"What the West Has Learned",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Saturday Review of Literature,
May 22, 1965,
of a book:
ASIA IN THE MAKING OF EUROPE: Vol. I The Century of Discovery,
by Donald F. Lach.
University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1965
"What the West Has Learned"
Asia in the Making of Europe: Volume I, The Century of Discovery.
By Donald F. Lach
University of Chicago Press, Books 1 and 2. 968 pp. set, $20,
is the first sixth of a major historical work that is concerned with the
impact of the East upon the West as reflected in the latter's “published
These two books form volume I of what
promises to be a major work of historical scholarship. If it continues
on the same scale for the three centuries which the study as a whole is
concerned (1500-1800), it will reach six volumes in twelve tomes
totaling more than 5,000 pages. Such an opus must be intended for
reference rather than to be read, an impression which is confirmed by
its many pages of minutiae about the contents, translations, and various
editions of travelers' tales.
As they stand, these two books fall into eight chapters, one on
antiquity and the Middle Ages, a second on the Renaissance to 1500,
three on “New Channels Of Information” (identified as the spice trade,
the printed word, and the Christian mission), and four area surveys
(India, Southeast Asia, Japan, and China).
The evaluation of a work of this size, when we have only one-sixth
of it, is not easy, but certain impressions emerge. On the merit side,
there are four:
The study obviously incorporates a vast amount of learning.
Secondly, Lach's judgment on most controversial points is sound, or
at least conservative, and he does not hesitate to withhold a decision
where the evidence is inconclusive.
Thirdly, there is, on the whole, excellent chronological
coordination among diverse areas, including such frequently overlooked
benchmarks as the general economic depression of the fourteenth century
in Europe and the influence of the "Mongol peace" of Eastern Asia upon
Fourthly, the work establishes the state of our knowledge and the
sources on which it is based, so that it provides, as a whole, a
historiographical index to this, with frequent indications as to the
directions in which future research should go.
The weaknesses of this work are less obvious, but may be
fundamental. In general, they seem to lie in two directions: (1) a
general pattern of organization which does not follow the nature the
subject but is quite arbitrary, and (2) a basically pro-literary bias,
which seems to blind the author to much of the significant nonliterary
Lach's organization deals with each of the three centuries from
1500 to 1800 in two volumes, of which one will be concerned with the
channels of communication and the second will be concerned with “the
impact of Asia upon the West.” This is an artificial and unhelpful
distinction, especially in the terms in which Lach conceives “channels
of information.” His three “channels” (spice trade, books, and Christian
missions) are not channels at all, and two of them cannot be separated.
It is quite clear that the printed word (which disseminated information
in Europe) is not parallel to the other two (which acquired information
in Asia). Moreover, it is evident from Lach’s well-informed discussion
of the Portuguese Padroado (Chapter V) that, for the Portuguese at
least, religion was inseparable from trade and that Lach's rather rigid
separation of the two distorts both.
The real channels of Asia's influence toward Europe were the
trans-Asiatic route (the so-called “silk road”) from East Asia to the
Black Sea and Syria and the maritime trade on the Indian Ocean and the
Red Sea. Lach discusses neither of these. It can be inferred, from
incidental remarks such the references to "the Mongol peace," that Lach
has some idea of the history of the land routes, but it is equally
clear, both from his text and his bibliography, that he has no real
grasp of the history of the maritime routes between Europe and Asia.
Anyone concerned with this subject must recognize that trade in the Red
Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean had been going on (in
Semitic, Persian, and Indian hands) for thousands of years prior to A.D.
1500, when the Portuguese and the Turks simultaneously intruded into
this ancient trade system, the one from the south and the other from the
north. Lach does not seem to see this.
The reason he fails to do so is because he is far too exclusively
concerned with literary sources and with literary information. He says
expressly that he is concerned only with “published information.” This
view easily leads to neglect of the real influences of Asia on Europe,
since these arose from artifacts and technology, often received without
any European awareness of their origin (as European men over recent
centuries came to wear trousers without knowledge of their Asiatic
In his introduction Lach makes the astounding assertion that
“knowledge of Asia before 1500 effected no fundamental alterations in
Europe's own artistic, technological, or religious premises.” In view of
the fact that Europe's technology and religious premises until 1500 were
almost entirely Asiatic in origin, this statement indicates a very
serious deficiency based on the author's almost exclusively literary
While we cannot judge the extent of this deficiency until we get
volume II, the first chapter of the present volume dealing with
"Antiquity and the Middle Ages" indicates that this weakness could be
very serious. In good, old mid-Victorian fashion, Lach starts with a
reference to Homer and, on the same first page, begins his subject about
600 B.C. This omits the whole Asiatic foundation of European culture
including food (fowl, swine, cattle, grain), technology (the plow, arch,
wheel, weapons, etc.), and basic culture (writing, alphabet, units of
measurement, basic religious and cognitive attitudes) from the archaic
period (before 600 B.C.). But even more serious is the fact that Lach's
discussion of the medieval period also omits the same kind of Asiatic
influences (such as Europe's basic religious outlook, including the
heresies, and much technological innovation which, over the last
thousand years, has embraced such items as horseshoes, stirrups,
effective harnessing of horses so they could be used for heavy work,
windmills, the compass and rudder, fore-and-aft sails, an efficient
number system, gunpowder, printing and paper, steel-making, a variety of
crops of vital significance to Western agriculture, among them those two
indispensable legumes, alfalfa and soybeans, many food products, and
much else). Lach ignores most of this because be is not concerned, as he
says, with the "impact" of Asia on Europe but is really concerned only
with Europe's awareness of Asia (that is why he wants to restrict his
attention to published information), and he is concerned with
"awareness" because his attention is still anchored in the area where it
began, the use of Asia by men like Montesquieu, Leibnitz, or Voltaire as
a weapon to criticize European culture during the Enlightenment.