The Medieval Review 11.09.12

Lampert-Weissig, Lisa. Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies. Postcolonial Literary Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Pp. 188. $100hb. ISBN 978-0-7486-3717-1. $35pb. ISBN 978-0-7486-3718-8.

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Davis
University of Rhode Island

This excellent book accomplishes a difficult balance: it provides a topical and bibliographic overview of a rich but unwieldy field, and it offers a series of fresh literary readings and political analyses that demonstrate the crucial importance of this field, which the author calls "postcolonial medieval studies." For about two decades, medievalists have been exploring the relevance of medieval texts and history to contemporary postcolonial theory and vice versa, and have worked to show that current political dilemmas stemming from colonialism cannot be adequately understood if the historical connections between the "modern" and the "medieval" are ignored. The fact that this book appears in a prestigious series for Postcolonial Literary Studies indicates that non-medievalists are now ready to engage these arguments.

The book aims to make the field of postcolonial medieval studies accessible to non-specialists, including medievalists who have not worked in the field as well as non-medievalists who focus on postcolonial studies. To this end, chapter one, "The Future of the Past," opens with succinct discussions of some of the main areas addressed by medievalists engaged with postcolonial issues, such as periodization, borders, globality, and race. Citing the work of a wide range of medievalists, the section also demonstrates that engagement with postcolonial issues has broadened the scope of medieval studies and encouraged a trend away from Eurocentrism, even among scholars who would not consider themselves to be associated with postcolonial studies. The following section shifts to critiques that medievalists have successfully brought to bear upon some of the key categories of postcolonial studies, particularly Orientalism, nation/nationalism, and the history of colonialism, showing that inattention to medieval history and literature often results in historical and methodological distortions that reinscribe the very imperialist and nationalist paradigms postcolonial theorists wish to challenge. It is at this point that Lampert-Weissig begins to detail the evidence for one of the major arguments of the book: postcolonial medieval studies is not a matter of medievalists playing "me too!" and anachronistically applying context-specific theory to medieval texts. It is, rather, a matter of coming to terms with the history and the historiography that enabled colonial projects, and breaking through the periodizing and nationalizing barriers that have bulwarked those projects.

Versions of this argument have arisen before, of course, and debate is ongoing, a topic taken up in the chapter's third section, "Postcolonial Medieval Studies: How is the Field Viewed?" Here, Lampert-Weissig acknowledges that postcolonial medieval studies is not universally accepted among medievalists, but is nonetheless an acknowledged part of medieval literary scholarship. More problematic than the hesitations of some medievalists is the tendency of many postcolonialists to "instrumentalise" the middle ages precisely as colonialist projects had done. As a counter to this tendency, this section details the interrelated genealogies of postcolonial and medieval studies, tracing the growth of academic medieval studies and its intertwining with Orientalism, colonialism, and nationalism in the German, French, English, and Spanish contexts. Throughout, this chapter does an excellent job of presenting the issues through discussion of the extant scholarship and providing a valuable bibliography of unusual breadth, although never at the expense of argument. The chapter will be an eye-opener for graduate students who aspire to medieval studies and/or postcolonial studies, as well as for scholars outside the field. For those already working in the field, its comprehensive, multi-national coverage will facilitate the kind of comparative work so necessary in postcolonial studies, yet so inhibited by disciplinary boundaries.

Chapter 2, "Medieval Intersections," is the book's longest and richest chapter, unfolding through readings of medieval literary texts generated in territories the author defines as "contact zones," following the terminology of Mary Louise Pratt. Appropriate as Lampert-Weissig finds postcolonial terms such as "contact zone" and "hybridity" to be for medieval texts, she also identifies the blind- spots that have resulted from the historical limitations of their theorization, and demonstrates how medieval texts can deepen and refine them. Thus the general claim for the importance of medieval sources to postcolonial studies is supported with specific case histories. The chapter's first section, "The Case of al-Andalus," opens with a bilingual presentation (Arabic and English) of an andalusian love poem that itself combines Arabic and Hispano-Romance. The author's reading of this poem interweaves analysis of its hybridity with discussion of its pertinence to current debates about the political history of al-Andalus and the global ramifications of this medieval history in contemporary politics. "What is at stake in the question of al-Andalus," Lampert-Weissig suggests, "is a new way of looking at (medieval) Europe and at the Western tradition" (40), the implications of which she pursues in the following chapter. Section two, "Norman Frontiers and the Twelfth-century Werewolf Renaissance," provides background on Norman expansion and the very different cases of Norman rule in Sicily and in England. Citing Caroline Walker Bynum's suggestion that the "werewolf renaissance of the twelfth century" might relate in part to the economic, social and cultural changes brought by "colonial wars and missionary activities" (41), the section offers a rich, historically informed reading of the Old French romance Guillaume de Palerne (a werewolf tale set in Sicily). Setting her reading alongside recent work on Geoffrey of Monmouth, Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales, Lampert-Weissig shows the relationship between the hybrid figure of the werewolf and cultural anxieties in a "contact zone," even as she provides a generous bibliographic overview on this topic. The section ends with a reading of Ivanhoe that illustrates the enduring importance of the Norman conquest as a source of legend, and its historiographic relation to the growth of medievalism and of empire.

The chapter's third section, "Race, Periodisation and Medieval Romance," addresses the "tangled relationships between 'theological' and biological' notions of race in both the premodern and modern eras, connections that are often obscured by a frequent insistence on notions of biology (or more accurately, pseudo-biology) as the defining characteristics of 'race' and of 'racism'" (68). The section begins with Obama's speech on race, praising its accomplishments but also noting that it avoided the "third rail" of the controversial claims that he had "Muslim roots," a controversy steeped in racism more cultural and theological than biological. Here Lampert-Weissig sets out her own highly persuasive argument, which illuminates current "racial profiling" of Muslims, and deepens recent theories of culture- based racism by scholars such as Etienne Balibar. Her argument exposes the errors that result from the false assumption that "racism is modern and modernity is secular" (68). While somatic markers may be crucial to contemporary racisms, she asserts, "racism is not merely concerned with biology, nor was it ever" (85). Extensive readings of the romances Parzival and The King of Tars demonstrate the long and complex linkages between color and cultural difference, especially religious difference, and underscore the importance of this history to current analyses of race. The chapter's final section on "A Global Vision: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville" provides context for the Travels through discussion of other traveler's tales and mappaemundi. Through a reading of the connection between the Amazons and Gog and Magog in the Travels, the section deals directly with the interrelated figures of Woman and Jew, a topic raised briefly in the previous section on race, and of central importance to the author's earlier book, Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare. It also details the long historical connections between antisemitism and Islamophobia, their relation to the current intransigent problems of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and their subtle manifestations in much contemporary theory.

Chapter 3, "The Dark Continent of Europe," opens with the current "Islam in Europe" debates (fear of Muslim takeover, wearing of the veil, etc.), which "often draw upon representations of the Middle Ages, frequently as filtered through nineteenth-century medievalisms" (109), particularly the idea of Europe as Christendom, and Christendom as the West. Working with Samuel Huntington's division of Europe temporally, at the year 1500, and spatially--"Europe ends where Western Christianity ends and Islam and Orthodoxy begin" (Huntington, cited on 112)--the section begins to show how important it is for medievalists to challenge these false binaries. The following section elaborates the deep relation between modern medievalisms and the shoring up of "real" (that is, Christian) European identity, to the exclusion of not only of European Muslims and sometimes Jews, but of territories such as Spain and the Balkans with a Moorish or Ottoman past. Surveying the rhetoric of some of the many virulent anti-Muslim campaigns throughout Europe, Lampert-Weissig suggests that postcolonial medieval studies can offer an important perspective on the "Islam in Europe" debate by "peeling back the layers of the palimpsest that is Europe" (111), and thus disrupting claims to a pure identity signified, for example, by a cathedral-dotted landscape. The book's final section, "Resisting Memoricide," explores the promise of contemporary fiction that turns to medievalism in order to counter ongoing attempts to efface the traces of Islam in Europe and/or historic inter-cultural relations. Juan Goytisolo's El sitio de los sitios (translated into English as State of Siege), Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, the five novels of Tariq Ali's "Islam Quintet," and Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land provide the opportunity to re-examine "long memories," and, as Lampert-Weissig suggests in closing, to "make new connections and open new possibilities" (147)--a claim that the book itself admirably proves.