An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 11, 2010

Davis/Altschul, eds., Medievalism in the Postcolonial World

Medievalism in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of “The Middle Ages” Outside Europe. Edited by Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler (

Outstanding reflexivity is the hallmark of Medievalism in the Postcolonial World. The essays in the volume showcase diverse epistemologies, theories, and methodologies as each contributor develops and blurs the boundaries between historical and spatial distinctions, between modern and medieval, between the west and the rest of the world. More importantly, many of the essays suggest the ending of the western political and academic hegemony that, in the past, has emphasized the distinctions between what is and is not medieval. Such distinctions, according to Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of one of the response essays that accompany each section of this essay collection, “are actually and necessarily implicated in the history of European expansion into lands that eventually became European colonies” (p. 109).

As such, this volume is an expression of a crisis in Medieval Studies yet, at the same time, celebrates the exciting beginning of a new era in this field. It is an attempt to incorporate the historical dimensions of colonial and postcolonial worlds into medieval research and to understand so called “third world” societies within the contexts of their own significant historical traditions. The contributors approach Medievalism through the lens of colonial and postcolonial studies – a natural approach, as both disciplines involve as a tenet the ‘self’ and the ‘other,’ which contributes to the reflexivity characteristic of both fields.

While medieval and postcolonial studies are distinct yet interrelated fields, each investigates the remote and recent pasts. The scholars in this volume have perceived the ‘otherness’ of the past in their respective fields, and researchers in both fields draw inspiration from one another. Each chapter in this volume clarifies the contours of the rapprochement between the two fields. Thus, the ‘other’ medieval scholars have traditionally studied sheds light on the colonial ‘other,’ which is spatially, if not temporally, distanced from the coeval presence of the familiar medieval Europe. The medieval scholars’ ‘other’ has often been situated within Europe. The ‘colonial other’ often studied by European anthropologists in different cultural traditions is juxtaposed by various scholars in this volume with medieval ‘others’ in an attempt to negate and blur constructed boundaries. They thus avoid the reification of the imagined boundaries between colonial studies and Medievalism.

In Medieval Studies, various theories have been utilized by scholars of colonial and postcolonial studies to problematize the images of the Middle Ages in “non-European spaces” that preserve, complicate, confirm, and disrupt the categories traditionally relegated to the Middle Ages and postcoloniality. Each chapter in the volume amply demonstrates the irrelevance of distinct boundaries between Medievalism and postcolonialism as scholars of both fields engage in conversations about the shared histories of their respective fields.

A new form of historicized Medievalism and postcolonialism emerges from the epistemological exploration and conciliation of theories and practices. Such conciliations encourage the authors to see the ‘ironclad model’ of the Eurocentric grand narrative operating in popular scholarly works in Medieval Studies in a new light. The contributors expose the limitations of this grand narrative as it relates to postcolonial situations and spaces, showing how their predecessors incorrectly captured, filtered, and interpreted ‘others.’ They present convincing evidence that the histories of peoples outside of Europe do not, in many ways, correspond to the paradigm and construct of the European Middle Ages.

Furthermore, older generations of scholars seemed to have assumed that colonial contacts alone produced historical changes and enabled colonies to enter modernity. The authors of the volume confront this line of argument and explore the presence of the “Middle Ages” in non-European spaces, such as in Mali (Chapter 10), Latin America (Chapter 4), and Japan (Chapter 5), both before and after colonial contact. According to Sylvie Kande, for instance, the burden of representing Medieval Europe imposed on Africa by nineteenth-century scientific racism, later rehabilitated by African nationalism, is epitomized by the Malian Empire founded in the thirteenth century by Sundiata Keita. Victor Holiston puts forth a similar argument in his examination of Medieval Studies in South Africa.

Each chapter in the volume examines an aspect of Medievalism in the post-colonial world. José Rabasa, in the first chapter, for example, focuses on the process of colonial contact and colonization as a confrontation of practices, showing how institutions and systems of representation of a given habitus were transformed by Europeans to participate in the habitus of colonial power. For Rabasa, such practices were present in the “medieval manuscript culture” which erased Mesoamerican historiographic conventions, reducing the informants’ voices to factual historical information (p. 39). According to Dipesh Chakrabarty however, “Rabasa attempts to produce a narrative that resists absorbing pre-colonial Mesoamerica into the story of ‘European transition to capital and modernity’” (p. 113).

The conciliation between colonialism and medievalism in the volume promises a significant contribution to the way medievalists and postcolonial scholars make sense of Europe’s Middle Ages. What is it that medievalists and postcolonial scholars want from one another? What makes Medieval Studies attractive to those in postcolonial studies? Why do different aspects of these two fields appeal to the other at this specific historical moment? In this remarkable volume, the authors engage these questions through scholarly meditations on Medieval Studies and postcolonial theories. The volume is thoughtful, original, and compelling. The authors interweave sophisticated theoretical engagement with issues of medievalism and postcolonialism and provocatively juxtapose non-Western interpretations of the past with Western-centered grand narratives to expand their scholarly reach beyond their respective fields to include history and anthropology, philosophy and psychology, to name only a few. The authors demonstrate how contemporary global dynamics problematizes the past and transforms it in diverse ways, engendering competing symbolic constructs of national and political identities. In this volume, the political dynamism of medievalism, colonialism, and postcolonialism are unveiled when representations of histories are contested and seen as the lived experiences of contending actors. Students and scholars of Medievalism and postcolonialism, according to the authors, must remain aware that, whatever one’s theoretical perspective, historical processes, both in the western and non-western worlds, are multiple and influence one another dialogically in unexpected ways. The contributors to this volume emphasize this fact, showing how cultures often affect one another and appropriate ideas and images of the Middle Ages and modernity. Appropriation of both the medieval past and modernity by diverse cultures around the world must be evaluated as dialogical engagement between cultures within the coeval unfolding of historical processes.

According to the contributors, when we deny these processes, we face the problems posed by old and irrelevant dichotomies. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ and the Middle Ages and modernity are not antithetical. Each is ingrained in the other and each shares similar historical processes. In the same way, no medieval past is entirely disconnected from other worlds, and hence they must be understood in broader contexts. Thus, the contributors emphasize the complex relationships between ‘self’ and ‘other’ and demonstrate how the structure and meaning of histories are not only plural, as the authors in this volume suggest, but also strategically contested and negotiated by colonial and postcolonial actors.

Although no book can satisfy every reader, I do wish the contributors to the volume had taken into account, explicitly, the role of postmodernism since the 1980s in western and non-western academic fields, a process that has fostered similar conciliations between other fields, most notably between history and anthropology concerning the issue of spatial and temporal ‘others.’ This minor point aside, I highly recommend this book to both scholars of medievalism and colonialism, as well as scholars in other fields, such as history and anthropology. The volume is smart, persuasive, engaging, and provocative, and the contributors engage in a wide range of theoretical debates, from competing views on history and historicity to problems associated with capturing and recapturing colonial encounters in non-European spaces. The chapters in the book are not always easy to read, especially for those unfamiliar with theories of ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘medievalism,’ but this volume could well serve such yet uninitiated scholars as a solid foundation for continued discussion about medievalisms in the post-colonial world.

Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler
Western Michigan University