Ben Schmidt

title.none: Tomasch and Gilles, eds., Text and Territory (Schmidt)

identifier.other: baj9928.9808.002 98.08.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ben Schmidt, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Tomasch, Sylvia and Sealy Gilles, eds. Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: Unive rsity of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 330. $19.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-21635-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.08.02

Tomasch, Sylvia and Sealy Gilles, eds. Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: Unive rsity of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 330. $19.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-21635-0.

Reviewed by:

Ben Schmidt
University of Washington

What did the world look like in the Middle Ages? Or better, who looked at the world in the Middle Ages, how did they frame their particular vision, and to what purpose did they project it on to others? These are but a few of the many interesting questions posed by the book under review, a collection of essays concerned, broadly speaking, with the sense of space and place in the European Middle Ages. Text and Territory grew out of sessions at the 1992 Medieval Academy meeting and the 1994 International Congress on Medieval Studies, yet the volume reads better than the usual collection of conference proceedings. While each essay comes across as a carefully conceived and meticulously crafted study on some individual aspect of the medieval "geographic imagination," the essays manage to speak to one another such that the whole certainly exceeds the sum of its parts. The whole presents a coherent volume that considers, from a variety of different angles and through a variety of different texts, manners of delineating space and articulating geographic agenda. It does this, too, in ways that are often quite innovative in their methodologies and provocative in their conclusions. Taken together, Text and Territory affords a fine introduction to what the volume's editors' call "geographic desire."

Of what precisely does "geographic desire" consist in the Middle Ages? Here the co-editor of the volume, Sylvia Tomasch, points to the way "writing" the "earth"--"geo-" plus "graphy"-- involves processes of exclusion no less than inclusion and emphasizes the "inscriptive foundation of all geographic endeavor" (5). Geography is a discipline of defining and measuring, and many of the studies in this volume examine those who do and don't make the cut: the ins and outs of medieval space, the alterity of medieval social, political and economic life. These measuring processes are themselves measured in an extraordinary (and in some cases surprising) range of "geographic" texts. Some are simply and straightforwardly maps and travelogues, and Tomasch opens her engaging introduction with one of the most famous cartographic artifacts of the period, the Hereford mappa mundi, which projects a highly confident religious/political view of the world circa 1280. Christian ideology encompasses the globe in the very literal sense that Christ (pictured above) lords over the orbis terrarum. In the lower corner of the map appears a quite legible vignette of temporal power, in this case the Roman emperor Augustus, who orders his surveyors to measure the earth's more profane materiality.

Other sources, however, may seem less obvious and may appear, at first glance, to have a more tenuous hold on the "territory" of geography. These include the narrative structure of Dante's Commedia; the troubadour's lyric and its pastoral landscape; a variety of Old and Middle English genealogical and chronological accounts; and even the broad social, economic, and institutional evidence of late medieval urbanization. Geography and space, in other words, are understood in the most elastic of senses; "mapping" alludes to all manner of demarcations and delineations. This means that mapping metaphors and geographic "imaginings" can get overly stretched- -so much so that they sometimes lose their elasticity altogether and cease to function as useful hermeneutic tools. Indeed, the essays in this collection succeed most when they adhere to the thematics of the volume, and less so when they pay lip service to the same in order to take literary and historical excursions that, while certainly interesting, blur the reader's focus.

Text and Territory is divided into four parts, each of which addresses a particular set of themes. The first, "Centers and Margins," concerns the way "discursive representations" in travel narratives, pilgrim accounts, and maps purposefully construct peripheries and centers. Mary Baine Campbell's essay on "The Palpability of Purgatorio" centers, literally, on the center: the "pleasures of the middle" (16) in a text that is itself all about "the journey between." Travel, in essence, is also about middles; one begins and ends usually in the same spot, so that the middle is where the action is. In her stylish tour of the "narrative seduction" of Dante's Divine Comedy, Campbell invites us to enjoy the ride, so to speak, rather than worry about getting there.

For the so-called Mandeville-author, Jerusalem lies naturally in the center--though this Christian version of the omphalos syndrome, as Iain Macleod Higgins explains, had not always been the case ("Defining the Earth's Center in a Medieval 'Multi- Text': Jerusalem in The Book of John Mandeville"). After an expert review of the evidence of mappa mundi and travelogues, Higgins demonstrates how The Book was actually innovative in its placement of Jerusalem at the center of the text and of the imagined oikoumene more generally. Such geographic desire, he points out, coincided with the protracted crisis of late medieval Christendom, compounded by the recent loss of the last foothold in Palestine (Acre). Scott Westrem's essay, "Against Gog and Magog," takes us from the center to the periphery in search of the ever-vague construction of Gog/Magog. These dangerously undefined "bogeymen," as Westrem characterizes them, embodied generally "Christian Europe's keenest anxieties" (55), which included not only parricide, infanticide, and cannibalism but also foreigners, religious dissidence, and peculiar languages. Of these last, Hebrew ranks high, and this essay is one of many in this collection to elucidate the medieval "othering" of the Jew--in this case, pushing him to the margins of the map.

The second part of the volume, "Place and the Politics of Identity," leaves the terrain of maps altogether for texts of a distinctly historical flavor. At times, these essays meander far from the stream of "geographic desire." Yet, as the great geographer Ortelius would later point out, "Geography is the eye of history," so the two currents do in fact tend to merge. Sealy Gilles turns her eye on an eleventh-century manuscript of Orosius' History against the Pagans, which includes in it a world geography ("Territorial Interpolations in the Old English Orosius"). Gilles teases from her source the cultural agenda of its Anglo-Saxon compilers, which turns out to be an enterprise inclined "to incorporate rather than marginalize" (91)--to fit the customs of the "exotic" northern peoples described into the Anglo-Saxon world rather than to marginalize them. This seems a point relevant to the study of colonial discourse more broadly, which tends, especially in considering post-Columbian texts, to assume reflexively a process of "othering"--which is not always the case. All "others" turn out not to be the same, and Gilles' essay brings an interesting medieval perspective to a supposedly modernist discourse.

Robert Stein, in his study of twelfth-century Norman history writing ("Making History English: Cultural Identity and Historical Explanation in William of Malmesbury and Lazamon's Brut"), finds a pattern both similar and distinct from that discussed by Gilles. Stein's essay uncovers an anxious process by which English historians fashioned a more neatly unified identity in their chronicling of the rather complicated story of the Norman conquest. In doing so, however, these historians marginalize those who were neither of the old or new elites. Moving ahead to the fourteenth-century "Alexander" poem studied by Christine Chism ("Too Close for Comfort: Dis-Orienting Chivalry in the Wars of Alexander"), we get a heroic figure of notable ambiguity, one who shares "affiliations and likenesses" (117) with his eastern enemies, yet serves also as a chivalric model for his intended Midlands audience. This poetic Alexander features as "a hybrid of eastern and western cultures" (119) at a moment of pronounced English ambivalence toward an oriental world with which it fought and to which it turned, increasingly, for cultural and intellectual goods.

The third part of Text and Territory is dedicated to gendered and sexualized space, or what might be considered "patriarchal geography." Jo Ann McNamara argues in her sweeping essay, "City Air Makes Men Free and Women Bound," that urbanization in the later Middle Ages tended to restrict the social, economic, and (not least) spiritual possibilities of women. Newly erected and empowered urban institutions-- universities are among the chief culprits in this story--kept women out of the public, "civilized" space of the city and placed severe restrictions on their participatory opportunities. One wonders in reading McNamara's spirited argument, though, if the country air was any better--if non- urban spaces of the same period provide a useful contrast. Acquiring actual space--real territory, in other words--is the topic of Margaret Clunies Ross's interesting contribution, "Land-Taking and Text-Making in Medieval Iceland." Women did participate, of course, in the Icelandic landnam of the ninth century. Yet, as this essay so cogently demonstrates, the literary record distinguishes between a feminized domestic process of land acquisition and a more masculine heroic one. Family sagas and legal texts reveal a "masculinist ideology" (162) in codifying the space, literal and historical, of Iceland.

If women were excluded from the public domain of Icelandic history and from the urban arena of late-medieval Europe, they fared no better in the relatively sheltered space of the pastourelle studied by Gale Sigal ("Courted in the Country: Women's Precarious Place in the Troubadours' Lyric Landscape"). The country air, it turns out, carried risks too, at least in the troubadours' imaginative landscape. Or rather, unlike the upper-class canso domna, the shepherdess of the pastourelle is free to speak her mind; she risks, though, the sorts of knightly advances that would never be tolerated in the courtly space. Much worse, according to the queen of Latium, was tolerated and perpetrated by the Trojan invader, as we learn in Vincent A. Lankewish's contribution "Assault from Behind: Sodomy, Foreign Invasion, and Masculine Identity in the Roman d'Eneas." Lankewish reads this twelfth-century narrative for attitudes regarding land and love, and how the text "becomes not only a means of reinscribing male homosocial bonds, but also of imagining erotic relations between men that threaten the very heterosexual identity that the text invites us to embrace" (211).

Text and Territory concludes with a final part, "Territory of Texts," concerned with "authorization," or how territories are "claimed in and created through . . . texts themselves" (9). Sylvia Tomasch returns to Dante's Divine Comedy and to the place of the Jew in medieval Europe ("Judecca, Dante's Satan, and the Dis-placed Jew") by exploring two crucial absences: first, the absence in the poem of Jews (as opposed to biblical Hebrews), most conspicuously in the "Judecca" or bottom-most pit of hell (the word giudecca also indicated the medieval Italian ghetto); and second, the equally remarkable absence of concern among dantisti with the implications of this "repressed vision of the Jew" (248). Tomasch's stimulating study of the disappearing Jew pays equal attention to textual territory--the Commedia itself--and academic territory, revealing a persistent christianist hermeneutics and indeed "christianist blindness" (262) that has characterized the study of Dante. The placement of Jews also occupies Kathleen Biddick in the final essay of the volume, "The ABC of Ptolemy: Mapping the World with the Alphabet." Rounding off the collection nicely, Biddick's essay reinstates the evidence of maps--along with astrolabes, alphabets, and even apocalyptic speculations--to demonstrate how medieval Christians "used technology to translate the corporeal co- presence of Jews among whom they lived into temporal absence" (269). Once again, maps play a role in defining space that is far more than geographic--in this case, the social and political status of the Jew--and once again, the alterity of the medieval period is brought to the fore. Biddick's wide- ranging essay, like Tomasch's, returns to the notion of "geographic desire" by showing how Christian Europe manipulated texts and textual territory for varying strategic ends.

Text and Territory is a generally successful endeavor that should be of interest to both medievalists and others concerned with cultural geography. It raises a range of provocative issues about the representation of space and the territory of power in the Middle Ages and beyond. Indeed, the strength of the volume is the way so many of the essays speak to topics of broad intellectual interest--alterity, colonial discourse, gendered space, to name but a few. The weaknesses of the volume reside in those more tangential passages that overstretch the mapping metaphor and deprive the volume of its cohesion. Tomasch, in both her "Introduction" and Dante essay, emphasizes the mission of medievalists no less than others in cultural studies to charge their research with relevance: to investigate not only the ins and outs of cultural space but also the why's and why not's. Many of these essays do just that. That they do so in (mostly) clear and jargon-free prose and employ a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary set of texts adds to the strength of this volume. (One would have wished, however, for more contributions from historians and art historians and for more attention to visual evidence. The reproductions of maps is surprisingly meager, too, as is the attention to the visual component of cartographic sources.) Also useful is the cumulative bibliography, which should provide an excellent point of departure for future studies of the subject. Text and Territory is highly recommended.