Sara's Reviews > The Postcolonial Middle Ages

The Postcolonial Middle Ages by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
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Jan 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: colonial-history, historical-theory, islamic-history, medieval-history
Read from January 10 to April 03, 2011

I think this book is so grand, here's an essay I wrote about it:

A persistent conundrum of historical inquiry lies in whether a pattern or trend inheres in the subject time period itself, in that time period's ideal self, or in the historiography about that time period. Phrased another way, would a medieval person agree with the characteristic I purport to identify about the Middle Ages (and which medieval person at that, which Middle Ages)? This question is worth asking and remembering while exploring any historical topic, but its indeterminacy should not prevent one from making statements about a time period. I believe in a view of history as provisional - only the best story we've concocted so far that accounts for the most stuff. This provisionality becomes more necessary and more complex when attempting to speak about more than concrete events, for example, about discourse; of modern periods about older ones, of contemporary writers about their own periods, of the haves about the have-nots. Discourse concerns linguistic communities, power, contingency and culturally-constructed attitudes more than it concerns Truth. With that caveat in mind...

Increasingly, medieval historians employ postcolonial theory to explore issues of power and identity in the Middle Ages. These projects have begun to reveal the ways the modern West formulated and continues to formulate its sense of self with respect to the Middle Ages. John M. Ganim has compared the Modern world's dynamic of identity formation vis-à-vis the Middle Ages to the West's dynamic of identity formation vis-à-vis the East. He uses "Medievalism" to refer to this dynamic, referencing and thereby adopting some of the epistemological baggage of Edward Said's much-explored Orientalism. Ganim's comparison is not mere analogy. He posits a connection between Medievalism and Orientalism that transcends simple metaphor and dwells more in syncretism. In his essay, "Native Studies: Orientalism and Medievalism," Ganim states:

Starting in the sixteenth century, the Middle Ages reveal an identity crisis: Sometimes the medieval is the starting point of Western European cultural self-consciousness, at other times the forms of medieval culture are defined as foreign, especially Eastern, in origin. Orientalism and Nativism are inextricably intertwined within the 'Medieval.'1

In demonstration of this intertwinement, Ganim offers Gothic architecture. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writers attributed to the Gothic style "native" European qualities, observing that the gracefully vaulted ceilings of Gothic buildings echoed northern Teutonic forests. For other contemporaneous writers and aesthetes, like John Evelyn and Christopher Wren, taken with the Renaissance celebration of classical Greek and Roman architecture, the Gothic style with its pointed arches manifested an "Eastern" or "Saracen" contamination of a traditionally Western aesthetic. Many Early Modern thinkers saw this contamination, too, in medieval chivalric romances and other medieval narrative forms.2 As Ganim observes, all of this post-medieval concern for the provenance of medieval cultural products testifies to a deep insecurity in Early Modern Europe over its origins, identity and legitimacy.

The nations of Europe, according to Geraldine Heng, began to coalesce in the medieval period. European senses of nationhood, in part, configured European identity and determined its colonial-era conduct. Heng discusses this inchoate nationhood with specific regard to England. She examines how, in order to create the idea of nation, many differences among people within England had to be elided, just as similarities among "Others" outside the nation (or outside the nation's sense of self) had to be created or analogized.3 Heng explores these "medieval modalities of thought [that] made it possible to slide ideologically from one religious target to another,"4 specifically where Islam and Judaism were concerned. Medieval Europeans profoundly misunderstood, reduced or ignored facts about Islam, as they had done about Judaism before it, in order to perpetuate about both religions the slander that they were idolaters, pagans, well-poisoners and baby-killers. All Others, regardless of their actual differences, could stand in for one another within the medieval European notion of identity.

This proclivity for analogizing Others appears in post-medieval European treatment of colonized peoples as well.5 Colonial-era Europeans painted the colonized in broad and similarly inaccurate brush strokes. Whether the colonized persons were Maori, Ojibwe or Australian Aborginal, the initial and most important identification marker (as far as European discourse of the period was concerned) was their non-Europeanness where Europeanness equated to civilized, Christian and white. In this way, colonial European discourse at its most basic elided the differences among vast numbers of the colonized, asserting that colonized people's primarily pertinent quality was of being not European. Moreover, it superimposed over colonized people the binary thinking of European colonialism, which offered but one European-based definition of what constituted, for example, "civilization," "culture," or "wisdom" and attributed all other definitions or practices to the lack of "civilization," of "culture" or of "wisdom."

This mania for binary thought, like the idea of European nationhood, also grew from roots that extend back into and through the Middle Ages.6 In theory the dialectical logic of Boethius or Peter Abelard involved mediating between the polarized, or seemingly polarized, sides of a given argument. Medieval scholars loved to split hairs and resolve oppositions. But not all minds in any age function with the subtlety of Boethius or Abelard. In practice, binary thinking often becomes oppositional and creates a conflict of power. Where power becomes truly entrenched, as with the medieval church or European royalty and their burgeoning states, it seeks to perpetuate itself and does so usually at the expense of its relational opposite(s) in a zero-sum game.

In the Middle Ages (or in medieval historiography or, perhaps, in both) one can identify several relational oppositions. The binary of church and state figured prominently in any number of conflicts from the Investitute Controversy of the eleventh and twelfth centuries to the even longer-lived factional struggles between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. This binary seems so important to our historical vision of the period that, arguably, its resolution in favor of the state (by the Protestant Reformation and by Henry VIII's separation of the Church of England from Rome) signalled the beginning of a new historical age, the Early Modern. The binaries Christian and non-Christian, as previously mentioned, also played an enormous role in the relation of medieval Europe to non-Europeans, but equally importantly of medieval Europe to European non-Christians. Perhaps the oldest binary in the book, male and female, enjoyed a particularly virulent heyday during the Middle Ages as well. In any event, medieval thinkers and rulers (not usually the same people) loved to play us-versus-them and good-versus-evil in exactly the manner that would tick off Friedrich Nietzsche 600-odd years later.

Appropriately, perhaps, Early Modern Europeans applied binary thinking to the very Middle Ages whence they seem to have derived this zero-sum method of cultural valuation in the first place. In other words, unsophisticated binary thought, seemingly employed so diligently in the Middle Ages, was used by colonial-era Europeans to refer to the Middle Ages. Just as Africa became the "Dark Continent," the Middle Ages became the "Dark Ages"7 with "dark" eventually coming to bear all the same connotations in both epithets: barbaric as opposed to civilized, backward as opposed to progressive, superstitious as opposed to scientific, ignorant as opposed to learned. Post-medieval Europe crafted its identity in contrast to an imagined, reduced and pejorative medieval identity, just as colonial Europe crafted its identity in contrast to an imagined, reduced and pejorative identity of the colonized.

The utility and fruitfulness of considering medieval history in light of postcolonial thought has only started to become evident in the last decade or so. It has been primarily useful in dispensing with the notion that the Middle Ages comprised some sort of historical aberration or void, that Early Modern Europe bears closer resemblance to the pre-medieval classical world than it does to its directly antecedent time period. Repopulating the medieval world with contingency, complex power struggles, and resistance may, in turn, inform our vision of the colonial era that followed on the heels of the Middle Ages. European historians (as opposed to postcolonial historians) may, finally, begin to seriously dismantle the binary thought and categories that still wind through Western scholarship


1 John M. Ganim, "Native Studies: Orientalism and Medievalism," in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 123. Unless otherwise cited, all referenced articles are from Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed., The Postcolonial Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
2 Ibid., 125.
3 Heng, "The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation," 141, 144.
4 Ibid., 142.
5 NB: This is a broad, though I assert generally accurate, representation of European colonialism. The many colonial powers of Europe neither instituted identical policies in their colonized regions, nor did any single colonial power in every case approach the governance of its colonized people in precisely the same way. European colonialism can be most usefully thought of, perhaps, as a trend or dynamic (or rhizome, after Bill Ashcroft) rather than a monolithic policy or institution of any kind. That said, the overwhelming majority of policies, institutions, behaviors and practices that constituted European colonialism reduced the colonized at the expense of the colonizer and analogized colonized people with one another, first and foremost, as non-European (read non-Christian, non-white, uncivilized, etc.).
6 The Middle Ages did not invent binary thought, but it did elevate it in a whole new way. For a thoughtful and textured defense of binary thought read this.
7 John Dagenais and Margaret R. Greer, "Decolonizing the Middle Ages: Introduction," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30:3 (Fall 200): 431-448. Petrarch apparently first coined the term to refer to the period of relative instability and chaos following the decline of the Roman Empire, but post-medieval historians and, later, common "wisdom" used the term to refer, rather snidely, to the Middle Ages in general. Of course, Petrarch also first referred to the period, his own or at least its cusp, as "middle" or medium in Latin, carrying pejorative connotations of muddled, nondescript, "squalid."
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