14.03.15, Ganim & Legassie, eds., Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 14.03.15

Ganim, John M. and Shayne Aaron Legassie. Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xiv, 239. ISBN: 978-0-230-33757-2.

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
State University of New York at Stony Brook, Emeritus

The ten essays in this collection offer various case studies in "cosmopolitanism," some looking at historical situations and settings, some at literary ones--in so far as such a disciplinary distinction is helpful at a time when we place so much emphasis on ignoring (or jumping over) old fences. The essays are case studies in the interaction of cultures and perspectives--a sort of "compare and contrast" approach--whether we are looking at a proposed racial/religious/cultural intermarriage in outre-mer or at the internal contrasts and gear-changing within a Chaucerian tale or the ambivalent wisdom of Erasmus' Adages. The heavy emphasis on " cosmopolitanism" in the introduction and in the papers takes us to a near reification (almost a veneration) of this concept or yardstick and this reviewer, while very favorably impressed by the papers, dares suggest that perhaps less attention paid to the linguistic turn would not detract from the exposition and analysis of the essays. They cover a wide range of geography, time, and intellectual construction and they give us rich and diverse fare; the authors and the two editors are to be commended.

Karla Mallette opens the volume by contrasting Baghdad and Venice--"The Metropolis and Its Languages." As Arabic became the bond of the vast world of Islam, a world not heretofore known to be harmonious or homogeneous, the great metropole of Baghdad emerged in the 8th century as the center point of a cultural spread that transcended distance and historical memory. An "Arabo-Islamic" culture engaged disparate contributors and participants and even a quick look at such writers as Bashshār ibn Burd (ca. 714-783) or Ibn al-Muqaffa` (d. ca. 795) supports the idea that "the Arabic language was greater than the Arabs" (27) as it helped draw the periphery toward the center. By contrast, in Venice the divergence of an older Latinate culture and mentalite from a newer one, emerging and based on a range of vernacular tongues, offers a tale of a centrifugal culture with a "multiplicity of linguistic players" (29). Perhaps Constantinople in its heyday might have given Baghdad a run for the money, though Venice--queen of the Adriatic--is a fair Christian candidate to hold up for the comparison.

Sharon Kinoshita sets Marco Polo--traveler, diplomat, merchant, author--into the context of those men of letters whose active role contributed to the construction and preservation of the Mongol Empire. Marco is not so much the Italian here but rather a perceptive participant-observer of and commentator on a world where difference, or "cosmopolitanism," was the key. As he knew it, the Mongol Empire was one of many tongues, cultures, and peoples, and one with an astute appreciation of the value of letters and language, alongside trade and conquest, in holding it all together, in having the many distant outposts turned toward the court of the khan. This re-siting of Marco Polo makes him (and his tale) a case study in the creation of the empire, a historical phenomenon "at once violent and productive, destructive and creative...a multifaceted phenomenon" (51).

Christine Chism turns to Ibn Battuta, traveler and writer and tailor-made for this collection. Travel, we might say, can either broaden ones horizons or it can reinforce prejudices and Ibn Battuta, fortunately for us, was a 14th century personification of the first alternative as he participated in and contributed to a "culture of travel." His travels made him realize that there were many Islams, the world of the Qipchaqs being very different from that of Isfahan, let alone that of the Moslem community in the Christian Crimea. And when he accompanied Bayalūn (daughter of the emperor of Constantinople) on a journey back to her hometown, he had to cope with such unfamiliar issues as women's sovereignty and independence. As he came to realize, Bayalūn, married to Uzbeg for diplomatic reasons, was a "confessional chameleon." Travelling with her led him to encounter and enjoy moments of warm welcome and of being gifted, just as it did to moments of being ignored and/or distrusted. We can put Ibn Battuta alongside the Marco Polo of Kinoshita's essay, Ibn's great contribution being the development of a "capacity to connect with the non-Muslim in unforeseen ways" (76).

With Marla Segol we leave historical matters and turn to "Truth and Inclusivity in the Literature of Muslim Spain." In Spain, as perhaps nowhere else in high medieval Europe, and as her title indicates, we can find "medieval religious cosmopolitanisms," explicated in various authors' quest for "salvific knowledge." Segol looks at the work of three men, two writing in Arabic, one in Arabic and quickly translated into and glossed in Hebrew, all raising questions of the role and value of the physical body in the soul's search for spiritual purity and, ultimately, for god. One set of answers focuses on phenomena like the creation of animals and parallels between the body and the cosmos, the body being a ladder to climb toward a higher plane. A contrary school of thought sharply rejects the somatic, while in between these poles we have such as Ibn Gabirol's ambivalence about "the utility of the body in attaining knowledge" (86), while Ibn Tufayl argued for the "annihilation of the self" in this quest (92).

Shirin Azizeh Khanmohamadi turns, as had Kinoshita and Chism, to travelers and their accounts of the wonders they had seen (and survived to recount). We have three examples of European travelers who met "the other" and who wound up offering tolerant, appreciative, and perceptive comments about them (or it). Whoever wrote or collected the Book of John Mandeville presented a view of "global others" emphasizing "the community of God's natural servants" (106). Nor were the accounts of a world beyond Europe as offered by William of Rubruck or Jean de Joinville without an appreciation of virtuous others. Khanmohamadi emphasizes how looking outside the European-Christian box was also a factor in the formation of a European identity, as it contributed to "de-centering [the] European perspective." Reflections upon difference could turn thoughts toward a definition of sameness.

Adnan A. Husain and Margaret Aziza Pappano tell of what must be one of the strangest episodes amongst the many strange tales of outre-mer. The proposal that Joan of Sicily, Richard of England's sister (and already a widow) marry Saladin's brother, al-'Adil, shocked hawkish Christian sensitivities; the union would have meant a "one kingdom solution" regarding Jerusalem. The marriage not only would have represented a cultural and racial mixing that aroused the ire of the rank and file but also it went against the Christian idea of only negotiating from a position of strength. But the proposal--never likely to be consummated--indicates how the idea of equable alterity could take on a life of its own, with the wife and husband as co-rulers in a bold example of an interfaith union. That Joan objected and that the idea died in the talking stages hardly detracts from its fascination and it should rank high on the "might have been" list. The mere idea indicates how the proximity of different and even opposing cultures can be the other side of the coin of sameness and homogeneity.

Karma Lochrie turns to the internal discourse and intellectual genealogy of "inventing social conscience" as traced in and through the cosmopolitanism of Piers Plowman. Langland's quest is for "an ethics of world-citizenship based on a recognition of human dignity" (142), a journey that sets him in a line of thought going back to Aristotle and coming close with Marsilius of Padua (and Kant, though this may not help in reading a 14th century text). The focus, in Lochrie's reading, is for what Langland offers about the universality of the human community. A "just society based on diversity" is a bold leap in an age of heretic-hunting and the brutal suppression of the peasantry. To tie individual conscience to social conscience is a striking step toward "modernity." Social conscience is--or can become--a powerful force when all members of society, presumably including all ranks and stations, agree to a "collective dedication" of will and action.

Robert R. Edwards continues the investigation of literary texts with "Cosmopolitan Imaginaries," wherein he turns to Fulcher of Chartres' Historia Hierosolymitana, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and some medieval Troy tales (such as Benoit's Roman de Troie). There is particular interest in how Priam sought to build his city based on cosmopolitan involvement--we could almost say on citizenship. With the city as a macro-image of the body's health, the theme of "social cohesion" can be taken as a sign of success in this rather utopian goal. It is a vision--and a city--that takes us outside the accepted boundaries of "belonging" or citizenship based on place and individualized identity. Rather, in the oxymoronic blend of "affect and identity, strangeness and acquaintance," we have a cosmopolitan vision wherein a hybridity is created, a sense of self and of other stand side by side.

Shayne Aaron Legassie follows by looking, in a comparable fashion, at Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale." The contrast is between the way Chaucer and two predecessors dealt with similar material in the Constance legend. Chaucer's version is a much better representative of and ambassador for cosmopolitanism than either Nicholas Trivet, in his fourteenth century French Cronicles or John Gower, in his Middle English Confessio Amantis. In a contrast that seems to be one between cultural chauvinism and isolationism set against Chaucer's aesthetic cosmopolitanism, there is no doubt about where our sympathies lie. Like other travelers we encountered above, as Constance moves from place to place and culture to culture she sees and learns much, suffers some hard knocks, and is presented as a Christian whose various journeys and adventures open doors upon a wider world.

Jessica L. Wolfe concludes the volume by looking at the Adages of Erasmus, tracing his synthesis of classical and Christian legacies through the ups and downs of his "hermeneutics of accommodation." In essence, Erasmus went back and forth on whether one had more influence by accepting the "ethics of accommodation" or by standing up, speaking out, and dissenting. With Odysseus and Paul as role models Erasmus could follow both Homer and The New Testament, finding occasions where either form of behavior seemed the correct one for the moment. "To adapt, or not to adapt" pretty much sums it up, as Erasmus wavered over the years, being the cosmopolitan "citizen of all Europe" who also remained, in thought if not in deed, a partisan and a loyalist for the Low Countries whence he came.

This is a good collection of essays. They straddle various disciplines, they move us around in space and they carry us through many centuries. They are thoughtful, well documented, and up-to-date. The editors do their duty regarding the when and why of the collection. But they do seem over-much worried about the measuring themselves against the yardstick of cosmopolitanism. Our authors could have had their say in more accessible language: "medieval cosmopolitanism operates most visibly in zones of contact and conflict," as Robert Edward says (163). That really is sufficient.

Article Details

Author Biography

Joel Rosenthal

State University of New York at Stony Brook, Emeritus