This prologue provides an overview of the history of early and medieval West Africa. During this period, the rise of Islam, the relationship of women to political power, the growth and influence of the domestically enslaved, and the invention and evolution of empire were all unfolding. In contrast to notions of an early Africa timeless and unchanging in its social and cultural categories and conventions, here was a western Savannah and Sahel that from the third/ninth through the tenth/sixteenth centuries witnessed political innovation as well as the evolution of such mutually constitutive categories as race, slavery, ethnicity, caste, and gendered notions of power. By the period's end, these categories assume significations not unlike their more contemporary connotations. All of these transformations were engaged with the apparatus of the state and its progression from the city-state to the empire. The transition consistently featured minimalist notions of governance replicated by successive dynasties, providing a continuity of structure as a mechanism of legitimization. Replication had its limits, however, and would ultimately prove inadequate in addressing unforeseen challenges.
Keywords: medieval West Africa, Islam, early West Africa, Savannah, Sahel, political innovation, slavery, caste, gender, dynasties