Academic journal article Arthuriana

Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures

Article excerpt

ANANYA JAHANARA KABIR and DEANNE WILLIAMS, eds. Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp.xii, 298. ISBN: 978-0-521-8273-7. $80.

The eleven essays collected in this volume cohere principally around an insight that might seem obvious in hindsight but which is no less profound for its obviousness: that postcolonial approaches to the European Middle Ages are not anachronistic, as some critics have complained, because the Middle Ages were, by virtue of the fact that they were inaugurated by the fall of the Roman Empire, in fact, already postcolonial. They come after empire; indeed the very word 'colonial,' as Seth Lerer points out, derives from the Latin colonia, for the sorts of military settlements that dotted the Roman empire (79). This audacious move takes back theory for the Middle Ages, demonstrating that medievalists need not be content merely to apologize meekly for applying theory 'anachronistically" to their subject but, as Bruce Holsinger argues in a 2002 Speculum article, can confront the presentist bias of contemporary theory, recognizing and building upon the literally groundbreaking work of medievalists who have always figured (often invisibly) in the development of literary theories, including postcolonialism. Suddenly everything old is new again; some very oldfashioned medieval scholarship begins to look quite novel. Contributors to this volume, stripping away the stereotypes that have clung, like so many barnacles, to medieval studies, uncover in everything from the Très riches heures of the Duke de Berry, Anglo-Saxon poetry, maps, John Gower, Alexander romances, Romance philology, and Fernando de Roja readings that challenge 'western myths of origins, history, identity, and temporality' (2).

And yet, two questions must necessarily follow from this insight into medieval postcolonialism. The first concerns the ways in which this postcolonialism differs from that which followed the end of European empires after World War II. What balance ought we to strike between acknowledging their similarities and cataloguing their differences? Collectively, the essays tackle this question admirably, most explicitly in Ananya Jahanara Kabir's reading of British officials' use of medieval England as an analogy for Imperial British India, a means of 'translating' the colony's cultural strangeness, but it is a thread that appears in other essays as well. A second question asks how medievalists should go about uncovering the postcolonialism of the European Middle Ages and its continuing effects in modern Europe and its former colonies without appropriating and intellectualizing the language that postcolonial theory offers to make sense of genuine oppression. …

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