Embracing Diversity in Historical Scholarship
The Collège de France has always embraced foreign scholars, particularly those in the fields of science, philology, literature, and philosophy. However, the institution’s historical tradition has predominantly been French. While the subjects studied at the Collège de France have been diverse, ranging from book circulation to climate and the environment, there has been a lack of international perspectives in its historical scholarship. Today, I am grateful to the Faculty for breaking away from this tradition and inviting a foreign historian with a penchant for intellectual exploration to their esteemed table.
Acknowledging the “Other” in History
No historical account can overlook the influence of other nations and cultures. The history of Florence cannot be written without considering Pisa, just as the history of the Khazars cannot be separated from the Russians. France’s history, too, is intricately intertwined with that of Germany. However, embracing this interconnection is not as simple as it may seem. Genuine “xenology,” the study of foreign cultures within the framework of one’s own history, remains an ideal rather than a reality. Many French historians, for instance, do not devote enough time to reading German texts or exploring German archives. Similarly, Indian historians often lack significant knowledge of Sri Lanka’s history. Nonetheless, historical works with xenological elements have existed for centuries. Polybius, a Greek historian from the second century BCE, provides a notable example. He held a unique position, not strictly aligning himself with either the vanquished or the victors, and sought to transcend the “Us vs. Barbarians” binary. As François Hartog aptly put it:
Polybius stood in the liminal space between conquerors and conquered, using predominantly Greek concepts and references to analyze Roman hegemony.
Xenology in Different Historical Contexts
The practice of xenology varied depending on the historical context. For instance, historians in northern India, under Turkish dynasties, often showcased a lack of openness toward the non-Muslim regions of the sub-continent. Their accounts primarily focused on the Muslim community’s internal dynamics and tensions between ethnic groups and clans. In contrast, the brilliant polyglot Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, who lived in the same period, recorded his xenological reflections through epics and poetry. In the Iranian world, where the Mongols established their reign after the fall of Baghdad, a policy of acculturation flourished. The Mongol court adopted a mix of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Mongolian, and even Chinese languages. Ghazan Khan, a Mongol sovereign who converted to Islam, maintained a degree of tolerance for Christians and Buddhists. It was during Ghazan Khan’s rule that Rashid al-Din Fazlullah Hamadani authored the “The Compendium of Histories,” a masterpiece that spanned from China to Europe. Illustrated in the workshops of the Ilkhanid dynasty, it served as a luxurious and prestigious gift.
A Universal History with Multiple Perspectives
This universal history, rich in illustrations and knowledge of Mongol traditions, exemplifies the long and slow evolution of global history as a minority tendency. Nevertheless, it is crucial to note that global history is not solely about synthesis; it is grounded in rigorous research on archives, texts, and images. It is impossible to write a global history without local perspectives and an understanding of specific places and spaces. As a historian, my training has encompassed readings in various archives, texts, and images beyond the confines of a single nation. While global history should not supersede regional or national histories, it has the potential to complement them. By combining these historical varieties under one roof, new synergies can be discovered.
In conclusion, the Collège de France’s decision to invite foreign historians with diverse perspectives marks a step forward in embracing global scholarship. This commitment to diversity does not aim to replace existing regional or national histories but rather to enhance and enrich them. Today, there is a growing interest in this type of history, demonstrating the value of uniting diverse historical perspectives. I extend my gratitude to my friends Maurice Kriegel and Claude Markovits for their invaluable assistance in preparing this Inaugural Lecture.
Thank you for your patience and attention.
I am particularly grateful to my friends Maurice Kriegel and Claude Markovits for their help in preparing this Inaugural Lecture.