16.08.05, Petrovskaia, ed., Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient

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Lindy Brady

The Medieval Review 16.08.05

Petrovskaia, Natalia I. Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient . Cursor Mundi, 21. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xxxv, 241. ISBN: 978-2-503-55155-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lindy Brady
University of Mississippi

Natalia I. Petrovskaia's Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient joins a larger recent critical conversation on perceptions of the east in medieval western European literature, driven by studies such as Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Carol F. Heffernan, The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003); Brenda Deen Schildgen, Dante and the Orient (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002); Dante and Islam, ed. Jan M. Ziolkowski (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015); and Lynn Tarte Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York: Routledge, 2001); to name just a few of the many valuable studies which have shed light on conceptions of the east in the medieval west in the aftermath of the Crusades. In this context, Petrovskaia's book brings welcome attention to the literary output of medieval Wales, which produced a robust textual corpus that is unfortunately often marginalized or ignored in broader critical conversations. Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient will be a welcome addition to our understanding of medieval western European perceptions of the east, as it opens the door for non-Celticists to become aware of the degree to which medieval Welsh literature was engaged in thinking about this region. Following in the footsteps of Kathryn Hurlock's Wales and the Crusades c. 1095-1291 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011) and Grahame Davies's The Dragon and the Crescent: Nine Centuries of Welsh Contact with Islam (Bridgend: Seren, 2011), Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient adds another layer of nuance to a welcome critical movement to bring medieval Celtic texts into conversations about the Middle East in the Middle Ages.

As Petrovskaia states in her introduction, the focus of her study is "Welsh culture, Welsh attitudes to the Orient, and in particular the evidence of their being influenced by the crusade phenomenon" (xxii). The book itself is structured around a series of textual case studies, "geographically defined as material produced or disseminated in Wales, whether in Latin or Welsh" (xxv) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that focus in some way on the Orient. (In regards to the choice of the term "Orient," Petrovskaia explains in the introduction that: "The choice of the ideologically-loaded term 'Orient' rather than 'East' in the title of this book is dictated by the consideration of clarity. Since "East" can also be a directional term, it is potentially misleading in the light of the marginalised western position of Wales in medieval geography, and Welsh perceptions of the east may well be taken to include England," xxii n. 4.) Throughout, Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient distinguishes three different "Orients" which were prevalent in medieval Welsh texts: the historical Orient, the biblical Orient, and the contemporary Orient (the latter the product of the Crusades and of trade). The book is divided into two parts. Part I, "Sources of Information," provides an overview of historical contact between the Orient and Wales along with information about the Orient that was available in medieval Wales. Part II, "The Impact on Literature," examines some groups of texts produced in Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries which reflect the impact of this knowledge. There are also good color images of the Exeter Map (Exeter, Cathedral Library MS 3514, p. 53), the Corpus Map (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 66, p. 2), and the map of Britain and Ireland in Dublin, National Library of Ireland MS 700, fol. 48r.

A brief introduction establishes the medieval concept of translatio studii et imperii, the idea that empire and knowledge shifted over time (from east to west, from the perspective of medieval western Europe), which Petrovskaia introduces as a theoretical framework for the study as a whole. The introduction also provides a brief overview of medieval T-O maps and the manifestations of this concept in medieval historical and geographical understanding of the world. Part I is divided into three chapters, following the distinction of Henri Bresc and Emmanuelle Tixier du Mesnil between two types of geographical information--the geographer and the voyager--with the addition of a further literary chapter on the Charlemagne cycle. Chapter 1, "Theory: Geography, translatio studii et imperii, and the Three Orients" provides an overview of medieval scholarly traditions and theories of geography. Beginning with Delw y byd, the Welsh translation of Book I of Honorius Augustodunensis's Imago mundi, this first chapter also surveys medieval mappa mundi and reflections of these types of learning--the T-O division of the world, translatio studii et imperii, and knowledge of the "three Orients--in contemporary medieval Welsh texts, particularly those of Gerald of Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Welsh translations and continuations of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae in the Brutiau tradition. Chapter 2, "Travel and Contact: Chronicle Evidence," provides an overview of historical Welsh contact with the east, as Petrovskaia notes, "not so much to present evidence for the extent of the phenomenon of Welsh travel to the East, as to evaluate Welsh exposure to contemporary crusading concerns and discourse" (49). Two categories of travel, religious (both pilgrimage and crusade) and mercantile, are examined. Chapter 3, "Legend: The Charlemagne Material in Wales," adds the category of "legend" to the "geographer/voyager" distinction in its discussion of medieval Welsh transmission of the Charlemagne legend. This chapter provides a good overview of the understudied Welsh Charlemagne cycle and will be of value to those more familiar with this material from a continental perspective.

Part II, "The Impact on Literature," focuses on two case studies which explore the impact of this knowledge of the east on medieval Welsh literature. Chapter 4, "Speaking of India: Alexander, Culhwch, and Peredur," examines the geographical references in these works as a reflection of contemporary knowledge of the Orient. This chapter also explores similarities in the legends of three conquerors--Arthur, Alexander, and Charlemagne--in Welsh literature from this time period. Chapter 5, "Christians versus Pagans: Peredur and Owain in Strange Lands," continues this discussion by exploring possible Oriental influences on two of the group of three Welsh romances (Y Tair Rhamant) which parallel three romances of Chr├ętien de Troyes, the Historia Peredur vab Efrawc and Owein or Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn. Petrovskaia draws several broad conclusions from these case studies: "geographical references are linked more often than not to the theme of empire and usually specifically in terms of translatio imperii" (183), imprecise geography may be not a reflection of ignorance but rather "a conscious aim to induce awe and wonder" (184), and the Orient is seen in terms of immediate relevance, "inexorably linked to crusades and crusading discourse" (185).

Petrovskaia states in her introduction that the goal of this book is "to use the medieval Welsh corpus of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a basis for the development of a conceptual framework for the investigation of medieval European attitudes towards the Orient" (xxiii-xxiv). While this book unfortunately does not engage with much recent scholarship on representations of the east in other medieval literary traditions from western Europe, Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient is valuable in that it demonstrates that medieval Welsh literary tradition, like that of its neighbors, was also engaged with thinking about the east and influenced by the recent impact of the Crusades. This book will be welcome reading for those who work on the Crusades or the east in medieval literature, as it opens up the previously unexplored Welsh perspective on these areas of study, aligning it with that of other medieval European literary traditions.

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