- Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts ed. by Bryan C. Keene
manuscript studies, global history, medieval, illuminations, historiography
The term "Global Middle Ages" captures the desire of many medievalists to make their field less Eurocentric. Bryan C. Keene is far more than the editor of this important volume: he has written the introduction, one of its twenty-two essays, and the introductory essays to the book's four sections on mapping, books and related objects, illustrations of identity, and movement of manuscripts. He explains the point of the book: "Through essays and case studies, the authors have expanded the often Eurocentric historiography, chronology, and geography of this vast field of study to include objects, individuals, narratives, and materials om A ica, Asia, and the Americas" (4). The book also seeks to "interrogate the terms 'medieval' (or 'Middle Ages'), 'global,' and 'book( )'" (6).
The volume is particularly strong on reconceptualizing "book( )." Far more manuscripts survive om Europe than om any other part of the world, with the possible exception of China. Some of the losses stem om climate (such as in India and Southeast Asia), and some are the product of colonial occupation (as in the Spanish destruction of almost all pre-conquest texts). One can compensate for the lack of material outside Europe by expanding the definition of books: Byron Ellsworth Hamannuses M. T.Clanchy's definition of "memory-retaining objects," which extend beyond books to include "bones of the saints encased in gold, Gospel books studded with gems, charters and seals wrapped in Asiatic silks, finger rings, knives symbolizing conveyances, [End Page 335] and so on" (73).As Hamann explains, only four Maya codices om before 1500 are known today, but his examination of post-1500 materials shows that Maya artists produced chronicles, genealogies, and maps—none of which survive. Megan E. O'Neil elegantly reads a series of Maya pottery vessels as "memory-retaining objects," showing how closely one group of ceramics mimics books by duplicating their layout and multiple motifs.
Books offer one way to define the Middle Ages: before the 1450s, people produced manuscripts; afterwards, printed books. Another way to justi the chronology is events: om the end of the classical era in Rome to the early modern era, or 500 to 1500. A Christian view would see the Middle Ages as starting om Augustine and running to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Suzanne Conklin Akbari astutely points out the limitations of such a amework: "Through this periodization, West is opposed to East, Christendom to the world of Islam, Europe to Asia" (82). It is worth remembering that Europeans themselves came up with this chronology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and many have since criticized it. In an oft-cited essay, Alexander Murray asks, "Should the Middle Ages be abolished?" (in Essays in Medieval Studies 21 : 1–22), and concludes that no, the term, problematic as it is, serves a purpose, partially because it has enjoyed such a long use.
One possible way forward is to ask whether analogues to the classical, medieval, and early modern periods exist outside of Europe. Several large societies experienced classic periods, or eras when the first large empires formed at roughly the same time as in Rome: consider China (the Qin and Han dynasties), India (the Mauryan dynasty), and Mesoamerica (Teotihuacan). In the 1940s and 1950s, scholars of the Maya adopted the label "Classic" for the period between 200 BCE and 800 CE and "Post-Classic" for the succeeding centuries, as Byron Ellsworth Hamann explains (72); we do not know how the Maya viewed their past. One could cite other examples, but the point is clear: if we want to apply the term "Middle Ages" to non- European societies, it is certainly worth considering how other peoples conceived of and measured time and how modern scholars divide the past of the societies they study into different eras.