Mirabilia

I have recently focused here on describing images of monstrous human races in order to understand the mechanism of creating an image of other in European culture. In previous entries, I summarized how the ancient Greeks and Romans perceived the inhabitants of distant lands and how this influenced knowledge developed in the Middle Ages. Today’s hero of the story will be a fascinating literary genre – MIRABILIA.

Scientific Miscellany, ca. 1040, British Library, London

These were the books of the wonders of the world, written like the accounts of travels to exotic countries, describing their uniqueness and the breathtaking adventures of the main character. Among the descriptions of the miraculous nature of flora and fauna, there has always been a place for mention of fantastic races inhabiting distant lands. Stories were often repeated in subsequent sets, as compilations of well-known works were frequent and even desirable. Medieval philosophers and theologians stressed that the ability to admire what is amazing is the first step towards knowledge.

The link between antiquity and the Middle Ages was the The Romance of Alexander, treated as a true account of the expedition of Alexander the Great to India, and a fantastic compilation of stories about the wonders of India, collected under the pretext of describing the campaign of the great commander. The first version of the novel probably originated in Alexandria in the Hellenistic era, although the earliest preserved editions come from the 4th century. It is full of the descriptions of Aleksander’s meetings with mythical beasts and characters, travels to fairy-tale lands, but the most important is the episode of building an iron gate in the distant mountains in the northeast, behind which the monster races were closed. They were considered descendants of bloodthirsty giants – Gog and Magog, appearing in the Bible (and in the Koran). The Romance of Alexander provided the basis for identifying the pagan king that  Alexander the Great was, with the role model of a good ruler in the Middle Ages.

Alexander the Great in his journey to India, fragment,
ca. 1420, British Library, London

One of the most beautiful compilations of mirabilis is Livre des merveilles – a richly illustrated manuscript commissioned by John the Fearless as a gift to his uncle – Jean de Berry, donated to him in 1413. The manuscript consist of seven texts, which are mainly reports of (more or less true) journeys, richly decorated with illuminations which means – illustrations. Most of them were made by artists from the workshop of the highly talented master Boucicault. The collection is also interesting for us because it gathers all the most popular stories in the Middle Ages about extraordinary journeys.

It begins with the relation of the Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo from his journey to China at the end of the 13th century. According to the story, it was written in the prison in Genoa in 1298. There are many versions, mutually different from each other, which only reinforces suspicions about the author’s truthfulness. Especially since he repeats many European stereotypes about the Orient. In his defense, however, it should be added that he also gave descriptions of local rites and rituals, and he also rarely referred to monstrous races as inhabitants of the lands he meets. For this, the illustrators of his texts eagerly chose those fragments where he mentioned fantastic creatures and did not fail to add them where there was no mention of them.

Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ca. 1410-1412
Bibliotheque Nationale Paris

Below is an illustration accompanying the fragment in which Marco Polo described the inhabitants of Siberia in this way: Its inhabitants are called the Mekrits, it is a very wild people. They live from hunting. Their habits and customs are similar to Tatar customs. They are subject to the Great Khan. There are no crops or wine. In the summer, they hunt and fish many game and birds, but in the winter because of the cold weather, birds and animals leave these lands. [translation is mine]Who do you see in the picture? Blemmite, Monopod and Cyclops, of which there is no word in the description. Their repellent appearance based on the feeling of otherness was used by the illuminator to emphasize the wildness that Marco Polo mentions. At the same time, this appearance means that the viewer does not find any similarities with the described people, but only experiences feelings of strangeness.

Wild people of Siberia
Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ca. 1410-1412,
Bibliotheque Nationale Paris [MS Fr. 2810]

Another extremely popular and inspiring story that was included in the collection are the memoirs of the alleged English knight John of Mandeville, who in the years 1322-1356 was to traverse the Holy Land, vast areas of Central and South Asia and the islands of the Indian Ocean.

Giants,
Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ca. 1410-1412,
Bibliotheque Nationale Paris [MS Fr. 2810]

He described, among others, the island where the giants live: For they are like wild animals that have no houses and are more willing to eat human flesh than any other. Nobody comes to this island willingly or approaches it, because as soon as they see the ship with people on board, they enter the water to kidnap them. (…) Nobody, however, approaches one or the other, lest they devour him alive. I also saw the giants, how they caught people at sea, brought them ashore in one hand and eat them raw. [translation is mine] The story also includes descriptions of various kingdoms of the East with a high level of civilization, rich and populous. It is assumed that Jan of Mandeville was a fictional character, behind which a well-read compiler and lover of various mirabilis hid.

Nowell Codex, k. X w. – beginning 11. cent., fol. 82v, British Library, London

Mirabilia rarely described communication with others, more broadly depicting the experience of otherness and horror of it. Meeting with others was based on mutual distrust, a sense of threat from the “monsters” who were to run away, hurt those who approach them or eat the ones they caught. This description speaks more about the norms that medieval Europeans had than about the tribes they learnt. The accounts of travelers shared the images of their readers about the East as the land of all uniqueness, but they did not offer the knowledge of real peoples. The authority of Marco Polo’s diaries may be testified by the fact that Christopher Columbus relied on them in preparing for the trip to India.

Aleksandra Janiszewska

Further reading:

  • Barbara Maria Perucka, „Livre des merveilles” burgundzka wizja Orientu i późnego średniowiecza, Warszawa-Toruń 2016
  • 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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