Cultural Encounters

Looking beyond East-meets-West, students in Hum 211/212 set out to understand how early modern cultures changed one another.

By Dana E. Katz and Michael P. Breen | March 30, 2022

In 17th-century Istanbul, 10 Christian visitors entered the light-filled Mosque of Süleyman and were instantly awestruck. The men were “Frankish infidels with expert knowledge of geometry and architecture,” according to Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi, who invokes them in his description of the mosque in his Book of Travels (1630). Gazing at the opulent interior and magnificent courtyard, the Christians bit their fingers in astonishment at the incomparable beauty and declared that “in all of Frengistan we have not seen an edifice built to such perfection as this.”

The sultan of the Ottoman Empire who authorized the construction of this awe-inspiring mosque, Süleyman the Magnificent, viewed himself as “Sovereign Lord of the Mediterranean . . . and the Land of Rum [Rome].” When the Western European monarch Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Süleyman responded by commissioning a crown from Venetian craftsmen modeled on the papal tiara. Such cultural and historical entanglements defined the late medieval and early modern European world.

We cannot understand early modernity or Europe without considering the cultural encounters that took place in and between Europe and the Islamic world. Studying the long history of cross-cultural communication between the so-called Orient and Occident helps us question those categories while providing new ways of thinking about the development of cultures. That is why the first weeks of Humanities 211 begin with Andalusian Muslim polymaths Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd (Averröes): to underscore that the “Western humanities” are not specifically “Western” at all and that no culture exists in isolation.

Nor do the humanities exist outside of time. The intellectual and cultural legacies of antiquity permeated the medieval and early modern world, providing a framework for philosophical inquiry, artistic and literary production, and political thought, as well as a basis for historical comparison. Ibn Tufayl’s philosophy, for instance, draws on Plato and Aristotle as well as the Qur’an and Muslim commentators. Ibn Rushd authored juridical writings, medical treatises, and theological tracts, but is best known for his commentaries on Aristotle. His rediscovery of Aristotle informed Latin scholasticism and later Renaissance humanism.

Iberia was the main conduit through which Arab-Greek philosophy and science entered the Latin West, and the Aristotelian commentaries and systems of thought inspired by Ibn Rushd and his followers flourished in Renaissance Italy. Hum 211/212 returns to these Christian-Muslim dialogues throughout the year. Discussions of Don Quixote explore Cervantes’s intimate acquaintance with Islam, exemplified by his claim that the fictional Muslim historian Cide Hamete Benengeli was the true author of his masterwork. The complex diplomatic and cultural relationship between France and the Ottoman Empire provides a context for reading Molière’s comedy The Would-Be Gentleman. From Iberia to the Ottoman Empire, we examine philosophical texts, travelogs, novels, paintings, prints, and material culture, to explore the ongoing and multifaceted dialogues between early modern Europeans and the Islamic world. 

If the Islamic world and other civilizations in Asia and Africa were known (often with great inaccuracy) to medieval and early modern Europeans through classical works such as Ptolemy’s Geography and medieval texts like The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, they were completely unaware of the world of the Americas before the late 15th century. Hum 211/212 examines the devastating effects of the European encounter with the Americas and the long-term consequences of the wars, diseases, exploitation, and social destabilization that followed in its wake.

Indigenous people suffered military defeat and were physically, culturally, and spiritually separated from their lands. By the beginning of the 17th century, thousands had died from European diseases, and those who survived became converts to foreign religions and subjects of policies that forcibly resettled native people into European-designed towns.

One way Hum 211 interrogates the politics of colonization is through an examination of “New World” cartographic representations of such towns. These maps provide visual evidence of interactions between Europeans and indigenous communities. For instance, the late 16th-century map of Texúpa (seen here) portrays hill glyphs in a gridded city plan that merges representations of past and present. Employed before the arrival of the Spaniards, the hill glyph was a cartographic device that denoted landscapes, on the one hand, and community, on the other. The map also features European iconography.

As art historians argue, the inclusion of the gridiron plan and the church were not innocent markers of cultural communion but signs of the colonial quest for domination. Although the church and grid denote the power of the Spanish crown, the hill glyphs and a pre-Hispanic temple at the upper edge of the grid suggest that indigenous rites continued after the conquest. Our study of such entangled images and texts from the New World and Europe helps us understand how they functioned as instruments of both coercion and resistance.

The encounter with peoples and lands previously unknown to Europeans resulted in transformations to their culture, prompting a gradual but ultimately fundamental reevaluation of the value of classical texts and authorities that had defined much of late medieval and Renaissance intellectual life. It also offered writers, thinkers, and artists new perspectives for evaluating and critiquing their own societies.

In his sociopolitical satire Utopia, Thomas More portrays Raphael Hythloday, the fictional sailor who describes the ideal society of Utopia (itself located somewhere in the “newly discovered countries”) as a philosopher who “knew that the Romans have left us nothing valuable, except what is to be found in Seneca and Cicero.” Spanish thinkers such as Bartolomé de las Casas developed critiques of colonialism that produced new theories of natural and international law. And the French encounter with the Tupinambá people of Brazil prompted the jurist and essayist Michel de Montaigne to reflect on the power of custom and cultural difference. Observing the readiness with which Europeans denounced Tupinambá practices, Montaigne notes how Europeans overlook their own greater cruelty towards their “neighbors and fellow citizens,” whom they kill and maim viciously “under color of piety and religion.”

Tags: Academics, Courses We’d Love To Take