Introduction: The Uses of Medieval Alterity

  • Michael Uebel
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This book develops a critical language for narrating the ways that Western medieval culture imaginatively transformed itself in and through its relation to otherness. The central contention is that Europe’s Eastern others—notably, the Muslims and Prester John—functioned in the Western imaginary as symptoms that turned Europe itself into a problem. It is not merely that medieval Western Europe depended for its self-definition upon the various others against which it both protected and asserted itself; rather, in the very act of representing alterity benign or threatening, medieval Europeans necessarily confronted the possibility of utopic—or, as I begin to analyze it in chapter 3, “ecstatic”—transformation. Otherness offered the reader or beholder an ambiguous representation, a deeply equivocal image of social meanings contrary to the concept of clear division or firm limit. Precisely because alterity, I argue, was not always reducible to the terms of the self-same, perceptions of the same in the different gave way to perceptions of the different in the same. In the images of alterity I study here, the transformative power of otherness reveals the extent to which social and individual bodies continually interchange with the world across porous boundaries.1


Twelfth Century Social Desire Critical Language Ambiguous Representation Medieval Literature 
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  1. 1.
    The psychoanalytic dimension of this interchange is discussed in Paul Schilder, “The Libidinous Structure of the Body-Image,” in his The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (New York: International Universities Press, 1950), pp. 119–212.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Louise O. Fradenburg, City, Marriage, Tournament: Arts of Rule in Late Medieval Scotland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), p. 249.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in his Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 3–25, and Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    L. O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Lope: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans, and ed. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950), p. 405 [402-408].Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A. David Napier, Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 139–40.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    On this issue, see Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in his The Location of Culture (NewYork: Routledge, 1994), pp. 66–84. Bhabha shows how stereotyping is based at once upon “daemonic repetition” and absolute rigidity, such that stereotyping s apparent fixity, as sign of difference, is paradoxical. Stereotyping thus carries within it the force of ambivalence, a force that is, e.g., largely ignored, as Bhabha points out, by critics and readers of orientalism, Said included. What is called for is interrogation of the political effects of discourse, produced by representation, which reflect both history and fantasy (as the scene of desire). For an approach to this last point, see my “Re-Orienting Desire: Writing on Gender Trouble in Fourteenth-Century Egypt,” Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, ed. Sharon Farmer and Carol Braun Pasternack (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 230–57.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    M. Masud R. Khan, Alienation in Perversions (London: Hogarth, 1979), p. 121. Perversions should be placed in more general contexts: “that of man’s attempts to escape from his condition,” as Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel puts it (p. 299). See her essay “Perversion and the Universal Law,” International Review of Psycho-Analysis 10 (1983): 293–301.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Edward Glover, “The Relation of Perversion-Formation to the Development of Reality-Sense,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 14 (1933): 489 [486-504].Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    See Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989).Google Scholar

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© Michael Uebel 2005

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  • Michael Uebel

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