In an attempt to further educate myself – because school may stop but learning is for life, man – I’ve been listening to some Open Yale courses and have really been enjoying Paul Freedman’s course on the Early Middle Ages. While I’d definitely recommend that anyone interested listen to the whole thing, there was a thought that definitely struck me while I listened:

I’d say there are maybe four factors that encouraged the Arab conquest to absorb these new influences. They’re not in themselves explanations, but they are certainly background factors. The fact that the conquest was quick and relatively painless, and that it was not really a religious war. Two, and I think here very important, the elimination of frontiers. I mentioned this briefly before. You get Persian as well as Greek astronomy. From India you get things like chess, so called Arabic numerals, which actually, as we all know, come from India. These things come into the Arab and Persian worlds from India and eventually to Europe as well, in a world in which there are no frontiers between India and North Africa. They could go these thousands of miles peacefully.

This really cements something I’ve been mulling over lately – the state/polity as a transmission mechanism. Thinking about Roman history, if in some alternative universe we were all taught that the Crisis of the Third Century was, in fact, Rome’s final crisis and the empire was permanently dissolved at that point, that wouldn’t be surprising in the least. But instead Aurelian hammered the whole thing together just long enough for Constantine and Theodosius to Christianize the empire. And in fact a major part of why Christianity was able to go from “one goofy mystery cult among gazillions” to “hmmm these guys are annoying, who’s up for a little persecution?” to “we are all Nicaeans now” is was free movement of people and ideas within the borders of the Roman empire which, at the time, was pretty much “the world” as far as everyone involved was concerned. So it had already moved across the empire, but had it collapsed in the last 3rd century there’s no telling what the future path of Christianity would be.

This was more important when information was indistinguishable from physical objects, but it’s still massively important today, as national boundaries still often delineate ideological, religious, and sociological space. And throughout history large migrations have often been key to why nations and cultures change and evolve. The “body politic” really is a useful metaphor.