Monstrous races & christianity

After a short overview of ancient texts describing the inhabitants of inaccessible lands, it is time for medieval authors. The knowledge of the world developed in antiquity penetrated the imagination of Christian writers. On the one hand, they rejected everything that was associated with pagan practices, but they remained faithful to the belief that monstrous human races live far beyond the horizon.

The shape of the world remained unchanged, it consisted of three masses of land – Europe, Asia and Africa – separated by three masses of water and surrounded by ocean or okeanos. But in the farthest East, according to the Bible, there was now an Earthly Paradise. As on this illumination from the end of the 15th century, where Eden is located at the farthest end of the East (unlike today, the east is located at the top of the card).

world map from Liber de proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomeus Anglicus, 1482

The remains of knowledge developed in the Roman Empire were meticulously collected, against the ravages made by successive invasions, library fires and the migrations of the few surviving scholars. In the privacy of the medieval monastic scriptoria, the monks copied from various sources preserved in fragments, creating a patchwork structure. Thanks to this, in one volume we can find a systematic review of monstrous human races, next to the biblical books.

The Arnstein Bible, ca. 1172

Medieval scholars were thinking of ​​creating a comprehensive description of the world, which motivated them to gather remaining knowledge in the so-called encyclopedias. They differed from the encyclopaedias known to us – instead of confirming the data empirically, they referred to the authority of the ancients. The Natural History by Gaius Pliny the Elder was treated with particular adoration. It was an extensive lexicon from the first century AD describing particular lands, taking into account their terrain, natural resources, characteristics of inhabitants, vegetation and the animal world. And in there were a place also for stories about fantastic breeds inhabiting the Earth: dog-headed man, blemia, people feeding on the scent of flowers, or monstrous animals. A further promoter of the story of Pliny (as well as several other authors) was a talented compiler from the third century AD. – Gaius Julius Solinus. In De mirabilibus mundi he collected various available stories about the wonders of the world. The title of his book often appears in the registers of medieval librarian collections, which allows him to be considered one of the most important authors shaping contemporary ideas about distant lands and their inhabitants.

The last in this short relay-race of knowledge is Isidore of Seville (560-636). His Etymologies – a collection of all available information on each imaginable topic – has set the canon of knowledge, valid until the time of great discoveries. Isidore drew abundantly from many sources, but when creating a long list and a detailed description of the monstrous tribes, he again reached the works of Pliny and Solinus, confirming their authority for several centuries.

Saint Augustine (354-430) undoubtedly knew the work of Pliny. However, he was the first to reflect on the existence of monstrous human races from the point of view of Christianity. His De civitate Deiin its dualistic vision of the world consisting of a temporal and eternal dimension also contains a description of the various races encountered on Earth.

“Because it is said that certain people have only one eye in the middle of their foreheads; that some feet are facing back; that some are bisexual beings, the right breast have a masculine and the left a feminine, they connect with each other, or vice versa, by inseminating or giving birth; that others still only reach the height of the elbow, from where the Greeks – from their own word for elbow – call them Pygmy; that in some areas women are fertile at the age of five and live no more than eight years. Apparently, there is a nation where people have one leg over two feet and bend their knees, yet they are characterized by amazing agility; they call them Skopoids, because in the heat, lying on their backs, they find shelter in the shadow of their own feet. There are also people without heads with eyes on their shoulders and other varieties of people or quasi-people who are presented in a mosaic on the seaside square in Carthage, based on the stories contained in the books about more peculiar phenomena. And what to say about Cynocephali, whose dog heads and barking betray rather animal than human nature?” [translation my own ]

SPECULUM MAIUS, ca. 1475, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XIII 5

However, he does not stop with only the description. He analyzes the idea whether these monstrous races should be considered the descendants of the first man – Adam. Therefore – whether they belong to the human race. Augustine assumes that the divine plan is infallible, and God in his omnipotence has the ability to create everything. Man, due to his limitations, is not able to embrace in his mind the entire divine plan. Therefore, it is not in human hands to deny humanity to any misfits, both those encountered on a daily basis and (hypothetical) monstrous races. In the end, they are all a divine creature.

Scientific Miscellany, ca. 1040

This subtle argument, including fantastic human races in the work of divine creation, meant that there were no obstacles to believing in their existence. They could easily exist just beyond the horizon of cognition, in distant lands, so different from what is known. Travel reports, full of fantastic creatures and monsters, seemed completely faithful in this light. This way, the authority built on the canon of ancient knowledge, supported by Christian theology and completely ignoring empiricism, prolonged life of monopods, pygmies, giants or blemias.

Aleksandra Janiszewska

Suggested further reading:

  • Peter Burke, Naoczność. Materiały wizualne jako świadectwo historyczne, 2012
  • Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human. New Worlds, Maps and Monsters, Cambridge 2017
  • Rudolf Wittkower, Marvels of the East. A Study in the History of Monsters, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 5 (1942), s. 159-197
  • Katarzyna Zalewska, Mirabilia descripta. Osobliwości świata w piśmiennictwie geograficznym i kartografii średniowiecza, „Ikonotheka”, nr 3, 1991
  • Katarzyna Zalewska-Lorkiewicz, Ilustrowane mappae mundi jako obraz świata, Warszawa 1996

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