In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages

In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages

In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages

In Light of Another's Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages

Synopsis

Challenging the traditional conception of medieval Europe as insular and even xenophobic, Shirin A. Khanmohamadi's In Light of Another's Word looks to early ethnographic writers who were surprisingly aware of their own otherness, especially when faced with the far-flung peoples and cultures they meant to describe. These authors--William of Rubruck among the Mongols, "John Mandeville" cataloguing the world's diverse wonders, Geraldus Cambrensis describing the manners of the twelfth-century Welsh, and Jean de Joinville in his account of the various Saracens encountered on the Seventh Crusade--display an uncanny ability to see and understand from the perspective of the very strangers who are their subjects.

Khanmohamadi elaborates on a distinctive late medieval ethnographic poetics marked by both a profound openness to alternative perspectives and voices and a sense of the formidable threat of such openness to Europe's governing religious and cultural orthodoxies. That we can hear the voices of medieval Europe's others in these narratives in spite of such orthodoxies allows us to take full measure of the productive forces of disorientation and destabilization at work on these early ethnographic writers.

Poised at the intersection of medieval studies, anthropology, and visual culture, In Light of Another's Word is an innovative departure from each, extending existing studies of medieval travel writing into the realm of poetics, of ethnographic form into the premodern realm, and of early visual culture into the realm of ethnographic encounter.

Excerpt

Et cum circumdarent nos homines et respicerent nos tamquam monstra,
maxime quia eramus nudis pedibus, et quererent si nos non indigeremus
pedibus nostris, quia supponebant quod statim amitteremus eos, ille
Hungarus reddidit eis rationem, narrans eis conditiones Ordinis nostri
.

(People gathered round us, gazing at us as if we were freaks, especially in
view of our bare feet, and asked whether we had no use for our feet, since
they imagined that in no time we would lose them. and this the Hungarian
explained to them, telling them the rules of our Order.) (Itinerarium 28.4)

William of Rubruck writes these words upon his return to Acre after a two-year mission to Mongolia from 1253 to 1255, as part of his report to King Louis ix of France on the state of Mongolian society and customs, one of the medieval period’s most vivid ethnographic accounts. Here he is describing his immediate reception at the imperial court of the great khan, Mangu, where locals not only surround him and members of his Franciscan retinue, wondering at their display of bare feet in the subfreezing weather of Mongolian winter, but stare at them as if they were some kind of monsters, tamquam monstra. William is thus describing himself as he is seen in the gaze of the other he has come to describe, a feat striking, even disorienting, to modern and medieval audiences alike—the former who might not expect to find a mode of postmodern, self-reflexive ethnography in a medieval sampling of the genre, and the latter who might well turn to ethnographic reports with an interest in hearing of the world’s exotic and monstrous races, not to learn that they are themselves seen as monstrous by diverse, little-known others. Surely William’s moment of self-mirroring and even self-othering is exceptional and rare?

This book, on the contrary, tracks the persistent presence of such moments of startling and uncomfortable self-reflexivity and selfconsciousness in some of Europe’s earliest and most celebrated ethnographic descriptions—descriptions of observed manners and customs . . .

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