Chris Baker, Pasuk Phongpaichit. A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 342 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-64113-2; $94.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-19076-4.
Reviewed by Matthew Reeder (Cornell University)
Published on H-Asia (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis (Eastern Connecticut State University)
Between its formal founding in 1351 and its final defeat in 1767, the rough-and-tumble city state of Ayutthaya became an expansive, cosmopolitan, and administratively complex kingdom known to foreigners as Siam (Thailand). The extent of this transformation is difficult to make out in the chronicles of Ayutthaya, histories of events that were extensively revised in the late eighteenth century. It is even harder to see in the irregular accounts of foreign visitors. Relying heavily on these sources, previous histories of early modern Siam struggle to explain big-picture changes over time. This new survey text by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit is exciting because it makes sense of Ayutthaya’s historical trajectory. This achievement is only possible because of the authors’ deep familiarity with Thai and Western-language scholarship and their perceptive analyses of a remarkable range of primary sources, including laws, literature, and art.
The book is successful on several levels. For specialists on the history of Siam and the region, the book is chock-full of brilliant insights and historiographical corrections. For undergraduates and casual readers, it offers a clear and engaging historical account that emphasizes changing patterns instead of strings of events. Chapters are introduced and concluded with helpful summaries, and subheadings break the chapters into coherent and manageable chunks. The prose is efficient. Sentences are short and jargon-free. Plenty of primary source documents, quoted directly, enliven the narrative. Maps and images are limited, but well selected.
The book’s most important contribution, however, is to introduce a more nuanced periodization. Unlike earlier studies that shortchange the city’s first two centuries, A History of Ayutthaya’s coverage is comprehensive. With a strong first chapter on the deep historical context of Ayutthaya’s emergence and a lively final one that connects trends in eighteenth-century Ayutthaya with those of early Bangkok, the book’s coverage is longer than its title suggests. It is not, however, a history of political events in the mold of David K. Wyatt’s Thailand: A Short History (1984). Rather, the content is arranged into chronological (but overlapping) chapters, each of which introduces new ways of thinking about a segment of Ayutthaya’s history. As such, each chapter makes a historiographical argument. Some of these arguments have been introduced in prior publications—by other scholars or the authors themselves—but never before have they been woven into a comprehensive narrative.
Chapter 1, “Before Ayutthaya,” challenges two conventional approaches to the study of the Chaophraya River valley before the fourteenth century. First, the authors argue, commonalities in art, language, and material culture are not evidence of empire. There is little to suggest that the “Dvaravati culture,” Sukhothai, or even Angkor was ever able to unite the city-states of the river valley into a single, centralized polity. Second, Baker and Pasuk resist attributing to Ayutthaya just a single cultural lineage. Instead, the authors explain, early influences were syncretic; they include maritime trade links, Indic cultural features in the first millennium, Lanka Buddhism in the early second, Angkor state culture, and in-migrations of Tai peoples. Finally, the authors observe that the warrior ethos that characterizes the earliest Tai-language sources gave way, in the fourteenth century, to an emphasis on Buddhist patronage.
Chapter 2, “Ayutthaya Rising,” makes two major claims. First, early Ayutthaya was not an agrarian, labor-intensive society. Instead, even before its formal founding in 1351, it was a sea-oriented “raiding and trading” polity with little interest in producing Buddhist monuments or written records. It was not until the fifteenth century that the Ayutthaya court turned its attention inland, probably to gain access to resources for the China tribute-trade. This is a revised and improved version of an argument made by Baker many years ago (“Ayutthaya Rising: From Land or Sea?,” 2003). Second, Ayutthaya did not conquer Sukhothai. Instead, the two centers “merged.” Noble families intermarried, successive waves of northerners came down to Ayutthaya, and cultural features combined. By the mid-sixteenth century, northern nobles took over Ayutthaya outright with the accession of King Maha Thammaracha (r. 1569-90). This compelling picture of the transformation of the Chaophraya River plains from a land of small city states to a kingdom of twin capitals—Ayutthaya and Phitsanulok—builds productively on the work of Phiset Jiajanphong (พระมหาธรรมราชา กษัตราธิราช, 2003). Energized by these two historiographical interventions, this chapter may be the best in the book.
Chapter 3, “An Age of Warfare,” offers a regional and materialist explanation for the endemic warfare of the sixteenth century. By this time largely secure within their river valleys, the enlarged kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia launched military campaigns against trans-basin competitors for trade routes and forest products. Ayutthaya’s society reoriented around war. The population was carefully registered, court ceremony and written compositions highlighted martial prowess, and elephants became prominent as war machines and symbolic capital. By the end of the sixteenth century, city defenses were as strong as ever, but populations stagnated, townspeople fled conscription, and harvests were meager. Military campaigns increasingly failed, and the long period of warfare came to an abrupt end. By viewing the wars of the mid-to-late sixteenth century as (1) an expansion of the smaller-scale campaigns of the previous hundred years, and (2) the product of a growing regional competition for resources, the authors challenge the ubiquitous notion that the wars of the sixteenth century were all about an incipient Thai nation fighting for independence.
Chapter 4, “Peace and Commerce,” identifies the seventeenth century as Ayutthaya’s “age of commerce.” As the city became a preeminent entrepot for cross-Asia trade, its monarchs amassed wealth by enforcing trade monopolies and conducting trade missions. As a result, the authors argue, this was also a period of unusually powerful kings. They seized noble possessions at the slightest pretext, and they forced royal governors and agents onto previously autonomous cities. As royal authority expanded at the expense of the nobility, succession disputes became critical and bloody. By the end of the century, even mobs of monks and commoners were drawn into the succession violence. While historians of Siam have long associated the seventeenth century with commercial vitality, the link between rising trade and royal power invites further investigation. How did robust commerce enable a stronger monarchy in the seventeenth century, but a weaker one (see chapter 6) in the eighteenth?
Chapter 5, “An Urban and Commercial Society,” breaks from the chronological sequence of the other chapters to offer a social history of Ayutthaya, with a particular focus on the long seventeenth century. Baker and Pasuk make the bold but persuasive claim that Ayutthaya was not an agrarian society but an “urban” one. Almost everyone lived in a city, a town, or along a waterway. Townspeople—even slaves and peasants—served nobles and plied trades in town while commuting to subsistence plots on the outskirts. Later in the chapter, the authors argue that gender roles for elites and commoners differed substantially. Relying particularly on the epic Khun Chang Khun Phaen (ขุนช้างขุนแผน), they show that elite women’s actions were highly constrained, while lower-status women ran households and businesses and were sexually confident. In part, the authors suggest, this was due to the frequent, long absences of village men on corvée duty, in military campaigns, or as novices and monks. As a source, Khun Chang Khun Phaen is instructive but hardly unproblematic. Parts of the epic—perhaps especially the depictions of elite women—were overhauled by the men of the early nineteenth-century royal court. But the work remains valuable as a point of departure, and the authors’ findings on class and gender accord well with Barbara Watson Andaya’s picture of the broader region (The Flaming Womb, 2006).
Chapter 6, “Ayutthaya Falling,” argues that Ayutthaya experienced no “decline” before it was conquered by Burma’s armies in 1767. Against the contention that commerce dwindled in the eighteenth century (Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, vol. 2, 1993), Baker and Pasuk argue that it remained robust, buoyed by a growing trade with China. The market economy became increasingly accessible to people of every rank, from nobles to slaves. The authors also contest the idea of “decline” by showing that eighteenth-century writers and artists celebrated their city as thriving and cosmopolitan. There are no signs of decline in the creative works of the time. If, however, weakening royal authority can be considered evidence of decline—a view endorsed by the chronicles themselves, incidentally—then other parts of the chapter undercut the authors’ case. This is because Baker and Pasuk also see in this period a resilient nobility intent on placing limits on royal authority. According to sources thought to represent noble values—certain literary works and the testimonies of nobles taken captive to Burma—the nobles of the period subjected the monarchy to a code of Buddhist morality that prized peace and devotion. In material terms, the crown lost control of increasing numbers of peasants, and it was forced to cancel some royal monopolies and issue laws to regularize administration. Whether thriving or declining, Ayutthaya’s eighteenth-century orientation toward peace and prosperity made it a tempting target. This, the authors contend, is what really explains its fall.
Finally, chapter 7, “To Bangkok,” presents Bangkok as the realization of the old nobility’s goals after a chaotic interregnum under King Taksin (r. 1767-82). The ascension of Taksin’s chief general (King Rama I, r. 1782-1809), who enjoyed strong connections with Chinese merchants and the nobility, was an opportunity to put the values of the late-Ayutthaya nobles into action. The major noble families once again grew wealthy, stable, and powerful. At the same time, kingship was further constrained by law and by discursive efforts to subject the monarchy to a Buddhist moral code. Read together, chapters 6 and 7 depict Bangkok not as a “restoration” of Ayutthaya but as a culmination of bourgeois trends begun well before the fall.
The book’s subtitle, Siam in the Early Modern World, hints that some of the historical developments identified in the chapters can be linked to regional or global patterns. For example, the authors argue that Portuguese contacts offered the empires of the region a new supply of firearms and mercenaries, prompting a regional “arms race” and fueling the wars of the sixteenth century (pp. 91-94). Later, the authors suggest that low rainfall, tied to climate fluctuations, may help explain the failure of military campaigns by the century’s end (p. 144). They assert that Ayutthaya’s royal court was not interested in controlling the middle Malay peninsula until new Chinese and insular Malay migrants began to export products of value in the seventeenth century (pp. 135-137). And, Siam’s eighteenth-century commercial reorientation toward China was accelerated by the loss and failure to regain Mergui, the kingdom’s longstanding Indian Ocean port (p. 269). Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, vol. 1 (2003) still offers the best comparative overview of early modern Siam and Burma (which, arguably, was Siam’s closest “parallel” in this period), but Baker and Pasuk pay closer attention to Ayutthaya’s specificities and the contingency of developments in Siam. The authors go further than previous works in making these kinds of connections, suggesting paths for further investigation.
The book is also brimming with provocative claims and historiographical corrections. Often—especially in the early chapters—the authors flag these interventions with an explicit (but politely anonymous) reference to “the old historiography” before explaining the “new interpretation.” Some of these corrections are not entirely new, but perhaps nowhere else are they better explained and contextualized. The following historiographic corrections are representative. The authors suggest that the “reforms” usually attributed to King Trailokkanat were, instead, probably the product of a number of fifteenth-century reigns (p. 69). The conventional understanding that Ayutthaya conquered Sukhothai is misleading; rather, there was a long-term “merger” of the region’s city states (p. 43). In contrast with assumptions in earlier scholarship, Nakhon Si Thammarat was not under Ayutthaya’s control until the sixteenth century (p. 50). Against Lieberman and Reid, they see no evidence of a shift toward religious orthodoxy and standardization during the Ayutthaya period (p. 202). These are just a few of the novel interpretations that distinguish A History of Ayutthaya from previous treatments of the kingdom. Artfully combining their own insights with the best new findings on early modern Siam, the authors bring even experts on the region’s history up to date. At the same time, they have left plenty of stimulating findings for future scholarship to engage.
Thai-language historical and literary texts from this period are notoriously difficult to use, as many of them have been recopied, revised, and even rewritten over the years since their original composition. Helpfully, the authors explain some of the complexities in an appendix. I am not convinced that the pre-King Narai (r. 1656-88) content of the long, detailed (phitsadan) chronicles can be accepted as having been written during or shortly after the reigns they describe (pp. 107, 285). An analysis of the Cambodia-focused parts of this content shows that substantial sections of the chronicles were inserted much later, while a comparison between the late sixteenth-century content of a surviving manuscript fragment and the corresponding content of the phitsadan chronicles reveals that at least one volume of the latter was heavily edited in the late eighteenth century. The authors are right to include evidence wherever they can find it (there would be little left if they disqualified all problematic sources), and they are often careful to acknowledge uncertainties surrounding chronicle passages (e.g., pp. 65, 95, 115). Still, the reader would do well to take evidence from the phitsadan chronicles with a grain of salt—especially its florid sixteenth-century content. For example, I am skeptical that many references to the “Thai” in these parts of the phitsadan chronicles predate the eighteenth century (p. 207). Fortunately, however, the authors’ most significant claims about broad changes over time are too well supported by an array of early sources to be affected by caveats on the dating of individual chronicle passages, legal measures, or other problematic texts.
Before the publication of A History of Ayutthaya, scholars and casual readers alike had little choice but to cobble together an understanding of early modern Siam through scattered primary and secondary materials, many of which remain untranslated, and most of which are narrowly focused. In addition, many twentieth-century interpretations were later found to be erroneous or anachronistic, but these historiographical reinterpretations are sometimes also hard to find. So, it is a tremendous boon to the field that Baker and Pasuk have done the difficult work of reading and thinking so widely. On top of all that, A History of Ayutthaya is a pleasure to read. The evidence and the ideas follow each another in such quick succession that the reader never grows weary. Along with the authors’ survey text on the modern period, A History of Thailand (2005), we are now provided with a masterfully written overview of Siam from almost the beginning of the second millennium to its end. Invaluable references, the two volumes have earned pride of place on every reader’s most accessible bookshelf.
. Michael Theodore Vickery, “Cambodia after Angkor, the Chronicular Evidence for the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries” (PhD diss.: Yale University, 1977).
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Matthew Reeder. Review of Baker, Chris; Phongpaichit, Pasuk, A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World.
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