Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasiaby Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Cross-cultural encounters in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought the potential for bafflement, hostility, and admiration. The court was the crucial site where expanding Eurasian states and empires met and were forced to make sense of one another. By looking at these interactions, Courtly Encounters provides a fresh/i>
Cross-cultural encounters in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought the potential for bafflement, hostility, and admiration. The court was the crucial site where expanding Eurasian states and empires met and were forced to make sense of one another. By looking at these interactions, Courtly Encounters provides a fresh cross-cultural perspective on the worlds of early modern Islam, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, Protestantism, and a newly emergent Hindu sphere.
Both individual agents and objects such as texts and paintings helped mediate encounters between courts, which possessed rules and conventions that required decipherment and translation, whether in words or in pictures. Sanjay Subrahmanyam gives special attention to the depiction of South Asian empires in European visual representations, finding a complex history of cultural exchange: the Mughal paintings that influenced Rembrandt and other seventeenth-century Dutch painters had themselves been earlier influenced by Dutch naturalism. Courtly Encounters provides a rich array of images from Europe, the Islamic world, India, and Southeast Asia as aids for understanding the reciprocal nature of cross-cultural exchanges. It also looks closely at how insults and strategic use of martyrdom figured in courtly encounters.
As he sifts through the historical record, Subrahmanyam finds little evidence for the cultural incommensurability many ethnohistorians have insisted on. Most often, he discovers negotiated ways of understanding one another that led to mutual improvisation, borrowing, and eventually change.
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From Chapter Four: Courtly Representations
In this chapter, we turn in a more purposeful manner to questions of long-distance cultural circulation between courts, and the closing of a rather wide circle. We have looked earlier at courtly exchanges and encounters in the context of the Deccan, and then with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean world, extending into Southeast Asia. More generally, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a considerable quickening in intercontinental trade and the circulation of humans, other animals, plants, ships, commodities from bullion, guns and pepper to porcelain and furs, and even (some would say especially) microbes. In some instances, the situations in 1500 and 1700 were so radically apart that one can qualify the change as truly revolutionary; this is the case with the massive restructuring and even outright destruction of the fabric of pre-Columbian societies on the American continents over that period. In other cases, the pace of change was less dramatic but still appreciable. China and India had already been connected to the western Mediterranean in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the connection was a feeble one probably comprising a few dozen direct traders and travelers each year, while practically no ships made it from the Mediterranean or the seas west thereof to the Indian Ocean. By 1700, the extent of connection was far more considerable, and even Japan—reputedly in its “restricted” (kaikin or sakoku) phase—continued to maintain contact with Western Europe through the Dutch trading factory in Deshima. It is still our habit when we recount this history to present it essentially as one of a growing European presence in and influence on Asia (the so-called “expansion-and-reaction” paradigm), with relatively little attention to the closing of the circle. One can see why such a habit of thought persists; in comparison to a rather large number of Europeans in Asian waters, relatively few Asians made it to say Portugal or the Netherlands between 1500 and 1700. Fewer still lived to tell the tale, though we may have underestimated the numbers of those who did. One half of the circle is thus drawn perforce in far stronger traits than the other. This is however not a reason to ignore the many and interesting ways in which the circle was indeed closed. One of these was arguably through art and visual representation at the courtly level.
In order to further the analysis, a central notion that we can return to here is that of “incommensurability,” which we have already adverted to in our earlier discussion of Kuhn and Feyerabend, and their latter-day heirs. We have seen that Kuhn hesitated between an argument regarding the “indeterminacy of translation,” and the idea that incommensurability was in point of fact a failure of exact translation. From the latter position arose the development of the idea of “cultural incommensurability,” favouring a view in which cultures were seen as complexes that were both coherent in and of themselves and largely impermeable to others. Indeed, if they were permeated, the view was that this could only lead to forms of corruption or cultural degradation. Now, as it happens, the implications of ideas such as these for the study of early modern visual encounters and interactions in an inter-imperial context have largely remained unexplored. In particular, the tension between ideas of commensurability and agency would merit further investigation. But this would surely require us to focus on well-defined actors and particular actions and processes rather than paint cultural interaction itself, as it were, in broad brush-strokes.
Meet the Author
Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Professor and Doshi Chair of Indian History at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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