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

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

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

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


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.


I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is ex
pecting. the description of the world to which you lend a benevo
lent 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 . . .

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