Sunday, August 16, 2015

Larry Swain: “European Ethnography”


Larry Swain

Bemidji StateUniversity


Book Review


Shirin A. Khanmohamadi, In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 216 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4562-2


1> The author has presented a study of high and late medieval texts that address the notion of “other” outside the borders of Western Europe. As the Europeans became more aware of the peoples beyond their limits due to the Crusades and other events, fitting these new peoples into the “chain of being” as understood by Western Europeans became a paramount intellectual concern. The subjects chosen for the study display an ability to describe these newly encountered “others” from the perspective of those being studied, or at least so the book and publisher claim. After an introductory chapter and a chapter establishing the theoretical approaches, Khanmohamadi examines the writings of Gerald of Wales, Jean Joinville, William of Rubruck, and the pseudonymous John Mandeville from the perspective of how they describe others.


2> Although the classical and medieval periods knew no specific genre of literature as “ethnography”, nonetheless descriptions of encountered peoples and their habits and cultures was a part of several types of literature: historiography, geography, and travel narratives are among the most common and readily available. Khhanmohamadi states the texts are linked by an observational approach: the authors are describing directly and interact with those the medieval author describes. As such they share a “dialogical poetics” which according to author was an attempt to enter into a “dialogic engagement with alternative perspectives.” The authors studied are categorized into five “distinctive realms”: Norman takeover of Wales in the late twelfth century, the missions to the Far East of the thirteenth, the attendant discussions of Christian responsibility and the theorization of the salvation of non-Christian peoples who were seen as primitive. The book examines one author in each “realms of anthropological activity” which the author argues are central to medieval ethnography of the late Middle Ages.


3> The brief introduction sets up the central issues address in a succinctly written eleven pages. Then in the first chapter Khhanmohamadi lays out the theoretical underpinnings of her approach. Though only slightly referred to explicitly, the foundation of this study is in the theoretical of Mikhail Bakhtin, particularly The Dialogic Imagination. She begins with a dualistic approach: the discourse of Christianity and the discourse of civility. Khhanmohamadi divides these two tradents; the Christian of course comes through the Bible and the fathers that is described as interested in conversion of the non-Christian. “Civility” or evolutionary anthropology as the author begins to call it derives from Lucretius through Cicero and in the author’s words becomes “classical anthropology” (pg. 15). Khhanmohamadi describes this as simply the notion of progress so familiar to us: humanity began as a primitive and developed, evolved into what is now the apex of civilization (at least so far). Of course, from a medieval perspective, the Western Europeans were that apex, and the other was less developed and barbaric. The remainder of the first chapter applies these dichotomous notions to the authors the meat of the book will then examine in some detail.


4> Chapter 2 studies Gerald of Wales, in particular, his Descriptio Cambriae. The principle argument is that Gerald incorporates in his description multiple perspectives, a literary rendering of contemporary visual artistic representations in which several angles were represented simultaneously.  Chapter 3 turns to William of Rusbruck and his report on his missions to the East. The central problem here is determining what groups are capable of salvation and which not. William is faced when meeting the Mongols who are so other that they do not fit the familiar discussions of savage and civilized, forcing William to consider them in a new way, in a way comparative to the new study of optics contemporary in the thirteenth century. In the following chapter, Khhanmohamadi depends on Bakhtin’s notions of the monologic (official, authoritative) and heteroglossic (unscripted, unofficial, unauthorized) and applies that dichotomy to Joinville’s Vie de St. Louis. Joinville includes both types of speech, the heteroglossic often in opposition to the monologic, the former undercutting the latter. In the final chapter, the author turns to a different genre altogether in Mandeville’s Travels. She argues that the uncanny and marvelous aspects of the text are there as a commentary on contemporary concerns regarding the salvation of the other, human and nonhuman others.


5> There is much to question in this book, in large part the fundamental assumptions. While the author claims several times throughout the book that the Medieval period lacked the ethnographies of the classical world naming specifically Herodotus and Tacitus, this is not precisely true. While those authors are largely absent from the Middle Ages, other classical authors who wrote what we would ethnography certainly were read, anthologized, and passed on through multiple summarizers, imitators, and transmitters of tradition. Among these would be Caesar, translations of Josephus, Pliny and his Natural History, Solinus, Julius the Orator to name a few. In addition, there are more fantastical texts that purport to record ethnographic materials that are read in the early medieval period. Among these are texts such as the Liber Monstrorum, Letter to Aristotle, and the so-called Wonders of the East. Early medieval authors themselves also wrote ethnography in various guises, ethno-history and furthering classic ethno-geography. Bede, Isidore, Gregory of Tours, Peter the Deacon are among the more common names. And even classical sorts of geographies were imitated such as in Ps. Hieronymous’ Aethici Istrici Cosmographia of the 7th or 8th century. When the author claims that Helmod and Adam of Bremen of the 11th century are the first to begin to once again break ground in writing ethnography about the Northmen and the Slavs, she has overlooked medieval commentary on the Vikings and Slavs that predate these writers, Dudo of St. Quentin for example or Widukind of Corvey.


6> A further issue is characterizing Lucretius and Cicero as proponents of “evolutionary anthropology.” While this is certainly the view of older scholarship from a century ago, some of which Khhanmohamadi cites, others have shown that the view of progress detected in these authors is also mitigated by other comments the authors make. Keller’s classic study on Lucretius and progress put that one to rest (A. C. Keller, “Lucretius and the Idea of Progress,” CJ 46 (1951), 185-8). Both Cicero and Lucretius were writing as the Roman Republic fell apart and both were familiar with the Hesiodan structure where the primitive past was the golden age and their present an age of iron and nothing either of them wrote changed that essential view especially in light of the events of the late Republic. So while there is certainly influence of Lucretius through Cicero on ideas percolating in the minds of Medieval authors, evolutionary anthropology was not one of them.


7> The fifth chapter is in my view the weakest. Khhanmohamadi sometimes cites examples from Mandeville that are later interpolations, and certainly one of the central tenets of the book’s arguments is difficult to maintain if the author of the text is not a real ethnographer and is patching together references from previous works. Further, if Mandeville fits in this category certainly also does Marco Polo or even the Liber Monstrorum or any of a dozen other travelogues of the period.


8> While more could be said, there is also much that is excellent in this book. The three chapters in the middle of the book are fascinating and informative. Noting that Gerald and William’s works and approaches are similar to contemporary artistic and scientific activities that results in a “deitic and perspectival approach to ethnographic objectivity.” This is certainly a unique way of examining Gerald’s ambivalence as a Welshman and a Norman. A close reading of William’s reconsideration of categories for those who could be saved and were human and those beyond that pale. William we are told reshaped the conversation demonstrating a “fluidity” between William the viewer and the Mongols the viewed.


9> The chapters do fit neatly into themselves, offering multiple views on late medieval ethnographic writing. Gerald is an “autoethnographer” writing about the habitus of his own people utilizing techniques from visual arts in a literary fashion. William, like the optics of his day, is changing the way the world was viewed and looks through Mongol eyes in so far as a thirteenth century author could. Joinville uses different registers of speech to communicate and describe the Muslims of Egypt. These three chapters offer a significant argument for how medieval ethno-geographers and travel writers used dialogic modes in their subjective interaction with those they describe. Further, Khhanmohamadi argues that the authors were cognizant of their subjectivity and dialogic (what they would call rhetorical) modes.


Larry Swain is Chair of the English Department at Bemidji State University. Swain specializes in Anglo-Saxon studies and teaches courses in linguistics, medieval languages, and medieval and early modern literature. Swain also edits the journal The Heroic Age and is involved in the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture project and blogs at The Ruminate and Modern Medieval.


Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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