Aliens

Peter Burke

  • The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought by John Friedman
    Harvard, 268 pp, £14.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 674 58652 2
  • Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain by William Christian
    Princeton, 349 pp, £16.80, September 1981, ISBN 0 691 05326 X

‘India and parts of Ethiopia teem with marvels,’ wrote Pliny in his Natural History. ‘The Gymnosophists stay standing from sunrise to sunset, gazing at the sun with eyes unmoving, and continue all day long standing first on one foot and then on the other in the glowing sand. Megasthenes states that … there is a tribe of human beings with dogs’ heads, who wear a covering of wild beasts’ skins, whose speech is barking … Ktesias describes a tribe of men called Sciopods (Umbrella-Feet), because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet.’ Pliny went on to describe the appearance and customs of Amazons, Anthropophagi, Brahmins, Cyclops, Pygmies and other peoples, including the Astomi, who lack mouths but live by smelling apples, and the Blemmyae, whose heads ‘do grow beneath their shoulders’. Pliny’s account fascinated Medieval artists and writers: there are illustrations of the Apostles going and preaching ‘to all nations’ which contain representations of these ‘monstrous races’; and some Medieval lives of St Christopher describe him as belonging to the Dog-Heads (Erasmus, on the other hand, suggested, tongue in cheek, that he was a Cyclops).

These Medieval images of the monstrous races have in their turn fascinated modern scholars. However, as J.B. Friedman observes, ‘discussions of these peoples have been neither rigorous nor analytical.’ ‘Marvels of the East’ have been replaced by ‘Marvels of the Middle Ages’. A distinguished exception was the work of Rudolf Wittkower, whose essay on the subject goes back to 1942, and was concerned with the transmission and modification of a set of stereotypes about exotic lands. Friedman now follows in Wittkower’s tracks. Like Wittkower, he seems equally at home with images and texts, with the Hereford Map and the romance Floire et Blanchefleur. He carries his learning lightly. His book consists of nine essays on different aspects of the Plinian races. One chapter is concerned with the geography of the races: the torrid and the frozen zones, because they were extreme in climate, were considered appropriate habitats for such extreme forms of man. Another chapter is devoted to Medieval views of the history of the races: whether, for instance, they were the descendants of Noah or of Cain. A third discusses the idea that these ‘monsters’ were in fact monstra, portents or signs of God’s will which needed to be interpreted.

Professor Friedman likes to stick fairly close to specific texts and images, but every now and then he allows himself to stand back from them to make brief points of wider interest. One of these concerns changes over time. In the later Middle Ages, as geographical knowledge accumulated, the monstrous races were shifted from India and Ethiopia to less well-known regions such as the South Pole. They also began to appear less fearsome. Some writers saw the Amazons and the Brahmins as something like noble savages. A few even argued that the monstrous quality of the Plinian races was in the eye of the beholder. ‘Just as we consider Pygmies to be dwarfs, so they consider us giants,’ wrote Jacques de Vitry, a l3th-century bishop whose years in the Middle East may have encouraged him to be less ethnocentric than the majority of his contemporaries.

A more general issue raised by Friedman’s book is that of the nature and functions of the stereotype, and in particular the stereotype of the alien, the ‘other’. As he points out, the monstrous races are not the products of pure fantasy. ‘Many of the fabulous races did in fact exist. They continue to exist today’ – pygmies, for example, or cannibals. It is a pity he did not see the study by W. Arens, The Man-Eating Myth (1979), which casts doubt on the idea that peoples exist which practise cannibalism on a regular basis. But Friedman’s main point is to suggest that the monstrous races are the result of misunderstanding or ‘errors of perception’. ‘Amazons reflect the customs of matriarchal societies ... baboons or anthropoid apes may be behind the tales of barking, dog-headed peoples,’ and so on. It might be more useful to adopt a formulation slightly different from Friedman’s, and to describe the fabulous races as the result of selective perception, ‘sharpening’, as it is sometimes called, perception in terms of a schema or stereotype. This would place Friedman in the tradition of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, a work he does not cite, although he does mention a study by Gombrich’s pupil Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters (1977), which is concerned with the history of Western perceptions of Indian art.

Why perceive other cultures as monstrous? Friedman’s answer to this question, in a word, is ‘ethnocentrism’. He points out that monsters were believed to inhabit the periphery of the world, while true humans lived near the centre, Jerusalem. He does not feel that this ethnocentrism needs a political explanation. One might contrast his approach with that of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Said has described 19th-century Orientalism as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient’, ‘a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”), and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)’. This powerful formulation is not free from problems; as Friedman’s book makes abundantly clear, the distinction between West and East, Us and Them, long antedated Western dominance. However, it can hardly be doubted that the image of Them as subhuman has sometimes served to legitimate domination by Us. As Friedman points out, following Erich Auerbach, peasants and herdsmen appear as monstrous in 12th-century aristocratic literature like the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. To adopt the language of contemporary ‘labelling theory’, we may say that a dominant group is able to create deviants from its norms by imposing its categories or schemata. The schemata structure perception, and perception than appears to confirm the schemata.

Such a theory of self-perpetuation is at its best in accounting for the persistence over long periods of a schema like that of the Plinian races. The problem is that the theory accounts for persistence so successfully as to make change difficult to explain. Yet, as Friedman shows, change did occur. In the late Middle Ages the monstrous races were displaced to the South Pole and, later, the New World; they ceased to be fearsome; they came to lose credibility. No doubt his explanation of these changes in terms of the increase in travel and travel literature is correct as far as it goes, but it should perhaps be added that different stereotypes of the ‘other’ were taken seriously in the later Middle Ages, notably those of the enemy within, the Jew and the witch. Nor can we flatter ourselves that we are so much less prejudiced than Medieval people were, in an age of new ‘monstrous races’, such as ‘vandals’, ‘hooligans’ and other ‘troublemakers’.

Schemata seem to affect our perception of the superhuman as well as the subhuman, good as well as evil. In his study Sociologie et Canonisations (1969), the Belgian sociologist Pierre Delooz suggested that some societies are ‘programmed’ to perceive sanctity and that new saints are perceived according to the stereotypes of older ones. S. Carlo Borromeo was seen as a new St Ambrose, S. Filippo Neri as a new St Francis, and so on. Stereotyping is particularly evident in the case of religious apparitions. William Christian, an anthropologist turned historian, has been studying apparitions in Late Medieval Spain. St Ildefonso, St Anthony of Padua and St Michael the Archangel all made their appearance, but the dominant figure was that of the Virgin Mary.

At Jaen in 1430, for example, four people saw the Virgin as a tall lady in white: ‘From this lady issued so much brightness that she shone as the sun shines.’ At Sant Aniol, near Girona, she appeared as ‘a beautiful, elegant woman dressed in white’. At Pinos, near Lleida, in 1507, a man saw the Virgin as ‘a woman dressed all in red’ who appeared ‘with a noise like dull thunder’. Elsewhere she appeared very small, like a girl of seven or eight, or even like a child of two or three.

Where did these apparitions come from? Some visions seem to have been modelled on earlier ones, but the similarities were usually generic rather than precise. Some clearly drew on art and ritual: at Jaen in 1430, the Virgin was part of a visionary procession, and her clothes, according to one witness, ‘shone as if she were a silver image’. At Cubas, near Madrid, in 1449, the Virgin was described as like the image on the altar at the great shrine of Guadalupe. In short, there was a standard iconography of visions in Late Medieval Spain as there was elsewhere. In 14th-century Siena, St Catherine’s visions resembled paintings by Lorenzetti. In 17th-century Russia, Christ appeared to Patriarch Nikon just as he did in the icons. Protestant visions, like Protestant religious art, followed a different iconography from Catholic visions. If St Teresa’s vision of an angel with a flaming dart lent itself so well to the art of Bernini, this was because it was something of a Baroque vision in the first place.

In this ‘culture of visions’, as Christian calls it, individual apparitions seem to have been created by a process of bricolage, combining elements from art, ritual and earlier visions just ‘as the mind makes creative combinations from known elements when dreaming’. So much for the code: but what was the message? ‘What people hear the saints say, or the way they see the saints,’ suggests Christian, ‘reveals their deepest preoccupations.’ In Late Medieval Catalonia, one of these preoccupations was the plague, and the Virgin told the people to whom she appeared that their communities must stop sinning (in particular, they must stop blaspheming), or God would send more plagues to punish them.

Like confraternities, visions were an important part of Late Medieval popular religion. Christian does not care for the term ‘popular religion’, and deliberately calls his companion study of the cult of the saints, also published last year, Local Religion in 16th-Century Spain, preferring to distinguish centre and periphery rather than high and low. However, the visions which he describes and analyses were ‘popular’, in the sense that they were experienced by ordinary people (a shepherd, a servant girl, a labourer’s wife, a weaver’s daughter and so on), and in the sense that the visions were unofficial. The authorities usually reacted with caution, not to say suspicion, to these lay religious initiatives. They might come to accept them as genuine and take control of them, but they might not. Like modern anthropologists, some Inquisitors thought that women sometimes had visions as a way of gaining attention and compensating for their lack of power and status. From the early 16th century on, as Christian shows, Spanish visions were increasingly repressed and the visionaries punished. The chronology is not surprising: one reaction to the Reformation was increased centralisation in the Church. Visions, confraternities and the making of saints were all subjected to central control. It may be no accident that this centralisation coincided with the peak in witch trials, for the witches’ sabbaths seem to have been visions, culturally patterned dreams (whether or not induced by drugs), to which the authorities had given an unfavourable interpretation. As Norman Cohn showed in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975), the perception of witches – like that of saints, visions and other cultures – was governed by ancient stereotypes. The history of stereotypes, and collective perceptions, is a rapidly growing subject to which specialists in anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, art and literature are contributing as much as – or more than – ordinary historians. To this literature the books by Friedman and Christian, diverse in approach as they are, make distinguished additions.