- The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History
Thomas Allsen’s The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History is an ambitious and frequently insightful work of world history. It explores how “the hunt,” whether “out” in nature or in controlled spaces such as paradises or hunting parks, served to legitimize political authority in the premodern world, to demonstrate rulers’ symbolic power over animals—and, by extension, over their human subjects. Equipped with a Braudelian spirit of expansive inquiry over time and space, the author aims to examine the “predominantly political activity” of royal hunting in a vast geographical space “over the long term” (p. 8). Allsen takes on the formidable task of tracing the development of the royal hunt out of the protein pursuit of hunter-gatherer societies to its place among the political and cultural trappings of Eurasian rulers across thousands of years, from the ancient beginnings of “civilization” in his “core area” to a few fleeting references to its use by nineteenth-century imperialists.
Allsen identifies the core area of the royal hunt—where it developed and flourished in an extensive network of trade in animals, knowledge, and human capital—as Iran, northern India, and Turkestan, though he recognizes that the phenomenon spread to the far fringes of the Eurasian landmass. The best parts of the book are about the complicated interrelationships between human societies and nature, particularly animals. The hunting or hunted animals of the study’s analysis are not powerless objects of human manipulation, but indispensable symbols of human political societies; it is their imagined threat, and “conquering,” that serves as a primary mode of legitimacy in the premodern [End Page 115] world. As the author smartly notes, nature is seen as under the attack of culture and “civilization” in the modern world. In Allsen’s premodern world, however, the contrary is true, as human culture is imagined as unstable, under constant threat from the encroaching and powerful forces of nature.
Allsen’s analysis, however, is limited in its scope and methodological approach. While Allsen’s impulse to explore the royal hunt within larger transcontinental networks is shrewd, the tendency of his analysis is to homogenize manifestations of the royal hunt within his core area. On one hand, this is precisely his point—that different rulers across Eurasia shared, borrowed, or poached from each other’s repertoires—building hunting parks or practicing falconry, for example. Experts and administrators of royal hunts traveled, and were recruited, and animals were trained and sold across broad geographical areas. On the other hand, differences across time and space collapse into a homogenized pool of similarity across the core area. Allsen does, of course, theorize about the origins of certain practices in the royal hunt—whether or not hunting parks really originated in Persia and how their use spread. “The local,” however, has little effect on the form and function of the hunts in Allsen’s analysis.
His neglect of these relationships is not the result of poor scholarship, but a staunchly defended theoretical position. Allsen rejects the usefulness of a core-periphery model in understanding the spread of political hunting practices. He, instead, prefers the “multidirectionality” of Andrew Sheratt’s work (“Reviving the Grand Narrative: Archaeology and Long-Term Change,” Journal of European Archaeology, 1995), arguing that “it does not rely on a center but on interaction between centers” (p. 268). While this sophisticated paradigm is highly useful—as recent scholarship on modern globalization suggests—it serves as an excuse to avoid the vital importance of the local on those larger interactions. While global connections are vitally relevant to his study, the relationship between those larger networks and the local is underplayed. The legitimacy of political authority via the royal hunt, after all, depended on its resonance in local cultures. The author’s intention to examine cultural similarities across transcontinental networks is on target, but his implicit dismissal of “the local,” in effect, results in the loss of a potentially richer analysis.
Two other flaws of the book are worth mentioning. One is that, while the study...