15.08.64, Phillips, Before Orientalism

Main Article Content

William Kynan-Wilson

The Medieval Review 15.08.64

Phillips, Kim M. Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. pp. 328. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4548-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Kynan-Wilson
Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin and the Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies, University of Cambridge

"I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting... It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear."[1] In his novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino imagines Marco Polo uttering these words to the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khân. This statement--with which this book opens--captures the way in which the expectations of readers inform the experiences of travellers and how they tell the story of their travels. This holds true with all forms of travel literature, but it is particularly pronounced with regards to Kim Phillips' engaging study of European writings on Asian peoples and cultures produced between the years 1245 and 1510.

Phillip's awareness of the specular nature of these texts is one of the important leitmotifs of this book. As she notes at the beginning, this is "a cultural history of aspects of the encounter between late medieval Latin Christians and Asian cultures" that contributes "to European culture history, not Asian history" (2). Phillips demonstrates how these texts reflect back upon European thought, culture, and society; in so doing, she judiciously teases out the disjuncture between Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, and the earlier European responses to the Orient found in these accounts.

The parameters of Before Orientalism are ambitious. Phillips examines textual descriptions of China, Mongolia, India, and Southeast Asia which were produced by more than twenty European writers who travelled, or claimed to travel, eastward. The list of authors under consideration is valuable for discussing the iconic alongside the lesser known: it includes John of Plano Carpini, Ricold of Monte Croce, Hetoum of Armenia, William of Rubruck, and Johannes Witte de Hese, as well as classic staples of medieval writing on Asia, such as Marco Polo, "Sir John Mandeville," and the anonymous Letter of Prester John.

The book is divided into two parts: (i) "Theory, People, Genres" and (ii) "Envisioning Orients." In the former, Phillips establishes the textual and theoretic framework of her thesis, while the latter contains five chapters that explore a variety of themes: Food and Foodways, Femininities, Sex, Civility, and Bodies. The thematic emphases are by no means comprehensive, with Phillips acknowledging other important topics, including moral and spiritual edification, geography, and the natural environment (11). The work closes with a brief afterword on the "Precolonial Middle Ages."

The first chapter, "On Orientalism," examines concepts of Orientalism from medieval and modern perspectives. It begins with a careful unpicking of Said's definition of Orientalism in relation to medieval (by which is meant pre-sixteenth century) writings on Asia. Issues of colonialism are crucial to this argument: "late medieval writings on distant Easts are pre-Orientalist primarily because they are precolonialist" (15). Phillips continues by arguing that colonialism does not accurately describe relations between Europe and Asia before the sixteenth century (24). As her thesis develops it becomes increasingly apparent that colonialism is intimately tied to Orientalist discourse and that it is as important, if not more significant, than Orientalism as a guiding concept for this study.

The second chapter, "Travelers, Tales and Audiences," provides brief introductions to the key writers. This is a useful and necessary section considering the dizzying array of authors under discussion. Phillips exhibits particular skill in summarising a range of diverse and difficult material. The synthesis of the voluminous scholarship on complex characters, such as Sir John Mandeville, is exemplary, while the sketches of lesser-known authors, like the enigmatic Dutch writer Johannes Witte de Hese, are equally valuable.

Nonetheless, more might have been said of the audiences for these texts. Phillips comments: "desire for information and for pleasure were two chief impulses guiding late medieval readers' interest in travel writing on Asia" (2). While edification and entertainment are undoubtedly important issues for the readers of these texts, one is often aware of other, more nuanced motivations that challenge this reductive interpretation. A fuller discussion that recognizes these issues as being more complicated would have been welcome.

The third chapter, "Travel Writing and the Making of Europe," considers the nature of travel writing as a genre, and calls for a "resetting" of expectations regarding medieval travel literature (50). This section continues by exploring the role of the Orient upon the formation of Europe as a concept. Phillips presents a thoughtful and balanced case, contending that European identity was not simply constructed by "the other." She maintains that while there was an awareness of difference it was not an overriding motivation (64). Indeed, one of the strengths of this balanced study is the author's emphasis upon "otherness but also sameness and similarity" (12).

The first thematic chapter examines food and foodways. Phillips proceeds to describe different foodstuffs and food cultures across Asia, and to pick out significant patterns in what European writers described and ignored, admired and misunderstood. The discussion of cannibalism is particularly good: Phillips details several accounts of Europeans partaking in cannibalistic acts and shows that the consumption of human flesh was not simply a trope of otherness nor exclusively identified with Asia (92-3) during this period.

The following chapter, "Femininities," explores the "rhetorical purposes femininities played in medieval narratives of eastern travel" (101). Phillips' expansive approach to the material again comes to the fore. She identifies three dominant stereotypes regarding Asian women: Mongolian women are repeatedly described as hardworking, unattractive, and powerful; Chinese women are considered attractive and sexually alluring; and Indian women are consistently noted for their exotic qualities. These European visions of Asian femininity are constructively discussed in relation to the 'goodwife,' a type of feminine ideal that was emerging within medieval European literature at this time (116-17).

One of the most successful chapters in this book concerns "Sex." The centrepiece of this chapter analyses the thoughts of a fourteenth-century reader of Marco Polo's Divisament dou monde on oriental sexualities (124-5). The unknown scribe indexes the various sexual practices detailed in Marco Polo's writings. This is a rare moment that touches upon the readership of these texts in sufficient depth. Phillips also notes the conspicuous absence of sodomy and East-West sexual relations within medieval European accounts before contrasting these lacunae with the so-called 'pornotopia' of later colonial writings (146).

In the seventh and eighth chapters--on "Civility" and "Bodies" respectively--Phillips explores European admiration of urban space in China as a means of engaging with concepts of civilization, before turning to consider physical characteristics and monstrous beings in accounts of the East. Despite moments of otherness and the emergence of obdurate stereotypes, both chapters underline the absence of a Eurocentric gaze and air of superiority: difference and similarity abound in equal measure. However, the balanced tone adopted throughout this study is undermined towards the close of chapter eight: "One of the key contentions of this book has been that European travel to distant Asia troubled western conceptions about its place in the world (188)." This bold claim is not without merit, but it does not emerge clearly from the expansive thematic chapters that comprise the second section.

In sum, Phillips presents a clear and engaging account of European travel writing on various Asian peoples and cultures in the central and later medieval period. The strength and the weakness of this book centre upon the ambitious geographic and chronological boundaries under discussion. The author skilfully marshals an array of characters, places, and textual sources and, in so doing, synthesises a vast, and at times, unfamiliar corpus of material. In this respect, Before Orientalism will prove a useful source of reference and a valuable guide for students.

Nonetheless, the expansive horizons of this study often preclude precise and detailed analysis. There is a general tendency to describe rather than dissect. The need for depth over breadth is apparent in two main areas. First, more might have been made of the language and terminology employed within these texts. The discussion on the concepts of the Orient, East or Easts, Asia, and India (22), would have been augmented with direct references to the original terms and languages. Elsewhere, Latin phrases are intermittently provided, while fleeting references are made to accounts written in various vernacular languages. An analysis of the linguistic patterns and their development over the centuries would have added another layer to the debate about audiences and their expectations.

A second, related issue concerns the literary qualities of these writings. Phillips' principal interest is with the social and cultural value of these accounts, but there are numerous indications as to their literary intentions, the importance of intertextuality, and the influence of classical literature. These important issues are noted in passing but rarely in sufficient depth; they represent fruitful areas for future research.

In such a wide-ranging study there will always be such caveats. These points do not undermine a stimulating account of how medieval Europeans wrote about Asian culture and, in turn, how their reports reflect upon themselves. Phillips concludes: "The 'Europe' produced through these various constructions of Orient, via a kind of cultural refraction, was a complex place" (200); but this book also raises questions about 'Europes' and 'Occidents,' as much as it addresses Asia and the Orient.



1. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (London: Vintage, 2002; first published 1972), 135.

Article Details