Reunion Island’s UNESCO designation puts spotlight on its medieval and colonial legacies—including its relationship with famous scholar Joseph Bédier.

Joseph Bédier (1864–1938) was one of the most famous scholars of his day. He held prestigious posts and lectured throughout Europe and the United States, an activity unusual for an academic of his time. A scholar of the French Middle Ages, he translated Tristan and Isolde as well as France’s national epic, The Song of Roland. Bédier was publicly committed to French hegemony, yet he hailed from a culture that belied this ideal—the island of Reunion in the southern Indian Ocean. Here, Michelle Warren discusses how France’s medieval and colonial legacies have converged since the nineteenth century.

“The Origin of Métissage,” Saint-Paul, La Réunion, part of a UNESCO-related project to mark the paths of the Indian Ocean slave trade—on the same shoreline as a monument to European settlement that once bore Joseph Bédier’s name. Photograph by Michelle R. Warren.

Professor of comparative literature at Dartmouth College

In July 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the land encompassed by the National Park of Reunion Island a World Heritage site. Covering more than 40% of the island, the site was recognized for its exceptional biodiversity as well as for its stunning beauty. At the same session, UNESCO also accepted the French Episcopal City of Albi, a visually striking example of medieval architecture. France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy cited “the red city of Albi and the green fortress of La Réunion” as “the most emblematic monuments of our cultural and natural heritage.” Here, Sarkozy reaffirms a long-standing tendency to place both the medieval and the colonial at the heart of the French national psyche.

I read this news while correcting proofs for Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier’s Middle Ages, and I was struck once again by the uncanny yet consistent ways in which France’s medieval and colonial legacies have intertwined since the nineteenth century. In my book, I unravel some of these interactions by analyzing political discourse, World Fairs, medieval scholarship, and contemporary museums. The project began, though, with the life of Joseph Bédier (1864-1938)—a native of Reunion who also became one of France’s most famous medieval scholars and a figure of international prominence through his service in World War I and his popular translation of the romance of Tristan and Iseult (aka Tristan and Isolde).

Bédier was closely involved with politicians and cultural critics who tried to make Reunion more influential in the French empire, a task that became increasingly difficult as the government aggressively expanded its territorial claims in Africa and Asia. Especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Reunion seemed hopelessly peripheral and economically stagnant. To combat these practical obstacles, Eurocentric activists emphasized the island’s cultural value, casting the white elites as the guardians of France’s oldest and best traditions. They dubbed the island a “second France,” the “metropole of the Indian Ocean,” and even a “colonizing colony” for its role in the conquest of Madagascar. Bédier and his Middle Ages both played instrumental roles in these efforts.

Reunion Island sits several hundred
miles east of Madagascar.

Today’s initiatives to bring international attention to Reunion through UNESCO bear a surprising resemblance to the cultural politics of the colonial period. In both cases, Reunion is cast as a kind of “Eden,” an idyllic place that must be safeguarded from immigration and economic discrimination (under colonialism), and from invasive species and unsightly development (under globalization). In both cases, activists promote “culture” (be it the old aristocracy or harmonious multiracial diversity) as key to economic growth. In both cases, some citizens resist, valorizing non-European heritages or defending against ecological regulation.

Reunion’s status as a “successful” model of diversity emerges from another recent UNESCO designation: in 2009 the musical style known as maloya joined the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO describes maloya as “an element of national identity, an example of cultural mixing, a moral touchstone and a model for integration”; the cultural activists behind the initiative describe it as “the very symbol of the cultural identity of all the generations in Reunion; [it] truly embodies the values of tolerance, solidarity and openness which characterize society in Reunion.” Maloya, like the National Park, requires support and protection from “outside” influences. As “world” heritage, both culture and nature must maintain local specificity while also transcending it.

These conflicting pressures mirror the politics of culture in the colonial period: national ideals required visible regional “differences” and the absolute unity of the Republic. As I show in Creole Medievalism, distant times and distant places play similar roles in this double discourse, which shapes the Paris World Fairs, Bédier’s major publications, and several contemporary art projects. The Middle Ages and the colonies both oscillate between prestige and barbarism, converging on the scene of a young Bédier reading the medieval epic Song of Roland as a form of local history, under a mango tree on Reunion.

Reunion’s UNESCO initiatives respond to real social, economic, and ecological problems to which there are no obvious solutions. By understanding how today’s efforts are in dialogue with the past, the risks and rewards of cultural politics can become clearer. In order to leverage international recognition into greater national status, Reunion plays, once again, the “pure” and “harmonious” foil to the fractious continent. This strategy sidelines the dissension of lived differences even as it corrects past injustices. Creole Medievalism is about the role of historical memory in this irresolvable conundrum.


Read more about Bédier, colonial France and the island of Reunion in Creole Medievalism.

“A first-rate and fascinating book.”
—Jody Enders, author of Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends

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