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Courtly Encounters

Courtly Encounters

Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

ISBN 9780674067363

Publication date: 10/30/2012

Cross-cultural encounters in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought the potential for bafflement, hostility, and admiration. The court was the crucial site where expanding Eurasian states and empires met and were forced to make sense of one another. By looking at these interactions, Courtly Encounters provides a fresh cross-cultural perspective on the worlds of early modern Islam, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, Protestantism, and a newly emergent Hindu sphere.

Both individual agents and objects such as texts and paintings helped mediate encounters between courts, which possessed rules and conventions that required decipherment and translation, whether in words or in pictures. Sanjay Subrahmanyam gives special attention to the depiction of South Asian empires in European visual representations, finding a complex history of cultural exchange: the Mughal paintings that influenced Rembrandt and other seventeenth-century Dutch painters had themselves been earlier influenced by Dutch naturalism. Courtly Encounters provides a rich array of images from Europe, the Islamic world, India, and Southeast Asia as aids for understanding the reciprocal nature of cross-cultural exchanges. It also looks closely at how insults and strategic use of martyrdom figured in courtly encounters.

As he sifts through the historical record, Subrahmanyam finds little evidence for the cultural incommensurability many ethnohistorians have insisted on. Most often, he discovers negotiated ways of understanding one another that led to mutual improvisation, borrowing, and eventually change.


  • Every page of this book is like a voyage of discovery. Subrahmanyam illustrates how encounters between peoples did not just take place 'out there' in the peripheries of imperial systems, but also in the very nerve centers of power, the imperial courts of Eurasia. From Persia to Aceh, royal households were settings for the making of mutual perceptions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus—with powerful visual and textual accounts of sharing, killing, and martyrdom. While so much of world history accents the strangeness of global encounters, Subrahmanyam brilliantly illuminates how much intimacy was laced into the intrigue and violence of courtly systems.

    —Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University


  • Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Distinguished Professor and Irving & Jean Stone Chair in Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Book Details

  • Harvard University Press

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