. 9
( 10)


the prejudices expressed in secular language were not only the same as ear-
lier Christian prejudices but had derived from them. As Daniel comments
on Said™s scienti¬c Orientalists:
The great orientalists meant to achieve impartial judgements, and just to mean
it was itself a major achievement, but their views by no means broke entirely
with those of the Middle Ages. For us the chief lesson may be that ˜scienti¬c™
methodology never did truly escape from its bundle of inherited prejudices of all

The shifts undergone by the Venus-theory and the naming-theory sug-
gest that what readers and writers held on to (at least until the late
sixteenth or early seventeenth century) was the capacity of a statement
to satisfy one or another of a limited repertoire of requirements that
the Saracens/Ismaelites/Muslims be wrong: bad religionists, liars, lustful,
bloodthirsty, ruinous. By the age of imperial Orientalism, centuries of wear
had proven some of the Christian-grounded statements to be supporting
very appealing implied generalisations about Muslims and Arabs “ even
though the statements themselves might have been wrongly constructed
according to the truths of the day. The rise of secularism marked a complete
change in what constituted acceptable authority for truth and therefore ush-
ered in an entirely new discourse, but it did not, according to Said and the
evidence above, change the repertoire of desired truths about Islam, Arabs,
Turks and other entities called Oriental. One might compare the way in
which the earliest patristic commentators adopted and then disseminated a
new discourse “ constructing, for example, Ismael as Judaism and Isaac as
Christianity “ when they made the Old Testament speak with a Christian
tongue to re-express ancient dislike of the tribes not chosen by God.
The evidence outlined above questions Said™s and Daniel™s models of
the relationship between medieval and early modern European perceptions

Daniel, Islam and the West, p. 324.


of the Orient. The relationship does seem to be characterised by certain
generalised constants which were formulated in religious terms for many
centuries. However, it does not therefore follow that the constants are a char-
acteristically medieval and religious essence lurking in modern Orientalist
discourse, nor that medieval and modern approaches to Islam are essentially
similar. Christian discourse surely played its part in producing acceptable
reasons for Europeans to assert their superiority over others, but once the
Christian discourse is dropped, it is hard to say what might be character-
istically religious or medieval about the desire to appear superior itself. If
˜Orientalism™ and ˜imperialism™ are de¬ned vaguely enough to ¬nd examples
of either in early medieval texts, their de¬nitions are then also vague enough
to allow examples from many other periods and places, which undoes the
terms™ meaningful correspondence with European activity abroad after the
seventeenth century. If they are de¬ned strictly according to European ac-
tivity abroad after the seventeenth century, there are good reasons not to
project back the views of that speci¬c period of history on to earlier litera-
ture to create the apparency of a European perceptual monolith. It is ironic
that there is good textual evidence for some verbal continuity in western
perceptions of Saracens (if not Islam or the Orient) from the twelfth century
into the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and solid textual evi-
dence that this verbal continuity originated not in the twelfth or thirteenth
century, whence Daniel supposes yet-surviving medieval concepts to have
derived, but in the fourth and earlier.24
The longest-lived representation of the Saracens in England was that
of the people who falsely named themselves. By the eighteenth century,
it had ¬nally died away, coincidentally or not at around the same time
that Said proposes that secularised, imperial, ˜manifest™ Orientalism began.
During the same period, literary works started to appear which corrected
earlier errors or even promoted a new image of an admirable Islam.25 Simon
Ockley summarises the writings of previous centuries in a passage which
might stand as an epitaph for the biblical Ismaelites who really wanted to
be Saracens:
Amongst other blind Stories which some of the Christian Writers have told of the
Saracens, this is one, viz. That they called themselves Saracens, because they would
have the world believe that they were descended from Sarah, Abraham™s lawful wife;

Daniel, Islam and the West, p. 306; and see above, pp. 90“115, on Jerome.
See Daniel, Islam and the West, pp. 309“10 and 322“6.

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

being asham™d of Hagar his slave, but the contrary is most evident, for they are
neither asham™d of Ishmael nor Hagar.26
Ockley™s modernism is signalled by his association of ˜blind™ with ˜Chris-
tian™. He rejects the assumptions of an earlier age. His own understanding of
the history of ideas should appear (we may assume) enlightened by contrast.
Yet Ockley was no promoter of Islam and he still calls the people ˜Saracens™
while refuting the theory of their name. Is he providing correction simply
for the sake of accuracy, or working to maintain a self-satis¬ed European
scholarship about the East, or perhaps both? Is he proto-Orientalist or
just post-medieval? As far as the present study is concerned, Ockley here
represents the death of the old and the birth of the new. If we are to
clarify the relationship between medieval and modern perceptions of Is-
lam, the attitude of writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
towards their literary inheritance on the subject of Islam requires more de-
tailed examination than Said has provided. It is no longer suf¬cient simply
to date fossilised religious ˜Orientalist™ inspiration to the Middle Ages or
It is not clear how to resolve the problem of talking about the early
medieval period without ˜Orientalising™ it in its turn as an intractable en-
tity unable to speak comprehensibly for itself, requiring interpretation by
experts to self-serving ends “ or, alternatively, ˜imperialising™ it by forc-
ing it to conform to our own expectations and desires. The generalisations
undertaken by Said and Daniel in their de¬nitions indicate inherent dif-
¬culties in seeking terminology with which to frame large theories about
people and periods. We cannot discuss ˜medieval™ and ˜Muslim™ as though
they referred to homogenous unities but there are few alternatives useful
for presenting a broad picture. Similarly, a historical approach runs the
risk of assigning origins and ends according to one modern patterning of
events. It would be as misleading to suggest that Jerome was in some way
a causative in¬‚uence upon the rise of Empire as to suggest that Sarah was
responsible for Saracen. This study cannot claim to be free from method-
ological ¬‚aws and generalising assumptions. However, I have tried to dis-
cuss texts from a limited space and time, and thereby draw conclusions
about the propagation and survival of some very speci¬c ideas about
Ockley, The Conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt (later published as vol. 1 of The History of
the Saracen), p. 331.


Concerning Anglo-Saxon England and pre-Orientalist thought, it should
be noted here that (surviving) perceptions of the Arabs, Ismaelites and
Saracens in Anglo-Saxon England are characterised neither by the vituper-
ations of later polemicists against Islam nor by the will-to-power of Said™s
Orientalists later still. In the Latinate culture of pre-Conquest England,
much information about the Saracens appears to have been acquired and
repeated for information™s sake, so long as it presented them in an appropri-
ately unfavourable light as non-Christians. The canonical authors (Jerome,
Orosius, Isidore, Cassiodorus et al.), not requiring to be questioned, were
transmitted as part of a useful and desirable corpus of learning which in-
cluded the exegetical analyses of the Saracen place in Christian thought.
The fact that this acceptance of earlier authority resembles that described
by Said as a characteristic of Orientalism does not mean that medieval
authors thought ˜Orientalistically™.
In the vernacular, even when translated from Latin originals, references to
the Saracens point to a different bias that is less exegetical and more narrative
or encyclopaedic “ more factual, in a way (bearing in mind that ˜factual™
does not necessarily mean ˜objective™ or ˜accurate™ and that Latin writings
already included this type of information). The Saracens in the Old English
Orosius, Aldred™s notes and Ælfric™s writings appear as people who do things
and live somewhere, rather than as an abstract aspect of the anti-church,
though their reported hostility in other vernacular texts certainly promoted
the generalisation that they were violently different. Still, though they are
presented in contexts which suggest their hostility, the Saracens are not
discussed in terms of material resources or European political ambition. Nor
did the now-powerful cultural division between East and West necessarily
have the same power for an Anglo-Saxon readership, whose world might
also divide readily into North and South.
Three other points should be mentioned. One is that if an earlier par-
allel or analogue for Said™s manifest Orientalism is ever to be sought, it
could perhaps be sought some time during the Crusades period or Roman
rule east of the Mediterranean. The reason is that, according to Said™s argu-
ment, notions of material gain to come from a controlled and named ˜East™
(Outremer? Arabia?) seem to be inextricably bound up with the literary rep-
resentation of the territory to be acquired.27 There was simply no possibility

In line with recent ideas about ˜Orientalisms™ rather than ˜Orientalism™, and bearing in
mind the danger of generalising all evidence for literary constructions of the Other into

Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the Islamic world

of material possession of the East during the Anglo-Saxon period. In fact,
even products traded through Muslim hands into Anglo-Saxon England
remained independent in literature from any connection with Saracens. It
would be interesting to establish whether the of¬cial adoption of a theory
of crusade was preceded by any appreciable rise in the number of tenth-
century European texts representing armed offence against Saracens, the
desirable riches and wonders of the East, a sense of European political iden-
tity, inherent Christian right to control the site of Jerusalem and so forth.
However, for the reasons outlined above, it is unlikely that any kind of
˜Orientalism™ can plausibly be argued to have existed before the colonial
The second point relates to the word ˜Orientalism™ itself. As argued above,
Said has stretched this term beyond useful limits. He convincingly portrays
an ancient tendency to denigrate the distant and different in support of
one™s own point of view; but to call this tendency ˜Orientalism™ means that
his own denigrations of modern Orientalists and their writings in terms
of the patriarchs and canonical texts of the Christian Middle Ages might
also constitute a form of ˜Orientalism™. However, his metaphors, explored
literally, help to contextualise his own argument. As Daniel has argued,
there are various ways in which one might conceive of medieval in¬‚uence
upon imperialist ambitions.28 It may be time to think in terms of several
or many ˜Orientalisms™ to re¬‚ect the very varied ways in which previous
thinkers have related to the Orient.29
The third point is that despite extensive information available on
Saracens, Ismaelites and Arabs, authors and readers in Anglo-Saxon England
appear to have known of no such thing as Islam. This may also be true of
some authors after the Norman Conquest and during the early Middle
Ages in general on the Continent. The names by which Muslims were
¬rst known already had a considerable history in European thought; Islam
was never new, since Saracens, Ismaelites and Hagarenes were already old

a theory of ˜human nature™, as noted in Turner, Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism,
p. 5, and Schwarz, ˜Mission Impossible™, pp. 4“5.
Daniel, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, p. 322.
Compare Al-Azmeh™s recent book title Islams and Modernities (London, 1996). William
Dalrymple provides a good example of a different kind of ˜Orientalism™ in White Mughals,
showing that British settlers in India before the nineteenth century often converted to
Hinduism or Islam, adopted local customs and married into the community.


and explained.30 The ¬rst use by Muslims themselves of their own name
is uncertain and this should be borne in mind when examining the early
pilgrimage literature; but it is clear that ˜Saracen™ was already known and
brought a freight of pre-assumptions with it. This is not to say that there
were no early ideas at all about a Saracen religion; to modern eyes, two such
ideas, hinted at by Georgius and Adomn´ n, do share characteristics with
Islam (fasting and praying). Otherwise, our evidence for early Anglo-Saxon
awareness of Saracen religion is Bede™s use of erat concerning Lucifer ˜cuius
cultui Sarracenorum gens ob honorem Veneris erat mancipata™, and this
is not very good evidence at all compared with exceptional ideas such as
Paschasius Radbertus™s ninth-century description of a mosque. Saracen re-
ligious efforts were presented, when they ever appeared, as poor, misguided
endeavours. The three available shreds of information did not form part
of a larger, coherent set of ideas about Saracen faith. It runs the risk of
anachronism for modern readers to think ˜Muslim™ for Saracenus in many
texts dating from after the 630s, or to assume that Arabs, Saracens, Turks,
Islam and a geographical Orient belonged in the same sphere of reference.
Educated Anglo-Saxons perceived the Saracens as a biblical people who
lived near the Holy Land as they had done in the Old Testament. Their name
was explained in terms of an entirely plausible etymology which identi¬ed
them as Ismaelites or Hagarenes. Their characteristics were de¬ned ac-
cording to their ancestry in Genesis and they behaved correspondingly as
Ismaelites ought, living as violent raiders on the edge of civilisation, wor-
shipping false gods and persecuting the local Christian community of the
Holy Land. The beginning of the seventh century marked no change in
this picture except that in some meaningful way the Ismaelites had been
permitted to leap their proper bounds. The possibility of Christians ¬nding
out about Islam was hampered by many problems during the Middle Ages.
A signi¬cant factor, according to the evidence laid out above, was probably
a general Christian acceptance of earlier ideas purporting to represent all
that one needed to know on the subject.

Said, Orientalism, p. 59: ˜If the mind must suddenly deal with what it takes to be a radically
new form of life “ as Islam appeared to Europe in the early Middle Ages “ the response on
the whole is conservative and defensive™. Medieval European authors did not apparently
perceive a radically new form of life in Islam.


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