Maps, Monsters and Misericords: From Creation to Apocalypse
By Naomi Reed Kline
The Profane Arts of the Middle Ages, Vol. XI: La bible de bois (2002)
Introduction: Scythia, India, Ethiopia, were some of the distant lands long ago described by Pliny and Solinus as exotic, alien, and populated by strange peoples in comparison to the known Roman world In the Middle Ages, the same descriptions of far-away places and strange peoples again captured the imagination insofar as many Europeans heard reports of distant lands from returning crusaders and pilgrims that whet their appetites for more.
Known only through hearsay and inhabiting countries beyond the reach of the crusades, the stories of the strange and monstrous races unleashed a fascination with imagined deformities of these folk. Their bodies, attire, habits of eating and locomotion, sexual behavior, treatment of elders and methods of rulership, as described by the ancients, rekindled interest in that rich source of the fantastic to be revisited as comparisons to the European Christian standard Strange and monstrous peoples were originally described by ancient texts and they were incorporated into the medieval collective lore of the distant through the « Wonders of the East », bestiaries, and other odd assortments of information about freakish folks.
The debate regarding the question of redemption for human monstrosities had a long history. In the Middle Ages, scholars referred to St Augustine’s Civitas Dei for guidance in dealing with the predicament that monsters posed for the Church. Expanding upon such treatises as Isidore of Seville’s discussion of monstrous races, Augustine grappled with the question of how the Church could reconcile the presence of monstrous races with a world of God’s creation. To begin, Augustine described monsters as prodigies, placed on this earth as indication of God’s power to create all things. By arguing that they were related to the sons of Noah, and therefore redeemable, he provided the means by which these peoples could be incorporated into the biblical structure with purpose and meaning.