Review of a Lecture about Medieval European Perceptions of Foreigners, Heretics and  Monsters

The lecture was delivered on February 29, 2000, at Hood College, MD, by Professor Debra Higgs Strickland of the University of Edinburgh, where she is currently a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Review by

Pandora Zook

Before the Titanic, before the Mayflower, and before the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, common belief held that if a ship sailed to the end of the world, it would fall off. But what might these wayward seafarers encounter before their doomed vessel faltered into the abyss? Such foolish interlopers surely would meet up with a virtual phalanx of various monstrous races, their features as distorted as their souls. With Jerusalem perceived as being smack dab in the center of the world, the farther good Christians strayed from the Holy Land, the closer they came to the unknown and therefore, ungodly, races. Ignorance fueled the medieval imagination at the unfortunate expense of foreign cultures, particularly those of Muslim, Jewish and central Asian origins. 

"Tartar, Jews and Saracens: Images of the Other in the Later Middle Ages" was the third in a lecture series sponsored by Hood College in Frederick, Md., which explored 13th century perceptions of the unknown and exotic. The lectures featured prominent medieval scholars, including Professor Debra Higgs Strickland of the University of Edinburgh. The easiest way to begin understanding 13th century attitudes toward non-Christian cultures from a modern-day perspective is to visualize the medieval world as a series of concentric circles, Strickland explained. The center circle encompassed "us," the next circle included "barbarians" and the outer ring was reserved for "disorder, fears and fantasies."

Non-Christians generally were lumped into the "barbarians" group (so named because the language of tribal societies sounded like "bar-bar-bar" to "civilized" ears). Farthest from the center, and farthest from personal 13th century experience, lived the "monstrous races" -- distorted perceptions of unknown populations, coexisting with the disorder, fears and fantasies of the medieval psyche, Strickland noted. These included: headless Blemyes (who had two eyes embedded in their chests), Sciapods, whose single large webbed foot doubled as an umbrella, four-eyed "maritime Ethiopians," men with horse hooves, dog heads or a single enormous protruding lip, and the three-faced Ambaris. 

Many of these human-beasts were incorporated into the "Hereford Map," a highly conceptual blueprint based not on factual data but on myths, legends and biblical tales. The map's creators, working in the 1280's, envisioned the world as a disc, and rotated north, east, south and west 90 degrees counterclockwise. Slightly above Jerusalem, Christ's crucifixion is depicted at Mount Calvary, along with numerous other biblical tales, such as Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Abraham, Lot's wife, the Tower of Babel, the Israelites' journey from Egypt, and the nativity. The Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas flow into one another in a sort of an incomplete "T," with Sicily located directly below Crete, and Italy, France and Spain part of the same land mass. Spotted throughout the map are mythical creatures, such as unicorns, coexisting with real animals including rhinos, ostriches and leopards. Most of the freaks are relegated to the map's outer perimeter. 

The ancient Greeks measured a group's degree of civilization and humanity by its societal practices, political organization, religion, diet, dress, marriage rites and language, Strickland explained. In the late Middle Ages, the more these factors differed from Christian practices, the more barbaric, deformed and godless the culture. Popular belief held that "other" races (those on the earth's perimeter) were naked, hairy-bodied, forest dwelling, cannibalistic, sexually perverted monsters. 

During the Crusades when Christians fought to regain the Holy Land from the Muslims, Christians pejoratively referred to Muslims as "Saracens," and often painted a fictitious portrait of that race. One 13th century artist depicted an insulting image of Mohammed on top of a pig falling in a dung heap and being smothered by the swine (this was particularly offensive as pork is considered sacrilege by practicing Muslims). According to Christian belief at the time, the manner of death was a direct reflection of that individual's, and his followers' soul. 

Just as the Muslims were a political and religious threat to the Christian community, Jews posed an additional economic threat to the populace. Jews were visible within the Christian society, although as a despised minority they were forced to live in designated areas of Western European cities, Strickland noted. While prohibited from pursuing various occupations, Jews were allowed to function as moneylenders, which in turn stereotyped them as indulging in the sins of usury and greed. This was reinforced by having to wear round badges resembling coins on their outer garments. Jews were perceived as being responsible for Christ's death. When Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver (another contributing factor to the "money bag" image), his sin was believed to have made the whole Jewish population and successive generations responsible for his actions. The falsehood that Jews sprouted horns (thus aligning them with the devil) likely originated from a mistranslation. Jews portrayed Moses as having rays of light emanating from his head. The Hebrew words for "light" and "horn" are very similar, thus the transference. Other physical stereotypes of Jews, as well as Muslims, included dark skin, distorted and exaggerated profiles and menacing grimaces. Medieval paintings showed Jews stabbing the host (which represented the body of Christ), killing a lamb (another Christ image), and generally working in league with the devil. Such unrelenting propaganda resulted in scores of pogroms against Jews, and their expulsion from England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. By 1500, there were hardly any Jews left in Western Europe. 

The most distant "other" race that plagued Medieval Europe was the Mongol or "Tartar" (the name derives from the "infernal regions"). This central Asian people invaded Europe in 1237. Like the bestial quasi-humans of the Hereford Map's outer circumference, they were viewed as physically ugly, sexually depraved and cannibalistic.

Most of these stereotypes derived not only from the fear of "what's out there," but what was already established in the Europe of the late Middle Ages. There were fears of personal sexuality, the intellectual integrity of Christianity, and fear of Christian conversion to Islam and Judaism, Strickland said. This, combined with the misinterpretation of beliefs and practices of different races unfortunately branded countless individuals who paid for such ignorance with their lives. 

Suggested readings: John Block Friedman, "The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought" (Harvard University Press, 1981). Friedman, "Medieval Trade, Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia" (Garland Press, 1998). Debra Higgs Strickland, "Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology" (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Strickland (editor), "The Mark of the Beast: The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life and Literature" (Garland Press, 1999). Daniel Weiss, "Arts and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(c) Pandora Zook: 3/10/2000; 08/11/2005