposedly so popular because he was good at cracking jokes and winning people over, and knew how important it was to have wide public support.

So, in that sense, it can be misleading to think that what we’re seeing in the 21st century, in phenomena such as the Brexit vote or Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, is somehow brand new or a unique challenge. What happened in those two cases wasn’t nearly as seismic as what happened in the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, for instance.

But I’m not making any predictions about where things might go. We might be reading this interview on a desert island in a year’s time, thinking: “Gosh, how did we not see what was coming?” As we speak, big fences are being put up outside the White House in Washington and US troops being recalled to their barracks – so nothing is off the cards.

How can we meaningfully see the recent past in the context of longer history, then?

We should start by recognising that there are historical parallels, rather than thinking that we are somehow the special ones living through an era of enormous, unprecedented change. I’d still rather be alive in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and Trump in the White House, than during either of the two world wars in almost any part of the world. Sometimes those parallels are less reassuring. Consider the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance: a lack of dignity and equality in society isn’t new. But in some ways, historians have become part of the problem.

Consider the Black Lives Matter movement: a lack of dignity and equality in society isn’t new. But in some ways, historians have become part of the problem

Accounts of the past have failed to properly address persecution, so young people grow up thinking that Britain deserves credit for abolishing slavery rather than being one of the great beneficiaries. By excluding peoples, cultures and even entire continents from accounts of the past, bias, prejudice and ignorance have become entrenched. Apart from the ancient Egyptians, for example, no one hears about Africa’s rich and complex past; India before the Raj (and possibly the Mughals) is a blank page. So we need to be much better at joining the dots, being inclusive and giving a fuller picture of the past.

Finally, what global history books do you think still need to be written?

David Abulafia’s fantastic book The Boundless Sea explains how oceans and waterways have been connectors but also barriers to human exploration and exchange across tens of thousands of years. I think it’s incredibly important to look at maritime routes as well as those that go across land, and we could probably do with more exploration of that.

There also are whole parts of the world we don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about, subsaharan Africa being just one such example. Because imperial cultures such as Britain and France have held the world’s purse strings for the past 300 or 400 years, the regions they have controlled, and those in which their scholars have been interested, have been the ones that have had the most intensive research done on them. And, of course, those are also the regions which have experienced the most intensive pillaging of artefacts to fill those lovely museums.

But it’s not just geographical spread that needs attention: there are a lot of time periods we could look at in more detail, too. The so-called ‘Dark Ages’, for instance – or ‘Late Antiquity’, as we now call it – is one. But even that’s become a much fuller field in the past 20 years than it was before, with historians including Peter Brown, Averil Cameron and Peter Sarris doing fantastic work in pushing it forward. Indeed, it’s generally true that, if you look hard enough within the work on a specific period or region, you’ll find outstanding scholars. So it’s as much about finding the oxygen to get their books on to people’s reading lists and into their hands.

Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at Worcester College, University of Oxford, and the author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015). He is chair of the jury for the 2020 Cundill History Prize, of which our website, HistoryExtra, is a media partner. See cundillprize.com for more details

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This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine