14.10.19, Khanmohamadi, In Light of Another's World

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Zrinka Stahuljak

The Medieval Review 14.10.19

Khanmohamadi, Shirin A.. In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 216. ISBN: 9780812245622 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Zrinka Stahuljak
University of California, Los Angeles

This is an admirable first book, a truly inspiring model of its genre. Extremely well written, lucidly exposed, Shirin Khanmohamadi's argument is carried by a graceful narrative and powerful close readings spanning three centuries and ranging from one edge of the known world, twelfth-century insular Britain and Wales, to the other extreme, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Mongolia and Cathay. Its force resides in its focus: medieval European ethnographers of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, who write their travel accounts from multiple vantage points, the first to do so since antiquity. They write dialogically, some by seeing themselves in the gaze of the other (Gerald of Wales's Descriptio Kambraie [The Description of Wales]; William of Rubruck's Itinerarium [Journey to Mongolia]), others by hearing themselves ventriloquized in the voice of the other (Jean de Joinville's Vie de Saint Louis [The Life of Saint Louis]; John Mandeville's Travels). But whatever their modality of relating to the other, they show that the European identity of the time was not an a priori demarcated and self-contained entity, but relational and subjective, open to alternative perspectives and voices. The surprising discovery that this book offers its readers is that the Europeans traveling before the fifteenth century allowed themselves to be seen and told as other and that, the more they said "I," the more they spoke as another.

Khanmohamadi's narrative is constructed around a series of key critical terms: empiricism, visual culture, subjectivity, relationality, open-endedness. Empirical or observed ethnography focused on the manners and customs (Lat: ritus et mores) to satisfy the political (defense, conquest, alliance), religious (conversion), or commercial (trade) aims of Europeans at the time. Eyewitnessing and personal experience were paramount to the veracity of information and reports that recorded the world in its diversity, presenting multifocal vantage points and unfamiliar and heterodox voices. The written record of these explorations exhibits the subjective approach to social knowledge, eschewing the later ethnographic impulse toward "objectivity" and the separation of the observer from his/her object. The implication of the observer in the context in which the contact occurs incorporates the gazes and voices of the observed; the observer tells of seeing or hearing himself from without and thus enters into a relational, dialogic, or intersubjective relationship with the other. But subjectivity and relationality, that is, the observer's participation in the viewing scene, also meant that accuracy could only be achieved in the accrual of always-partial perspectives, a certain open-endedness. Nevertheless, none of this suggests that the early ethnographers embraced multiculturalism.

The book's particular strength also resides, perhaps, in the fact that Khanmohamadi cleverly applies a two-pronged theoretical approach, rather than engaging in theoretical eclecticism. The main theoretical discourse underlying her analysis is Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination: The Four Essays, from which she draws her title and principal analytical move, "in light of another's word": "The Latin literary word viewed itself in the light of the Greek word." [1] She deftly uses dialogism to explain relationality of the gaze, and heteroglossia to name the multiplicity of voices. The second main theoretical strain is psychoanalytical addressed in historical specificity, the use of Freud's unheimlich, the "uncanny."

The first chapter, "Conquest, Conversion, Crusade, Salvation: The Discourse of Anthropology and its Uses in the Medieval Period," contextualizes medieval ethnography. It provides readers with the long view of anthropological discourses from Antiquity to the fifteenth century and distinguishes between the discourse of civility (i.e. civilization) and the discourse of Christianity. The former, a secular analysis, formulated the developmental theory of human progress, from barbarity to civilization; the latter elaborated the definition of the "human," especially for beings outside the geographic realm of Christianity. The categories of difference between human and monstrous races (inherited from Pliny's Natural History) formed the basis of medieval classification of manners and customs and determined the potential for conversion and salvation of non-Christians. The two discourses, barbarism and non-Christian humanity, were analogous: barbarians and pagans are human but also unreasonable, ruled by irrational laws and evil customs, requiring intervention. And since they are human, conversion is possible and desirable. By the thirteenth century, the papacy developed the concept of non-Christian humanity into one of limited sovereignty that in the fifteenth century fueled the justification for intervention in or conquest of non-Christian societies (e.g. the Canary Islands). At the other end of the spectrum, certain thinkers (particularly, in the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas) developed the notion of the "virtuous pagan" and granted the possibility of salvation of pagans post-Lex Christi simply by virtue of "doing what was in them" (facere quod in se est; 35), in a kind of natural salvation without the necessity of conversion.

Chapter two, on Gerald of Wales, sketches the beginnings of European multifocal ethnography. Gerald, a high-ranking Anglo-Norman official and a descendant of the Welsh royalty colonized by Anglo-Normans, provides a double perspective that intervenes in dominant modes of thinking. His is a "selective collaboration" (40) that eludes a single, fixed, or pure position: it does not grant the Anglo-Norman colonizer the position of superiority nor does it furnish an authentic form of self-representation, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the "native informant" position. In this chapter Khanmohamadi posits that European ethnography emerged for the first time since antiquity from the discourse of civility that formed at the borders of Europe, during their expansion in the twelfth century.

The remaining chapters (three, four, and five) are devoted to the problematic traced by the discourse of Christianity. Khanmohamadi first deals with William of Rubruck's mission to Mongolia and Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis. The conversion aim meant that humanity in non-Christians was recognized, which in turn opened the observer to relationality with the non-Christian human, opening him to the gaze (Rubruck) or the voice (Joinville) of another. In order to convert him, one had to know the other, and subsequently had to see himself as other. The same is true in military confrontation and negotiation in Joinville: one must know the enemy in order to prevail. The narrative that the travelers construct as a result is more open-ended, a less fixed and coherent view of the world, in which the ethnographers' comfortable familiarity and truth-regime are constantly disquieted and destabilized. It is important to mention that both accounts result from extreme life-or-death situations. Chapter five on Mandeville's Travels, the famous "armchair" ethnographer who never traveled as far as his narrative did, fits with the rest because everything that is physically unsettling and threatening in the other accounts is contained here in the concept of the uncanny and the terror within. Khanmohamadi's analysis of the "Christian self's uncanny and unsettling indistinguishability from its would-be pagan and Muslim ‘others'" (10) verges on brilliance. The mobility of truth-regimes that are grounded in the viewing body and the medieval norm of visual empiricism--eyewitnessing as the ultimate imprint of veracity--means that any human, Christian or non-Christian, has access to knowledge. In Mandeville's Travels, the other's word is validated, "thei seye," and the Christian position interrogated, "for wee knowe not." The self's imminent collapse into the other, which the validation of another's word provokes, ultimately means that in the universe of Mandeville's Travels the northern European self does not exist. It also reveals that "otherness" is a construct emerging out of a faulty human perspective rather than an immanent truth.

Khanmohamadi makes a significant intervention into medieval postcolonial studies. As other scholars before her have argued, the medieval and early modern periods do not fit seamlessly into the paradigm of nineteenth-century colonialism and imperialism. [2] Just as "scientific" ethnography later divorced the observer from participation in the viewing scene, turning him into a neutral and objective viewer from a stance of superiority, imperialism posed a fixed, unifocal gaze on the "natives." The characteristics of twelfth- to fourteenth-century European ethnography--incorporation rather than objectification, relationality, instability of subject position--propose a different model for the postcolonial Middle Ages.

There are nevertheless a few critical notes. "Poetics" is a term interspersed throughout the book. The strength of Khanmohamadi's visual analysis and ocular relation seems more undermined than supported by it; the fact that it is never defined or deployed analytically, and that it is occasionally interchangeable with "aesthetics," makes it read like a remnant of an earlier articulation. The second is a blind spot that Khanmohamadi does not bring into view until the book's short conclusion: "Dialogism is less suited to conditions of fixed and asymmetrical power than to fluid and more uneven conditions. It may even flourish best when the writer-ethnographer is disempowered" (146). That medieval decentralized ethnography is produced in conditions of danger and insecurity is a fundamental insight. The feeling of threat to the physical integrity of the observer, to his viewing body, is also an empirical moment essential to an analysis of empiricism and that far exceeds Khanmohamadi's analysis of unease and discomfort. It is the most important element missing in the analysis and the short conclusion does not do it justice. It also would have been interesting to see how travel narratives of failures of engagement with the Mongols could have inflected, perhaps even reinforced, Khanmohamadi's analysis, such as the Historia Tartarorum by the Dominican Simon of Saint-Quentin on Brother Ascelin's mission, sent by the pope (1245-1247) and contemporaneous with William of Rubruck's.

These are minor objections compared to the important findings in this book. What Khanmohamadi achieves so masterfully is a sustained reading of texts that until now have not fully benefited from a three-dimensional analysis, pursued as they were for their value as sources of information or entertainment. Viewed until recently as marginal because they took place on the periphery of the European medieval center, these texts are repositioned as central to and constitutive of European self-identity. Khanmohamadi's study dovetails with another book by Kim Philips published at the same time in the same series. But while Philips's book is a cultural history, Khanmohamadi makes an important theoretical intervention in medieval postcolonial studies. [3] The fluidity and elegance with which she pursues her argument and, to wit, offers substantive and layered readings, is the highest recommendation for this book as a required point of reference in medieval studies and an indispensable classroom text.



1. Bakhtin, quoted on 149, n. 1.

2. For the medieval period, see Sharon Kinoshita, Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). For the early modern, see Jocelyne Dakhlia, Lingua franca: Histoire d’un langue métisse en Méditerranée (Arles: Actes Sud, 2008), and E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

3. Kim Philips, Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

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Author Biography

Zrinka Stahuljak

University of California, Los Angeles