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European History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages by Michael Uebel (The New Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan) studies the manner in which medieval ways of knowing the Oriental "other" were constructed around the idea of a utopic East as located in the legend and Letter of Prester John (c. 1160). The birth of utopic thinking, it argues, is tied to an understanding of alterity having as much to do with the ways the medieval West understood itself as the manner in which the foreign was mapped. Drawing upon the insights of cultural studies, film studies, and psychoanalysis, this book rethinks the contours of the known and the unknown in the medieval period. It demonstrates how the idea of otherness intersected in intricate ways with other categories of difference (spatial, gender, and religious). Scholars in the fields of history as well as literary and religious studies will be interested in the manner in which the book considers the formal dimensions of how histories of the Oriental "other" were written and lived.

Fantasy. is .pre-eminently the creative activity from which the answers to all answerable questions come, it is the mother of all possibilities, where, like all psychological opposites, the inner and outer world, are joined together in union. Fantasy it was and ever is which fashions the bridge between the irreconcilable claims of subject and object.

C.G. Jung

This book develops a critical language for narrating the ways that Western medieval culture imaginatively transformed itself in and through its relation to otherness. The central contention is that Europe's Eastern others—notably, the Muslims and Prester John functioned in the Western imaginary as symptoms that turned Europe itself into a problem. It is not merely that medieval Western Europe depended for its self definition upon the various others against which it both protected and asserted itself; rather, in the very act of representing alterity, benign or threatening, medieval Europeans Jnecessarily confronted the possibility of utopic or, as I begin`to analyze it in chapter 3, "ecstatic'—transformation. Otherness offered the reader or beholder an ambiguous representation, a deeply equivocal image of social meanings contrary to the concept of clear division or firm limit. Precisely because alterity, I argue, was not always reducible to the terms of the self-same, perceptions of the same in the different gave way to perceptions of the different in the same. In the images of alterity I study here, the transformative power of otherness reveals the extent to which social and individual bodies continually interchange with the world across porous boundaries.'

Yet, within the current practice of critical medievalism and its fascination with otherness, the transformative force of alterity is rarely studied or even remarked. As important as the work, for example, of Norman Daniel, Michael Camille, and Ruth Mellinkoff is for building an understanding of medieval conceptions of alterity, such work seems content, on the one hand, merely to identify, label. and categorize otherness within the construction of a kind of typology, and, on the other, to read otherness as that which is, uncomplexly, appropriated and domesticated, or exoticized and consigned to a place beyond cultural analysis. These critical approaches amount to the same interpretative tendency: foreclosing analysis of the ideologically transformative effects of alterity, by placing resemblance, rather than differ­ence, at the center of history, ethics, politics, science, and so on. This book is thus an attempt to place difference and becoming at the center of medieval cultural practice, and to look for its mutative effects within specific literary and historical discourses.

Though the vast majority of studies of cultural identity in the Middle Ages tend to overlook the transformative force of the alien, three notable excep­tions are the work of Jacques Le Goff, Louise O. Fradenburg, and Jeffrey J. Cohen. These medievalists, more than any others, have articulated the cultural issues raised by the provocative agency of otherness. Fradenburg, for instance, draws attention, using Le Goff for her point of departure, to "the `surrealistic anthropology' of the medieval literature on India and Africa, !which] exemplifies...the doubleness of the ideal of beauty: its 'formative' or produc­tive power—its power to propel the body into a history of formation—and its power to alienate the body, to `produce' it as grotesque, excessive or insuf­ficient, chaotic. It produces at once aspiration to perfection of form and a distancing from sensuality and materiality."' While accounting for the other's capacity to alienate and distance, this book_ focuses on its instrumental function as an agent of cultural metamorphosis. Cohen's sustained analysis of the concept of monstrosity, like Fradenburg's more recent work on the logic of sacrifice and pleasure,' is acutely sensitive to the cultural functions of alter­ity and identification. The theoretical emphases of these two medievalists in particular have continually served as springboards for my own ideas.

An explanation may be at hand for why cultural analysis tends to overlook the productive energies of alterity. Georg Simmel pointed out, in his landmark essay on "The Stranger" (195(1), that an understanding of morality and liberty is irrevocably linked to fundamental problems in the way we perceive reality itself. Freedom is a function of ontology, Simnel claims, because it depends upon taking up an objective stance with respect to the material conditions in which one is immersed: "the objective indi­vidual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.. This freedom—that, in some sense, valorized by the desert hermits I discuss in chapter 3 depends for its meaning upon detachment, the making of radical distinctions between individuals and, by extension, societies. A. David Napier summarizes: "The more we deemphasize the symbolic interconnectedness of 'things' (their dependence), the more we glamorize what it means to be `free: to be entirely independent; the more we deny that one individual is `like' another,the more we sanctify the fact that each of us is, indeed, quite `different: " The dangers inherent in the achievement of such freedom should be clear: "the totally free individual cannot know the world through contrast.."' Such an individual is precisely the one too readily assumed in cultural analysis. The distinction-making enterprises of medieval culture are seen as predicated upon an essential freedom, which, in this view, involves repeatedly overcoming, according to the logic of stereotyping,' the alien.

But this ritual subordination of the stranger forecloses the construction of a possible future. Indeed, as I argue pointedly with respect to the function of the Prester John legend in medieval culture, Western documents of alter­ity were the chief vehicles for transmitting how certain kinds of otherness are to be handled, how difference itself is to be countenanced, "how certain kinds of diversity are [to be] precluded, how what distinguishes 'us' from `them' is a function of refining what [medieval culture is] over time,"' and what that culture takes itself to be and wishes to become. Chapter 1, then, examines two possibilities for social desire and intellectual transformation in medieval culture. First, it looks at the ways medieval writers took con­structive possession of the inveterate ambivalence of the other. Historians, encyclopedists, apologists, and polemicists continually faced the impossibility of assigning the other a place firmly outside. Discursive borderlines mediate, rather than insulate, cultures. Second, it looks at modes of exchange—historical and fictive—between Eastern and Western ways of life, in which the other is continually actualized within the culture of the self-same. Cultural extremes, such as Frederick It's fetishization of Arab culture in Sicily or Richard I's temporary cannibalism in the Holy Land, illustrate most clearly how distant otherness produces social effects at home.

One of this book's chief concerns is to examine ambivalence and exchange in light of their function as components of utopia. Implicit here is a psychoanalytic model of fantasy, the creative activity that animates the world of imagination and its contents. Fantasy, I am suggesting, is never that purely illusory (that is, internal and private) production that cannot be sustained when confronted with the demands of external reality. Instead, I take fan­tasy to be vital to both individuals and collectivities as the activity by which identity is protected against loss and the threat of dissolution, by which representations of and solutions to enigmas and contradictions are gener­ated, and by which the refusal to accept reality as it is means that the future takes precedence over the past and present. By placing a utopic impulse at the center of my discussion of medieval representations of and responses to otherness, I mean to signal the ways that the other itself comes to function less as an object than as an identification that leads to a state of satisfaction, elation, ecstasy. The discursive modalities for handling otherness, together with the images that most poignantly represent that otherness (the desert, for example), all reveal a compulsive desire to assert and deny difference alternately.

This double attitude toward the other bears striking affinities with the perverse impulse. Perversion, the psychoanalyst Masud Khan has emphasized, is, is, in its essential form, akin to dreaming or, better, to the dramatization of dreams. It has, therefore, a collective or social dimension, that is not often underscored: "Perversions are much nearer to cultural artifacts than disease syndromes.'" This book studies the workings of the utopic impulse in medieval culture not to diagnose that culture  to label it perverse or
neurotic but to understand why some elements of reality in the twelfth century are supercharged with cultural significance while others drop away or seem repressed. My interest in medieval culture's attachment to exotic, or fantastic, objects and places constitutes an attempt, for example, to under-stand the Western fascination with and fear of the Arab other. Phobias of any kind, it would seem, are less catastrophic            indeed, we might say more successful—the more they`are associated with the alien and distant: as Edward Glover summarizes, "it is more advantageous to suffer from tiger-phobia in London than in an Indian jungle ." But this book puts forward a very specific advantage that medieval culture recognized and seized—the creation of fantasies of alterity that allow for the opportunity of self-critique and reinvention.

By interrogating what I term the material, spaces, and structures of alterity, I aim at defamiliarizing the Middle Ages in order that we might better reacquaint ourselves with it. What appear as the objects of analysis are finally less objects than processes, mechanisms, techniques for disrupting the dispassionate logic of reason a logic that inevitably finds itself transformed into myth, fantasm, and hallucination by the pulsion of social desire and cultural phobia, imaginative attachment and violent repulsion. To distin­guish reality from illusion, reason from play, is to repudiate fantasy itself, and thus to foreclose opportunities for cultural- and self-reformation. My guid­ing interest is therefore the cultural uses to which alterity was put in the Middle Ages, how otherness functioned as a response to, a mechanism for coping with, and a means for ultimately transforming unacceptable realities. The utopic, the ecstatic, represents a process or agent of change not an object or mere reflection of the medieval identities more historically familiar to us. Prester John's relocation in the Middle Ages from India to Africa, as the former became better mapped and explored by the fourteenth century, is just one illustration of how crucial it was to keep fantasy alive and mobile even in the face of historical and geographical "reality."

What is most threatening to medieval culture appears to be responsible for the creation of a medieval literary form: the utopia. Medieval utopic texts, such as the fantastic Letter et Prester John (ca. 1160) and the immensely popular literature surrounding Alexander the Great, developed in response to the differences that Were perceived to exist between European and non-European cultures. Utopias crucially presuppose otherness some temporal, cultural, or spatial break with traditional modes of thinking and living that turns alterity itself into an object for analysis. The otherness of the Orient represented for medieval European society difference par excellence. Closing off its frontiers to such difference proved impossible, as demonstrated by the failure of the Second Crusade: it is shortly thereafter that extraordinary utopias began to circulate throughout Europe. Thus, beginning in the middle of the twelfth century, Western Europe embraced, rather than disavowed, the differences confronting it. My reading of medieval utopic literature focuses attention on the boundaries marking difference, which are best understood not as sharp border lines but as ambivalent "contact zones "The imaginary locus of India, for example, becomes a gap wherein lie the possibilities for cultural transformation, self-discovery, and imaginative identification with others.

This book offers an account of the origin and functions of utopic thinking that differs markedly from traditional accounts in literary history. The inception of utopia in the twelfth century is tied to the cultural and psy­chological work of imagining Western self and Oriental other in dialectical relation. It is no coincidence that the Crusades become the most important context for imagining utopia in the Middle Ages. Cultural fantasy in the Middle Ages always cuts two ways: as a form of wish fulfillment, issuing from profound insecurity in the face of the alien and unpredictable, and as a form of sheer pleasure, delight in the exotic. Utopic fantasy reflects the extent to which medieval society distorts reality in direct relation to its own insecurity, at the same time that it reflects a liberated alternative to a repressed or impoverished Christian society. For the twelfth-century theologian Alan of Lille, Christendom could be summed tip as latinitas penuriosa [latinity in dire need. Precisely what did Latin Europe imagine itself as needing so badly? A look at the medieval Marvels of the East tradi­tion, from Pliny through Augustine to the famous Liber monstrorum [Book of Monsters], offers an alternative way of conceiving otherness as that which is inherently resistant to fixation under a fetishistic gaze (chapter 1). The fetishistic attachment to monsters in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the incessant need to allegorize them as fallen ideals, only served to charge them with utopie significance. Monsters became the primary mark­ers of the utopic impulse because, as deviations from the natural order, they require a method of imagining them that itself deviates from natural patterns of thought.

Muslims of course provided Western crusade chroniclers with additional monstrous subject matter (chapter 2).The histories of the First and Second Crusades are important ciphers of the important imaginative and ideological responses the threat of Islam provoked. Guibert of Nogent's and Fulcher of Chartres's chronicles, for example, reveal how the ground upon which Christendom imagined itself was fully discursive, not only in the limited sense that it was imaginable largely through discourses on the other, but in the deeper sense that it formulated an opposition between sacred word, the nonarbitrary word of God, and alien word, founded upon semiotic deviance This opposition became a pretext for crusade and reconquest, as well as, more crucially, the precondition for utopic discourse. The utopian drive underwriting this way of imagining the societas Christiana posits a harmonious and unified social world in which language functions as device for linking the members of that world. The Middle English romance Richard Coer de Lyon, a text to which I briefly turn, demonstrates the cul­tural imperative informing the construction of a discursive and imaginary community in the face of the Muslim other.

It is impossible to imagine the Orient without imaginatively coming to terms with the desert (chapters 3 and 4). For a number of medieval writers, including Richard of St. Victor and John Mandeville, the desert became charged with religious, even ecstatic, significance. While clearly representing the alternative to civilized, everyday existence, this space of"wild(er)ness" is nevertheless put in the service of transcending everyday life through pro­viding a model of unrest, incessant change, and orientation toward a time to come. The efficacy of the desert in offering a model for transformation is tied to the desert's own metaphoric mobility, to its inimitability. That is, by demanding and exceeding all figuration, by approximating what Slavoj Zizek terms "the sublime object of ideology,' the power of the desert metaphor depends precisely upon the hope of ongoing mobilizations of its social meaning. The desert, as my survey of its ideological uses demonstrates, is a metaphor that inscribes the possibility of thinking—or better, the thinking of possibilities.

Three medieval literary genres structurally supported thinking about the possible: the fictional epistola, the list or montage, and the travel narrative (chapter 5) three are particularly well suited for handling the complex­ities of relations between self and other that arise when utopic literature attempts to deal with alternative realities. These generic modes deny the satisfaction of final meaning or utopian significance in order to instill in medieval culture pleasure itself in the form of ongoing desire. Utopia can be characterized as a social formation founded on a loss, an absence that instills in the reader the desire to search for something to replace or exceed the original missing object. The loss of the Holy Land in the Second Crusade cut deeply into the social imaginary, such that anxiety would become the primary affect motivating travel narratives in the Middle Ages.

Mandeville's Travels, along with the Wonders of the East documents, immensely popular throughout the medieval period, dramatize the ways that anxiety drives utopic discourse.

Utopic writing is deeply implicated in the narrative structure of what 1 term "the moving image" (chapter 6). The ideological value of the flow of images found in the list structure, a flow with special affinities to filmic montage, resides in the imaginary relations it produces and into which read­ers are interpellated. The montage, a central feature of Sergei Eisenstein's famous "agit cinema," activates self-analysis leading to self-transformation. In film theory we find the clearest articulation of the forms such self-analysis can take. Just as the film viewer is placed by the film and the act of spectation itself into new and multiple relations to the film, the reader of the utopic text is stimulated to leave the close comfort of familiarity for the provocative alien, the ungraspable that leads, even seduces, the reader forward to the discovery of the new and better.

Secret Societies Of The Middle Ages: The Assassins, Templars & the Secret Tribunals of Westphalia by Thomas Keightley, James Wasserman (Weiser Books) explores the foundations of modern secret societies, examining the history and known facts of three very different organizations.

1. The Assassins of the Middle East--how they evolved from an Islamic religious sect into one of the most feared groups in all the world and how the very name of this ancient order became the word used for political killings of this nature.

2. The Templars of Europe--from a pious group of protectors and dedicated crusaders to their bitter end persecuted as heretics, they introduced the concept of banking to the world while amassing a fortune of incalculable wealth.

3. The Secret Tribunals of Westphalia--the feared and self-appointed judicial group who passed judgment and performed executions in a time of lawlessness in Germany. They enjoyed popular support, providing a rudimentary and vigilante law at a time when warlords ruled and the emperor was ineffective.

The echoes of these particular societies are still heard today--from presidential offices to battlegrounds in the Middle East. Secret Societies of the Middle Ages, originally published in 1846, was the first book to gather information on these secret orders. This foundational reference work, upon which many contemporary histories have relied, is now back in print with an introduction by James Wasserman, author of The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven.

About the Author
Thomas Keightley (1789-1872) collaborated with T.C. Croker on Fairy Legends. His other works include Fairy Mythology (1828, still in print), Tales and Popular Fictions: Their Resemblance and Transmission from Country to Country (1834) and books on Rome, Greece, India, the Crusades, and England.

Gothic Europe 1200-1450 by Derek Albert Pearsall (Longman) 'This uniquely ambitious book offers an account of all aspects of cultural activity and production during the years of `Gothic Europe', that is, the world of Latin Christendom 1200-1450. It is both a celebration of the Gothic cultural achievement ‑ in cathedral-building, in manuscript illumination, in chivalric love-romance, in stained glass and in many`other arts ‑ and an investigation o(' its social origins and system.; of production.

The celebration of the `Gothic moment' takes the form of a full and colorful account of the great surviving works of art from the period, in a large central section. Preceding this there are two chapters describing the political and economic circumstances within which Gothic art came to fruition, and the systems of patronage in church, court and city; that enabled it to flourish. The last two chapters identify some of the discord and restlessness within the prevailing harmonies of Gothic, and explore the new kinds of artistic form and identity that developed as the Gothic tapestry unwove.

'This major book presents a new picture of the medieval period.

Medieval Mercenaries: The Great Companies by Kenneth Alan Fowler (Blackwell) Italy, Spain and France were the scene of almost constant war during the fourteenth century. Armies were raised by the English and the French consisting largely of mercenaries. In the middle of the century the army leaders decided to maintain their soldiers in a permanent state of readiness as private concerns to serve whichever leader would pay them most. This is the first account of the history of what became known as the "Great Companies" and will be an outstanding contribution to the history of Europe. The author is able to show (through, for example, the discovery of secret treaties) that previous assumptions about the alliances and ambitions of the European monarchies and principalities are other than what they have appeared to be.

Contents: List of Maps and Plans. Preface. List of Abbreviations. 1. Dramatis Personae. 2. An Elusive Peace. 3. From Brignais to Launac. 4. Seguin de`Badefol in Auvergne. 5. The Navarrese Imbroglio. 6. Crusading Projects. 7. Castles in Spain. 8. The Prince's Intervention. 9. The Return North. 10. A Provencal Interlude and a Sicilian Marriage. 11. The Sardinian Proposals and the Drama of Montiel. 12. Pontvallain. Glossary. Note on Money. Appendix A: Documents. Appendix B: Tables of Captains. Appendix C: The Numerical Strength of the Companies. Appendix D: Forces Recruited by the Duke of Anjou in 1369. Appendix E: The Death of Sir Robert Birkhead in 1368 and the Supposed Death of Sir Robert Cheyney at Olivet. Bibliography. Index.

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