Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism and Europe’s Early Modern World, by Benjamin Schmidt

Robert Mayhew on how geographical texts of the early 18th century preferred an aesthetic of the ‘exotic’ over accuracy

April 9, 2015

No sooner did coffee arrive in early modern Europe than it was joined by the coffee-table book, its first incarnation taking the form of the lavishly illustrated geography book describing the entire globe. These have tended to be ignored or downright derided by historians, embodying as they did derivative text and endlessly recycled images, but in Inventing Exoticism, Benjamin Schmidt exposes them to scholarly scrutiny as key evidence for how European attitudes to the world developed after the Age of Discovery and before the Enlightenment. There is no attempt to deny the plagiaristic provenance of these books, but by anatomising the circulation of images and words between such books as they were produced by hack engravers and authors in Dutch printing ateliers, Schmidt excavates their historical meaning.

His thesis is simply stated, although perhaps overly cut and dried in its chronology: in a seeming paradox, geography books in roughly the three decades on either side of 1700 were not sensitive to variations over space, preferring to create a generalised aesthetic of “the exotic” as an agreeable worldview to be consumed by literate Europeans. The lack of interest in actual geographical variation allowed words and images to be routinely cut and pasted between locations around the globe, palm trees appearing in the maps of North America, for example, and a reverse trade in images of feathered Indians appearing in African maps. Such exotic images penetrated European life still further by being translated from books into a panoply of material objects consumed by the affluent, such as china ware, furniture and paintings, with a key source of transmission being the pattern books used by craftsmen and designers, which were often published by the same booksellers who produced geography books.

Such a representation of the rest of the globe as exotic also helped to define “Europe”. Where the early 17th century had been riven by confessional conflict and nationalistic rivalry, in the latter part of the century, Europe was defined as a singular, learned and peaceful other to the stereotypical geographical exotica circulating in text, image and object, thereby building a more irenic image of the continent in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia by contradistinction to the rest of the globe. Banal geographical exotica, then, helped to build a new, shared European image and identity. This geographical imaginary would break down only in the mid 18th century as scholars started to demand more specificity in the depiction of the various parts of the globe and as a new bout of competitive imperialism spurred British and French geographers to move away from the Dutch depiction of the exotic. And yet even then, popular geographical texts, images and objects continued to peddle an exotic aesthetic throughout the 18th century (and, it might be added, down to the present day).

In one respect, Inventing Exoticism mirrors its subject matter, being lavishly illustrated and presented in a generous print format that makes it an aesthetic pleasure to consume. And yet in its originality as a thesis, in its elegance of phrasing and conception, and in the erudition it embodies, Schmidt’s work serves as a profound investigation of its subject matter, rather than as a replication of its compositional processes. Anyone who wants to understand how our early modern forebears saw the world may expect to find pleasure and instruction herein.

Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism and Europe’s Early Modern World

By Benjamin Schmidt
University of Pennsylvania Press, 432pp, £55.50
ISBN 9780812246469 and 290349 (e-book)
Published 12 March 2015

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