Book Review–Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies

Lisa Lampert-Weissig, Medieval Literature and Postcolonial StudiesPostcolonial Literary Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. 256 pp. (PBK) ISBN: 9780748637188. £19.99/$35.00. (HBK) ISBN: 9780748637171. £65.00/$100.00.

Postcolonial theory is presently one of the newest and most influential contemporary concepts threading its way through the humanities and social sciences. Building upon Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, postcolonial studies has developed into one of the leading lenses used to examine eighteenth and nineteenth century repercussions of Western European imperial expansion. In the past decade however, scholars have begun to incorporate other areas of interest into the postcolonial arena. This phenomenon is precisely what Lisa Lampert-Weissig’s (LW) most recent monograph discusses. In her book Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies , LW discusses postcolonialism’s medieval applications in three sections. The first surveys works which have been written in recent years that apply postcolonial theory to medieval studies; this section is particularly useful for understanding existing discourse. The second section discusses historical phenomena relating to medieval colonialism and concepts of race. This section additionally elucidates how postcolonial theory can successfully be applied. The third section concerns itself most specifically with why. This last section focuses predominantly on contemporary misunderstandings of the Middle Ages and the devastating impacts of memoricide. Here is where the book is the most apologetic, concerning itself with how postcolonial analyses of the Middle Ages can help to combat the plethora of misunderstandings that still riddle our contemporary world’s concepts of the past.

It must be noted that this particular work is a member of the Edinburgh Press’s series on Postcolonial Literary Studies. The series includes, or will include, works discussing the application of postcolonial theory to Renaissance, Romantic, Modernist, Victorian, Eighteenth-Century, and Post-War British literature. The goal of the series is to introduce readers to new applications of postcolonial theory within literature. Thus, readers of medieval, Renaissance, or Romantic fiction (etc.) can familiarize themselves with applying postcolonial theory to their work, or conversely, postcolonial theorists can learn new ways to apply a familiar theory to previously neglected areas. LW’s work fits perfectly within the auspices of this series and works as a perfect induction for any scholar interested in understanding the uses and applications of postcolonialism.

The monograph begins with an extremely useful timeline of events that covers the entire medieval world—not only Western Europe—in detail. The timeline cites major political events and works of literature from c. 150 to 1581. After this point, the entries of major events and works become less frequent as LW focuses on medieval works perpetually influencing the modern era, rather than listing every important event which occurred during this period, with the timeline bringing us into 2006. It is useful to read through this timeline as it includes events such as the Incas dominating Cuzco valley, Genghis Khan’s uniting of the Mongolian Empire, and a number of other important world events which are easily forgotten at times in the minds of medievalists who focus purely on Western Europe. Events such as these show the presence and prevalence of the colonialist and/or imperialist mentality throughout the world prior to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As LW’s intention is to write a work which can introduce both medievalists to a new theory and theorists to a new area of application, the first section is a suitable introduction to both. She does an excellent job of discussing the problematic position of medieval studies as it relates to postcolonialism, and why a prejudice towards medieval studies still exists in the academic arena. She defends the use of this theory in medieval studies in a number of ways, including the argument that medieval groups were themselves colonized and colonizers. She also states that by approaching contemporary postcolonial studies with a vision that is abruptly cut-off at the nascent ‘modern era,’ our understanding of the history of the world is subsequently erroneous as it ignores “a truly longer view of the history and ideologies of colonialism” (1). There have already been a handful of books written on postcolonial medieval literary studies, including Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s work The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and LW comprehensively guides her readers to these texts, listing all the major writers in this area, including Cohen, Geraldine Heng, and Kathleen Davis. Her discussion of these works helps readers to understand their importance, what the major works discuss, and where postcolonial studies currently fits in academic discourse. She then goes on to explain why postcolonialism needs to include medieval studies by breaking the theory into its major parts: the need to decentre Christianity and rethink race; Orientalism, Nationalism, Colonialism; and the roots of the theory.

Her second section begins by addressing Islam in the Middle Ages, an aspect of history often overlooked by contemporary non-medievalists. She begins with discussing one of the most cosmopolitan parts of Western Europe, al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). She stresses the importance remembering parts of the past which include cosmopolitan spaces such as al-Andalus rather than forget their existence. In this section she also includes analyses of the pseudo-imperialistic Normans and their colonisations, discussing how such interactions created a multitude of problems relating to medieval concepts of identity; an issue that is fundamentally linked with postcolonial discourse. It is from this discussion that LW moves on to race theory and why medieval romance can give the modern era new and better ways of understanding ourselves. She references popular culture a number of times throughout this section, including US President Barack Obama’s March 2008 speech on race and the subsequent comments about the president’s ‘Islamic roots.’ LW then goes on to discuss a number of other very recent popular manifestations of Islamophobia and why the concepts of racism and periodicity, especially in relation to the Middle Ages, must be navigated with temporal histories in mind. She stresses that this must be done because it is only through understanding real world histories of race and ethnicity can we truly understand the real roots of modern concepts of the same.

The rest of the second section takes readers through a detailed exploration of various medieval texts that directly concern themselves with race, including King of TarsMandeville’s Travels, and a number of different medieval maps. These explorations lead seamlessly into LW’s third section on “The Dark Continent of Europe,” in which discussion turns to the roots and consequences of creating a world which pits West against East. Most of LW’s discussion revolves around different palimpsests present in current national issues. She discusses the building of a mosque in central Cologne, and the perpetuation of the normative Christian identity of Europe by current politicians who claim that by allowing structures such as mosques and minarets to be built, society condones the detrimental change of the visual landscape and negatively impacts European identity and culture. LW cites similar discussions and bans in countries such as Switzerland and France. Her contention is that many of these discussions are either based on false and misunderstood histories and/or perpetuate xenophobic racial and ethnic attitudes that trace their foundations from our collective medieval past.

The third section finishes by considering contemporary works of fiction which resist the memoricide being committed by so many politicians and political groups throughout Western Europe. She cites works by Juan Goytisolo, Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ali, and Amitav Ghosh. Her examination of how these historical fiction novels use medieval history in contemporary works is interesting on two levels. The first is that she recognizes historical fiction as a means of understanding history, a concept which is contentious and newly formed within medieval studies and historical studies alike. Secondly, her analysis of popular fiction as a means of maintaining the truth about the past is a fascinating part of narrative studies. She describes how popular culture authors are extremely influential in their ability to impact contemporary understandings of the past. Her argument is thus: through historical fiction, influential authors choose to either represent the truth of history or to perpetuate misunderstandings of the past—both decisions impact contemporary society’s understandings of their world. Popular authors who rectify the past are doing society a favour, but those who choose otherwise are only perpetuating our contemporary problems. Her enquiry shows that without applying postcolonial discourse to medieval studies, we as academics are losing out, not only on our own study’s influences on the present, but by presuming this area inapplicable to postcolonial theory, we commit memoricide of our own.

Perhaps the most useful part of her book, for all readers, is her bibliography and further reading resources at the end. LW has included all major works in the field to date—and anyone seeking to work in the area of medieval postcolonial studies should begin their research with LWs work and subsequently continue by picking their way through the resources listed. Most helpfully, the major works concerning medieval postcolonial studies are listed and discussed in LW’s first section. This book is highly recommended for every medievalist and postcolonialist to read. From those who are already enmeshed in the discourse to those not particularly taken with the subject area, it is extremely important to understand how this very current and applicable theory interacts with a subject area that is many times seen as inapplicable to the present.

Meghan Glass


Meghan Glass received her BA magna cum laude in Political Science & American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2007 and her MA in Medieval & Renaissance Studies from Durham University in January, 2009. She is currently a Doctoral Researcher completing her PhD at Durham University where she currently studies Middle English romances and Ojibwe Folklore. Her research interests include postcolonial theory, orality, literature & culture, and race & identity studies.

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Book Review–Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies by Meghan Glass is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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