The prime mover approach to explaining events in history—and prehistory—is seductive, however simplistic it seems once real data are marshaled. Certainly, the introduction of a new technology can mark a dramatic change in a society, but there is more to that change than just the new technology (or agricultural crop, etc.)—after all, it does not substitute for an existing technology or behavior, so not only is something of the old supplanted, but other aspects of technologies and behaviors will be altered.*
Among a series of desultory activities, today I dipped into Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron (2006), which we picked up on from a lovely little bookstore we stumbled over in Ocracoke, Books to Be Red. Thubron traveled the Silk Road westbound the year the SARS worries clouded China. He began at Xi’an, an old capital of China far west of Beijing, in the modern nation’s interior. On page 15, Thubron describes visiting the archaeological site just outside modern Xi’an (population in excess of 8 million people), famous for the platoons of buried terracotta warriors, entombed along with chariots and horses (and more!), as part of the funerary architecture honoring the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang.
Reassembled from the grave-pits, a terracotta messenger stood ready with his horse behind him. His harness and saddle were in place, but there was not yet a stirrup. The heavy stirrup was a Chinese brain-child as early as the fourth century AD, it seems, and as it travelled westward, stabilising its rider in battle, it made possible the heavily aromoured and expensively mounted knight. To this simple invention some have attributed the onset of the whole feudal age in Europe; and seven centuries later the same era came to an end as its castles were pounded into submission by the Chinese invention of gunpowder. The birth and death of Europe’s Middle Ages, you might fancy, came along the Silk Road from the east.
The Silk Road brought goods and ideas eastward, changing China. They learned polo from Persians and adopted their decorative motifs, which included peacocks and winged horses (similar to dragons, the Chinese probably thought). Although the name is fairly modern, silk was shipped westward on the Silk Road, and for a long time. For example, Thubron reports Chinese silk has been found in tombs in northern Afghanistan that date to 1500 BC.
Oh, I could go on!
Let me just say: however naive the prime mover explanation may be, I have rarely encountered such a proficient use of the concept—and here Thubron deftly tosses us a pair of prime movers!
* Often changes extend to labor patterns, which necessitate myriad adjustments, some quite extensive…. Oh, don’t get me started!
8 January 2009 at 8:08 am
Janet Van Fleet says:
Wow, this was fabulous; I wish you WOULD go on!
I had heard of this concept in history as a variant of the Great Man idea, in which the big, important man (almost invariably a man, of course…) changed the course of history. I remember when I was in Chicago and a new professor at the University (whose name I can’t remember — hah!) introduced the notion of studying the common man, since there are so many more of them (us) and so what they (we) do and think is clearly going to have a major impact. I think he was interested particularly in common sailors, rather than the captain of the ship. It was a revolutionary idea, and I still think of it often, for example, when I muse about how our country wound up in its current mess.