Toward a Global Middle Ages, edited by Bryan C. Keene

Book of the week: Rachel Moss is intrigued by a bold attempt to demonstrate that the medieval world is much larger than we tend to think

September 26, 2019
Josaphat speaking to the merchant Barlaam about the precious gem in Barlaam and Josaphat by Rudolf von Ems, follower of Hans Schilling (artist), Hagenau, Alsace, France (formerly Germany), 1469.
Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 9 (83.MR.179), fol. 43v
Josaphat speaking to the merchant Barlaam about the precious gem in Barlaam and Josaphat by Rudolf von Ems, follower of Hans Schilling (artist), Hagenau, Alsace, France (formerly Germany), 1469.

What is a map? As Jerry Brotton argues in the first chapter of Toward a Global Middle Ages, it is as much a reflection of a culture’s state of mind as a record of place. Modern people, he observes, assume medieval cartography was local, more decorative than useful and shaped by religious ideology – to be contrasted with the more scientifically rigorous methodology and international scope of the Renaissance. But, moving away from a Eurocentric reading of the history of map-making, Brotton introduces an extraordinary Egyptian treatise produced between 1020 and 1050, The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes. Its world map features a great wall along the Caucasus Mountains to hold back the monstrous races of Gog and Magog, which is the kind of fantastic content we might expect from a medieval atlas. Yet the map also features one of the earliest known examples of a scale bar, while the map’s coastlines show many similarities to the portolan navigational maps that Europeans would not develop for another century.

The Book of Curiosities map is sharply informed by Islamic tradition, placing south at the top to feature the holy city of Mecca particularly prominently, just as medieval western European maps situated Jerusalem at the heart of the world. By contrast, the 1402 Kangnido, a Korean map of the world, places China at its centre, pushing Europe into the upper left-hand corner. Korea itself is as hugely inflated as the British Isles are in the 1569 Mercator projection of the world still commonly used today. While Britain does not make it on to the Kangnido, mainland Europe is drawn in surprising detail, considering conventional wisdom has held that the continent was little known to Koreans. Most strikingly, Africa is shown as circumnavigable more than 80 years before the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, which for Europeans finally breached the boundaries of the maps of ancient Rome and Greece, allowing them to sail off the page into a wider world. Koreans already knew how to do so.

Brotton does not use these examples to undermine the achievements of later European cartographers. Instead, by considering medieval map-making tradition in a more global context, he draws connections between different cultures and times, showing how very different political, religious and intellectual traditions might result in “surprisingly similar” world maps, and might thus reflect “global visions that shared many common visual, mathematical and commercial features”. World maps produced by different societies had different focal points, but none of these maps showed a culture in isolation. Contrary to popular belief, medieval European and Middle Eastern peoples knew that the world was a sphere, and there was nothing flat about their perspective on world affairs, either.

Expressing the scope of Toward a Global Middle Ages, editor Bryan Keene explains that “we are working toward a global Middle Ages that is not confined to any geographic center and that dismantles colonial structures – historic, academic, and museological”. That is not a modest aim, and this is not a modest volume: with 25 contributors, 160 colour illustrations and a bibliography of over a thousand items, Toward a Global Middle Ages is a book with real intellectual (and literal) heft. While the lavishly illustrated pages are inviting, this isn’t a book to be casually flicked through: the chapters are densely written, engaging closely with material culture as well as literary and historical sources across continents and centuries.

This makes it sound like a demanding read, which it is. Its cultural and chronological scope is substantial, but more than that it demands a number of reckonings: with colonialism, with how we define the “medieval” and with how museums and other institutions of learning navigate and communicate the past. As a medievalist, I have become increasingly aware of how the ways in which we frame the Middle Ages are inextricably bound up with a historical tradition and with popular cultural tropes that are nationalist and racist. The white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, brought into sharp focus the cultural baggage of the Middle Ages: the demonstrators co-opted medieval symbols, part of a long tradition of racists using medieval signs and images to reference an imagined white European past. The global turn in medieval studies, Keene argues, “challenges assumptions about a singular teleology or linear trajectory for Europe toward modernity”.

But how can we have a global Middle Ages? Globalisation as a concept is usually framed as a total world system, which makes little sense in a period where cross-cultural contact was mostly intra-hemispheric. As editor, Keene does not try to impose one model of global history on the contributors, meaning that there are multiple approaches in this volume. Rather than attempting to encompass the whole globe, the essays use different methodologies to “emphasize the polycentric and multivocal entanglements of a world without a center through the vestiges of written and illustrated arts”.

To achieve this ambitious aim, the book is divided into four sections. The first, “Glimpsing a Global Middle Ages”, features essays that attempt to reorient how we frame the Middle Ages, from Jerry Brotton’s map-making essay discussed above to Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s essay “Where is Medieval Ethiopia?”, which sets medieval Europeans’ exoticised reading of Ethiopia alongside a critique asking how modern-day Western museums can meaningfully exhibit Ethiopian artefacts without replicating the colonial values that led to their original acquisition.

Part two, “The Intermediality of ‘the Book’: Bound, Rolled and Folded Textual Objects”, looks at the relationship between books and other media, and how the production and transmission of those objects relate to cross-cultural communication – and conflict. Megan O’Neil’s chapter on Maya codices and vessels provides a sobering lesson in how a rich book culture was destroyed by Spanish invaders, as Catholic missionaries seized and burned what they saw as idolatrous texts, ultimately resulting in the extinction of the Maya hieroglyphic tradition.

Part three, “Identity: Finding One’s Place in the Medieval World”, uses texts and images to explore how we might navigate racial, national and religious identities across the period. Kristen Collins and Bryan Keene, as curators of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s department of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, provide a thoughtful case study of how museum professionals might use their collections to “move beyond the canon when we are working within it”.

In the final section, “Itineraries from the Atlantic to the Pacific: Travel, Circulation, and Exchange”, contributors consider how manuscripts provide insights into commercial and political cross-cultural exchanges, with both creative and destructive results. Jill Caskey provides a case study of the wreck of a medieval cargo ship used to transport ceramics from Hunan province, China, which seem to have been produced with Abbasid (Iraqi) markets in mind. As Caskey reminds us, today we see travel in binary terms, “a leap from here to there”, but medieval travel required multiple stops and thus multiple points of interaction with different cultures, languages and religious traditions.

The volume closes with an epilogue by James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, who firmly situates the work of museums as an important counterpoint to “modern nation-states claiming an ethnonationalist link to the remains of cultures found within their sovereign borders”, and reminds us that “a nation’s history is ineluctably intertwined with global history”. Toward a Global Middle Ages does an admirable job at showing some of the ways the medieval world was much bigger than we tend to think.

Rachel Moss is lecturer in history at the University of Northampton.

Toward a Global Middle Ages
Edited by Bryan C. Keene
Getty Publications
296pp, £45.00
ISBN 9781606065983
Published 3 September 2019

The author

Bryan C. Keene, associate curator in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s department of manuscripts, was born and raised in southern California. He studied history of art and romance linguistics and cultures at Pepperdine University in Malibu, which allowed him to study in Spain and travel throughout Italy, France and Portugal. He then went on to an MA in Italian Renaissance art history at Syracuse University’s villa in Florence and a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Between undergraduate and postgraduate study, Keene worked as an educator at the Getty Museum – an experience, he recalls, that allowed him to “conceive and teach gallery courses for adult audiences on topics that spanned the history of art and provided avenues into global themes through collaboration with colleagues and in response to queries from museum visitors. My study of the history of gardens, specifically botanical and etymological networks, grew out of a combination of teaching and research, which in turn germinated thoughts on early globalisms.” During his first year as a curator at the Getty, therefore, he suggested an exhibition about global networks in the Middle Ages.

Asked about the role museums should play in challenging simplistic nationalist narratives and opening up more global perspectives, Keene says: “Museums share the responsibility of preserving the evidence of human creativity and presenting histories of connection, conflict and communication. The 21st-century museum has to evolve beyond the ideologies of the 19th-century colonial, imperialist and nationalist museum. It embraces technology for connecting visitors with objects, with experts and with each other. Most important, such a museum is for everyone and, in the words of the director of the Historiska Museet in Stockholm, ‘If you don’t know you have a history, it can be hard to believe you have a future.’”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Same world, different focus

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Reader's comments (1)

The ancient Greeks sailed around Africa, over the course of a year, according to Herodotus.