What can we know about medieval Mali?

We have looked at travelers’ accounts, oral history and buildings relevant to medieval Mali now. So how much can we know about medieval Mali from these historical sources?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you are unable to download the worksheet, please complete the tasks in the yellow boxes.

STARTER: What have we learnt about medieval Mali?

Think back to our last four lessons where we have explored travelers’ accounts, oral history and the buildings in medieval Mali. Bullet point some things that you now know about medieval Mali. Some pictures are below to help you.
Good if you can think of three facts.
Great if you can think of five facts.
Amazing if you can think of eight facts.

Image descriptions: Top left – the Djinguereber Mosque. Top right – Mansa Musa. Bottom left – Mansa Sundiata. Bottom right – Ibn Battuta

TASK ONE: Can we understand the History of Mali?

Read through the information below on who Hugh Trevor Roper was. Answer the following questions:
1) Why does Hugh Trevor Roper believe that we cannot understand some civilizations from the past?
2) What might he mean by ‘darkness’ in history?
3) Would Hugh Trevor Roper have thought it was possible to ‘do History’ on Medieval Mali? Why not?
4) Why would many other historians disagree with Hugh Trevor Roper?

Who was Hugh Trevor Roper?

Hugh Trevor Roper teaching at Oxford University

Hugh Trevor Roper was a very influential Historian that worked at Oxford University from the 1940s to the 1980s. He researched lots on Nazi Germany and Elizabeth I, and wrote many important books on these topics.

However, he had strong opinions on what Historians could and could not research. He argued that, if past civilizations did not keep written records, there was no way that we could ‘do History’ on it. According to him, there was no point in even trying. He famously said:

‘As Historians, we can only understand the modern History of Africa after slavery, because that’s when things began to be written down. Before that, there was darkness. Darkness is not the subject of history‘.

From an interview with Hugh Trevor Roper in the 1970s

CHALLENGE: Do you agree or disagree with Hugh Trevor Roper? Should we just ignore the history of civilizations from the past, or do you think we can understand their history?

TASK TWO: Let’s prove Hugh Trevor Roper wrong!

Let’s prove that we can study the history of Medieval Mali and prove Hugh Trevor Roper wrong!

Look at source A below. Answer the following question to help us show that we can ‘do History’ on medieval Mali:

Why is Source A useful for a Historian looking in to the history of medieval Mali?

Read my guide on how to answer this question below, and use my sentence starters! I have also written a model answer for you, so look below for help!

SOURCE A: An extract from Ibn Battuta’s writing on what the people of Medieval Mali were like.

‘The people possess some admirable qualities. They are rarely unjust, and have a greater hatred of injustice than any other people. Their Sultan shows no mercy to anyone who is guilty of the least act of it. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence. They are careful to observe the hours of prayer, always attend mosque on religious days and bring their children with them.​

​’Among their bad qualities are the following. There is their custom of putting dust and ashes on their heads, as a mark of respect. Another reprehensible practice among many of them is the eating of carrion (animals found dead), dogs and donkeys’.

HOW DO I ANSWER THIS QUESTION?

This question is asking you to look at Source A and pick out some information that tells you what Medieval Mali was like. However, as it is a source, it is important to look at the who produced the source and why it was produced to help you explain if it is reliable or not.

So the first part of your answer will look at the content of the source (in other words, what can you see in the source and what does that tell you about Medieval Mali). Try to pick out two things and discuss them. Use the following sentence starters:
By looking at source A, I can understand that…
The source tells me this because it says…
By looking at source A, I can also understand that…
The source tells me this because it says…

The next part of your answer will discuss who produced the source and why it was produced. You will then explain if this makes the source more or less useful.
This source was written by…
This makes the source more/less useful to the Historian because…
This source was written because…
This makes the source more/less useful to the Historian because…

Now just sum up with a short conclusion to explain how useful the source is:
Overall the source is very/somewhat/not very useful in helping us understanding medieval Mali because…

MODEL ANSWER

Why is Source B useful for a Historian looking in to the history of medieval Mali?

SOURCE B: The Djinguereber Mosque, built in Timuktu around 1327 under the reign of Mansa Musa

By looking at Source B, I can understand that the civilization of the Empire of Mali was very religious and took Islam very seriously. The source tells me this because the Djinguereber Mosque is a very large mosque, meaning that the people in this time would have valued religion as an important part of their lives.
By looking at Source B, I can also understand that the civilization of the Empire of Mali was very skilled. The source tells me this because the Mosque looks like a very complicated building to build, and I would therefore think the people of this civilization were very skilled builders.

The Djinguereber Mosque was ordered to be built by Mansa Musa. This makes the source more useful to the Historian because he was one of Mali’s most important Mansa’s, who was very rich and therefore built lots of schools and mosques across Mali. This means that the source is a good way of understanding how influential and rich the Mansa of Mali was.
The Djinguereber Mosque was built by Mansa Musa to encourage his people to follow Islam. This makes the source more useful to the Historian because it suggests that religion became an important part of people’s lives in Mali under Mansa Musa.

Overall, the source is very useful to this Historian understanding medieval Mali. This is because it shows us the importance of Islam in Mali, the skills that the people had, and the importance and power of Mansa Musa in ruling the Empire of Mali.

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