The Medieval Marvels of the East

Written by Luke Matcham. Edited by Bradley Bosson.

For many living in Europe during the medieval period, the world beyond their known horizons was one inhabited by monsters and marvels of various form. While modern observers may scoff at such belief in the existence of unicorns, giants and dog-headed men (to name but a few), the medieval mind was one influenced by a wealth of knowledge which asserted their reality. From biblical stories, to the ancient geographical assertions of Pliny, it became clear that the East was an unknown land encompassing many untold curiosities. While the crusades to the Holy Land arguably helped to expand European horizons, it was not until the middle of the thirteenth century that travellers were able to penetrate further into the East and explore the reality behind the myths upon which they were raised.

The explosive incursions of the Mongols into Eastern Europe in 1240-1242, sparked a number of diplomatic missions to establish contact with their empire, and from 1245 to 1339 a variety of European travellers were able to visit the East for themselves. Diplomats, missionaries and merchants, all returned to the West with accounts of their travels in the East, with the question over the existence of monsters and marvels often taking centre stage. Rather than dispelling such beliefs however, many accounts merely reassured audiences of their existence. John of Plano Carpini, who was one of the first Europeans to make official contact with the Mongol Empire, asserts that the Mongols had fought against races of men with ‘the hooves of oxen’ or ‘the faces of dogs’ for instance. Such fascination persisted, with various copies of Marco Polo’s Travels, which were released in the early 1300s, heavily adorned with illustrations of fantastical creatures.

Drawing of a Sciapod from the Nuremburg Chronicles, 1493.

Drawing of a Sciapod from the Nuremburg Chronicles, 1493.

By the end of the period in question however, many travel accounts had begun to rationalise the existence of such mythical beings. For example, John of Marignola assured his audience that the belief in the existence of ‘sciapods’, who used their single large foot to provide shelter from the sun, had simply been falsely attributed to normal humans who used parasols for the same purpose. This gradual expansion of European horizons perhaps sits well with the modern reader, who may expect a steady march of rationalisation as time progressed. Yet this idealised vision is largely incorrect.

While John of Plano Carpini stated the existence of monstrous races, he was careful to point out that this was merely second hand information, for he had seen none himself. William of Rubruck, who travelled on a similar route merely a few years later, was even more sceptical of the existence of such beings, as the personal account of his travels makes abundantly clear. It is certainly true that many of Marco Polo’s copied manuscripts included illustrations of mythical creatures, yet upon examination of the text itself, it becomes clear that there are no mentions of their existence at all. Ironically, the later accounts such as those of John of Maginola, while rationalising certain myths, freshly assert the existence of giants and dragons, many of which the travellers claim to have personally seen. It is therefore apparent that as time progressed, there was not the kind of demystification as may originally have been expected.

In reality, more sober accounts, such as that of William of Rubruck, were often overlooked in favour of those which espoused the existence of exotic monsters, helping to perpetuate the legends which were so central to the medieval conception of the world. Far from such false beliefs dying out over time, they often became further entrenched by popular fourteenth-century works such as the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, an almost entirely fictional work written precisely to entertain and amaze. It is perhaps no mere coincidence then that for one of the most famous travellers of all, Christopher Columbus, the world described by the fictionalised ‘Sir John Mandeville’ was central to his expectations of the East.
While it is easy for present-day observers to distinguish between which accounts provided fact and which provided fiction, the rooted belief in the medieval mind of the presence of Eastern marvels would have made doubts over their reality perhaps seem as laughable as claims of their existence today.