We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Before Orientalism

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

By Kim M. Phillips

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


pdf iconDownload PDF

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. vii-viii

read more

Note on the Text

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. ix-x

All English-speaking authors in this field find themselves compromised by the problem of spelling proper nouns. As a broad guide, I generally follow the forms employed in John Block Friedman and Kristen Mossler Figg, eds., with Scott D. Westrem, associate editor, and Gregory G. Guzman, collaborating...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 1-12

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...

Part I. Theory, People, Genres

read more

Chapter 1. On Orientalism

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 15-27

The title Before Orientalism is at once a hook, a tease, and a statement of intent. The book could have been called Alongside Orientalism, or perhaps Between Orientalisms, without alteration to its fundamental arguments. Though Orientalist elements have been identified in medieval representations of Islam and Arab cultures, they apply much less to the rest of Asia. This chapter examines...

read more

Chapter 2. Travelers, Tales, Audiences

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 28-49

Travelers’ tales are often the preserve of the young, vigorous, and egocentric, yet it fell to an aging, overweight Franciscan friar to be among the first to travel into the heartland of a far Asian empire and return to tell his story. John of Plano Carpini (Giovanni di Pian di Carpine, c. 1180–1252), born in Pian di Carpine, now Magione near Perugia, was an early stalwart of the Franciscan...

read more

Chapter 3. Travel Writing and the Making of Europe

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 50-70

“Travel writing” is a modern term for a recognized branch of literature, but we need to consider its suitability to medieval texts. Many modern readers, as we will see, find some medieval “travel” texts disappointing because they fail to live up to certain expectations, such as that travel literature presents a first-person narrator with an exciting tale of encounters with the foreign or that it...

Part II: Envisioning Orients

read more

Chapter 4. Food and Foodways

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 73-100

The act of eating expresses profound, even intimate, acceptance. Conversely, undesirable food is met with involuntary signs of repulsion. Alimentary disgust, suggests Julia Kristeva, “is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection.”1 Acceptance or rejection of food shows others one’s similarities to and differences from them and provides an instantly comprehensible...

read more

Chapter 5. Femininities

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 101-122

Roxanne L. Euben suggests that travel writing transforms “women’s bodies and behavior into a legend, as on a map, by which entire cultures can be decoded.” She finds this a “remarkably consistent schema governing the representation of women” in both European and Islamic travel literature from Herodotus to the nineteenth...

read more

Chapter 6. Sex

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 123-147

Sex was a common theme in medieval travel writing on Asia, but motifs of danger, decadence, and corruption were not so widely applied as they have been in more recent Orientalist narratives because the need to justify colonial rule was absent. When medieval authors included themes of sex and marriage in their narratives of the Orient, they did so with motives and emphases...

read more

Chapter 7. Civility

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 148-171

Little remains of Khubilai Khân’s summer capital at Shangdu (Coleridge’s Xanadu, Marco Polo’s Ciandu) except some earthworks, the brick corners of long-crumbled towers, the bases and fallen capitals of pillars, and some glazed tile and marble fragments. William Dalrymple when visiting in 1986 described his view of the ruins of “Xanadu” as “nearer the heath scene...

read more

Chapter 8. Bodies

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 172-198

In 1795 the third edition of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s De generis humani varietate nativa divided humanity into five categories: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Skin color, hair texture and quantity, skull shape, and facial features were taken as the markers of race. In describing the “Mongolian” group (by which Blumenbach meant all the inhabitants of Asia...

read more

Afterword: For a Precolonial Middle Ages

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 199-202

In one of his many important studies of European encounters with the peoples of America in the early modern period, Anthony Pagden places attitudes of the conquerors within an ancient lineage: “Europeans had always looked upon their own cultures as privileged, and upon all other cultures as to some degree inferior. There is nothing remarkable about this. Most people distinguish...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 203-266


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 267-304


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 305-312

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 313-314

I owe an incalculable debt to the work of scholars spanning many decades, even centuries, without whose labors any study of medieval travelers’ texts would be impossible. Although the works cited in the notes and bibliography attempt to give an indication of the myriad studies available they are far from exhaustive even for English-language scholarship. My other greatest debt is...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208948
E-ISBN-10: 0812208943
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245486
Print-ISBN-10: 0812245482

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 6 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 870337038
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Before Orientalism

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Travel, Medieval -- Asia -- History -- Sources.
  • Travelers' writings, European -- History and criticism
  • Asia -- Description and travel -- Early works to 1800.
  • Asia -- Foreign public opinion, Western -- History.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access