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Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510.

Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, pp. ix + 314, 52.00 [pounds sterling] /$79.95.

In Before Orientalism, Kim M. Phillips examines descriptions of Asia in medieval travel accounts in order to argue that medieval travellers did not view Asia through a lens of Orientalism as described by Edward Said. As she notes, the observation that medieval texts' lack of a colonising agenda allowed neutral and favourable descriptions of non-European peoples and places is not particularly unique. Phillips's study reconsiders the information these early texts provide about medieval Asian peoples and cultures, giving attention to topics significant to modern cultural anthropologists as well as, apparently, to medieval Europeans. She contends that travel texts' perspectives on Eastern societies may have been guided by contemporary European preoccupations with forms of civility, eating habits, gender and sexuality and the human body.

In her first three chapters, Phillips considers the genre of travel writing and its medieval variants as well as its historical relation to colonialism to explain her overall goals in this study and justify the terminology of her title. Phillips situates her work in an emerging field of 'precolonial studies' that challenges the universality and longevity of the sense of European superiority that colonial and postcolonial studies critique (p. 5). Noting that recent scholarship in medieval postcolonialism has argued for a simultaneously colonial and postcolonial medieval society, Phillips asserts that European experiences of Asia in the Middle Ages were not yet impelled by colonialist ambitions. While later history saw many Asian populations affected by European imperialism, aspirations to subjugate and settle the distant East do not appear to develop in European history before the end of the fifteenth century. Said's classic formulation of Orientalism noted the tendency of European discourse to extend an ideology that authorised and justified Western European domination over Eastern territories and peoples and relied on a binary distinction between 'the West' and 'the East' (neglecting to distinguish among the diverse cultures under these headings) (p. 15). Though medievalists have critiqued Said's ideas about the chronological development of Orientalist discourse, recent scholarship has explored medieval varieties of Orientalism in representations of Islam and Saracens, focusing on approximately the same geographical areas in which Said's interests most strongly lay. Phillips's work adds to such scholarship by examining descriptions of Asian territories beyond the Middle East and of primarily non-Islamic peoples and she finds an absence of colonial discourse, despite medieval expectations of encountering 'wonders' in the distant east (p. 19). She dismisses the notion that late medieval missionary efforts to convert Asian peoples to Catholicism constituted a form of ideological imperialism, remarking that these small and relatively unsystematic attempts were met by indifference. Though the medieval Latin Christians who travelled to Asia in the late Middle Ages are generally convinced of their faith's inherent truth, the 'precolonial' works Phillips examines display no secular conviction in the indisputable rightness of European hegemony nor a secular desire to possess what they describe.

Phillips contends that during the later Middle Ages the idea of Christendom itself was waning, while a culturally and ethnically united 'Europe' had not yet replaced it as the travel writers' primary locus of identity. Thus the travellers lacked a motive for defining an Asian Other in opposition to the European self. She argues that the travellers often respond to Otherness in their accounts but they frequently recognise sameness or a sense of relationship as well; such perceptions of similarity can be equally effective in the definition of identity as the creation of oppositional boundaries. European travellers also describe the superior military strength, economies and social organisations of various Asian peoples, rendering impossible Orientalist depictions of a submissive East begging for Western mastery. Rather, Phillips argues, travellers' accounts of Asian cultures supplied information that particularly appealed to a Europe undergoing development into a more urban and mercantile society while still periodically experiencing periods of instability caused by famine, plague and war. Asian cultures exhibit an array of models, though not always successful ones, for exchanging goods and currency, distributing information, providing food and security for citizens, governing well and enjoying leisure time. The wide popularity of works such as Marco Polo's Divisament dou monde and Odoric of Pordenone's Relatio attests to the interest many late medieval readers--clerical, noble, gentry and mercantile--took in such detailed accounts of distant cultures and peoples.

In Chapters Four through Eight, Phillips draws on more than twenty European accounts produced by travellers (or purported travellers) to Mongolia, China, India, Sri Lanka and southeast Asia. (For those not acquainted with the works, Chapter Two helpfully describes each source's contents and production circumstances.) In addition to those of Polo and Odoric mentioned above, she uses the writings of John of Plano Carpini, William of Rubruck, John of Monte Corvino, Hetoum of Armenia, 'Sir John Mandeville' and Niccolo dei Conti, as well as The Letter of Prester John and a number of other briefer works. Phillips devotes a chapter each to topics central to much modern anthropology and ethnography, collating information from the travel accounts relevant to 'Food and Foodways', 'Femininities', 'Sex', 'Civility' and 'Bodies'. Summarising the relevant content of her sources to reveal overlaps or divergences in accounts of a given culture, she elucidates patterns of admiration, condemnation or neutrality in the depictions of diverse Asian peoples and their customs. In most cases, travellers to a given area understandably relate similar features with varying levels of detail and evaluative commentary. Variation in travellers' descriptions and opinions reveals the absence of any prevalent covetous or contemptuous Orientalist discourse, as do acknowledgements of heterogeneity among distinct groups in different regions. Even cultures reported as practicing anthropophagy do so in individual and meaningful ways and discussions of topics such as marital or sexual behaviours relay both fascination and disapproval without conveying possessiveness or superiority. Her individual readings of cultural practices in a given category are intriguing but the diversity among the customs described occasionally limits a chapter's argument to an exposure of that diversity rather than allowing more developed insights into European cultural preoccupations.

For readers very familiar with these texts, Phillips's often lengthy summaries of material from the primary sources may seem a bit repetitive at times. Nonetheless, her collation of so many sources, some difficult to access, provides a useful resource for comparative studies of these travel accounts. The connections she draws between the narratives' topics and contemporary European developments as diverse as occurrences of famine and the increasing popularity of conduct manuals offer a context for these travel accounts that problematises simpler binaries based on religious or racial differences. By the same token they illustrate the wide range of medieval readers' possible interests in and responses to descriptions of distant peoples and their customs. While not all of her readings cooperate with one another to articulate cohesive arguments at chapter level, Phillips's book does demonstrate the challenges Asian travel brought to medieval Europe's traditional conceptions of its place in the world thereby complicating modern assumptions about medieval perspectives on Otherness.


Elizabeth Williamsen

Minnesota State University, Mankat
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Author:Williamsen, Elizabeth
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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