Western Devils, Eastern Devils

April 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

One of the more interesting sections of Mandeville is his description of the “Vale Perilous,” which so far as I can tell he thought was somewhere in India.  It is full of gold and silver, or at least the illusions thereof.  It’s also full of the corpses of Christians and others who have been tempted by the riches, only to be killed by the demons that live there.  This is the scary-campfire-story section of Mandeville, and for whatever reason this passage did give me a little chill:

In the middle of the valley under a rock one can clearly see the head and face of a devil, very hideous and dreadful to see; nothing else is seen of it except from the shoulders up.  There is no man in the world, Christian or anyone else, who would not be terrified to see it, it is so horrible and foul.  He looks at each man so keenly and cruelly, and his eyes are rolling so fast and sparkling like fire, and he changes his expression so often, and out of his nose and mouth comes so much fire of different colours with such an awful stench, that no man can bear it.

Quite a word-picture, that; for some reason the thought of seeing a devil’s head under a rock spooks me.  I’ve been interested in demon iconography for quite a while; I’m especially fond of Hieronymus Bosch’s whacked-out devils, and this Schongauer engraving is one of my favorites.  I’ve gotten really interested in Buddhist sculpture in recent years, especially Japanese.  This guardian figure in the Boston MFA is one of my favorites, and is scary as hell in person (it’s the crystal eyes).  Interesting that this is actually a benevolent figure in Buddhism, a protective deity and defender of the Buddhist law.  Also interesting that it’s dated to the 14th century, when Mandeville was touring around Asia.

Things Get Weird Past Cathay

April 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Mandeville’s been in cartographic/touristic/historian mode for a while, but he really lets it all hang out near the end of the book. After he’s described the Mongol lands and China, he just starts repeating whatever he’s heard (or embellishing whatever he’s read, perhaps). A couple of choice examples from chapter 29:

Maybe the most famous cock-and-bull story here is the one which the editor speculates might be hearsay about Korea: “There there grows a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too.” Even weirder, Mandeville gets all world-weary and says it’s no big deal, since in England they have trees whose fruits bear geese if they fall on water. Uh, yeah, sure.

An interesting apocalyptic story, too: according to Mandeville the Gog and Magog references in Revelation are to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which are trapped in a mountainous land. When the Antichrist appears, a fox will dig a hole into this land from just outside the gates that were built by Alexander the Great to hold these Jews in, and since they don’t have foxes there they’ll be so intrigued that they will chase him and dig after him and thereby escape their prison. It’s got a very old, very Freudian, very ugly-early-medieval-folklore feel, this story.

Why There are Roses

March 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

A couple more tidbits from this:

Probably my favorite of Sir John’s stories so far appears in chapter 9, which treats of Bethlehem and the scenery between it and Jerusalem. Here it is in full, after a description of a church outside of Bethlehem:

Between this church and the city is the field Floridus; it is called the ‘Field of Flowers’ because a young maiden was falsely accused of fornication, for which cause she was to have been burnt in that place. She was led thither and bound to the stake and faggots of thorns and other wood were laid round her. When she saw the wood begin to burn, she prayed to Our Lord that as she was not guilty of that crime He would help and save her, so that all men might know it. When she had thus prayed, she entered into the fire — and immediately it went out, and those branches that were alight became red rose-trees, and those that had not caught became white ones, full of blooms.  And those were the first roses and rose-bushes that were ever seen.  And thus was the maiden saved by the grace of God.

Now that’s excellent.  If God were always (or even occasionally) that whimsical, merciful, just, and available, who could help but worship him?

In chapter 10 we get a discussion of Saint Helena’s discovery of the cross, an important medieval legend I’d not known of before.  Saint Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, and was charged with discovering relics in Jerusalem shortly after Constantine Christianized the Roman empire.  According to Mandeville, she found the three crosses (of Jesus and the two thieves) hidden underground by the Jews.  To determine which cross was Christ’s, she had each one placed in turn on a dead man.  Christ’s cross brought him back to life.  (I think an alternate version of the legend says that it was just a sick man that was healed.  I kind of like the drama of finding a dead man to test the crosses on, though.  What experimental rigor!)

Helena also found the nails from the cross nearby, and the bridle of Constantine’s war-horse was made from one of them; hence the might of his army.

Crosses and Pyramids

March 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

What I’m reading here is a cheapo Penguin Classics edition of a 14th-century travel narrative/guide to the Holy Land/catalog of marvels and tales written (supposedly) by an English knight. Mandeville was really, really popular in his time and up through the Renaissance: tons of manuscripts survive in most European languages, there were a lot of printed editions, and the work was heavily anthologized, plagiarized, criticized, etc.

A lot of it is intended to be practical advice on geography, sight-seeing, and travel etiquette. But Mandeville’s digressions are most interesting, with their typical medieval tendency to filter everything possible through the Biblical narrative, folklore, and symbolism. So I’ll be jotting down some of the stories I thought most interesting here. To wit:

Chapter 2: Did you know Christ’s cross was made of four different types of wood? Mandeville did! The foot was cedar, to keep it from rotting (in case it took a long time for Jesus to die; apparently the thinking was that this was a kind of Jewish bet-hedging, in case Jesus was a bit divine and took days and days to die). The upright was cypress, which smells good, to keep the b.o. down. The cross-piece was palm wood, as an ironic fulfillment of an Old Testament statement that a victor should be crowned with palm. The INRI sign above Christ’s head was made of olive, which symbolized peace, which the Jews thought they would have once Christ died. And of course the symbols embodied by the woods, the choice of which Mandeville assigns to (unnamed, unidentifiable) Jews, can be neatly reversed to symbolize Christ’s power, perfection, victory, and peaceful reign.

Later in this chapter Mandeville claims to own a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns. If there was, indeed, an actual John Mandeville, this is a nice piece of self-promotion.

Ch. 7: Did you know the Pyramids were actually the barns which Joseph (the Old Testament Joseph, Pharaoh’s right-hand man) had built to store grain in during the seven lean years he correctly prophesied? As Mandeville says, “it is not likely that they are tombs, since they are empty inside and have porches and gates in front of them. And tombs ought not, in reason, to be so high.”

Mandeville (to assume there was such an actual person, and not a fictional construct, a handy name for a compilation by many writers, or a mythical being) actually seems to be a fairly free thinker, as medieval Westerners go: he says he’s served in the army of the Sultan of Egypt, and carefully presents alternative views to his own (see above). While he argues that the Holy Land should be under Christian rule, he also thinks that Christians have been unsuccessful in maintaining their hegemony there because they are unworthy of it, both in smarts and in sanctity. He seems genuinely interested in other places and peoples, and in their perspectives, even though he can’t break out of seeing Christ, the Bible, the dominant worldview in everything.

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