115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Internal Migration in Medieval Travel Narratives

John M. Ganim, UC Riverside

The famous travel narratives by Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Benjamin of Tudela, and (supposedly) Sir John Mandeville indirectly record the experience of exiles, minorities, migrants, and nomads in the places they enter and leave. These privileged narrators reveal the unstable or unwelcome status of these internal migrants or minorities.

Proposal: 

The famous travel narratives by Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Benjamin of Tudela, and (supposedly) Sir John Mandeville are narrated from the perspective of the privileged traveler, protected by their profession or by imperial decree, and proud of their favored status. Most studies of these narratives emphasize the encounter or clash of cultures or religions, and employ this encounter to argue that premodern travelers actually embraced cultural difference in remarkably sophisticated ways.  I want to focus on a relatively small but revealing string of details in these accounts that trouble this idealized view. These travel accounts indirectly record the experience of exiles, minorities, migrants and nomads in the places they enter and leave. These privileged narrators reveal the unstable or unwelcome status of these internal migrants or minorities. In so doing, the narrators reveal a discomfort with their own hybrid status as both insiders and outsiders.  I will focus on the description of Bedouin in three of these narratives as a test case.  I will conclude with a discussion of how these narrators’ views of language and linguistic diversity is part of this ambivalence.  Cosmopolitan “universal” or imperial languages, Latin in the Christian West, Hebrew in highly cultivated circles, Greek in the Byzantine Empire and Arabic in the East have to be negotiated not only by foreign speakers, usually the traveler writing the account, but also by local vernaculars, dialects and barely extinguished languages belonging to conquered people and regions. Language is described in these accounts as a fixed cultural object rather than the changing medium of communication and expression that they were and that they are revealed to be in the narratives themselves.

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