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Introduction

  • Pompa Banerjee
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)

Abstract

The crossings in this book occur on the site of sati, or the burning of Hindu widows with their dead husbands, as it was produced in European travel narratives of India from 1500 to 1723.1 By the 1500s, representations of sati, observed and recorded by Europeans, were conventional, almost de rigueur, in travelogues of India. This book is concerned with a range of meanings encoded within those representations. The circulation in Europe of such visual and verbal transmissions of sati, I will argue, not only informed responses to the ritualized violence of Hindu culture but also intersected in fascinating ways with specifically European forms of ritualized violence and European constructions of gender ideology.2 The spectacle of sati elicited responses that self-referentially returned to the cultural practices that fashioned European subjects: European accounts of women burning in India uncannily commented on the burnings of women as witches and criminal wives in Europe. The overlapping discourses of Hindu widowburning with European witchburning and ideologies of wifely conduct are compelling for several reasons. The convergences within these disparate, and some would say, isomorphic modes, allow us to understand, in hindsight, the complex and tangled nature of identity formation in the age of discovery. In highlighting the exchanges and synchronic ideological spaces between Hindu widows and European witches, widows, and wives, this book hopes to draw attention to the complex and “exotic” roots of the gendering of the early modern female subject.

Keywords

Early Modern Period East India Company European Account European Traveler Jesuit Mission 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    I use the term “European women” with a great deal of reservation. It suggests an undifferentiated grouping of different women from various regions—a homogenization of the kind I have said European travelers impose on Asian women. Although I will explore the shared cultural roots of many social constructs in Europe (a common Latin literature, similarities in Catholic and Puritan conduct books, or correspondences in religious practices, for example), there were significant regional differences in the cultural constructions of women from one European region to another. Obviously, Dutch, French, Scottish, or English women were not responding to exactly the same social mechanisms at exactly the same time. Some of these differences are borne out in the degree of ferocity of the witch-hunts. Other differences pertain not just to the particular regions the women came from but also whether they were rural or urban, educated or illiterate. Social class as well as marital status also marked such differences. Despite the differences, however, many shared cultural legacies suggested a “European” identity. See Peter Rietbergen, Europe: A Cultural History (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Stephen Greenblatt’s work remains one of the most influential texts in this genre of criticism. See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990); and Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Here I am referring to the East in more generic terms. As I have discussed elsewhere, in early modern discourses “India” was a vast, undefined space, frequently used as a handy synecdoche for all of Europe’s others; see “Milton’s India and Paradise Lost,” in Milton Studies 37, ed. Albert C. Labriola (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 142–65. There is a vast body of scholarship on Renaissance notions of race and its implications. Apart from anthologies of essays such as Women, “Race” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), there are the special issues of The William and Mary Quarterly 54:1 (1997), ed. Michael McGiffert, and Shakespeare Studies 26, ed. Leeds Barroll (Madison, WI: Associated University Presses, 1998). See also, among others, Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, and Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989); John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Daniel J. Vitkus, “Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997), 145–76.Google Scholar
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© Pompa Banerjee 2003

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