Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Postcolonial Medieval Studies: Simon Gaunt's Account

by J J Cohen
(read Karl first)

The latest issue of Comparative Literature (61:2) has an excellent review essay by Simon Gaunt entitled "Can the Middle Ages be Postcolonial?"

Touching nine monographs and edited collections, Gaunt begins his account with a volume I put together in the late 1990s, The Postcolonial Middle Ages. I'd like to think that the quiet assertiveness of that title is in fact the answer to Gaunt's interrogative, but I do realize that (as Gaunt notes) "postcolonial approaches to the Middle Ages have proved controversial." I'd point out, though, that those who have argued against PoCo medieval studies typically employ a version of the argument "Because postcolonial theory was developed to account for historical conditions specific to the disintegration of contemporary Western empires, importing its methods to the Middle Ages is inherently anachronistic." Such a blanket statement assumes that PoCo modes of interpretation are simply applied to medieval materials in ways that attempt to squeeze round pegs into square holes. Even a quick skim of how medievalists have staged conversations with postcolonial theorists would reveal, however, that their work creates an encounter between the two in which both are transformed.

I'd also point out that limiting postcoloniality to occidental postimperialism impoverishes a rich field. Postcolonial theory derives not just from English India but from around the globe: Africa, the Caribbean, the New World encounter, you name it. It's not that postcolonial theory is a one size fits, discrete methodology. Rather, postcolonial studies is, like medieval studies, a capacious, heterogeneous, and ever burgeoning discipline. Gaunt writes "For the Middle Ages of all periods, we need to move outside the Anglophone world if our own intellectual moves are to avoid uncannily replicating the very colonial gestures we seek to critique." I agree wholeheartedly, as will be seen below -- but would add that this injunction should be applied not just to the medieval geographies and materials examined but to the provenance of the postcolonial studies included. Surely Antonio Benítez-Rojo and Gloria Anzaldua can inspire as much as Homi Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty (follow those four links to see some PoCo work I did in the wake of Postcolonial Middle Ages).

Gaunt rightly takes The Postcolonial Middle Ages to task for its Anglocentrism. I admitted as much in my introduction to the volume ("England looms disproportionately large in the shared critical imaginary of this volume"), tying this dominance to the "tight grip [England exerts] on the critical imaginary of North American medievalists (and post- colonial theorists)" (8). Still, I was dissatisfied that the volume should replicate the very thing it argued against. That unease motivated my editing a companion book. I called it the Infinite Realms Project, but the volume was published as Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England. These essays collectively argue that Englishness is a fragile historical construct, and can get in the way of seeing the cultural heterogeneity beneath the seeming monolith of the nation (whatever a nation might mean within a medieval arena: Gaunt rightly insists throughout the review that the nation is a problem rather than a pre-existing collectivity).

But I disagree with Gaunt's assertion that a problem arises "when Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Patricia Clare Ingham cast England’s incursions into Wales and Ireland in colonial terms; or when the “virtual Jew” is taken by Sylvia Tomasch to be a marker, after the expulsion of Jews in 1290, of “England’s colonial past.”" Gaunt writes:
Robert Bartlett makes clear in his seminal The Making of Europe (167–96) certain “cultural symptoms of colonialism” need to be present for it to be useful to discuss medieval phenomena in such terms (185). Whereas the expansion of the Normans into England after 1066 and the subsequent moves of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy on Wales and Ireland are part of the same general expansion of the Frankish “aristocratic diaspora” that Bartlett describes (24–59), seeking to take over a neighboring territory with a shared Latinity, a shared religion, and shared borders (even if maritime) is not analogous to implanting “small immigrant élites with close ties to the metropolis” in distant lands, amid “large discontented populations of a different language and religious affiliation” (Bartlett 185),
Except, it is -- at least when it comes to Wales and Ireland. Bartlett's superlative work needs to be read alongside that of R. R. Davies, the patron saint of the Infinite Realms project (we dedicated the volume to his memory). What I love about Davies' work is that he always asked what history looks like from both sides of encounter: not just the Normans (the cultural source of those whom Gaunt labels Europeans, by which he usually means francophone transnational élites), but also the diverse indigenes like the Welsh and Irish, varied groups who embrace their own collectivity sometimes only through invasion's force. While I take very seriously Gaunt's observation that the "Francophone diaspora" and the hybridities which it engendered deserve careful analysis, I'm less satisfied with allowing francophone and latinate dominating culture to function as Europe itself. Getting transnational doesn't mean leaving the postcolonial behind; Europe is a story to be narrated not only in French and Latin but in Breton, Welsh, Irish, Icelandic, Basque, and every patois and creole that arose between.

As to Jews, Gaunt argues that their importance is not unique to England; and it is not. But the fact of their national Expulsion in 1290 makes that nation's relation to Jewishness rather different from (not completely different from, but rather different from) what unfolded in France and Germany.

To offer a more comprehensive history of postcolonial medieval studies, Gaunt would have had to include journal issues and essays. Bruce Holsinger's Speculum essay, for example, isn't mentioned, nor are the JMEMS issues on "Decolonizing the Middle Ages" and "Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages." But given that the review deals only with books, Gaunt does an admirable job of bringing together almost a decade of diverse work.

I am going to close with Gaunt's vision of the postcolonial future for medieval studies, because I find it eloquent, and compelling:
I have implicitly been sketching here a blueprint for postcolonial medieval studies: they need to work outside the framework of a single literary tradition, since few texts in the Middle Ages were produced solely within the context of a single literary tradition; they need therefore to work across different languages and to understand the dissemination and use of different languages in the Middle Ages; they thus need also to return to manuscripts and/or to revise the canon, rather than rely on critical editions produced in a tradition of modern national literary histories that is bound to occlude important evidence of cultural contact and hybridities. But postcolonial medieval studies also need theoretical sophistication in that the insights afforded by postcolonial theory give us a better understanding of how “Europe” came into being, how it related to the rest of the world, and how the medieval history of contact between Europe and Asia or Africa is in fact an important element of the longer history of which colonialism and post-colonialism are part. With few young people in the Anglo-Saxon world now graduating with the background in Latin and several modern languages that might have been expected several generations ago, training as a medievalist today is not for the faint-hearted, particularly given the training in critical theory we now also expect of our graduate students. But however much my blueprint for post-colonial medieval studies sounds like a rather traditional and retrograde model of medieval studies, I would like nonetheless to make a pitch for giving higher priority to the traditional skills in which medievalists were trained (in languages, philology, codicology, and paleography), since without them we remain hide-bound by our own, largely monolingual, culture, as well as by the scholarship of past generations, rather than being able to build creatively but securely upon that scholarship.
Philology with your philosophy? Comparative studies as a dominant mode? Multilingual, multicultural proficiencies? Sounds like a recipe not just for medievalists, but for the world we inhabit now.

[You may download a PDF of the full review here, until someone tells me that I souldn't be sharing the review like this]


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for sharing this, and thanks for the call for the inherently comparative and (dis)locating bent of good medieval studies.

A quick point, though:
But the fact of their national Expulsion in 1290 makes that nation's relation to Jewishness rather different from (not completely different from, but rather different from) what unfolded in France and Germany.

But remember that there were already expulsions in what we now call France. In 1287, Edward I expelled the Jews from Gascony, and in 1289, Charles II expelled them from Maine and Anjou. Looking at William Chester Jordan's “Jews, regalian rights, and the constitution in medieval France.” AJS Review 23.1 (1998) 1-16, at 4 ff, I see additional expulsions, dating back to the 1190s. In the late 13th century, we also have Brittany, 1287-88, 1291 Niort, and 1294 Nevers. England perhaps can be distinguished by the fact that it never let its Jews come back (as the French crown did, at least occasionally in the 14th century: also see Jordan, “Home again: The Jews in the kingdom of France, 1315-1322.” The Stranger in Medieval Society, ed. F. R. P. Akehurst and S. C. Van D’Elden. Minneapolis, MN, 1997. 27-45), and by its being an island collection of realms. All land is islands, of course, but England--as I think Michelle Warren observed?--conceived itself as more geographically bordered than most realms.

: .

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Exactly what I had in mind. The expulsions (plural) from France tended to be partial, tentative, and impermanent. England's was, on the other hand, almost wholesale and seemingly irrevocable. I'm not as expert on the French materials as I would like to be, but it does seem to me that the state of being Judenrein mattered more to England than any such possibility did in France.

Jonathan Hsy said...

I couldn't agree more with Gaunt's vision of the future of postcolonial medieval studies (and, really, medieval studies in general). I'm particularly struck by the astute observation that even much of the recent comparative work on travel writing, translation, medieval multilingualism, etc. remains conspicuously non-engaged with postcolonial theory. I think the emergence of expressly cross-disciplinary endeavors like "Mutilingualism in the Middle Ages" and the "The Medieval Translator" conferences and the "French of England" contingent have the potential to change this, but I wonder if there is an overarching Anglophone vs. non-Anglophone cultural divide is at play here that needs to be confronted and addressed (I'd agree with Gaunt that this "cultural gap" issue certainly requires more examination).

Jeffrey has eloquently addressed Gaunt's reading of Anglophone dominance in poco-medieval-studies, so my only remaining quibble with this review - and what would a blog posting be without a quibble? - has to do with how we actually define comparative work. Gaunt is (of course) writing for a comp. lit. journal but it does strikes me as odd that Gaunt never really breaks out of "language and literature" per se as the privileged domain of analysis for medieval studies. What might postcolonial medieval musicology or art history look like, for instance? Yes, there are certainly scholars (most notably Huot and Butterfield) who have remarkably moved across musicology and postcolonial medieval studies but I wonder how a cross-disciplinary medieval studies might be enacted (either by scholars work in collaboration or in a single work by a uniquely-talented scholar bridging disciplines). I'm imagining this might very well be part of the future of medieval studies that Gaunt envisions, but it would have been nice to have an articulation of these sorts of possibilities.

Karl Steel said...

The expulsions (plural) from France tended to be partial, tentative, and impermanent

I suppose we're up against several things here:
a) what was the Gallic self-conception? Did they (whoever they were) think of themselves as French first and as inhabitants of their counties secondarily? If so, how do we account for the thirteenth-century expulsions only on the level of counties?
b) should we read history backwards, determining the significance of what happened on the basis of its long term effects (in this case, that the 1290 English expulsion 'took'), or do we read it 'in the middle' with as little anticipation of the future as possible (Chaucer's Queer Nation talks about the history of the English middle class this way, iirc)? In this case, it might be that the French expulsions should not be described as 'tentative'

I suppose someone's already compared the English expulsion edict(s?) to writings like this?

JH, great point on comparative. Holsinger also comes to mind here.

Incidentally, on the perhaps implicitly poco front, this strikes me as good news.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for noting that "how we actually define comparative work" also deserves interrogation, Jonathan. The art historian Eva Frojmovic at Leeds, for example, is doing very exciting work looking at images from a PoCo POV that fosters interdisciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration.

One more quibble, since we are quibbling: I don't think it is quite fair to make Heng's use of Geoffrey of Monmouth seem so (literally) insular. She is arguing for a pan-Europeanism behind the trauma around which romance develops that is very similar to what Gaunt praises in Bartlett.