Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 253-256
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Monarchies 1000-2000. By W. M. Spellman. London: Reaktion Books, 2001. 312 pp. $35.00 (cloth).
Royalty in this tabloid age, W. M. Spellman would still have us believe, "continues to remind us of values beyond the primacy of the particular and material." Kings, queens, and emperors have satisfied an apparently universal human need to unite authority, order, and transcendence. Spellman's comparative synthesis, which will undoubtedly be used to supplement standard surveys, narrates the parallel histories of world monarchies over a millennium that has witnessed a "universal waning of the religious impulse" and corresponding shifts in the justification and interpretation of royal authority.
Despite the comparative scaffolding and its inclusion in Reaktion Books' Globalities series, Spellman's history of monarchical institutions reprises some rather tired arguments for European exceptionalism. According to Spellman, "a papal monarchy with universalist pretensions . . ." served as a "counterweight"—without parallel outside Europe—to the temporal claims of medieval monarchs. As a result of this experience with limited monarchy, even during its "brief moment" of absolutism Europe didn't fall victim to the specter of oriental despotism. Instead, Europe's hereditary monarchs, first as defenders of confessional orthodoxy, and later as symbols of national identity, presided over the rise of the West, encouraging the dynamism of the commercial middle class and adjusting their claims to rule to fit the new secular and utilitarian rhetoric of authority. By contrast, absolutist dynasties in China, India, and the Islamic kingdoms exhibited a myopic and conservative leadership, failed to encourage manufacturing and [End Page 253] exports, and expressed little interest in the well-being of their subjects. This, in brief, is the answer to Spellman's question, "why was the Eurocentric world system led by hereditary monarchs?"
Spellman's answer depends upon a succession of oppositions, which accumulate to illustrate the vitality of European institutions by contrast to their monarchical counterparts around the globe. The first such contrast, the juxtaposition of "Chinese absolutism" and "Japanese symbolism," explains the very different trajectories of these Asian monarchies. In China, as early as the Song (960-1279), patterns of imperial autocracy, bureaucratic conservatism, and an arrogant isolationism pointed to the nineteenth-century denouement of Chinese absolutism. Adherence to Confucian values retarded the dynamism of an indigenous mercantile class while little independent authority remained to focus the imperial gaze away from increasingly labyrinthine court ritual. This static portrayal of the relationship between Chinese commerce and its complementary governmental and social institutions simply doesn't square with a Chinese economy, which from at least the Song era to the late eighteenth century was the engine of the global economy. Indeed, a vibrant mercantile sector went hand in hand with Chinese absolutism until the nineteenth century. By contrast, Japanese emperors long exercised largely symbolic authority, without the material base, bureaucracy, or military establishment to do more than reign. Unlike the Chinese emperors, Japanese monarchs could readily become symbols of modernization and Japanese national identity, easily incorporating economic reform within the mandate of divine rulership rather than in opposition to traditional institutions of monarchy. In fact, profound economic change, evidenced in population growth, urbanization, and extensive East Asian trade, long preceded the "opening" of Japan in 1853 and the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
The theocracies of Byzantium and the so-called Islamic "gunpowder" empires provide Spellman with a more unambiguous foil to Europe's constitutionally limited monarchies. Byzantium, like China, developed an efficient, relatively open bureaucracy and cultivated prosperous import and export markers. But, as in China, service to the emperor was accorded greater value than commerce, consequently stultifying an increasingly regulated merchant class. In the Islamic world, the dream of political unity unachieved, rulership over a large territory devolved to the Ottoman, Mughal, and Persian Safavid empires. These empires provide more convincing evidence of oriental despotism's disinterest in the economic well-being of subject peoples. Furthermore, the capriciousness and unpredictability of personal rule and a tendency [End Page 254] to devote inordinate resources to embellish the ruler diverted precious energy, once again, from the development of manufacturing and the...