Program in Comparative Literature

Geraldine Heng

Associate ProfessorPh.D., Cornell University

Associate Professor of English
Geraldine Heng



Geraldine Heng is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Director of Medieval Studies and the holder of the Perceval endowment for Medieval Romance, Historiography, and Culture, an endowment created to support her research and teaching.

She is also Founder and Co-director of the Global Middle Ages Project (G-MAP), the Mappamundi cybernetic initiatives, and the Scholarly Community for the Globalization of the Middle Ages (SCGMA):

Heng's teaching has included courses on the literatures and political cultures of the crusades, the genealogies and texts of medieval romance, the literatures of medieval England, Chaucer, medieval biography, premodern race and race theory, transcultural medieval travel narratives, and feminist theory and third world feminisms.

In 2004, she designed, coordinated, and taught in “Global Interconnections: Imagining the World 500-1500 CE,” an experimental interdisciplinary graduate seminar collaboratively taught by seven faculty to introduce an interconnected premodern world spanning Europe, Islamic civilizations, Mahgrebi  and SubSaharan Africa, India, China, and the Eurasian continent.

Heng’s research focuses on literary, cultural, and social encounters between worlds, and webs of exchange and negotiation between communities and cultures, particularly when transacted through issues of gender, race, sexuality, and religion.  She is especially interested in medieval Europe’s discoveries and rediscoveries of Asia and Africa.  Her book, Empire of Magic, traces the development of a medieval  literary genre—European romance, and, in particular, the King Arthur legend—in response to the traumas of the crusades and crusading history, and Europe’s myriad encounters with the East.  She is completing two books: a book theorizing premodern race and racial-religious difference, and a book on medieval England as a global site, traced through its literature.


C L 382 • Premodern Race

32944 • Spring 2016
Meets M 600pm-900pm PAR 210
(also listed as E 392M, MDV 392M)

It’s an old theoretical canard that race and discourses on race exist in the West only from the Enlightenment onward: that premodern European culture is pre-racial, because its operative prioritizing discourse is founded on religion, and not biological-scientific taxonomic systems of bodily difference, despite the evidence, in medieval culture and history, of institutions and phenomena that we would today identify as racial, were they to recur.

This seminar will ask what is lost or gained by tracing discourses on race backward in time.  Beginning with a selection of texts from antiquity, and the “Black Athena” controversy, it considers a range of medieval texts to ask what racial thinking, racial phenomena, racial institutions, and racial practices are, in their historically-contextualized relations to the following (not listed in order of priority or procedure): (1) war, conquest, and empire-formation; (2) theories of blood, reproduction, and genealogy; (3) religion, canon law, and church apparatuses; (4) the body and physiognomy (color, biology, etc); (5) sex and gender; (6) slavery, occupations, and economic systems; (7) nation-formation, “nationalisms”, state apparatuses; (8) disciplinary systems of knowledge-power (climatology, geography, ethnography, etc).  We will end by reading 3 Shakespearean plays: Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and Othello.

Medieval materials include romances, travel literature, historical documents, manuscript drawings, saints' legends, maps, statuary, and whatever else may be useful.  Concomitantly, we will read a selection of theoretical writing on race by scholars working with postmedieval periods, to test definitions against earlier texts and documents, to see how established theories of race might be revised, augmented, or replaced. Classicists and early modern studies students in the seminar can contribute substantially to take their period out of parentheses.

Requirements: This course runs like a research seminar: students working in any period, discipline, or culture are welcome.  Previous knowledge of the Middle Ages or languages other than English is not required, but non-medievalists are expected to thicken their understanding of the Middle Ages in a serious and aggregative way, and medievalists are expected to engage with critical and theoretical texts we read with the same degree of attentiveness and commitment they afford medieval texts. Though not required for seminar discussion, possession of other languages, European and non-European, medieval and modern, is an advantage for research and writing.  Other requirements: at least 2 seminar presentations and a term paper for a letter grade; presentations only for pass/fail.

Sample texts (suggestive, subject to change, open to negotiation): “Airs, Waters, Places,” Herodotus’ Histories (selections), Vinland Sagas, Parzival, Moriaen, John of Plano Carpini’s Ystoria Mongalorum, William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium, Chaucer’s Prioress's Tale and Man of Law's Tale; Marian miracle tales from the Vernon manuscript; King of Tars, Richard Coer de Lyon, Marco Polo’s Il Milione, Mandeville’s Travels, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Merchant of Venice; a selection of theoretical and critical readings.

C L 382 • Global Middle Ages: Literature

33159 • Spring 2015
Meets W 600pm-900pm PAR 310
(also listed as E 392M, MDV 392M)

Thirteen years ago, Franco Moretti had this to say:

“Nowadays, national literature doesn’t mean much: the age of world literature is beginning, and everybody should contribute to hasten its advent.” This was Goethe…talking to Eckermann in 1827…. Not “comparative”, but world literature: the Chinese novel that Goethe was reading at the time…. Well, let me put it very simply: comparative literature has not lived up to these beginnings.  It’s been a much more modest intellectual enterprise, fundamentally limited to Western Europe…. the literature around us is now unmistakably a planetary system.

Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature”


Moretti’s take on global literature focused, of course, on the centuries of modernity, but before his 2000 New Left Review article admonished us to attend to the world literature around us, a planetary system of literatures had already existed for a millennium and more: literatures whose global themes, global subjects, global purview, and global imaginary were there for all to consider.

The most famous examples are known to all: The Thousand and One Nights, whose provocative plots cut a swathe from the Near East to China, the Decameron, whose characters tramp all over the European and Islamic Mediterranean, or Mandeville’s Travels, the 14th century fictitious travelogue that contemplates pyramids in Egypt, a gigantic “idol” in Ceylon, ancestor worship in Tibet, and long-nailed mandarins in China.  Equally famed are Marco Polo’s and Ibn Battuta’s narratives of world-traversing journeys affording descriptions of Africa, the Near East, India, China, and Southeast Asia.

Less known is Ibn Fadlan’s tenth-century journey from the Abbasid court at Baghdad to Russia, setting down his thoughts on the myriad cultures of the Eurasian continent, and the unsanitary habits of the Rus.  Rabban Sauma, an Ongut or Uighur monk from the steppe makes his way from Beijing to the West, in the 13th century, discussing with the Curia in Rome differences between eastern and western Christianities, visiting shrines and relics, and giving communion to the King of England, Edward I, at Bordeaux in France, during a mass of the East Syrian rite performed by Sauma in 1288.

The Vinland Sagas tell of risky voyages across the Atlantic in the 11th century, tumultuous encounters with Native Americans, and the birth of the first European child in the Americas, Snorri Karlsefnisson.  Archeological excavation at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland discovered an early 11th-century Norse settlement and artifacts in 1960, lending extra-literary support to saga memories.  Not all early global texts thematized far-ranging voyages.  Kamaluddin Abdul-Razzaq Samarqandi’s mission to Calicut and Vijayanagar in the 15th century produced a literary narrative thematizing a city, Vijayanagar, a glittering global hub of its time in India.

Global literatures have been living among us for a very long time.  This seminar is an invitation to explore the literatures of the Global Middle Ages, famous and obscure, and to discuss what methods of reading are appropriate for them.  Previous knowledge of the Middle Ages or languages other than English is not required, but non-medievalists are expected to thicken their understanding of the Middle Ages in a serious and aggregative way, and medievalists are expected to engage with critical and theoretical texts we read with the same degree of attentiveness and commitment they afford medieval texts. Though not required for seminar discussion, possession of other languages, European and non-European, medieval and modern, is an advantage for research and writing.  Other requirements: 2 presentations, a seminar paper for a letter grade (for pass/fail credit, 2 presentations, no seminar paper).

Sample texts (suggestive, subject to change, open to negotiation): Sundiata, an epic of Mali; John of Plano Carpini’s Ystoria Mongalorum, William of Rubruck’s Itinerarium; The Secret History of the Mongols; The Vinland Sagas; Mission to Calicut and Vijayanagar (to be read alongside: Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land); Marco Polo, The Travels (Il Milione); Mandeville’s Travels (the Book of Sir John Mandeville); Ibn Fadlan, Journey to the Rus; Proclaiming Harmony, a Song dynasty “historical novel” (read alongside “Jacob of Ancona”’s City of Light); Rabban Sauma’s journey to the West.



Global England: A Literary Archeology of the Global Middle Ages, in progress.

The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, in progess.

Race and the Middle Ages. University of Toronto Press and the Medieval Academy of America, 2012.

"The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race." Forthcoming in Literature Compass, the Global Circulation Project.

"The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages." Forthcoming in Literature Compass, the Global Circulation Project.

"Holy War Redux: The Crusades, Futures of the Past, and Strategic Logic in the 'Clash' of Religions." PMLA May 2011.

pdf"The Global Middle Ages." Special Issue on Experimental Literary Education.  Ed Jeffrey Robinson.  ELN 47:1, 2009.

"An Experiment in Collaborative Humanities: 'Global Interconnections: Imagining the World 500-1500. ADFL Bulletin, 38(3), December 2007.

"Jews, Saracens, 'Black men,' Tartars: England in a World of Racial Difference, 13th-15th Centuries," A Companion to Medieval English Literature, c. 1350-c.1500, ed. Peter Brown, Blackwell 2005.


''Music to My Ears: Pleasure, Resistance, and Feminist Aesthetics in Reading.'' Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory. ed. Ellen Rooney. Cambridge UP, 2006.

"The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation," The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Cohen, Garland (2000).


"Cannibalism, the First Crusade, and the Genesis of Medieval Romance," differences 10.1, 1998.


"'A Great Way to Fly': Women, Nationalism, and the Varieties of Feminism in Southeast Asia." Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (pp.30-45). eds. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade, Mohanty, Routledge, 1996 (republished, translated).


"A Woman Wants: The Lady, Gawain, and the Forms of Seduction." Yale Journal of Criticism, 5(3), 101-134 (September 1992).


"Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." PMLA: Publication of the Modern Language Association of America, 500-514 (May 1991).


''State Fatherhood: The Politics of Nationalism, Sexuality, and Race in Singapore'', Nationalisms and Sexualities, eds. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, Patricia Yeager, Routledge 1991 (republished eight times; translated into other languages).


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