Partly autobiographical, partly comparative, partly theoretical, this essay uses the idea of the footprint to explore the concept of xenophilia. The author first describes how the field of European medieval history has changed since the 1960s, when the period 500–1500 in Western Europe seemed to graduate students to represent a kind of “other.” Recently the European Middle Ages has come to seem familiar, and medievalists, still in search of the unfamiliar, have reached beyond the borders of Western Europe and the type of documents traditionally studied to research new regions and to study objects as well as texts. This curiosity has led the author herself to draw comparisons between Indian culture, especially Hinduism, and European Christianity, thereby raising questions about what constitutes good comparative study. Interrogating the nature of comparison, especially through an exploration of religious objects, Bynum explores recent work on the devotional significance of the footprint, using as her detailed example the footprint of Christ supposedly left on the Mount of Olives and revered by Christians and Muslims. She discusses how the power of this footprint was transported to Europe both in relics acquired from the site and in measurements of its length. The footprint, which is both part and whole, both the presence and the absence of the one who leaves it, provides insight into and elaboration of what trace or vestige means to cultural theorists. It therefore sums up the acute awareness of presence and absence that xenophilia requires.
Caroline Walker Bynum; Footprints: The Xenophilia of a European Medievalist. Common Knowledge 1 April 2018; 24 (2): 291–311. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-4362481
Download citation file: