The Medieval Review 10.09.01

Davis, Kathleen and Nadia Altschul. Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of "the Middle Ages" Outside Europe. Rethinking Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. 444. $70 ISBN 978-0-8018-9320-9. .

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
University of Illinois

This is essential reading, and not only for medievalists. The history of "the Middle Ages" and the histories of modernity and "the West" are "mutually constitutive," and have been since at least the seventeenth century. Within this master narrative, as editors Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul observe, the idea of "the medieval" functions as "a spatiotemporal baseline" (1)--whether conceived (for example) as the birthplace of modern European nations and institutions, or as the black hole of barbarism from which they have successfully escaped. Most medievalists are aware of this, but few could conceive how many, varied, and surprising are the uses such ideas have served, and continue to serve. But this book is not aimed solely at practitioners of medieval studies. Heroically, it also engages practitioners of postcolonial critique and subaltern studies, in an effort to model the many mutual benefits to be derived from a closer collaboration among scholars who are only just beginning to recognize their common heritage and "shared predicament," as Dipesh Chakrabarty calls it (109-119). In the words of medievalist Michelle Warren: "When medieval studies include the ongoing legacies of the European Middle Ages, and when postcolonial studies include global histories that extend to the European Middle Ages and beyond, we will all be better equipped to identify the broadest painful truths of collective violence as well as the poignant idiosyncrasies of individual actions" (297). For Simon Gikandi, a specialist in the literatures of postcolonial Africa and the Caribbean, the aim is "to rescue the idea of the Middle Ages from the confines of an unreachable past and to make it a central category of the politics of the present" (381). This is the book to recommend to your medievalist colleagues who deny the relevance and application of postcolonial theory to medieval studies. This is the book to give your modernist colleagues who know little and care less about medievalism's role in shaping their own fields of endeavor. This is even a primer for graduate students intrigued by postcolonial and subaltern studies, but unsure of where to begin or what is at stake.

This is also an exemplary edited collection, exhibiting a cohesion and balance all too rare in books of this kind. It is divided into four themed sections, each of which features three substantive essays and a critical response to them. The first, "Locations of History and Theory," focuses on the portability of ideas associated with the Middle Ages and is strongly influenced by Davis's very important book Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, 2008). In "Decolonizing Medieval Mexico," José Rabasa reflects frankly on periodization's shaping of Mesoamerican history, and on his own struggle to "avoid the built-in teleology of the pre- in the premodern" or the stigma (for scholars of colonial Mexico) of "the medieval." He articulates the core problem succinctly: any invocation of "the modern" always constitutes "a violent regulatory speech act" (31). Buttressing this forceful meditation are two case studies, Ananya Jahanara Kabir's engrossing look into "An Enchanted Mirror for the Capitalist Self: The Germania in British India" and Louise D'Arcens' "'Most Gentle Indeed, But Most Virile': The Medievalist Pacifism of George Arnold Wood," a study of how the first Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney came to develop a politically-charged medievalism that diverged markedly from that prevalent in Australia during the Boer War. Chakrabarty's response to these essays is, above and beyond that, a deft contextualization of the whole book's implications: "Historicism and Its Supplements: A Note on a Predicament Shared by Medieval and Postcolonial Studies."

The second section, "Repositioning Orientalism," complicates Edward Said's seminal critique of that phenomenon (much critiqued by medievalists) by investigating the tangled relationships between "Orientalized" and "medievalized" others. In so doing, it extends the argument of John Ganim's illuminating Medievalism and Orientalism (New York, 2005), among other recent works. Hernán G. H. Taboada comments on the "special character" of Orientalism in Spain and its former colonies in "Reconquista' and the 'Three Religion Spain' in Latin American Thought." Haruko Momma offers a fascinating account of the role that "the Middle Ages" could play in the fashioning of a modern Japanese identity in "Medievalism--Colonialism--Orientalism," a study of two novels by one of Japan's canonical authors, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). And Hamid Bahri and Francesca Canadé Sautman consider "the medieval"'s meanings in the historical fiction of Amin Maalouf (b. 1949), an Arab Christian from Beirut who emigrated to Paris in 1976, and whose French novels offer "an unorthodox, nomadic, and nonidentitarian view of the cultural and political history of the Middle East" ("Crossing History, Dis-Orienting the Orient," p. 177). The response to these three essays, Davis's "Working through Medievalisms," takes its starting point from one of Said's favorite quotations (drawn from Hugh of Saint-Victor, via Erich Auerbach), to the effect that the unformed soul derives its identity from a single place, the stronger soul feels at home in all places, and the perfected soul transcends the attachment to place: hence Said's call for a transcendence of cultural identities through a "secular criticism" that has weaned itself away from a homeland and its bellicose chauvinisms. But, as Davis reminds us, Said did not address "the degree to which the origin narrative of the 'European Middle Ages' both supported and was interdependent with colonialism and Orientalism, and the degree to which--if it is not to remain a basis of heritage and cultural dominion--this origin narrative requires working through " lest "the medieval" become a temporal "home" that serves the same nefarious purposes (208-209). The three essays in this section take up this problem in different but mutually helpful ways.

In section three, "Nation and Foundations," the contribution of "the Middle Ages" to postcolonial national ideologies is brought to the fore, as is the seminal role played by postcolonial intellectuals in the construction or contestation of these ideologies. Altschul discusses the intriguing case of "Andrés Bello and the Poem of the Cid ," tracing the paradoxical process that led this Venezuelan diplomat and "liberator" (the close colleague of Simón Bolívar) to retrain himself as a medieval philologist, edit the Cid , and thus become a "founding father" of Spanish national philology in the very first decades of Venezuela's independence from Spanish rule. In "Postcolonial Gothic: The Medievalism of America's 'National' Cathedrals," Elizabeth Emery offers a revealing analysis of the public debates that framed the planning of two American Gothic (Episcopalian) cathedrals: New York's St. John the Divine (initiated in 1888 and still unfinished) and the Washington National Cathedral (first proposed in 1891). In both cases, she finds that Homi Bhaba's concept of "colonial mimicry" well describes how the cathedral's architects and patrons "perpetuated their role as 'colonized' by mimicking the allegedly superior European medieval culture" while simultaneously and "unintentionally replicat[ing] the colonial discourse they rejected" through "their treatment of America's 'authentic' heritage--that of Native Americans" (238). The complicated construction of the United States's "medieval" heritage--in the very era when the U.S. was becoming a self-consciously imperial power--is also the subject of Heather Blurton's "An American in Paris: Charles Homer Haskins at the Paris Peace Conference." As Blurton shows, Haskins' historical scholarship directly influenced his approach to the problems under discussion at Versailles in 1919, but ultimately his "progressive view of medieval history" proved to be at odds with "the enduring forms of medievalism latent in romantic nationalism" (266); and it was, of course, the latter that emerged triumphant--precipitating another terrible war. Michelle Warren's powerful response to these essays, "Medievalism and the Making of Nations," expatiates on the legacy of such epic, ethnic, and Gothic nationalisms, contributing insights distilled from her own research on medievalism in modern France and its colonies.

The final section, "Geographies and Temporality," features essays dealing with medievalism's tendency to collapse space and time. Africa has long been described and treated as a medieval space, perpetually benighted; but Sylvie Kandé nuances this view by analyzing both the "emancipatory and conservative aspects" of alternative "African Medievalisms" (302), through her study of two historical novels by Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma (1927-2003). Kofi Campbell considers the "Clash of Medieval Cultures" in the depiction of Amerindians and conquistadors in the oeuvre of the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris (b. 1921). And Victor Houliston turns our attention to the place of medieval studies in South Africa, arguing that because medieval history and literature were not part of the pedagogical canon (as were, for example, the plays of Shakespeare and other texts associated with the Renaissance), the Middle Ages was "not obviously complicit in either the British colonial or postcolonial Afrikaner nationalist project," which meant that medieval studies could become a vehicle for dissent, even informing the political activism of certain South African intellectuals. In response to these essays, Simon Gikandi offers a wide-ranging and trenchant reflection on "Africa and the Signs of Medievalism," which not only provides the volume with a galvanizing conclusion but constitutes a clear summation of its entire project.

Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World establishes both a paradigm and a new foundation for collaboration between medieval and postcolonial studies. The editors are to be commended for the quality of the contributions they have elicited, the degree of collaboration they have fostered among contributors, and the multi-faceted and yet orderly volume that is the result of their efforts.