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Pape Jansland en Utopia: de verbeelding van de beschaving van middeleeuwen en renaissance.

The title of this work, a doctoral dissertation done in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, might be translated as The Land of Prester John and Utopia: The Representation of the Civilizations of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Using the late Soviet semiologist Yuri Lotman's theory of the semiotics of culture as his conceptual framework, the author analyzes and contrasts two texts, the Letter of Prester John, a twelfth-century work describing a fabulous Christian kingdom in the East, and Thomas More's Utopia.

Lotman's theory is that a civilization can only define itself in opposition to what it regards as not civilized. But this in turn implies that a given civilization needs the uncivilized in order to understand itself, indeed in order to exist. Bejczy compares the different ways in which medieval civilization and Renaissance civilization satisfied this need, as exemplified by two works that, as Bejczy ambiguously implies, may or may not be representative of their respective cultures.

Prester John in this view of things deals with the uncivilized by excluding it from the heart of his empire, but accepts its existence at the margins, even using certain barbaric forces to sustain the integrity of his state. This policy Bejczy relates to the idea of tolerantia as set forth by scholastic thinkers, in which social groups at odds with the reigning moral and religious orthodoxy, such as Jews and prostitutes, were tolerated in medieval Christian society, since on an unconscious level - though Bejczy does not discuss this - such presences were needed for medieval civilization to define itself.

The Renaissance rejects this practice in favor of one which deals with that which is not civilized by rejecting and expelling it. More's Utopia serves as the prime evidence of this here, although texts by Cusa, Erasmus and Vives are briefly examined. The "uncivilized" for Renaissance culture has two components, consisting of the morally and socially heterodox of its own time on the one hand, and medieval culture on the other. The Renaissance enterprise of rejecting both is therefore complex and ambiguous, as reflected perhaps in the complexity of More's text.

Bejczy's analysis of the Utopia and of Utopia produces curious results. At the end of a century of failed political structures which presented themselves as ideal ones, the perfect state of More's imagination is far from appealing - as even More himself had reservations about it. But few critiques of Utopia have been as extreme as Bejczy's. Because Utopia needs the uncivilized in order to exist, in addition to the less civilized cultures which surround it, it needs at its center the less-than-ideal behavior it is trying to repress, and so everything ideal in Utopia evokes the presence of its opposite. This Utopia then is a state in which a small male intellectual elite is barely controlling a society rampant with disruptive forces, where lust and unbridled emotions of all sorts are constantly threatening to subvert a political structure largely peopled with restless slaves, unhappy women and unruly children, all of whom are held in check by violent and bloody repression. At times the extremity of this vision of Utopia verges on the comic, and Bejczy, who seems to know far more about Utopia than the Hythloday who describes it in More's text, concludes that the work is indeed parodic and that Erasmus was amused by it because he recognized Hythloday as a parody of himself.

One problem here is the rigidity of the binary scheme which serves as the conceptual framework. Thus the "uncivilized" includes aberrant behavior, heterodox brief, unfamiliar social practices, and purely evil acts of violence - all of which are lumped together, so that being physically ugly, playing dice, and practicing cannibalism each acquire the same moral status. Bejczy makes it clear that his sympathies lie with Prester John, but one might object that the tolerance of those who are different need not imply tolerance of rape and murder. This is a thought-provoking work that weakens its argument by such a blurring of categories.

The book's appendix includes the text of the Dutch version of Prester John's letter, extensive bibliographies, and a summary in French.

FRED J. NICHOLS City University of New York, Graduate Center
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Author:Nichols, Fred J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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