English | Special Studies in English & American Literature
L780 | 24487 | Ingham


1:00p – 4:00p T

TOPIC:  EAST MEETS WEST: HISTORICISM, ORIENTALISM, AND THE MIDDLE
AGES

When contemporary pundits wish to insult the Islamic world they do
so by describing it as "medieval." Given the cultural expansiveness
and cosmopolitan tolerance of medieval Islam--a far more
accomplished civilization than medieval England, itself something of
a cultural backwater--this insult emerges as highly ironic.  Courtly
Love traditions in the west have genealogical links to Arabic
poetry; Latin Scholasticism depended upon Arabic libraries; Medieval
English writers were fascinated by other parts of the world, and
medieval English literary texts (in registers both "high" and "low")
persistently look east (to Rome, Jerusalem, Turkey, Syria, and
beyond). The Crusades, what one historian has called the "central
trauma" of the medieval world, has recently reemerged as a trope for
Christian-Islamic war. Medieval intimacies of "east" to "west"
remain a deep part of our past, and the signs of those past
intimacies, used today, remain highly loaded (as in George Bush's
infelicitous reference to his war on terrorism as "crusade"). At the
same time contemporary theoreticians of "East" and "West" have set
aside the Middle Ages as (mostly) irrelevant to
modern "orientalisms," and a "postcolonial" world seems far removed
indeed from a premodern one, despite the fact that Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri rest their model of globalization on an image of Rome
crucial to medieval imaginations of Christendom. The paradoxical
nature of the "medieval" in this register--a source for stereotypes
and tropes, yet strangely irrelevant to larger political concerns--
needs to be rethought.

This course will examine the medievalism embedded in representations
of the ‘clash of cultures’ between "East" and "West" in relation to
that found in some literature, chronicles, and travelogues from the
late Middle Ages. While we will primarily focus on texts written in
English, we will also engage medieval Arabic texts in translation,
as well as chronicles and travelogues (The Book of John Mandeville,
for example) redacted in a host of languages. Throughout we will ask
a few central questions: what light can medieval texts shed on
contemporary oppositions of "East" to "West"?  And what does the
opposition of "East" to "West" have to do with the opposition
of "pre-modern" to "modern" and with the annoying habit of casting
difference as backwardness--the historically or
culturally "medieval"?  How might more fluid engagements
between "east" and "west" and "then" and "now" help us resist and
reconsider the deadening--and deadly--oppositions that currently
surround us?