Ripe for Conversion

Paul Strohm

  • Pagans, Tartars, Muslims and Jews in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Brenda Deen Schildgen
    Florida, 184 pp, £55.50, October 2001, ISBN 0 8130 2107 3

‘Othering’, a favourite gerund in current academic-literary discussion, has yet to enter the dictionaries, but it shouldn’t have long to wait. Its status is well earned, if the measure of a word’s popularity is what you can do with it, or the kinds of discussion and analysis it enables. I first encountered it in a 1986 essay on travel writing and descriptive ethnography by Mary Louise Pratt, in which she points to ‘a very familiar, widespread and stable form of “othering”’ whereby ‘the people to be othered are homogenised into a collective “they”.’ This process goes on, even without the assistance of North American academics, under the more familiar name of ‘stereotyping’. But the use of the term ‘othering’ adds the rich implication that the more ‘knowable’ (that is, the more stereotyped) the object becomes, the more inscrutable – ‘other’ – it remains. Post-colonial studies, beginning with Edward Said’s work in the 1970s on the exoticised and eroticised ‘Other’, acquired its initial impetus by naming and shaming this operation; its exposure has also been central to feminist and other anti-discriminatory ways of thinking.

Although applications of contemporary theory to earlier periods always threaten to make everything sound alike, blurring historical specificity, operations of othering are observable in all periods and cultures. The best approach is not to disallow recent terms and theories, but to adapt them to the particularities of the earlier situation. In understanding the medieval period, the concept of othering certainly has purchase, but it is usefully, or even necessarily, supplemented by another, less publicised, operation: ‘saming’.

The keenest theorist of saming was the late Naomi Schor. ‘If othering involves attributing to the objectified other a difference that serves to legitimate her oppression,’ she observed in a feminist context, ‘saming denies the objectified other the right to her difference.’ Although these processes are interdependent, saming is more characteristic of the medieval encounter with the unfamiliar or unknown. Its face is the more friendly and generous of the two, especially in the admirably benign Chaucer; but this is not to say that it is less telling, or less oppressive, in its final effects.

One of the great ‘samers’ of the later Middle Ages was the 14th-century travel writer known as Sir John Mandeville. Written close to home, somewhere in France, his vivid and readable travelogue is nonetheless animated by encounters with the unknown and unexpected: cyclopes, jewel-bearing vines, sheep the size of oxen, people who live under water and the like. Yet, however much his descriptions sensationalise the ‘other’, they usually end by disclosing an ever-so-slightly skewed or refracted image of the ‘same’. One travels imaginatively to record the world’s strangest practices, only to discover that they are after all rather familiar. Thus Mandeville’s contribution to the legend of Prester John, sovereign of a bizarro-world just east of the slightly better known Muslim lands. On one of his islands, according to the narrator (perhaps in a half-understood allusion to Parsi practices), the flesh of the dead is fed to ‘fowls of ravine’:

Behold how so worthy a man and how good a man this was, that the angels of God come for to seek him and for to bring him into Paradise . . . And then the son bringeth home with him all his kin, and his friends, and all the others to his house, and maketh them a great feast . . . And when they be at meat, the son let bring forth the head of his father, and thereof he giveth of the flesh to his most special friends . . . And of the brain pan, he letteth make a cup, and thereof drinketh he and his other friends also, with great devotion, in remembrance of the holy man, that the angels of God have eaten.

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