Marvelous India in Medieval European Representations

Corin Braga, Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj, Romania


To the Europeans, throughout the Middle Ages, India represented a fabulous country, a realm of wonders, an “oneiric horizon” (Jacques Le Goff). By using varied traditions inherited from Antiquity, the Fathers of the Church, the encyclopedists (from Isidore of Seville to Brunetto Latini or Vincent of Beauvais) or the authors of extraordinary travellogues peopled this imaginary land with a marvellous flora and a monstrous fauna, as well as strange human races. A (psycho) analysis of these fantastic figures (dog-headed men, one-legged ones, men with eyes, nose and mouth on their chest, hermaphrodites, pygmies, giants, Amazons, cannibals, etc.) would uncover the fantasies, scare, frustrations, unconscious complexes, prejudices and stereotypes that the Europeans projected on the figures of some “others”, whom they situated at the antipodes of Europe – not so much geographical, as cognitive, moral, cultural and spiritual, antipodes.

Keywords: European medieval tradition; Fabulous India; Marvels of the East; Monstrous Races.

The Church Fathers and the encyclopedists of the European Middle Ages saw India as a fantastical rather than a real land. In that age, on the so called T-O maps of the world (Terrarum orbis), India lay at the antipodes of Europe. On these maps, representing the known world (Europe, Asia and Africa, as a disc surrounded by the river Okeanós), Europe and Africa each occupied a quarter of the disc, with Asia occupying the remaining half. India, in its turn, occupied the southern half of Asia, therefore a quadrant of the oïkoumènê. Attribution of a quarter of the known world surface to India goes back to Ctesias, who, as Strabo commented, assumed that “India equals in grandeur the rest of Asia as a whole.”[1] Other authors were still more enthusiastic: Onesicritus, according to Strabo again, stated that India “made up the third of the inhabited world”[2], an estimation that was taken up by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia[3] and by Solinus in his Collectanea rerum memorabilium.[4]

These global approximations, whose role is mnemonic rather than systematising, were taken up by almost all the mediaeval mythographers and geographers who dealt with India. As graphic plans of the world seen through the Christian religion, T-O maps were not at all interested in the practical representation of distances and connections. These world maps offered a simplified description of India. Starting with Isidore of Seville, who set the standard image of India[1] for several centuries, some descriptive traits were kept from the whole ancient tradition, being relentlessly and stereotypically reproduced. India became an asset of mediaeval science, but mostly as a name and as a malleable, abstract graphical space, capable of garnering study-room fantasies, rather than a physical geographical reality that might provoke real journeys.

Most medieval treatises and encyclopedias rehearse the same composite sketch of India, reduced to a few characteristics taken from the classical geographers. Firstly, India continues to occupy a fourth of the oïkoumènê and half of Asia (see Fig. 1: Isidore of Seville[5], Etymologiarum, 7th century, Ed. Augsburg, 1472). As T-O maps of the world face east, India covers the top right-hand orbiculus section on the map, contained between the two perpendicular radii going from Jerusalem (the center), follow the diaphragm line eastward, i.e. from the Nile southward. This geometrical simplification, framing India within two classical continental demarcation lines, stretches over a huge territory, which, in modern geography, belongs to other areas and continents. Medieval “India” included three large regions that the Church doctors used to call: Higher, Minor or Intra-Ganges India, which corresponds more or less to the present-day Indian peninsula; Lower, Major or Extra-Ganges India, i.e. Indochina and present-day Southeast China; and Middle India, or the space stretching between the Nile and the Indian peninsula.

Thus India’s arc of a circle starts from the higher cardinal point of the terrestrial orb, from the east, where lies the earthly paradise, going all the way to the cardinal point situated to the right of the orb, the south, on the level of the sources of the Nile, more precisely the “Mountains of the Moon”. This is the arc of the circle directly opposed to the section occupied by Europe. Posidonius and Solinus[6] stated that India is diametrically symmetrical with Gaule, while Eratosthenes[7] and Martianus Capella[8] surmised that the circumnavigation of the oïkoumènê would lead from Spain to India. On T-O maps, which reduce the terrestrial three-dimensional globe to a flat projection, India becomes nothing less than the Antipodes of Europe, with one of them resting on the south-east, and the other on the north-west arc of the terrestrial disc…Access Full Text of the Article

[1] ”L’Inde égale en grandeur tout le reste de l’Asie”, in Strabon, Géographie, II, 5, 5, Texte établi et traduit par Germaine Aujac, Paris, Les belles lettres, 1969, tome II, p. 83-84.

[2] ’Inde ”fait le tiers de toute la terre habitée”, in Strabon, Géographie, XV, I, 12, Traduite du grec en français, à Paris, de l’Imprimerie Royale, 1819, tome Ve, p. 13.

[3] Pline l’Ancien, Histoire naturelle, VI, 59, Texte établi, traduit et commenté par J. André et J. Filliozat, Paris, Les belles lettres, 1980, p. 33.

[4] Julius Solinus, Collectanea rerum memorabilium, Iterum recensuit Th. Mommsen, Berolini, Apud Weidmannos, 1895, p. 184.

[5] Reydellet, 1984 ; Livre XII, Texte établi, traduit et commenté par Jacques André, 1986.

[6] Julius Solinus, op. cit., p. 183.

[7] Strabo related that, according to Eratosthenes, ”if the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean were not an obstacle, we could travel by sea from Iberia to India: it would be enough to follow the same parallel and to cross the rest of the [globe’s] section, once the distance defined above is over [the distance India-Iberia by land]” (”si l’immensité de l’océan Atlantique n’y faisait obstacle, il nous serait possible d’aller par mer d’Ibérie jusqu’en Inde : il suffirait de suivre le même parallèle, et de parcourir la section [du globe] qui reste, une fois ôtée la distance définie ci-dessus [la distance Inde-Ibérie par terre]”). Géographie (1969), I, 4, 6, p. 170-171.

[8] Martianus Capella, The Seven Liberal Arts, vol. II The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Translated by William Hanis Stahl and Richard Johnson with E. L. Burge, New York, Columbia University Press, 1977, p. 230-231.

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