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Petrovskaia, Natalia I., Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient.

Petrovskaia, Natalia I., Medieval Welsh Perceptions of the Orient (Cursor Mundi, 21), Turnhout, Brepols, 2015; hardback; pp. xxxv, 241; 5 colour, 7 b/w illustrations, 4 b/w tables; R.R.P. 85.00 [euro]; ISBN 9782503551555.

Originating from Natalia Petrovskaia's doctoral dissertation, this work delivers a fine exploration of the Western medieval construction of the Orient, exploring the nuances in the ways that medieval Anglo-Norman Wales conceived of itself in relation to the global East. This volume makes a significant contribution to medieval Welsh literary scholarship, ranging as it does over a diverse array of text types--prose narratives and 'romances', poetic and metrical narratives, historiography, geographic material (both in-text and mapped), and chronicles--within a strong context of the social, political, and religious orientation of Anglo-Norman Wales, in a period of great flux and movement of people around the time of the Third Crusade.

In Part I, 'Sources of Information', Petrovskaia contextualises medieval Welsh perceptions of the East using an array of Latin and vernacular historical, historiographical, geographical, and encyclopaedic material, drawn from a comparatively narrow time frame (covering the late twelfth to the early thirteenth century). The material is divided methodologically: the first chapter deals with traditional ways of conceptualising the world; the second with known interactions of the Welsh with the East; while the third looks at translated legendary Charlemagne material for its reflection of popular contemporary perceptions of the Orient.

An important component of this third part is Petrovskaia's masterful use of the medieval concept of translatio studii et imperii, providing a solidly based explication of the theory as lying at the heart of the Western medieval learned and Christian worldview. She thereby ties translatio studii et imperii to her tripartite conception of the Orient, which she proposes as a means for understanding the medieval Western European view of the East. Petrovskaia's three Orients overlap and interact within medieval Western European discourse.

The first of these is the 'historical Orient', the embodiment of the perceived historical progression of civilisation from the East to the West and represented by the best of eastern civilisation, classical learning, and notions of just empire: the Orient of Alexander and Troy. The second is the 'biblical Orient', a fundamentally discursive construct that resides outside of time, and yet is conceptually parallel and co-existent through time with the other Orients. This is the Orient conceived of as lying alongside the contemporary world, mapped (and thereby given a kind of quasi tangibility) on medieval mappae mundi, just as the tower of Babel is represented on the ostensibly contemporary 'Corpus Map'. The third is the 'contemporary Orient', that part of the contemporary world in which contemporary anxieties were present and for which the Church Militant called into existence its series of crusades. This is the Orient of Saladin and the Islamic caliphates and sultanates who ruled the Middle East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Indeed, the importance of translatio to the medieval Church Militant that underpinned the contemporary crusading Church is closely examined.

Part II then looks at select Welsh literary texts to assess the influence of twelfth- and thirteenth-century perceptions of the Orient on native literary production. Petrovskaia assesses the ways in which place-names in the legendary poetic Alexander material indicate a knowledge of eastern geography and an awareness of concepts of empire beyond the narrower confines of the traditional Arthurian empire of Geoffrey of Monmouth. This awareness maps onto the geographic anxieties/orientations in the concept of 'contemporary Orient' that is developed earlier in the book. She compares these place-names to those listed in Culhwch ac Olwen to reveal a similar awareness of eastern geography in that text. She raises the issue of the influence of the Alexander material on Culhwch. Petrovskaia also considers eastern and crusading references in the 'romances', Peredur and Owain, in particular noting that for Owain, the discussion is primarily around parallels between giants and Saracens, whereas in Peredur a sense of the Orient poses interesting possibilities for the Arthurian tradition, linking Arthur to the contemporary Orient, beyond his traditional territory of northern Europe.

Although new philology is not explored to any great extent, this study draws attention to it by recognising the presence of many of these texts in the manuscript contexts of the Welsh encyclopaedic literature of the fourteenth century. These are literary works that doubtless, due to this manuscript context, call for readings which acknowledge geographic information, for here the contexts of worldview, as represented through O/T mappae mundi, the medieval ideas behind translatio studii et imperii, and the politics of the Church Militant can each be seen to come together with conceptual consistency of thought and purpose.

RODERICK MCDONALD, The University of Nottingham
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Author:McDonald, Roderick
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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