The Medieval Review 14.06.02


Classen, Albrecht. East Meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: Transcultural Experiences in the Premodern World. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture 14. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013. Pp. ix, 818. $196.00. ISBN: 978-3-11-032151-7.



Reviewed by:


Megan Moore
University of Missouri
mooremegan@missouri.edu

East Meets West is an ambitious and weighty volume of essays documenting transcultural experiences in the premodern period. In his 200 page Introduction, Classen sets strict limits for the avenues of inquiry, focusing the volume exclusively on contacts between what is now Europe and the Middle East; limiting contact to exchange outside of Christian-Jewish encounters (11); and writing against Bakhtin's claim that the informed, literate, and polylinguistic traveler was unique to the Renaissance (8). While Classen himself focuses on documenting actual cases of intercultural contact, as he points out, all the essays in the volume address the central questions about contact: "How were linguistic barriers overcome? To what extent were poets and artists, for instance, allowed to travel in and through foreign countries? Did patrons in East and West demonstrate any interest in hiring or sponsoring [artistic production] from foreign cultures?" (19). Classen's Introduction responds in concrete ways by providing a detailed and richly documented survey of medieval encounters framed by travel (geographers and voyagers such as Ibn Yaha); crusade and missionary endeavors (particularly life in Acre and St. Francis's work during the crusades); mysticism and encounter in Margery Kempe; religious travel (Benjamin of Tudela, Felix Fabri, and Bernhard von Breydenbach); and literary depictions of encounter (Fortunatus). Classen uses his many historical accounts to document how "quite powerfully, religious differences could matter very little and did not prevent individuals from striking a kind of friendship" (120). He also offers a bountiful summary of encounters in the Ottoman period, focusing on encounters permitted by travel (Buondelmonti).

The theoretical justification for the volume is that studying and documenting past encounters might better prepare us to understand modern ones, in particular large-scale migration (163). However, this raises questions about the volume's approach towards east-west contact. When Classen posits the "fundamental need to understand, at least in some part of southern Europe, hence in all the contact zones between East and West, remarkable exchanges and meetings," he invites questioning about how and why his methodology may differ from the theoretical approach advocated in Mediterranean studies, especially when elsewhere in the Introduction he carefully advocates for considering exchange and contact on its southern and eastern shores (163). Admittedly, the scope of some of the essays and of his Introduction certainly ranges beyond the shores of that sea, but in principle, the kinds of contact at the heart of the volume invite a somewhat overlooked theoretical dialogue with Mediterranean studies scholarship. Classen rightfully reads premodern encounters as revising Said's Orientalism not only temporally, but also spatially, and while some of the essays indeed do range beyond the Mediterranean, many of them are grounded in approaches inaugurated by Mediterranean Studies. Similarly, even though carefully explained, the decision to leave out Jewish encounters seems problematic, given the extensive range of other religious encounter and imaginings represented in the volume.

While the Introduction offers a wealth of information for the potential researcher, the interrelated nature of its subheadings can at times be disorienting, and reveal the complexities of trying to classify encounters that by nature often bleed out from neat classification schemas such as travel, religious encounter, or trade. As Classen notes, "the geographical, political, and religious barriers between East and West...were much lower than we might have assumed," yet that does not make creating a neat taxonomy of them any easier (85). The dozens of encounters presented here are thoroughly annotated, with both scholarly discussion and source materials documented in extensive footnotes, making this volume a wonderful reference for students and scholars seeking source material from an interdisciplinary and non- nationalized perspective. The Introduction itself poses questions worthy of further book-length study, often with enough source material and documentation to support serious investigation. As such, it is a remarkable and detailed companion to the volume.

Classen's Introduction is followed by twenty-two essays dedicated to exploring paradigms of cross-cultural encounter ranging from monsters in Anglo-Saxon England to narrative comparisons between Rumi and the Roman de la Rose to an investigation of Seventeenth-Century Ottoman readership. Chapter 1 sees Linda Darling offer a sharp critique of the divide between eastern and western scholarship on mirrors for princes, what she calls "A Case of Historiographical Incommensurability" (223). Darling focuses on making sense of the divisions within the scholarship; as such her meta-analysis metonymizes the gestures of the entire volume: bringing to light East-West contact as a useful category of analysis. She offers a brief history of possible points of contact, proposing both Spain and Sicily as potential avenues for the dissemination of political advice literature before turning towards more concrete comparisons between eastern and western writers. Beginning with John of Salisbury's Policratus and Al-Turtushi and his Siraj al-Muluk, she moves well forward (to Kalila and Dimna, the Secrets of Secrets and Bocados de Oro, and finally to comparison between Machiavelli and Mustafa 'Ali), pointing out that more research must be done to elucidate whether any concrete connections may be made. More convincing, however, is her assertion that thematic comparison of later treatises' interests in Aristotle make their common dependence on morality and models provided in Greek governance and philosophy more evident (236). Darling's essay offers a useful framework and invites scholars to do more research on connections between eastern and western advice literature.

In Chapter 2, Courtney Catherine Barajas compares literary and visual depictions of cynocephali to urge a theoretical rethinking of the monstrous in the Anglo Saxon Wonders of the East. Her intriguing reading of the relation between visual culture and disjointed textual musings about the East offers a plethora of starting points for further consideration and research. She argues that "Englishmen gaze at and are gazed upon by their Eastern counterparts…[in a] world, most significantly, in which the East is simultaneously the lover and the beloved" (246). As evidence she offers detailed readings of three of the illustrations, focusing on their liminality, bleeding out from neat borders of codicological framing and visual location, gazing out upon the English(man) to establish what I would call an erotic bond with the reader. Yet, important questions remain about these images and their context: Who penned them, and how close in time were they inserted to the manuscripts' compositions? And, if we accept that they do reach out to viewers in order to bind English traditions to eastern motifs, what social or political context might provide both evidence and explanation for this phenomenon? When she moves to claim Alexander as the ultimate westerner in one breath, but then situates him as a Macedonian, we are tempted to see a celebration of eastern exoticism rather than a careful consideration of other intertexts invoked by the Wonders manuscripts. Although sometimes built on awkward uses of historical context (for example, in claiming marriage as a sacrament within the context of the eleventh century Tiberius manuscript), Barajas' reading that the monstrous creatures reach out to inaugurate desire between the English and the East is well articulated and intriguing.

Glen Cooper's contribution in Chapter 3, "Byzantium between East and West: Competing Hellenisms in the Alexiad of Anna Komnene and her Contemporaries," exposes an underlying medical analogy that courses throughout Komnene's opus, and argues convincingly that Byzantines successfully deployed medical mastery and linguistic register to assert Byzantine control over various Mediterranean attempts at Hellenization. Yet Cooper goes on to more ambitiously argue that Komnene was aware of her father's medical genius, and built upon it in order to shape her own claim to rightful rule of the throne. Through an exploration of Anna's studies in astrology and Greek humoral medicine, Cooper argues for reading the Alexiad as a political tool through which medical metaphors aligned her with her father.

Chapter 4, "Franks and Indigenous Communities in Palestine and Syria (1099-1187)," Alan Murray explores Outremer as a place full of nuanced communities created through hybridity and intermarriage, and peopled by Franks sensitive to difference. According to Murray, the Franks were fully invested in a taxonomy of hybridity, revealing a deeply hierarchical system based on rankings and social organization. Murray's approach differs from previous scholarship aimed at resolving the binary of integration/separation in that his work insists on multiple models of hybrid communities and reframes the debate around language (rather than ethonym) as a key marker of power. He notes "since language was a key marker of difference between the rulers and the ruled...the Franks accorded greater weight to language than precise religious affiliation as a badge of identity" (299). According to Murray, markers such as language would help establish a hierarchy based on "how far [people] offered advantages to and were prepared to cooperate with the Frankish rulers" (309).

K. A. Tuley's work in "A Century of Communication and Acclimatization: Interpreters and Intermediaries in the Kingdom of Jerusalem" offers a different picture of language and power in the Levant, one that contradicts Murray's claim of linguistic separation in Chapter 4. Tuley asserts that not only did "Latin Christians rel[y] on interpreters and intermediaries familiar with the peoples and languages of the East," but also that "young nobles of the Kingdom of Jerusalem became fluent Arabic speakers, comfortable acting as envoys and diplomats between the Kingdom and surrounding Muslim potentates" (311). Using extensive source work to document paradigms of interpretation and language mastery among upper echelon Latins in the East, Tuley argues convincingly for their apprehension of both eastern languages and eastern cultural (diplomatic, warfare) cultural customs.

In Chapter 6, Jens Wollesen explores the role of images in negotiating culture, reading images that "promote fiction as reality," in contrast to the miniatures of the Chroniques de France, which function as an "attempt to mirror the world of its viewer" (346-347). His two questions: "why pictures at all?" and also "why this medium?" underscore the ambiguity of images meant to trigger memories of those who had been in Outremer as well as spark the imagination of those who had not (349). Wollesen's discussion of various media, cultures, and time periods revolves around sifting through "fiction[s] turned into a pictorial reality," with a wide swath of artifacts as varied as illuminated manuscripts, the Freer canteen, and an illuminated Histoire Universelle used as evidence that neither current models of "shared culture" or "assimilation" may be the best theoretical framework for understanding the complex patterns of ideological and artistic exchange in the region.

Christopher Clason offers a convincing and attentive reading of the relation between space and culture in five of Walther von der Vogelweide's works in Chapter 7. Careful to rest within the parameters of the text itself (rather than speculating beyond the borders of the written word), Clason's close readings reveal the relation between power and space, for example interpreting the "Ottenton" as culminating in a logical call to crusade that is simultaneously powerful and clichéd (401). Clason's descriptive readings reveal Walther's ideology of space to be a medieval Christian political tool.

In Chapter 8, Heiko Hartmann addresses Islam in Wolfram's Parzifal and Willehalm, and in his reading, these texts conform to contemporary religious ideologies of crusade and a pejorative understanding of Islam's basic tenets. Though the chapter offers a cursory summary of the debate around Wolfram's depiction of Islam, it offers a wonderful appendix cataloging relevant passages in Wolfram's works (441-442).

Andrew Holt continues the discussion of Islam in Chapter 9, where he differs from current scholarship by offering first historiographic and then Crusader source studies (including calls to crusade) to trouble the assumption that "only in rare instances did medieval Europeans refer to Muslims as barbarians" (444). While his rebuttal is forcefully articulated, the part of the chapter devoted to offering proof is relatively short.

In Chapter 10, "The Encounter with the Foreign in Medieval and Early Modern Germanic Literature," Albrecht Classen argues that medieval texts on all sides of the border view the foreign negatively, and in focusing on the Germanic tradition, he reads western sources as "confirm[ing] an overarching stereotype and a pernicious xenophobia born from a fundamentalist Christian perspective" (459, 463). Classen rightly nuances this perspective by reading medieval German (Herzog Ernst, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Konrad von Würzburg, and others, such as Fortunatus) works as evidence of a Catholicism that recognizes "the continuing influence of pagan religion[s]," disrupting a pat view of a supposed western harmony in face of Islam's barbarity (464). Classen's copiously documented readings underscore the diversity of approach to and opinions about Islam within German literature.

Patricia Black departs from a euro-centric perspective in her comparative essay on space in "Rumi's Mathnawi and the Roman de la Rose. After outlining parallels in the narratives' constructions, Black quickly moves to address what she calls the "enigmatic space" of water (494) and the garden of the dream to reveal a quest for unity as underlying both texts. As Black points out, though from artistically distinct cultures, the poets are "interested both in perception, and how the human realm can enter into contact with true knowledge" (504).

Continuing to explore intertwining cultural development, Connie Scarborough explores convivencia in thirteenth century Spain to nuance the discussion of hybridity. Offering important texture to the discussion, Scarborough resists either celebratory or deprecatory binaries in her sources from the reign of Alfonso X, focusing instead on the moments of slippage and paradox (507). In reading nuanced depictions of Moors in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, for example, she underscores how important they were to crafting Marian worship, and reminds readers that outsiders can be formative to crafting Christians practices (513).

In Chapter 13, Mark T. Abate reaches out from a western philosophical tradition to expose Roger Bacon's relation to Muslims and Mongols in the Secreturm. Abate focuses on how philosophy transcended religion, showing how Bacon used manifold non-Christian sources to explain the Mongol's success as deriving from their stunning astrological skills (538). In one example, Bacon's work on emanations led to his theory of complexions, profoundly indebted to Albumazar, and informing his view that religions were a combination of astrology, species, substance, and alchemy (550, 554). Abate's most forceful argument comes in his conclusion, where he attributes Bacon's uniqueness not to his formation at Oxford or his Englishness, but rather to his dialogue with the philosophers of the East, in particular with ninth-century Baghdad and Al-Kindi (569).

Jean Jost considers authenticity when reading exoticism in The Travels of Sir John of Mandeville in Chapter 14. After a survey of scholarship on the cultural geography of Mandeville, Jost turns to readings of the text to argue that authenticity is not the intention of the Travels; rather it is by purposefully manipulating the exotic (such as the court of the Khan), monstrous (fairies and dragons), and fantastic (child prostitution, cannibalism) that the tale is rendered powerful (581). To Jost, these copious details construct an author who did travel to the East (593) and wrote about it, supplementing what knowledge he lacked from specialized encyclopedias and from mappae mundi.

In Chapter 15, Scott L. Taylor considers the generic conventions of the fourteenth century Merveilles du Monde such as Millioni, Mirabilia, and Ibn Battuta. Reading the ways that generic expectations shape the reception of texts, Taylor concludes that the taste for the Orient well predates Said's model, and "indeed is found among Europeans whose home countries had no imperialist pretensions whatsoever sojourning on extended bases in Eastern lands" (609).

Romedio Schmitz-Esser dissects the historiography of the body in his chapter "Embalming and Dissecting the Corpse between East and West: From Ar-Razi to Henry de Mondeville." Schmitz-Esser claims that "only in scrutinizing Arabic and Western traditions, written and practical knowledge" can we understand the emergence of dissection as a major element of modern medical education (612). Well researched and extensively documented, the essay explores first medieval practices of embalming as linked to the transfer of medical knowledge from East to West, citing the tenth century Persian Liber medicinalis ad Almansorem as exemplary (614) before turning to undertones of Arab medicine (in particular, Ar-Razi) found in Henry de Mondeville's fourteenth- century accounts, traditionally understood to be Galenic.

In Chapter 17, Stefanie Helmschrott treats the "West-östliche Dialgoue in der Mörin Hermanns von Sachsenheim" of 1453. Reading a late-medieval German novel written the year that Constantinople fell, Helmschrott sees the conversations between Occidentals and Orientals as representative of a larger contemporary political dialogue.

Chapter 18 keeps pushing forward into the early modern period when Denis Bjaï examines the representation of the Orient in Montaigne. Bjaï is quick to note that while the East certainly exerted a pull over Montaigne, he was not personally familiar with it. Beginning with Des Cannibales, Bjaï's readings offer a sort of literary history detailing Montaigne's attraction to and repulsion by eastern other.

In Chapter 19, Thomas Willard discusses "The Strange Journey of Christian Rosencreutz." He reads the eastern references and the Paracelsian resonances as constitutive of the secrecy in which the Rosicrucians are wrapped, noting "the story of Christian's travels is the story of the journey to the East" (668). Willard focuses on references to the East in various iterations of the tale, and analyzes both the references in and scholarship about the Chemical Wedding, Book M, and An Arabian and Moorish Fraternity, as well as the better known Fama and Confessio. For Willard, Rosencreuz's journeys are inspired by an imagining of a new attitude towards learning and religion, one dependent upon an "open-minded acceptance of the alien Other" (693).

In Chapter 20 Ramón E. Duarte treats the late seventeenth century Yeni Dünya's relation of an Ottoman readership to Colonial Latin America. Situating his stimulating and well-written reading in the nexus of Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt, Ramón produces a reading of the rihla that Al-Mawsuli composed during his travels in the New World. In a section entitled "Exoticizing through Sight, Familiarizing through Text," Duarte rightly orients readers to the New World's status as a tabula rasa onto which travelers and diplomats like Al-Mawsuli projected the "cosmology of the Old World, an affirmation of Christian victory in virgin space, setting the Catholic Church as its master" (709). Duarte remarks that "the narrative in part reproduces the power of Christian Iberia placed in the virgin soil of the exotic 'fourth clime,' but it does so from the perspective of an Arabophone non- European Christian," implying a home readership eager to understand the world far beyond its borders (713).

In Chapter 21, Alison Coudert questions the directionality of Said's Orientalism, noting that "Orientalism offered both Europeans and Easterners a dual vision with which they could criticize their own societies" (718). After detailing pirates' abductions of nearly a million Christians on the shores of the Mediterranean, Coudert asks the awkward question: If so many willingly converted to Islam, what was wrong with Christianity (725)? She seeks responses in the writings of Ockney and Locke, as well as in more popular discourse like Giovanni Marana's Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy Living in Paris as a testament to a wider view of Islam than suggested that suggested by Said. China and Japan get the same treatment when she poses a very early modern question: "Could it be that their ethical and religious systems were in fact superior?" (735). Her source work suggests Europeans themselves sought nuanced responses to these questions, bolstering her conclusion that "Said's Orientalism does not apply to early modern Europeans" (750).

In the thought-provoking final essay in the volume, "A Seventeenth- Century French Merchant in the Orient," Pascale Barthe reads an account by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier to argue that merchants were fundamental to the formation of European Orientalism. Barthe adds to the discussions of Longino and Dew in arguing for the court of Louis XIV as foundational for Orientalism. Barthe's approach is interesting in that she negates Tavernier, claiming him neither as a sophisticated interloper in the Orient nor as a figure for nuancing our understanding of the theory as Coudert would have it in the preceding chapter; rather, she uses his failures to reveal a nascent Orientalism, noting that "this merchant encapsulates the Orient by boldly embodying it, exposing a crudest form of Orientalism in its embryonic stage" (760). As she notes, encounter can also "fully expos[e] the dark side of individualism combined with expansionism" (775).

This volume has essays that will be of use to teachers, to students and scholars looking for sources to study, and to scholars looking for essays making strong arguments about transcultural contact within particular subfields. Though of a variety of length and quality, and ranging from descriptive to argumentative, the essays as a whole combine to produce of volume essential for libraries and of great use to scholars who would have a reference volume on hand with which to document the various layers of encounter in a specific geo-cultural slice of the premodern period. As Classen hopes, it makes a wonderful contribution to considering the questions raised by cross-cultural contact.



Copyright (c) 2014 Megan Moore



Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login