Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Book Review: Towards a Global Middle Ages Edited by Bryan C. Keene

Pros: essays on a wide range of places and periods

Cons: dense prose, some essays a challenge to read

The book begins with a prologue followed by an introduction. The introduction starts with highly academic prose in its explanation of why it’s important to broaden the field of medieval studies into a global discussion, acknowledging that the field has centred heavily on Europe and ignored the many points of contact (via trade, religion, war, etc.) with nations outside Europe. The editor points out that the world has always been global, and at a time when nationalists and white supremacists are turning history into polemics on segregation it’s past time medievalists broadened their studies to show how interconnected peoples of the past truly were. He then gives short descriptions about manuscript traditions throughout the world during this period.

This is followed by a quick time line of the items mentioned in the essays to follow. The book is separated into four parts, each with an introductory essay: Glimpsing a Global Middle Ages (5 essays and 1 case study), The Intermediality of “the book”: Bound, Rolled, and Folded Textual Objects (3 essays and 2 case studies), Identity: Finding One’s Place in the Medieval World (3 essays and 3 case studies), and Itineraries from the Atlantic to the Pacific: Travel, Circulation, and Exchange (3 essays and 3 case studies). The book ends with an Epilogue that goes over the importance of museums in creating collections and exhibitions that foster a more global outlook.

This is a book for academics. While the case studies are accessible to a wider audience, most of the essays are not. I struggled through several of them due to dense prose. Having said that, the struggle was worth it as I learned quite a lot about the challenges of including certain areas of the world in a medieval discourse (like how most artifacts containing writing as well as wooden carvings in tropical climates have decomposed, making it difficult to study pre-modern eras). I loved that the essays spoke of wildly different areas including Ethiopia, China, India, and Mexico.

Several of the case studies mentioned a lot of interesting details and I finished the book with the intention of looking up several of the manuscripts mentioned (the end notes give web addresses if they’ve been digitized).

The standouts for me were the case study: “Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners’ Handbooks” by Eyob Derillo and the essay by Sylvie Merian, “Reproducing the Resurrection: From European Prints to Armenian Manuscripts”, which both dealt with topics I find fascinating.

The globalization of medieval studies is important and it’s great seeing a collection that brings researchers from different disciplines together. This is a challenging book to read, but worth the effort you put in.

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