- 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).
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 4 No. 9 · 20 May 1982
SIR: Peter Burke’s review of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (LRB, 18 March) makes heavy weather of monsters. For, in Medieval marvel-books, they surely play much the same role as Martians or monsters from outer space in vulgar Science Fiction of our own time. Some of the dovecots set a-fluttering by Edward Said’s Orientalism are still in frenzied commotion, which may be all to the good. But it is, surely, excessive to invoke Medieval monster traditions (both European and Islamic) as further documentation for his dossier of the distortions imposed by Western orientalists upon the East. On the one hand, the moralised versions of the Alexander Romance which fed Gothic taste treat Alexander, not the monsters, as an object of admiration or execration, as a type of Magananimitas or Superbia; the monsters play no symbolic role at all. And, on the other, though Medieval Europe was undoubtedly highly credulous when it came to Asia and India, Saracens, Tartars, Turks and Mongols, who were indeed aliens and perceived as such, are presented in chronicles or in the geste literature as persons, not monsters. There is little traceable connexion, therefore, between monstrous appearance and monstrous behaviour.
The lore of Cyclops, Cynocephali, Blemmyae and such like (though not of Gymnosophists, unless a naked philosopher is a monstrosity) may, certainly, be presented as some sort of primitive perversion of anthropology. But should not Mr Burke follow his own counsel and read Gombrich’s discussion of the grotesque in The Sense of Order: ‘It may well be that in talking of the … functions of images writers have been somewhat too solemn. Neither the demons nor their victims necessarily lack a sense of humour’? As it is, his review, and quite possibly John Friedman’s book as well, seem to confuse the sources of what is imaginary with the pleasure of imagination. I am reminded of D.J. Enright’s review of Professor Said’s Orientalism. Remarking that the work is a critique of Western fantasies, he justly continued: ‘but because he is virtuous must we have no more fantasies’?