Sunday, 29 July 2012

Taming the Monstrous Other

A while ago I had a tête-à-tête with probably one of the most distinguished medieval maps: the Catalan Atlas. Produced in 1375 by Abraham Cresques for Charles V of France, it reveals the Western gaze towards 'foreign' lands. As an object rooted in the mappa mundi tradition, it crosses the borders of categorisation while at the same time adapting qualities of the portolan chart (which David Woodwards called the ‘final transitional state'). Compared to maps like the Hereford map, where plenty of monstrous creatures roam the face of the earth, there are only a few left in this Atlas. A group of people, probably related to the mystical race of the Ichthyophagi, who live the eastern coast of Asia and a single mermaid with two fishtails, that inhabits the waters at the coast of Ceylon, make up the monstrous populace of the Catalan Atlas. 

This small rest of the of the former monstrous glory had to make room for a new, less grotesque, other: the Ruler of the foreign countries. They are now the prime inhabitants of the earth, their visage is not monstrous, but very much human. Stripped of its monstrous alien nature, the other in the Catalan Atlas has been dressed up in rich clothing, holding exotic treasure, native to the region they rule. Though exotic in some aspects, their pose alludes to the Western tradition of portraying the image of kings. The other is different, yet similar. His attributes differ but he betrays his subordination by conforming to Western traditions. The fear of him seems banned, hidden beneath the exotic clothing. He has become colonised, not physically but visually and from afar. He is bound by visual, epistemological shackle derived from travel reports like Marco Polo and Guillaume de Rubrouck. The Easterner and his lands have lost their monstrous nature, his otherness has become what Mary Bain Campbell has called the ‘familiar strangeness'. whether factual or fictional, these texts provided the knowledge on which this visual colonial discourse is based, the power that enabled the West to dispel the horror that was the East. However, it is not the question whether the image of the East is based on facts or fiction, that make it an effective tool of subduing the other in the mind of the audience, but the given impression of knowledge as according to Edward Said 'to have knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it.' And yet there remains a subtle threat throughout the map, hinted at by the overwhelming presence of seemingly Muslim cities and further projected into the future by the illustration of Mag and Magog and the reference to the Antichrist. The latter, however, also emphasises the role of the self within world. Magriet Hoogvliet suggests that the atlas puts a stress on the Christian mission to free the non-Christian population of the world, to bring Christianity to all parts of the world and, one might be inclined to say, to colonise it. The patron's own strong religious background might further support this reading of the map, especially as his own interest in knowledge already seems to be reflected in the partly scientific approach in the design of maps.

It does therefore seem as if it is the interest and the underlying function of the map itself is the crucial factor in the way otherness is expressed. This function also reveals the fears and desires of the self. It satisfies an interest for the exotic riches of far away countries and, within a Christian context, simultaneously reaffirms the position and role of the self against the non-Christian world by giving it authority over the other.


Photos@Bibliothèque nationale de France

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Is it a Dragon?

Is it a Dragon?
Here I am bundled up on an ever so chilly and rainy Scottish summer day, home from seeing the Pictish stone monuments at St Vigeans and Meigle.
I attended with a few students from Arcadia University, which incorporated a bit of early modern Scottish history along with the earlier Pictish monuments. While I find the inclusion of Pictish stone monuments in the presentation of Scottish national history interesting—as best described by Sían Jones and his work on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and the redesigning of the National Museum Scotland—what really struck me was the interpretive allure these stones held for the students.
           A group of fresh eyes is heaven sent when dealing with intricately carved stones with anthropomorphic designs riddled throughout. While there, one professor guiding the students said, and I paraphrase, “Now, we’ve all read the exact amount of material written by the Picts…none! So if you see something, please speak up.” While an over generalisation the message was still clear: interpret, speak up, you may have the next great insight, and all manner of encouraging things. The students responded instantly, set at ease in a way by this pedagogic ruse, and interpreted the monuments. Singing for my supper, I answered some of the questions the students had on the stones at Meigle. One group of intrepid students pointed to the back of Meigle No. 2 and asked if a figure was riding a dragon.
While pointing out the curvature of the back of the animal, and how the human figure was standing behind it, I was suddenly left thinking, but is it a dragon? While the RCAHMS happily states it dragoness, I was still sceptical. While writings by the Picts remains at most a few inscriptions on stones here and there, the Picts were literate and exposed to popular writings of the early medieval period. The importance of the Physiologus and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies to early medieval art is often simply stated as fact, but how can these sources really inform us?
Isidore instructs us that the dragon, besides his thirst for the cooling blood of elephants, kills through suffocation. While this dragon is biting the head of a bull figure on Meigle No. 2, could this be a way of depicting this tactic? Meanwhile, the bull or ox is described as possessing “extraordinary affection for their comrades” and “devoted fondness.” Could we be seeing a battle between aggression and loyalty? That’s not even trying to incorporate the centaur, Daniel and the Lions den, and riding scenes above.
           While it’s important to develop critical viewing skills, textual sources contemporary with the Picts do offer us further insights. However, locked in a speculative bubble, I quickly pointed to a carving of wolves pulling a human figure apart musing, “Look at this weird thing.” The students ran over and began exchanging strange looks at the violent sight. Luckily we left soon after and my art historic distraction saved me a little time and face. But still I’m left with the thought, was it a dragon and why was it biting that bull’s head? Perhaps I was onto something with my speculation, but that’s the fun of Pictish material. It’s there waiting to be interpreted.


Photo: Meigle No. 2 ©RCAHMS

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Welcome to Beyond Borders,

As this is our very first blog post, we decided to pop the corks and introduce our little project, instead of immediately hitting it off with what goes on in our medievalist minds.

Beyond Borders is the result of four people from differing backgrounds connected by their passion for medieval studies. This passion led us to our graduate program at the University of Edinburgh. Here, not only did we receive a deeper insight into the idea of the Global Middle Ages, but we also met and were able help each other develop intellectually due to constant discussions and the sometimes necessary motivational speech. Since we will soon part ways, each of us heading into a different corner of the world, we decided to keep our academic exchange alive by creating a blog dedicated to our studies. Of course this would also be possible via mail or chat, but by creating a public platform, we hope that others can join our conversation on global medieval perspectives. We hope not only to provide thought-provoking posts, but encourage them as well, as we welcome guest posts and opinions. It is our intention that this platform becomes a place for academic exchange that not only extends the borders of our fields, but also the physical borders between each of us.