Joan-Pau Rubiés will give a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Thursday, September 14, at 12:15 pm. His talk is entitled “Artistic Skills and the Hierarchy of Civilizations in Medieval and Early Modern Travel Writing: A Chinese Theme through Muslim and European Eyes.”

In the Renaissance terminology, human ingenuity—ingenium—often encompassed artistic and mechanical skills distinct from the abstract use of reason. This distinction could have an important impact in the way Europeans assessed the relative degrees of civility of the various people of the world. It was perfectly possible, for example, for Bernabé Cobo, a seventeenth-century Jesuit historian of the New World, to praise the artistic skills of the American Indians as superior to those of Europeans while showing contempt for their intellectual abilities. Interestingly, looking back at evidence from the Middle Ages, including Chinese and Muslim as well as European sources, suggests that the cross-cultural assessment of cultural accomplishments was often built upon the capacity to make exquisite objects over other considerations. This talk will take the history of the saying “the three eyes of the world,” from the Seljuks through Sung and Ming China to the European Enlightenment, as a guideline in order to explore the ambiguities of the assessment of rationality and civil capacity in medieval and early modern travel writing. Rubiés will discuss why the capacity to make beautiful objects had such an important cross-cultural significance for so long, and why things were to change with the advent of a modern European discourse on civilization.

Joan-Pau Rubiés is ICREA Research Professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. He was formerly Reader in International History at the London School of Economics, and Visiting Professor at the École des Hautes Études et Sciences Sociales. He has also been Research Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence. He is a member of the Council of the Hakluyt Society, and Director of the Research Group on Ethnograhies, Cutural Encounters and Religious Missions at Universitat Pomeu Fabra. His publications include Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250-1625 (Cambridge University Press: Past and Present Publications, 2000) and Travellers and Cosmographers: Studies in the History of Early Modern Travel and Ethnology (Ashgate, 2007). He is currently writing two monographs, Europe´s New Worlds: Travel Writing and the Origins of the Enlightenment, 1550-1750 (CUP) and Misioneros Etnógrafos (Acantilado), and editing a volume on Cosmopolitanism and the Enlightenment. For a list of recent publications, see