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The Power of Distance: The Transformation of European Perceptions of Self and Other, 1100-1600

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AbstractAnthropologists such as Mary Helms have noted a historical linkage between the phenomena of perceived distance and perceived power. In this article I apply this paradigm to the history of European imperial expansion between the twelfth and the sixteenth century. In the Middle Ages, European popes and kings imbued the mythic ruler Prester John with great power in part because he was unseen and believed to live at a great distance. By associating the Mongols, and the Ethiopians after them, with Prester John, both of these peoples became an embodiment of this distance/power paradigm in Western European eyes. Latins hoped that the Mongols or Ethiopians would use their “power” to assist the West in their crusading battles in the Holy Land. When the Portuguese and Spanish began their voyages of expansion, they applied the same paradigm to the peoples they encountered in Asia, Africa and the Americas. When distance between Europe and these other continents was breached, however, the Iberian view of the others’ power diminished. Simultaneously, the Spanish and Portuguese perception of their own power increased as they, not “Prester John”, became the conquerors of distance.

Affiliations: 1: Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr University Bochum, Universitätsstrasse 15044801 BochumGermany


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