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Student Activities 2011-2012
Joseph Houle headshot

J. Lucien D. Houle

Beyond Said: Medieval Orientalism and the Far East
National Conference on Undergraduate Research

Edward W. Said's seminal 1978 book Orientalism forever changed the discussion on European representations of the East. However, Said's work and most subsequent scholarship have focused on 19th Century European colonialism in the Middle East. The few works which have examined the medieval roots of these patterns of representation have been similarly limited geographically. Therefore, I have examined the medieval European discourse on the Far East, rather than Islam and the Levant, in order to identify and analyze the patterns of representation which characterized this discourse. By examining sources that have previously been ignored by this field, such as the travel writings of Marco Polo, William of Rubruck, and many others, I have been able to identify several recurring patterns by which the Far East was represented in medieval Europe.


After identifying these patterns, I will demonstrate the influence that Christian history, Classical mythology, and apocalyptic expectations had on these constructed images as they were created and evolved. I will examine the immediate consequences of this discourse, such as the Prester John myth and the attempts at alliance with the Mongols, as well as more long term implications that foreshadow Said's state-sponsored Orientalism.


It is crucial in our increasingly global existence that we seek to understand the processes of "Othering" which lead to antagonistic relationships between "us" and "them". My research shows clearly that modern aspects of Orientalism, such as racism, nationalism, and social Darwinism, are not necessary ingredients of these processes but only tools. Every age has had its own such tools, its own conceptions of self, and its own representations of the foreign and the strange.