Sharon Kinoshita

title.none: Kabir and Williams, eds., Postcolonial Approaches (Sharon Kinoshita)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.007 06.05.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sharon Kinoshita, U.C. Santa Cruz,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Kabir, Ananya Jahanara, and Deanne Williams, eds. Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, vol. 54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 298. $80.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-521-82731-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.07

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara, and Deanne Williams, eds. Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, vol. 54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 298. $80.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-521-82731-0.

Reviewed by:

Sharon Kinoshita
U.C. Santa Cruz

Containing an Introduction, nine essays (in three sections), and a critical epilogue, this volume is "dedicated to the intersections between medieval and postcolonial studies". (9) In their Introduction, "A Return to Wonder", the editors outline a twofold theoretical agenda: to demonstrate how postcolonial thematics have enriched Medieval Studies and, in so doing, to command the attention of scholars of colonialism and postcolonialism proper. They do this through an accumulation of critical tropes: the medieval past as a "foreign country" colonized in "the interests of modernity", the critique of "western myths of origin, history, identity, and temporality", and an interest in wonder, exemplified through an image of "The Meeting of the Magi" from the Très riches heures of the duc de Berry. While this expansiveness is commendable, it shades into a play of analogy and equivalences that soon becomes wearisome. When the editors distinguish their volume from previous collections by its emphasis on translation "as a mechanism of and metaphor for cultures in contact, confrontation, and competition" that "calls attention to material and linguistic as well as theoretical details" (10), the cumulation of doublets and triplets (however alliterative) bespeaks a theoretical commitment to inclusivity that in the end (at least for this reader) stifles meaningful analysis under the sheer weight of amplificatio. Rather, the volume's strengths consist in the high quality of many of the contributions; the broader-than-usual national and linguistic distribution of the texts addressed; and, within Medieval English, the welcome shift in focus from Middle English to Anglo Saxon Studies.

Part I. The Afterlife of Rome

Two essays, Nicholas Howe's "Anglo-Saxon England and the Postcolonial World" and Seth Lerer's "'On fagne flore': the Postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney", identify Anglo-Saxon society as a "postcolonial" in its acute consciousness of coming after "the colonial Roman imperium" (Lerer, 100, n.4)--a Romanitas that would have literally been visible in the architectural and infrastructural remains--fortifications, walls, roads, bridges--shaping the landscape (Howe, 43) of post-Roman Britain. Drawing on some of the same texts (Bede, The Ruin, Maxims II) and on occasion quoting the same passages (28, 79; 31, 80-81), both analyze the incorporation of the Roman past into the Anglo-Saxon present. In a series of lovely readings, Howe shows how, in elegiac evocations of architectural remains, the use of stone signals "a past age of superhuman accomplishments" (32)--as in the highly conscious and semiotically resonant Anglo-Saxon reuse of Roman spolia at Saint Peter's at Jarrow and St. John at Escomb. Evoking the melancholy induced by post-Roman regression and population decline, Howe emphasizes the ways landscapes encode "relations of power"--specifically the way "[t]he landscape of Anglo-Saxon England, as it held Roman ruins and also spolia turned to new purposes", served as "a way of deciphering the postcolonial void".

Seth Lerer's essay on Beowulf reads the fagne flor of Heorot (fag meaning patterned, variegated, multicolored) as a specific evocation of the tesselated mosaics of Roman Britain as "a memory of magnificence, an allusion to something old, rich, artistic, and alien". (84) An Anglo-Saxon structure built on a literal Roman foundation, Heorot thus becomes "a shifting structure..., part native settlement, part foreign imposition", and Hrothgar and his retinue "colonizers of some strange landscape". But there's more: in a tour-de-force reading, Lerer traces the postcolonial, "almost...postliterary feel" of Seamus Heaney's 2000 translation of the poem, focusing especially on his Introduction, which explicitly aligns the Geatish woman's plight with the postcolonial traumas of Rwanda or Kosovo: "her keen is a nightmare glimpse into the minds of people who have survived traumatic, even monstrous events and who are now being exposed to a comfortless future". Paradoxically, it is often when Heaney most boldly departs from a literal translation of the poem that he most vividly conjures Beowulf as "a narrative of elegy and loss".

Alfred Hiatt's "Mapping the Ends of Empire" offers a useful compendium of a thousand years of geographical history, loosely organized around key postcolonial preoccupations like discursive formations, the interrelationship of conquest and cartography, and representations of indigenous peoples. The section "Ends of Empire" analyzes the "postcolonial" way the Roman empire provides a frame of reference for Paulus Orosius (fifth century) and Isidore of Seville (seventh century), producing (in Isidore) a "discourse of foundation" based on etymology, a "mixture of historical and geographical referents", and a "history of spatial organization" exposing the "colonial nature" of the spaces under discussion. (54-5) Hiatt then traces Orosius's and Isidore's influence on the Beatus maps and the Hereford mappa mundi. The section "Crusade Cartography" catalogues various recombinations of classical, Biblical, commercial, political and technical elements in maps of the Holy Land illustrating Matthew Paris's Chronica majora and Historia Angolorum (thirteenth century) and Marino Sanudo's Liber secretorum fidelium crucis (1320-21). As in other "postcolonial" moments in this article, his claim that "the territorial expansion of Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries (and beyond) both brings about, and is made possible by, changes in mapping practices" (49) is generally suggestive without quite cohering into a sustained analysis. In "Ethnography, Cartography, and Colonialization", Hiatt contrasts medieval, textually-based cartographic representations of foreign peoples (e.g. the monstrous races) with experientially-based depictions of indigenous peoples that make the early modern map "a multicultural document...imbued with the notion of cultural encounter". (71) The article features nine black-and-white reproductions of relevant maps that, except for a detail of the 1375 Catalan Atlas, are too small to be legible and thus to contribute to the analysis.

Part II. Orientalism before 1600

In "Alexander in the Orient: Bodies and Boundaries in the Roman de Toute Chevalerie", Suzanne Conklin Akbari uses Thomas of Kent's twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Alexander romance to distinguish between medieval and modern Orientalisms. Like Hiatt, she begins with Orosius, showing how his scheme in Historiarum adversum paganos--the westward translation of power from Babylon to Rome, with momentary pauses in Macedon (the north) and Carthage (the south)--likewise structures the narrative of Alexander's conquests. Unlike Alexander of Paris, who claims vernacular antecedents for his Roman d'Alexandre, Thomas describes his work as a translation from the Latin, thus claiming greater authority for his narrative and, perhaps, helping "to domesticate the unpredictable and dangerous peripheries of the globe by connecting them to the stable center of imperial Rome". (113) The Orosian connection explains why Thomas's Alexander leaves the West unexplored: superficially because nothing there is worth conquering, but more deeply because he is the "harbinger of...the conquest of the known world by Rome...and the subsequent rise of European might in the far western regions". (110) Meanwhile, "[e]xploration of the very periphery of the world is necessarily followed by a return to the central regions of the realm" as, after Alexander's death, his corpse is "translated" from Babylon to Egyptian Alexandria. (121)

In "Gower's Monster", Deanne Williams uses the ambivalence of modern receptions of Gower (embodying either "the repressions, prejudices, and unwavering hierarchalism" of the Middle Ages or an "urbane psychological sensitivity" to moral and ethical issues) to read his representations of Nebuchadnezzar as key to the generic and conceptual "monstrosity" of Confessio Amantis. For Williams, the Biblical king of Babylon figures "England's condition of cultural hybridity" (129), exemplifying the recurrence of the thematics of monstrosity in texts "seek[ing] to define cultural or national identities" (129) and likening translation itself to "the frightening yet potentially revelatory...process" of metamorphosis. (130) As a conqueror, he figures worldly pride; in Confessio Amantis, he is a source of "the chaos, division and mutability" of the contemporary world (130); his apocalyptic dreams metaphorize the "inexorable decline of empire" (131); he is "a figure for juxtaposition and the swift shifting of gears" (144), undoing binary difference, instantiating "both/and as opposed to either/or". (145) Like the object it explicates, the essay itself is structured by a logic of juxtaposition, slippage, and excess; Williams's readers, like Gower's, may have disparate reactions to excurses like that on The Matrix (with its rebel ship named the "Nebuchadnezzar"). One might wish for a more systematic discussion of the relationship between metamorphosis and hybridity, both evoked repeatedly throughout. Then again, one might take the essay's suggestive excess as precisely its critical strength.

James G. Harper's "Turks as Trojans; Trojans as Turks: Visual Imagery of the Trojan War and the Politics of Cultural Identity in Fifteenth-Century Europe" argues that fifteenth-century depictions of Trojans reflect a "collective anxiety" around the "military and cultural threat" posed by the Ottoman Empire. (151) His analysis rests on two images: an illumination (fol. 154 of a 1431 Chronique Universelle) depicting the entourages of four founders of Rome in "eclectically exotic eastern costume" (158); and The Death of Troilus, Achilles, and Paris, one panel of an eleven-tapestry series on the History of the Trojan War produced by the Coëtivy Master in Tournai in c. 1465. A rapid historical sketch contrasts the ancient Roman represention of Trojans as Easterners (associated with Dacian captives, the god Mithra, and the Magi) with the medieval tendency to cast them (together with the Greeks) as good medieval knights--reflecting western Europeans' claims to be direct descendants of the Trojans. In the mid-fifteenth century, artists began representing the Trojans in Turkish garb. Then, after a string of Turkish victories and with the emergence of Humanism, "Western polemicists aggressively reclaimed exclusive ownership of Trojanitas" as artists began routinely depicting the Trojans as Roman. Throughout, Harper is attentive to variation--as where antique images showing Trojans in "eastern" garb nevertheless depict Aeneas as Roman. His overall argument, however, is weakened by his curious assertion that the Ottomans were the first Turks to make their mark on the western European imaginary. Previously, he suggests, "Turkish expansionism remained a distant, Asian phenomenon....Interest in the Turks increased exponentially [only] in the fourteenth century" when "medieval indifference to the Ottoman Turks gave way to an increasing curiosity" (156, emphasis added). This surprising claim not only elides two centuries of crusades against the Seljuk Turks and Mamluks, but omits any mention of the repercussions of the crushing defeat at Nicopolis (1396) on western European mentalities.

Part III. Memory and Nostalgia

Ananya Jahanara Kabir's "Analogy in Translation: Imperial Rome, Medieval England, and British India" describes how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British colonial discourse used prevailing contemporary views of English history--particularly the Norman Conquest--as a reservoir of models through which to understand British colonial expansion in India. (An alternate model aligning British rule in India with Roman rule in Britain--suggesting the equivalence of the pax Romana and the pax Britannica--is described on the opening page.) Earlier writings (John Borthwick Gilchrist's 1787 Dictionary English and Hindostanee) tend to align Hindus with Anglo-Saxons and Muslims with Normans, imputing freedom to the former and tyranny (the "Norman yoke") to the latter. Nineteenth-century "Anglicists" like Macaulay (1835) and Trevelyan (1838), promoting education in English rather than in indigenous languages, tended to collapse the Saxon/Norman binary in favor of analogizing contemporary India with medieval Britain in a stage-theory of civilization: India still awaited its "native Milton or Shakespeare" (Trevelyan) before it could dispense with British tutelage. (Muslim culture--denigrated in the previous model by being compared to that of the Normans--is now cast as superior to the "Hindu system", though still inferior to the British.) Conversely, Victorian era writers like the historian Edward Freeman likened the British conquerors of India to the Anglo-Saxon conquerors of Gallo-Roman Britain, bringing a "healthy barbarism" suggesting a manifest destiny. In this high moment of Anglo-Saxonism, the emergence of Indo-European discourse caused Freeman to juxtapose "the Greek, the Roman, and the Teuton" in a renewed vision of translatio imperii.

Michelle R. Warren's beautifully evocative essay, "'Au commencement était l'ole': The Colonial Formation of Joseph Bédier's Chanson de Roland" belongs to a growing body of work analyzing the influence the political atmosphere of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exerted over the field of Medieval Studies. A founding father of Old French studies, Bédier produced what was long the authoritative edition and translation of the Roland--the canonical text of the French Middle Ages. Warren's title, "in the beginning was the island", poetically condenses Bédier's influential theory attributing the origin of the chanson de geste to monasteries along the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela (captured in his one-sentence formula, "In the beginning was the road") with an analysis of how Bédier's own origins--a youth spent on the island-colony of Réunion--inflected his interpretation of the poem's evocation of "sweet France". Mining Bédier's personal correspondance, Warren aligns his "permanent homesickness" for Réunion and his intense "desire for national belonging" with those of postcolonial intellectuals like Said, Rushdie, and Bhabha. Bédier's investment in "single-manuscript traditions", particularly of the Oxford Roland, she suggests, reflects a horror of textual "hybridity" inseparable from "a distrust of mixing (mélange, métissage)" deriving from his "colonial racial consciousness". (217) Drawing on previous studies, she notes how Bédier's modern French translation of the Roland "encourage[s] the take sides" (219) with the French and against the pagans--dismissing competing theories of Spanish Arabic influence on some of the poem's key concepts and producing "greater France" as "a unified entity undisturbed by geographic, ethnic, and temporal ruptures". (222)

In the volume's final essay, "The Postcolonial Baroque of La Celestina", Roland Greene examines the late fifteenth-century text originally known as the Comedia de Calisto e Melibea (1499) as a transitional work opening out, in complex ways, onto the Spanish Baroque. While "Baroque" is primarily a period concept naming the seventeenth-century "crease" between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (231), Greene treats it instead as a "disposition" characterized by incommensurability (incongruity, disproportion, anachronism) (230), the tendency "always to describe the present in terms of other times and places" (231), "an openness--of language, of art, of social horizons" (245), a "disruption of scale" resulting from "the new science and economics" (234). Thus he reads Celestina as a baroque figure--the first in literature--in an otherwise medieval romance text, anticipating later characters who "turn aphorisms, commonplaces, and other forms of consensus inside out, set them against one another, or pile them up to establish an effect of vertiginous comparison". (245) If the historical baroque as an "openly contradictory and complex" attitude is (in anticipation of the postcolonial condition) linked to the "hybrid influences" generated by the "newly outspoken classes such as mestizos, creoles, and other groups" of the "European colonial enterprise" (237), Celestina's "is the voice not of misbehavior but of insurgency, baroque and postcolonial avant la lettre". (247)

In his epilogue, "Translation and Transnationals: Pre- and Postcolonial", theorist Ato Quayson identifies the "three main discursive critical maneuvers" exemplified in this volume as "the centralization of material culture, historical emblematization and the implications of an analogical calculus, and the intimate and situated personal encounters with the past" (258), citing a number of postcolonial analogies for the critical thematics raised in the essays. While Quayson pays lip service to the way "the postcolonial might be enriched by perspectives from medieval scholarship" (in particular, he sees Greene's analysis of the baroque as promising for a "deep history" of the "typology of magical realism"), his rather weak acknowledgment that "several debates in medieval studies anticipate many of the questions that engage the attention of postcolonial scholars" (265) is likely to disappoint critics like Kabir and Williams who (citing Bruce Holsinger) lament that "medievalists have yet to make a significant impact on the methods, historical purview, and theoretical lexicon of postcolonialism". (19)