The Center for Medieval Studies was thrilled to welcome Professor Suzanne Conklin Akbari for an in-person and live-streamed lecture on Wednesday, December 1st. She is Professor of Medieval Studies at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Her talk, titled “Finding India: Land, Language, and History in The Book of John Mandeville & Pehr Kalm’s Travels,” investigated how medieval and early modern theories of climate, history, and habitation impacted European settler colonial approaches to the land and people they encountered in North America. Her interest in the topic arose not only out of her own research on literature and borders in the medieval world, but also from a years-long engagement and relationship with the modern indigenous communities of the Northeast.
The Mandeville author and Pehr Kalm both presented their own views of the natural and inhabited worlds in their work. For the Mandeville author, the Earth’s various climate zones dictate characteristics and disposition of all living things, including humans. Kalm, a student of Linnaeus, displays a similar interest in the impact of climate as well as comparisons between the “Old World” and the “New World”. Despite the differences between these two authors, Conklin Akbari highlights their mutual investment in the idea of “India” (both in the sense of Prester John’s kingdom and the land of the “Indians”) as a point of reference for their concepts of history and the natural world.
Conklin Akbari’s work draws important connections between language, land, and history. She ended her talk with a personal account of how these concepts intersect. Responding to recent calls from indigenous scholars to “slow down” engagement with their communities, Conklin Akbari began taking Munsee language courses after attending series of pedagogical workshops. She invited historians (medieval and otherwise) to be more deliberate about building relationships with indigenous communities. For her, this begins with a concerted effort to understand the land we live and work on: its history and the people who have relationships with it.
The overarching theme of the talk was the tension between the global and the local in scholarship. Our efforts to investigate a global middle ages must grow from an understanding of the local, acknowledging the relationships between language, land, people, and history. You can view the lecture on Fordham Medieval Studies’ YouTube channel. Follow the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies for updates on future events!