Today's Q&A is with Miriam Jacobson, author of Barbarous Antiquity: Reorienting the Past in the Poetry of Early Modern England. In the late sixteenth century, English merchants and diplomats ventured into the eastern Mediterranean to trade directly with the Turks, the keepers of an important emerging empire in the Western Hemisphere, and these initial exchanges had a profound effect on English literature. While the theater investigated representations of religious and ethnic identity in its portrayals of Turks and Muslims, poetry explored East–West exchanges primarily through language and the material text. Just as English markets were flooded with exotic goods, so was the English language awash in freshly imported words describing items such as sugar, jewels, plants, spices, paints, and dyes, as well as technological advancements such as the use of Arabic numerals in arithmetic and the concept of zero. Even as these Eastern words and imports found their way into English poetry, poets wrestled with paying homage to classical authors and styles, and as Renaissance English writers including Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, and Chapman weighed their reliance on classical poetic models against contemporary cultural exchanges, a new form of poetry developed, positioned at the crossroads of East and West, ancient and modern.
(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico; William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience; Martin Jacobs, Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World; Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century; Ann Marie Plane, Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England)
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Penn Press: Barbarous Antiquity argues that Renaissance English writers had to balance classical poetic models with the realities of contemporary trade. How had the classical models described the East?
Miriam Jacobson: In fact, the classical writers from which the Renaissance English poets draw in my analysis (Ovid, Horace, Musaeus) describe a largely Mediterranean landscape, not exactly what we today would call Eastern or Asian. But this landscape was part of ancient Greece and the expanding Roman Empire. By the time we get to the late sixteenth century, the same Mediterranean landscape was under Ottoman control. So I’m not looking at classical representations of the East, but rather at how the Mediterranean, the Levantine coast, and parts of Asia became coded as Eastern in late Elizabethan England. Suddenly the familiar literary landscape of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a space that was occupied and inhabited by foreign, religious Others. Classical writers do talk about the far reaches of their empires (usually Asia minor) as boundary lands, and characters who come from these places are often described as barbarous. One of these figures, the Scythian enchantress Medea, is the subject of my current research for the next book.