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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000) 431-448

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Decolonizing the Middle Ages:

John Dagenais
Los Angeles, California

Margaret R. Greer
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina

Sunt enim non minus temporum quam regionum eremi et vastitates.

--Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

Is it possible to colonize a region of history, as it is to colonize a region of geography? There are many reasons to believe so. The history of "The Middle Ages" begins at the precise moment when European imperial and colonial expansion begins. 1 The Middle Ages is Europe's Dark Continent of History, even as Africa is its Dark Ages of Geography.

Colonization of the past is an indispensable companion of empire. The very moves by which European nation-based empires establish themselves across vast reaches of geographic space, constituting themselves by a simultaneous assimilation and othering of these spaces and the people who inhabit them, involves them at the same time in the invention of a complementary past other to themselves, a past which belongs to, but which can never be granted full citizenship in, the nation of Modernity. A full exploration of the varying ways in which "The Middle Ages" and "medieval" have served the interests of empire over the past six hundred years (and continue to do so today) is beyond the scope of this introduction, or, indeed, of this special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. 2 I want simply to begin to follow some leads among the early discourses which establish The Middle Ages not as a period in history, but as a vastness of time ripe for colonial exploitation. [End Page 431]

Media Tempestas

When we begin to look for the overlappings among discourses of historical and geographical colonialism, we are struck by how very much the early Italian makers of The Middle Ages are already thinking about geographical expansion. 3 Petrarch's passage on the Fortunate Isles in Vita solitaria 2.6.3 portrays the natives as "without culture" (gens inculta), similar to beasts wandering in a wasteland at once savage and yet oddly pastoral. 4 Petrarch also discusses in Rerum familiarium "the very famous but doubtful Island of Thule," rejecting geographical curiosity in favor of a gaze which he fixes on himself: "me ipsum nosse sufficiet: hic oculos aperiam, hic figam intuitum" [it will be enough for me to know myself; here I will open my eyes, here I will fix my gaze]. 5 It will be tempting to read this as Petrarch's declaration of himself as a "new man," opening the way for all modern men to know themselves. But the sentence which follows puts a damper on any homo novus boosterism we might conjure. At the same time, it introduces an idea far more significant for the creation of The Middle Ages--the desire to know how it all turns out: "Orabo Eum qui me fecit, ut se michi meque simul ostendat et, quod votum Sapientis est, notum michi faciat finem meum. Vale" [I will pray to Him who made me that He show himself to me as well as myself to me and, as the Wise Man prays, that He make me aware of my end. Farewell]. 6 Petrarch's desire for a proleptic salvation (or damnation), a crossing of the saeculum, is crucial to the making of The Middle Ages, for by skipping ahead to read the ending, we render the narrative of history null and void. In just such a void The Middle Ages takes root.

By the time Petrarch writes his letter on Thule, Dante has already broken the bonds of Geography. The "last voyage" of Ulysses (Inferno 26.79-142), a voyage that Portuguese and Catalan sailors will begin to mimic less than three decades later, seems most obviously to relate to the twin themes of geographical curiosity and knowing one's end (in this case, damnation as the direct result of such curiosity indulged in a state of sin). But we should not forget that the Commedia is itself...


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