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23.12.03 Heng (ed.), Teaching the Global Middle Ages

23.12.03 Heng (ed.), Teaching the Global Middle Ages

Thanks to their origins in nineteenth-century European nationalist and colonial contexts, research and teaching in the humanities have long been marred by a host of prejudices. Since the last decades of the twentieth century, those biases rightly have been the object of powerful critiques by scholars working in fields such as cultural studies and postcolonial studies. At least since the turn of the new millennium, many critics have advocated rectifying Eurocentrism in academia by replacing old and discarded scholarly models with those that adopt a multicultural, global or world purview. To be sure, this turn is not without its distinct challenges. As Dorothy Figueira observes, at times the global turn in academia remains shaped by Anglophone culture and thus risks “leaving the centers of power uncontested” and occluding “a concerted lack of cultural knowledge, specificity, and ultimately, respect for the cultures supposedly being studied.” [1] Figueira raised these issues in 2010. Now, more than ten years later, they seem all the more pertinent in the United States as the global turn enjoys heightened prominence in academia even as unprecedented cuts are being made with respect to language requirements and, indeed, language departments at universities and colleges.

The recent MLA volume Teaching the Global Middle Ages comprises part of this important shift in humanities work. The volume aims at assisting Anglophone teachers who lack expertise in non-Anglophone areas in creating decolonized, non-Eurocentric classes for English-speaking students. The volume begins by explaining its origins in the courses and workshops which were created first by Geraldine Heng and later led by both Heng and Susan Noakes. Heng relates in her introduction how she “coined in 2003” the term “Global Middle Ages” in the wake of 9/11 (1-2). Responding, on the one hand, to the importation of the medieval in post-9/11 discourses and, on the other hand, to the retention within academia of a Eurocentric idea of the Middle Ages, Heng spearheaded the creation of courses, workshops, a website, and a series of publications dedicated to the analysis of medieval globalities. In lieu of the “descriptive” nature of the approaches to world history that are now “beginning to gain traction” in undergraduate coursework around the U.S., those projects emphasized detailed and multiple-scaled analyses (3). The introduction offers a cogent account of the rationales behind the terminologies and methodologies offered in the volume, including the terms “medieval,” “Middle Ages,” and its temporal scope of 500-1500 AD; the introduction also contains an extremely helpful guide to using the volume.

The remainder of the book contains a dizzying number of chapters--twenty-three in all--covering a broad array of strategies for adopting a global purview on the medieval period. Most chapters offer a literary approach to the global middle ages: Heng on her “The Literatures of the Global Middle Ages” class, Arafat A. Razzaque and Rachel Schine on teaching the Thousand and One Nights, Michael A. Gomez on The Epic of Sunjata, Shahzad Bashir on Persian literature, Marci Freedman on Benjamin of Tudela’s Book of Travels, Adam Miyashiro and Su Fang Ng on the Alexander Legend, Yuanfei Wang on Chinese literature, Derek Heng on the Malay Annals, Robert W. Barrett, Jr. and Elizabeth Oyler on English and Japanese drama. In other chapters, historical perspectives on the Mongols, Jews, the Silk Road, and South Asia are offered, respectively, by Timothy May, Eva Haverkamp-Rott, Susan Whitfield, and Emma J. Flatt. Other contributors discuss how to ground courses in particular themes like leprosy (Monica H. Green and Jonathan Hsy), the camel (Denise A. Spellberg), and the hotel (Wan-Chuan Kao). Still other contributors expand the disciplinary purview of the volume to include music (Lars Christensen and Gabriela Currie), maps (Asa Simon Mittman, Karen Pinto, and Cordell D. K. Yee), and ecology (Jeffrey J. Cohen). While most pieces assume the form of essays that touch on course design, two contributions--Kavita Mudan Finn and Helen Young’s fascinating discussion of global medievalisms and popular culture and Wang’s important account of Chinese literature--consist largely of suggested course units and readings.

Challenges unavoidably come forth in a volume whose aims are so expansive. Many contributors note how the very subjects that enable a global purview--like the Silk Road or the Alexander legends--create challenges due to their immense historical, geographic, and literary scope. In addition, what Timothy May describes in his essay as the “inevitable lack of background knowledge by students” also is a recurring theme, whether it pertains to ignorance of skills like musical notation or, more often, the considerable “obstacle” posed by the fact that we live “in an era with little emphasis on learning a foreign language and in a society in which learning a foreign language is viewed as scary” (169-170).

Conversely, the contributors to this volume also make clear the wealth of possibilities available to the global studies student and teacher. Marci Freedman, for example, offers a “glass is half full” approach to the absence of contextual information regarding Jewish travel writer Benjamin of Tudela, noting how that lack enables provides a Rita Felski-esque opportunity to “introduce students to a text without its usual framing and illustrate how much can still be gained from texts even when little contextual information survives” (86). [2] Several contributions highlight new resources. J. Paul Getty Museum manuscript curators Kristen Collins and Bryan Keene stress how digitized versions are now available of the collections held by not only their place of work, but also archives such as The Morgan Library and Museum and the British Library; Collins and Keene also direct attention to the “next level” resource, the International Image Interoperability Framework (363). Lynn Ramey’s contribution is dedicated to digital technology and includes a survey of augmented and virtual reality resources. Colleen C. Ho offers a comprehensive multi-media list of resources at the end of the volume. Other contributors deliver the welcome news that they have generated resources that assist pedagogy and scholarship; examples include May’s The Mongol Empire, Susan Whitfield’s Life Along the Silk Road and Christopher Taylor’s International Prester John Project. Most significantly, perhaps, Heng and Noakes are co-editing a Cambridge Elements Series that expands radically on the information contained in the MLA volume.

This book provides all of the assistance one seeks in an MLA teaching volume. Contributors draw on their experience to advise on the best editions to use when teaching primary and secondary materials. The contributors also provide superb suggestions about organization. Flatt, for instance, offers helpful guidance on a course or course sequence centered on the Pushyabhuti emperor Harsa or on the Qutb Minar Mosque complex in Delhi. The chapters also feature inspiring ideas for class activities. For example, Cohen describes a wonderful “Tiny Ecology” exercise in which students engage in a “daily practice” of “sustained ecological attentiveness” directed at “small nearby place” of their choosing (282). Cohen includes some moving vignettes describing how certain students experienced the assignment. Whitfield’s chapter on the silk road suggests having students raise silkworms or follow the trail of a contemporary commodity, like a Gucci handbag, along a contemporary version of the silk road. Taylor has students use the uninterpolated “Letter of Prester John” to map the location of his kingdom on a blank world map. May describes an adventurous silk road-merchant exercise in which students determine how to get some Chinese pepper to a merchant in England. Some contributions also offer helpful discussions of charged key terms like silk road (Whitfield), cosmopolitanism (Razzaque and Schine) and diaspora (Freedman and Haverkamp-Rott); others clarify the significance of familiar texts like the Kama Sutra (Flatt) and the quatrains of Omar Khayyam (Bashir). Several essays, in addition, put the medieval into conversation with more contemporary history and culture in vital ways. Flatt puts medieval South Asia into productive conversation with partition, and Mudan Finn and Young have marvelous suggestions on how to use contemporary popular culture to discuss medieval globalities.

Space prevents me from doing justice to all of the chapters in this volume. In what remains of this review I’ll touch on five of the strongest pieces in the book. Heng’s chapter on the course on “The Literatures of the Global Middle Ages” which she teaches at UT Austin is outstanding. After clarifying how the class departs from world literature surveys in its embrace of global connections, Heng offers an extremely helpful account of her primary texts, the contextual information she provides students, and the preliminary and text-specific questions she asks during the course. Heng’s distinguished career as a scholar of the sex/gender system comes through in this chapter, which showcases how texts like the Vinland sagas or Ibn Fadlan’s Mission to the Volga imagine women as “a node of convergence between cultures in encounter, over and over” and raises the crucial question of why women bear “the burden of symbolic signification...for cultural systems” (39, 40).

Another notably strong chapter is Miyashiro and Ng’s discussion of the AlexanderRomance. The authors do a superb job of both explaining the origins of medieval legendary material in a highly diverse Egyptian milieu and clarifying the immense popularity of Alexander narratives across a truly global array of locales spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The status of the Alexander Romance as an ideal means of thinking globally about the medieval period comes through clearly in this chapter. Centering a medieval literature class on the Alexander legend becomes all the more appealing as one learns of the existence of English translations of not just the Greek but also the Persian, Syriac, Mongolian and Ethiopic versions of the romance. Miyashiro and Ng provide a wealth of enticing approaches to this material, including analysis of the various “fathers” or ancestries ascribed to the legendary Alexander and the strategic reading of “parallel episodes across versions” (102-103).

Bashir’s “The Persian World: A Literary Language in Motion,” doesn’t concern the nuts and bolts of class design and preparation. Instead, it offers a masterful introduction to Persian literature for “readers with no knowledge of matters related to Persia” (115). In this assured account of Persian writing, Bashir offers an accessible overview of major texts and their significance. The chapter includes engaging readings of short and telling passages from selected texts and provides fascinating contexts for those episodes.

I found Mittman, Pinto and Yee’s chapter to be one of the most thrilling and consequential of all the contributions to this volume. As our most searching thinkers on identity have taught us, Eurocentrism, racism, and related offensive western formations function by generating discursive worlds oriented around a privileged white, male, aristocratic, able-bodied, and Christian subject. Insofar as the goal of the global turn is dislodging Eurocentrism, what better way to do so than to engage in a comparative look at world mapmaking? This chapter also confirms a home truth about global study. Namely, the collaborative nature of the contribution testifies to how students might best benefit from global courses that are co-taught by two or more faculty possessed of expertise linked to different cultures and sites. The chapter offers a bracing and gloriously disorienting journey through first Chinese, then Islamic, and finally Christian world maps.

Barrett and Oyler’s contribution likewise demonstrates the notable advantages that accrue to global coursework that is co-taught. Their chapter on English and Japanese drama does an excellent job of contextualizing both forms of performance. It also contains an excellent sample syllabus that reveals striking points of correspondence between the plays produced in two small islands situated on the borders of western and eastern land masses. Examples include the image of a cherry tree found in both the N-town nativity and the Noh play Saigyo-zakura and the engagement with “the precariousness of the human condition” in the Noh play Yamamba as well as the Townley Judgement (392).

With its Anglophone pedagogic thrust, Teaching the Global Middle Ages is required reading for any medievalist teaching in an English department who desires to take first steps toward a decolonized classroom. Its contributors offer an invaluable guide to primary texts, thematic possibilities and course design and preparation.



1. Dorothy M. Figueira, “Comparative Literature versus World Literature,” The Comparatist 34 (2010): 29-36 at 31 and 33. See also Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995), 236.

2. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).