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Before Orientalism

Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510

Kim M. Phillips
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Before Orientalism
    Book Description:

    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 Orientalismreveals 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 Orientalismcomplicates our understanding of medieval attitudes toward the foreign.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0894-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Note on the Text
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    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,...


    • Chapter 1 On Orientalism
      (pp. 15-27)

      The titleBefore Orientalismis at once a hook, a tease, and a statement of intent. The book could have been calledAlongside Orientalism, or perhapsBetween Orientalisms, without alteration to its fundamental arguments. Though Orientalist elements have been identified in medieval representations of Islam and Arab cultures, they apply much less to the rest of Asia. This chapter examines the chronology of the three main strands to Orientalism as they relate to medieval Europe’s more distant “Easts.” It finds that while elements of two out of the three may be tentatively identified in medieval writings on far eastern places,...

    • Chapter 2 Travelers, Tales, Audiences
      (pp. 28-49)

      Travelers’ tales are often the preserve of the young, vigorous, and egocentric, yet it fell to an aging, overweight Franciscan friar to be among the first to travel into the heartland of a far Asian empire and return to tell his story. John of Plano Carpini (Giovanni di Pian di Carpine, c. 1180–1252), born in Pian di Carpine, now Magione near Perugia, was an early stalwart of the Franciscan order and near contemporary of St. Francis.¹ He had spent the 1220s and 1230s traveling Saxony and Spain to help establish the new order in those places, gaining a reputation...

    • Chapter 3 Travel Writing and the Making of Europe
      (pp. 50-70)

      “Travel writing” is a modern term for a recognized branch of literature, but we need to consider its suitability to medieval texts. Many modern readers, as we will see, find some medieval “travel” texts disappointing because they fail to live up to certain expectations, such as that travel literature presents a first-person narrator with an exciting tale of encounters with the foreign or that it documents the formation of both personal and cultural identity. Not only a version of personal memoir, travel writing also allows the author to explore the broader cultural encounter of Self (for example, “the West” or...


    • Chapter 4 Food and Foodways
      (pp. 73-100)

      The act of eating expresses profound, even intimate, acceptance. Conversely, undesirable food is met with involuntary signs of repulsion. Alimentary disgust, suggests Julia Kristeva, “is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection.”¹ Acceptance or rejection of food shows others one’s similarities to and differences from them and provides an instantly comprehensible basis for connection or distance. If you eat what I do, or if I can imagine eating your food though it is not a habit for me, we can relate. We possesscommensality—we may “dine at the same table.” It is not surprising, then, that...

    • Chapter 5 Femininities
      (pp. 101-122)

      Roxanne L. Euben suggests that travel writing transforms “women’s bodies and behavior into a legend, as on a map, by which entire cultures can be decoded.” She finds this a “remarkably consistent schema governing the representation of women” in both European and Islamic travel literature from Herodotus to the nineteenth century.¹ Women, in this view, become icons or indices of entire cultures—a shortcut for perceiving foreign peoples. Thus, while the detail in travelers’ descriptions of foreign women will vary depending on the cultural context, the principle guiding travelers’ tales of foreign women remains the same.

      In this chapter Euben’s...

    • Chapter 6 Sex
      (pp. 123-147)

      Sex was a common theme in medieval travel writing on Asia, but motifs of danger, decadence, and corruption were not so widely applied as they have been in more recent Orientalist narratives because the need to justify colonial rule was absent. When medieval authors included themes of sex and marriage in their narratives of the Orient, they did so with motives and emphases particular to their time. For them, pleasure could be simply pleasure, not seductive danger; moreover, for their audiences the connotations had primarily imaginative appeal as few would have the opportunity personally to experience Asian sexual cultures. The...

    • Chapter 7 Civility
      (pp. 148-171)

      Little remains of Khubilai Khân’s summer capital at Shangdu (Coleridge’s Xanadu, Marco Polo’s Ciandu) except some earthworks, the brick corners of long-crumbled towers, the bases and fallen capitals of pillars, and some glazed tile and marble fragments. William Dalrymple when visiting in 1986 described his view of the ruins of “Xanadu” as “nearer the heath scene inLearthan the exotic pleasure garden described by Polo.”¹ The untutored observer will find little of the “stately pleasure-dome” that inspired Marco Polo’s praise and Coleridge’s opium-inspired hallucination. Coleridge’s vision was interrupted by the knock of a “person from Porlock”; our latter-day imaginings...

    • Chapter 8 Bodies
      (pp. 172-198)

      In 1795 the third edition of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’sDe generis humani varietate nativadivided humanity into five categories: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Skin color, hair texture and quantity, skull shape, and facial features were taken as the markers of race. In describing the “Mongolian” group (by which Blumenbach meant all the inhabitants of Asia excluding those counted as “Malays”) he adds a footnote quoting “a certain Yvo, a churchman of Narbonne, dated at Vienna in 1243.” Yvo’s letter is included in Matthew Paris’s mid-thirteenth-centuryChronica majora:

      The Tartars have hard and strong breasts, thin and pale faces,...

  7. Afterword: For a Precolonial Middle Ages
    (pp. 199-202)

    In one of his many important studies of European encounters with the peoples of America in the early modern period, Anthony Pagden places attitudes of the conquerors within an ancient lineage: “Europeans had always looked upon their own cultures as privileged, and upon all other cultures as to some degree inferior. There is nothing remarkable about this. Most people distinguish between equal clarity between themselves and all others.”¹ Pagden’s specific argument within that volume, concerning Europe’s long-running and ultimately failed attempt to comprehend the Americas within existing European intellectual traditions, is indubitably valuable and not under question. What is worthy...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 203-266)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-304)
  10. Index
    (pp. 305-312)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 313-314)