Globalisation is “the process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale”. You’re probably familiar with the term due to its widespread use. You could also rattle off a few examples of its impact and the arguments for why it’s a good or bad thing for humanity. Children in Africa wearing Liverpool football shirts and drinking Coca Cola is one example of its effects. Its main benefits are international trade and understanding, and the resulting reduction in international conflict. But it also has the effect of diluting local culture and the potential to spread pandemic disease (when the next big one shows up).
It’s also likely that you view globalisation as something new. The process involves airplanes, massive cargo ships, Western consumerism, unequal trade with developing countries and the period of relative peace enjoyed since the Second World War. These are all features of modern international trade, but there’s nothing new about globalisation; it is in fact one of the oldest trends in history.
How do you spot globalisation in the absence of airplanes and cargo ships crossing the world’s oceans? It’s not that hard. Globalisation affects people’s lives and people’s lives can be categorised. We can categorise them by dress, religion, material culture, literature, music, nationality, and perhaps most importantly by language. Together, these are known as ethnicity. When one ethnic group starts behaving like another across boundaries of nationality this is a strong indication of globalisation, as there must be some connection between the two.
Where should we start looking for these links? The best place to begin might be somewhere we least expect to find globalisation: medieval Europe. These were the Dark Ages, so called because the flourishing of culture and civilisation under the Roman Empire came to an end in Europe and began flourishing in different ways, which historians don’t get as excited about. Countries within Europe did become more insular, ruled by local lords and kings. In fact, these countries probably only existed as a formality. Most medieval people didn’t leave their village in their lifetime. An inhabitant of medieval Kent had only limited common culture with a medieval Londoner, as demonstrated by Jack Cade’s rebellion in which a Kentish army sacked London (an event that plays a pivotal role in my historical novel, because I’m shameless).
But there is one aspect of medieval Europe which betrays the falsity of this view: language. An English nobleman or clergyman might not speak Spanish and a Spaniard might not speak English, but the two groups could still communicate. Latin was guaranteed a place as Western Europe’s universal second language (where people had one) due to its central importance in Catholic worship. This religion was also universally held in common until the rise of Protestantism. Most inhabitants of Kent didn’t speak Latin, of course; it was a tradition clung onto by the social elite. Their lords and clergy would have spoken Latin, even if this was only the upper tiers of those groups (there are historical references to boorish nobles and uneducated clergyman who couldn’t read or even speak it, for shame).
The only people to continue using Latin were the upper classes for whom it was a necessity for international relations and involvement in a religious institution which ministered to populations across Europe.
Was there an organisation with international influence? The Catholic Church was arguably the first international public company. It took investments in the form of tithes, established new overseas branches through missionary work, had a head office based mostly in Rome (there were exceptions), had the majority of Europe’s population on its shareholder register (promising dividends in the form of entry to Heaven in return for membership), led through a board of directors known as cardinals and employed thousands of bishops and priests, etc. The existence of globalisation in medieval Europe is undeniable, but did it start there? The problem is Latin was already a dead language by that point, as the state which officially used it had dissolved. It was a residue of something earlier, the Roman Empire.
By the end of the Roman Empire in the west (it continued in the east until the 1450s), it encompassed Western Europe, North Africa, Southern Europe and the western half of the Balkans. Many of the people living inside these regions were Roman citizens. The language of administration, international trade and state religion was Latin, as was later true of the medieval period. It was desirable to dress like Romans in the tunic or toga and fix your hair in the Roman style. Roman religion was pervasive as it had the largest temples, its temples were built from stone or marble, and it had the support of the Roman state. Roman literature had great importance, and there was shared interest in Greek learning between inhabitants of Rome and inhabitants of the wider Roman Empire.
Rome’s imperial subjects in Western Europe, the Balkans and North Africa weren’t ethnically Roman, but they shared cultural links with Rome. “Barbarian” or “provincial” cultural influences also travelled in the opposite direction and arrived in Rome. In light of this, it would be hard to argue that the inhabitants of the Roman Empire didn’t experience globalisation.
As is ever true with history, the pursuit of the earliest incidence of anything is a wasted expedition. Evidence will always emerge which points to an even earlier example. We have just mentioned that inhabitants of Rome and its wider empire had a shared interest in Greek culture. Greekness in the classical age of colonisation led by Athens, Corinth and other city states spread around the Mediterranean. There was also a contemporary expansion of Phoenician influence due to the rise to prominence of Carthage in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Again, we need only look further back in history to find a complex network of trade in the ancient Near East. Babylonia, Egypt, Hattusa, Ugarit, Minoan Crete and Assyria are all examples of civilisations pre-dating classical Greece or Phoenicia which engaged in international trade and cultural exchange. Wherever we find evidence of written records, we also find evidence of international contact and transfer of goods, ideas or language.
Looking beyond written history and into archaeology, the existence of globalisation doesn’t disappear. In fact, our entire understanding of how humans came to be the dominant species on the planet (discounting bacteria, other microscopic organisms, insects and marine life) is founded in globalisation.
People spread outwards from a Garden of Eden-type central location and populated the planet. They didn’t then turn inwards and reject outside communities with common ancestors. Contact was pursued for common gain. For example, a human community can only reproduce from within its own ranks for a limited time before the genetic pool stagnates. Fresh input is needed. The same is true of the evolution of technology, food production and language.
We live in an age of globalisation. It’s not a new thing. In fact, it’s far older than history itself. Humans have always lived in an age of globalisation. This is important because we needn’t cross our fingers and wait to see whether it’s a positive or negative force in terms of its long-term effects. Looking back at the past, we can predict quite accurately how globalisation will develop and conclude. But to do that we need to be willing to accept that the greatest innovations of our time are merely tried-and-tested repetitions of millennia old patterns of communal behaviour. That’s the hard part.