IMS in Conversation: Postcolonising the Medieval Image

The third online Institute for Medieval Studies Book Launch session featured Dr Eva Frojmovic and Professor Catherine Karkov’s new, edited book.

On Tuesday 16 June, the third book launch in the IMS in Conversation series was devoted to the new book edited by Eva Frojmovic and Catherine Karkov, Postcolonising the Medieval Image.  Dr Frojmovic was interviewed by Lisa Trischler.  This event was well attended, with 65 people tuning in from across at least three continents to listen to and participate in the discussion.  This fascinating collection focuses on studies about people in the medieval period in unequal and unstable power relationships and how those are manifested in art.  Even the title of the book is interesting, as it is a picture of a Muslim warrior from a Hebrew manuscript.

It is not so much my book as it is our book.

Dr Frojmovic began by encouraging new academics to not get disheartened when their work is not immediately published.  Postcolonising the Medieval Image had a long gestation period and is an example of perseverance and the power of groups of academics who can show commitment to each other to help push their field.  Originally failing to secure a grant, one was finally secured from the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2009 to 2011, enabling scholars to be brought together. ‘It is not so much my book as it is our book.’ It is the outcome of many academics looking at the method of historical study to further a postcolonial approach, connected with critically thinking about ‘whiteness’ and seeking to undo the problematic conclusion that medieval art has been mobilised to create a mythical, Christian European agenda in relation to the boundaries of Europe.  The works in the edited volume look at porous borders, artistic identities, and other methods of studying encounters of different religious and cultural groups.  Dr Frojmovic also stressed the importance of having a mix of established and early-career researchers represented in the book.

Dr Frojmovic brought up a common criticism of the project being that many peer reviewers questioned how it could be on postcolonialism when all of the areas studied were European, but that is ultimately the point. The misconception of a monolithic, self-contained, Christian art had to be broken down.  Even translating between languages is a kind of decolonising, so much of the art focused in the book comes from interactions between Christian majorities and other religious minorities, whether in Spain, the crusades, Byzantium, or throughout the heart of Europe.

There are some interesting aspects of study.  Beyond artwork and representation, there is also the study of appropriation and alternative use to understand relationships: Islamic bowls in Christian churches, Christian iconography and illumination of Jewish manuscripts, and French-English relations following the Norman conquest.

The Q&A was particularly interactive and ran on for quite some time as attendees asked many questions of Dr Frojmovic.  She helped explain how historians knew certain artists were Christian based on half-erased instructions left in manuscripts, which also went to benefit a patron’s status symbol. Dr Frojmovic also explained the lack of scholarship in some areas with a more common language barrier, particularly when economics works against an individual’s desire to learn more languages.  But the most engaging was the discussion on what classifies as an area to be studied with a postcolonial lens. Participants drew modern comparisons in an attempt to understand, but that ultimately led to more questions than answers, especially with regard to members of the Commonwealth, like Canada.  All in all, it was a very productive and thought provoking session.

Further information on Postcolonising the Medieval Image, edited by Eva Frojmovic and Catherine Karkov.