Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510 (The Middle Ages Series)

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9780812245486: Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510 (The Middle Ages Series)

A distinct European perspective on Asia emerged in the late Middle Ages. Early reports of a homogeneous "India" of marvels and monsters gave way to accounts written by medieval travelers that indulged readers' curiosity about far-flung landscapes and cultures without exhibiting the attitudes evident in the later writings of aspiring imperialists. Mining the accounts of more than twenty Europeans who made—or claimed to have made—journeys to Mongolia, China, India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia between the mid-thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Kim Phillips reconstructs a medieval European vision of Asia that was by turns critical, neutral, and admiring.

In offering a cultural history of the encounter between medieval Latin Christians and the distant East, Before Orientalism reveals how Europeans' prevailing preoccupations with food and eating habits, gender roles, sexualities, civility, and the foreign body helped shape their perceptions of Asian peoples and societies. Phillips gives particular attention to the texts' known or likely audiences, the cultural settings within which they found a foothold, and the broader impact of their descriptions, while also considering the motivations of their writers. She reveals in rich detail responses from European travelers that ranged from pragmatism to wonder. Fear of military might, admiration for high standards of civic life and court culture, and even delight in foreign magnificence rarely assumed the kind of secular Eurocentric superiority that would later characterize Orientalism. Placing medieval writing on the East in the context of an emergent "Europe" whose explorers sought to learn more than to rule, Before Orientalism complicates our understanding of medieval attitudes toward the foreign.

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About the Author:

Kim M. Phillips is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland. She is coauthor (with Barry Reay) of Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History and author of Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.

To write a book is to make a journey. Yet as is so often the case with travel, the final destination may look quite different from what was initially imagined. In the early stages of research for this book, influenced by some recent studies on travel writing, I thought the distant parts of Asia might represent "a location of definitive Otherness" for late medieval European writers and readers. However, I have since moved far from that view, having found that the end location has a much more varied landscape than first envisaged.

This book examines European travel writing on central, east, south, and southeast Asia composed or in circulation from around 1245 to around 1510. "Orient," "Asia," "far East" (with lowercase "f"), "distant East," and "farther East" will be employed as synonyms encompassing the whole area under discussion with due acknowledgment of the difficulties of these labels. Terms such as "Orient" and "East" have become problematic for modern commentators who rightly point to their geographic assumptions ("East" from where?), ideological baggage, and pejorative or romantic connotations. Yet to medieval Europeans the lands of Asia were literally in the distant "East" of their world. The book deals with descriptions of places we now call Mongolia, China, India, and Southeast Asia. It largely excludes the Holy Land and surrounding regions on the grounds that western Europe's relations with middle eastern (and, indeed, northern African and southern Iberian) people were shaped by Christian rhetoric that sought to emphasize the religious basis of relations with, and alienation from, Islam and Judaism to a greater extent than discourse on cultures further east. Although Christian crusading rhetoric and anti-Judaic traditions had their own complexities—indeed, were not univocally damning—one cannot deny the persistence of later medieval Christian tendencies to condemn most stridently the religious and cultural traditions closest to its own. John Tolan is among a number of scholars who have commented on Christianity's harsher treatment of Judaism and Islam than more distant faiths, such as Animism and Buddhism, with whom they would seem to have less in common: "It is precisely because Christians and Jews [and Muslims] are fighting for rightful ownership of a common spiritual heritage that their disputes are so bitter." Geographical proximity and military threats may similarly raise tensions. As we will see, Europeans were most hostile in portrayals of Mongols in the early to mid-thirteenth century when the physical peril of "Tartars" was nearest.

This book does not tell the travelers' stories of discovery again, apart from some necessary background material on authors, books, and audiences, nor is it a history of exploration and discovery. It does not treat the travelers' narratives as sources of information on Asian cultures historians might use to supplement or support what they have learned from non-European sources. Rather, it attempts something different: a cultural history of aspects of the encounter between late medieval Latin Christians and Asian cultures with a focus on themes that have not usually been granted headline attention. In particular, it asks how prevailing European preoccupations with food and eating habits, gender roles, sexualities, civility, and the human body helped shape late medieval perspectives on eastern peoples and societies. It aims to contribute to European cultural history, not Asian history. Its central argument is for a distinctive European perspective on Asia during the era c. 1245-c. 1510. Attitudes were moving away from tendencies to create a homogenous "India" of marvels and monsters yet were little touched by the colonialist mentalities that would emerge through the early modern era and dominate the modern. It argues that desire for information and for pleasure were two chief impulses guiding late medieval readers' interest in travel writing on Asia. In regard to the first motivation, some authors supplied specific information to help with immediate military and evangelical necessities. Other travelers, particularly when writing on China, sought to satisfy a more generalized hunger for knowledge about civilized living that pervaded late medieval burgess and noble life. Readers' appetites for pleasure were also variously satisfied. Some representations of eastern peoples fulfilled the urge to wonder, which has been noted as an important characteristic of medieval cultures, while other elements of their descriptions met desires for amusement or delight. Monstrosity or alien customs were comprehended within ancient conventions on the "barbarian" and could assist an emerging European sense of selfhood or in some cases provide a kind of pleasure through horror.

Some studies of Christian engagement with Islam and Judaism have justifiably spoken of a "medieval Orientalism" identifiable in literature, art, and learned texts—a particularly valid approach given the middle eastern focus of Edward Said's work and his neglect of medieval testimonies—and a few have extended the term to medieval travelers' characterizations of Mongolian and east Asian peoples. As I will show in Chapter 1, the "Before" of my title is potentially provocative but is not meant as a quarrel with those who have explored all the complex configurations that western Orientalism can take. In arguing that the term, in the ways it is defined by Said, is a mainly postmedieval development, my title points to the distinctiveness of late medieval views on the peoples and cultures of the distant East before concerted colonialist ventures were initiated. While Muslims and Jews occupied regions throughout Asia, and indeed Muslims were becoming dominant in places such as India under the Delhi Sultanate and the islands of southeast Asia, the animosity characterizing Christians' perspective loses some of its sting in the travel narratives dealing with places in the distant East. In the latter, Jews and Muslims were among many religious groups including Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, Animists, Shamanists, and Nestorian Christians, and battles over territory or holy sites were irrelevant. To be sure, differences between perspectives on nearer and more distant Easts were never absolute and Christian rhetoric (for example, against "idolaters") naturally had some role in shaping the latter. The relevance of traditions of crusader and pilgrim discourse for works that also deal with a farther Orient is perhaps seen best in The Book of John Mandeville, the first part of which incorporates pilgrim narratives and presents Jerusalem as the center of the world, seeks the garden of Eden at the earth's eastern edge, and constructs a world image dominated by spiritual concerns. This overflow of narratives concerning the Saracen Orient and realms further east will occasionally be noted in the thematic chapters that make up Part 2. Yet where Christian perspectives on closer peoples were formed out of religious confrontation, late medieval Europeans' reactions to the peoples of India, Mongolia, and l'extrême orient were more often dominated by pleasure, pragmatic fears, and curiosity.

Late medieval Europeans were no strangers to colonialist enterprises, but few were seriously contemplating such ventures in the ancient civilizations of the distant East. A concise definition of "colonialism" may be helpful, such as one provided by Christopher LaMonica: "The term colonialism refers to a process of domination of one group (the colonizing metropole or core) over another (a colonized other or periphery)." Jürgen Osterhammel's summary is also incisive:

Colonialism is a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and of their ordained mandate to rule.

Of course colonialism and colonization take different forms and do not always, even in the modern period, involve formal domination of a metropolitan center over a subjected territorial possession. "Informal" or "surrogate" empires, such as seen in nineteenth-century British relations with China, should be included in any history of colonialism and imperialism. Osterhammel also identifies a wider range of expansionary activities to be counted in a theory of colonialism: "total migration of entire populations and societies"; "mass individual migration"; "border colonization"; "overseas settlement colonization"; "empire-building wars of conquest"; and "construction of naval networks"; and he divides "colonies" into "exploitation colonies," "maritime enclaves," and "settlement colonies." In recent years historians have amply documented processes of conquest and colonization within the boundaries of Latin Christendom and on its margins. Thus, taking some notable examples, Frankish crusaders in the Holy Land, Spanish Christians in Iberia, Normans in England, Anglo-Normans in Wales and Ireland, Germans in Bohemia, Catalans and Genoese in the Mediterranean, and Castilians and Portuguese in the Atlantic may all be viewed as medieval colonizers of some sort. Expansion and settlement were recurring features of medieval European experience. Yet despite flexibility in definition, it is difficult to identify examples of European colonialist ambition toward the distant East before the late fifteenth century. There were certainly western mercantile and missionary presences as far away as India and China from the later thirteenth century and those endeavors no doubt paved the way for later settlements, but it is hard to discern a European desire to possess and subjugate Asian territories in the fashion familiar to more recent epochs.

For these reasons, the book is envisaged as a contribution to an emergent "precolonial studies" rather than the better-established work on medieval "postcolonialism" that has emerged over the past decade and a half. Said's theory of Orientalism was instrumental in the formation of postcolonial theory more broadly, although earlier works by Frantz Fanon and critics of the British Raj were also among its foundational texts. The theory takes awareness of the inequality and injustice inherent in relations in any given colonial context as its starting point. Medieval postcolonialism, far from being a "mind-bending" concept, is a valid and important field that still offers scope for more detailed studies. For example, early medieval societies, as some recent scholars have helped us see, possessed languages, buildings, law codes, and mental outlooks marked by their then recent status as Roman colonies. Many studies offer subtle engagements that problematize any rigid concept of what counts as "postcolonial" and critique the work of Said, Bhabha, and others. Yet chronologies may be synchronous; thus medieval society was at once "colonial," with various colonialist enterprises under way in different times and places, and "postcolonial," having gone through numerous such processes already, but also "precolonial," in that not all of Latin Christendom's encounters with other peoples were driven by a colonialist impulse.

Perhaps the closest medieval powers came to pursuing informal colonial enterprises in the distant East was in missionary endeavors and the expansionist ambitions of the popes directing them. From the mid-thirteenth to late fifteenth centuries, the papacy sent Franciscan and Dominican missionaries to convert Asian populations to the Catholic faith. We might argue for a culturally colonialist motive in these efforts at evangelization; however, we would also need to acknowledge that nothing close to actual dominance of the Christian faith was ever achieved. The missionary efforts were tiny and scattered among vast and mainly unreceptive Asian populations. The latters' overwhelmingly indifferent response is notorious among Asian historians who point to the lack of oriental records of the western visitors. The notable exception was John of Marignolli (in China in the 1330s and 1340s), who made an impression on Chinese annalists not for the Christian message he sought to deliver but for the huge horse he brought as a present for the emperor. Moreover, although missionary work has often gone hand in hand with modern colonialism, we should recognize certain specific agendas and contexts among medieval missionaries. One of the chief concerns of Franciscans was a belief in an imminent apocalypse. Thus Franciscan missionaries to China, India, and other distant civilizations aimed to achieve the conversion of humankind to Catholic Christianity, even if it meant their own martyrdom, before the end of the world. Dominican friars, particularly active in central and west Asia and in India, regularly attempted to draw eastern branches of Christianity (such as Nestorian and Armenian Christians) into the Latin fold or to convert Mongols to Christianity to gain allies in crusades against Islam. The efforts of both groups might be read as ideological colonialism, but only with numerous provisos in place. The difference between medieval and more recent missionaries is well summarized by E. Randolph Daniel, who explains medieval Christians' evangelizing efforts in light of concepts of societas christiana: When non-Christians "adopted Catholicism, they were accepted into the corpus christianorum. . . . This is not to be confused with the attitude of nineteenth-century missionaries who believed that they were civilizing as well as Christianizing Africans and Asians. Conversion to Christianity in the nineteenth century simply included the acceptance of the superiority of European civilization; it did not incorporate those converted into European civilization" in the way that medieval conversion assumed assimilation within the societas christiana. There are fundamental differences between medieval missions in Asia and more recent efforts accompanying economic, political, and settler expansion.

The absence of a true colonizing agenda among late medieval travelers to the distant East and their readers back home created a vision of Asia that admitted neutrality and often admiration as well as critique. This is hardly a new observation: there is a distinguished body of scholarship on different aspects of the topic. Its influence has begun to have some effect on medieval Europeanists beyond the fields of travel and encounter; for example, Georges Duby notes that in the wake of the testimony of emissaries to the Mongols, Marco Polo, and other ...

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