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Reviewed by:
  • Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages, Translating Cultures
  • Christine Chism
Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams, editors. Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages, Translating Cultures. Cambridge University Press 2005. 298, 15 plates. US $80.00

This intelligent, rich, well-organized collection of essays explores the profitable intersection of medieval and post-colonial studies. It introduces readers both to current trends in each field, and to the many ways that the methodologies of medieval studies can inform and be of use to post-colonial scholarship. Along with an introduction from the editors, both medievalists, and an afterword by a post-colonialist, the body of the collection is broken into three main areas: 'The Afterlife of Rome,' 'Orientalism before 1600,' and 'Memory and Nostalgia.' Within these sections, essays discuss the representational work done by texts and images ranging from the 'postcolonial void' of post-Roman Britain, to the writings of nineteenth-century colonial theorists and medievalists. The volume itself describes a journey, with an earlier focus upon medieval European works, mostly from England, France, and Spain, that gives place to a later focus on colonialist texts that enlist the help of [End Page 223] medieval analogies and methodologies to negotiate the ruptures and displacements of their colonialist situation. This book will interest not only medievalists and post-colonial scholars but also a variety of scholars interested in material culture, issues of translation and transformation, and the urgencies of historical encounter, cultural encounter, memory, and nostalgia.

The introduction by Ananya Jahanar Kabir and Deanne Williams refocuses medieval post-coloniality from exploration of the mechanisms of hegemony and subversion to an acknowledgment of cultural encounter as wonder, which becomes, in their reading, a mode of arresting attention and instigating complex, absorbing, politically freighted translations. In their frontispiece reading of the Limbourg brothers' Très riches heures of Jean, duc de Berry, wonder conduces to the questioning of paradigms rather than the mystification and rendering up of objects for consumption and delectation. This focus on wonder works to return delight and urgency to the drearier landscapes of post-colonial studies in which power and knowledge are inexorably transacted and internalized in ever-fissuring new hegemonies; in this, I think the collection succeeds. The collection also shows how the temporal distance that seems medievalism's curse can inform post-colonial methodologies, by drawing attention to the way texts and images necessarily index a multiplicity of representational frames stemming from different sources, translated and altered across time, accumulating deep histories of accreted interpretation, in effect becoming sites where temporal/cultural disjunctions play out, can be excavated, traced, and genealogized, to yield not teleology but continual contest and fascinating detournement. The collection also draws attention to the centrality of medieval studies to colonialist discourse itself; the ways that the medieval past as fantasy of original purity, or an arena of imperial conquest and civil uplift, seeps in as analogue to colonialist divisions of the world and appropriations of periphery to metropole, with all their discontents.

A brief review prohibits doing justice to the consistently rich contributions that make up the body of this collection. The essays by Nicholas Howe, Alfred Hiatt, Seth Lerer, Suzanne Conklin Akbari, James G. Harper, Michelle R.Warren, Roland Greene, and the two editors provide explorations of consistently high quality.

The collection's valuable afterword, by Africanist and post-colonial scholar Ato Quayson, gives a non-medievalist's-eye view of what draws methodologies of the collection together and what post-colonial scholars might want to make note of. He describes (1) a focus on material cultural objects as layered indexes of accreted and often conflicting interpretations, (2) the use of historical emblematization and complex [End Page 224] invocations of pasts such as Rome, and (3) a focus on situated human translations of past forms into a 'personal theater of contemplation and action.' He finds especially that 'the careful work of embedding that we find in medieval scholarship has methodological resonances for postcolonial studies' and proves it by discussing actual beds and the ubiquity of embeddedness in Shakespeare's Othello, in a way that shows how it might be unpacked medievalist-style. He ends by suggesting the possible benefits of...


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