UMass professors win Mellon Foundation grant to take deeper look at rise of modern history

Last modified: Monday, August 04, 2014
AMHERST — A group of University of Massachusetts scholars is taking a second look at history.

For the coming school year, a team of faculty has received a $175,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand the study of the development of modern society.

The John E. Sawyer Grant for the comparative study of cultures will fund four gatherings of around 20 scholars to discuss and present papers on societies in Asia, parts of Africa and Mediterranean Europe before and after 1500.

The year 1492 is perceived as the “turning point” toward European modernity, according to a description of the project, which is titled, “Beyond Medieval and Modern: Rethinking Global Paradigms of Political Economy and Culture.” The scholars will come from around the world, and will include a small number of graduate students.

The grant will also fund a post-doctoral fellow and two dissertation-writing fellowships.

Most modern developments that people think began with the rise of Europe actually started long before, said Laura Doyle, a UMass English professor who is leading the project along with Mwangi wa Githinji, associate professor of economics. Other faculty on the team are Joselyn Almeida-Beveridge, associate professor of English, Annette Damayanti Lienau, assistant professor of comparative literature and Johan Mathew, assistant professor of history and economics.

Capitalism, the use of technology, and institutions such as libraries and universities are commonly associated with the rise of Europe, said Doyle, but research suggests that these developments began in other parts of the world centuries before.

By the medieval period, she said, libraries in the Middle East contained hundreds of thousands of manuscripts on science and the arts, while the largest libraries in western Europe had one to two thousand manuscripts.

“That’s kind of telling, I think,” she said.

The research to be discussed this year was inspired by scholars such as the late Janet Abu-Lughod, author of “Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350,” in which she argues that the modern economy with banking and lending was in place by the 10th and 11th centuries in cities such as Baghdad and Cairo, Doyle noted.

The program is an initiative of the World Studies Interdisciplinary Project, which aims to create dialogue on modern developments before the rise of Europe. Doyle said the faculty involved have had their eyes on the John E. Sawyer Grant for a while.

“UMass is an institution with excellent faculty and students that has been underfunded, but is recently getting some of the praise it deserves,” Doyle said.

Updates will be available on the World Studies Interdisciplinary Project website at wsipworldstudies.wordpress.com.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.