Plenary Speakers

Plenary Speakers, International Conference on Medievalism 2014

Kathleen Verduin, Dept. of English, Hope College (website)

“The Times of the Appreciation”: Dante among the Americans

“We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate.” This line from Emerson’s 1844 essay “Experience” suggests something of the fortunes of Dante and his Commedia in nineteenth-century America. How did Dante come to be “animated” in the United States? How did American persons of letters come to know of the Italian poet, and what precipitated their assumption that his work was worth study? How did individual American readers “animate” the Commedia to speak to their condition, to address the questions of nation, work, love, death, and life that infused their contemplations—and how did these contemplations reflect in turn their surrounding culture? In this presentation I consider the introduction of Dante’s poetry into the American literary and academic worlds from the first decades of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth; the readers of Dante I consider include George Ticknor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, and Edith Wharton.

Sylvie Kandé, Associate Professor, SUNY Old Westbury (website)

Olifants and Balafos: The Social Life of African Things in Postcolonial Middle Ages

Postcolonial approaches to the European Middle Ages have shown that the process by which Europe emerged as an entity was largely colonial –absorbing, displacing or eradicating local cultures that resisted cultural and political homogenization (Cohen). Indeed, Valentin Mudimbe’s definition of colonization as the violent transformation of “non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs,” does apply to Europe itself. If colonialism is thus “both a European and extra-European phenomenon which paved the way for all the economic and cultural projects of modernity,” as Biodun Jeyifo has persuasively argued, the mutually constitutive quality of Western and non-Western colonization remains to be emphasized, as well as their historical iterations, notably in the 16th and 19th centuries.

In keeping with one major trend in the postcolonial reading of medieval material, this presentation is centered on material culture, with an emphasis on what Ato Quayson calls “the effects of long centuries of interpretation” (259) on emblematized objects. This presentation highlights the multi-layered meaning of the circuitous transfers implicating the said Afro-Portuguese ivories — the first objects to be imported from Subsaharan Africa into Europe and among which salt-cellars and olifants figure prominently. Commissioned by European traders, created between the 15th and the early 17th century by artists from regions that correspond today’s Sierra-Leone, Nigeria and the Congo, these objects reached the shores of Portugal to be disseminated throughout Europe into various papal, royal, private collections, or cabinets de curiosité. We know, for instance, that by 1520, Albrecht Durer had bought two Afro-Portuguese salt-cellars in Netherlands, and that three olifants of African origin figure in the 1553 inventory of the belongings of Cosimo I, grand Duke of Tuscany. The “cultural biography” of these objects (to borrow Igor Kopytoff’s concept) continued beyond Renaissance, since many of them, forgotten and/or mislabeled, were “rediscovered” in the 19th century, in the wake of punitive colonial expeditions, such as the 1897 sack of Benin, that flooded European markets with African art.

Taking issue with the conventional scholarly interpretations of the first Afro-European encounters on the West coast of Africa –documented in the very materiality of these Afro-Portuguese ivories — which overplay the mutual otherness of the parties (as well as the temporal otherness of the period), Susan Vogel and Peter Mark have underlined African and European men’s medieval commonalities (same belief system, social groupings and notion of extended family, similar hatched houses, shared norms of the anonymity of the artist, etc.). One could consider however, that imported Afro-Portuguese objects came to contribute to the constitution of a European culture of taste that both reflected and strengthened the hegemony of the elite. Eventually, this culture of taste would succeed in commodifying African bodies and denying the existence of African art as a category (Gikandi).

Bringing together the notion of postcolonial Middle Ages, African art and Appadurai’s theorization of commodities in cultural perspective, this presentation suggests that Afro-Portuguese ivories — be they commodities by destination or by diversion – stood for approximately a century at the core of Europe’s steady self-fashioning process as the unique locus of Modernity. They were evidences of their owners’ ability to both access resources of newly discovered regions of the world and produce the specific knowledge “that goes into appropriately consuming the commodity”(Appadurai 41), enabling them to locating themselves on a linear narrative of progress.

As Ato Quayson pointed out, language itself can become one of those material objects with which the self is “desperately entangled”, and as such, takes its place within a social life of things (262). The entanglement of the “idea of Africa,” Otherness, and the Middle Ages in 19th-century medievalism should come as no surprise. In Hugo’s historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), published right after the July Revolution — a decidedly troubled time for the French hereditary monarchy and the nation– Esmeralda is the figure of metissage, endowed with the eclectic knowledge and tastes she brought back from her travels throughout Europe and (North) Africa with a band of Gypsies who, unbeknownst to her, abducted her at birth. Although French, as the reader discovers at the end of the narrative, she is perceived as a Gypsy and evoked with a terminology that specifically connotes a West African origin, and includes the balafon, a wooden percussion idiophone, and Djali, a synonym of griot.

The main thrust of this presentation is to explore the correlated transfer of things and words African into a medieval context, expanding on Appadurai’s proposition, according to which the meanings of things “are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories” (5).