Texts in cultural knots: Buddha in medieval Europe

The story of Barlaam and Josaphat in a Greek manuscript from the 14th century (Paris, BnF, Grec 1128 f.82v)

“But meanwhile, the king’s son, of whom our tale began to tell, never departing from the palace prepared for him, attained to the age of manhood. He had pursued all the learning [..], and was as fair and well favoured in mind as in body, intelligent and prudent, and shining in all excellencies. To his teachers he would propound such questions of natural history that even they marvelled at the boy’s quickness and understanding, while the king was astounded at the charm of his countenance and the disposition of his soul. He charged the attendants of the young prince on no account to make known unto him any of the annoys of life, least of all to tell him that death ensues on the pleasures of this world”

Like people, ideas, goods or commodities, texts also travel around. As the Latin dictum has it, verba volant, scripta manent, words fly away, but writing remains – but not always in one place. And unlike most other kinds of travellers, written words go on to become something else, according to the places they encounter, clash with or settle in.

Sometimes the transformations are mind-boggling.

You will be forgiven if you didn’t know that the quote at the beginning of this blogpost is a translation of a Latin text written in the 11th century AD about a man on his way to sainthood. But you won’t be forgiven for not knowing that the Latin text was based on several stories about the Buddha written in Sanskrit between the 1st and the 3rd century AD.

Biographical texts about Siddhārtha Gautama, the 6th-century BC ascetic Nepalese who attained full awakening and was later known as the Buddha, go back to the first century AD. Several of these, most significant one known as Buddhacarita (Career of the Buddha) travelled from India westwards and were transformed in contact with the Manichaeist culture in Persia.

The name for Buddha-like attainment of full awakeness, bodhisattva, became, in Manichaeian manuscripts, Bwdysdf, which then gave, in Persian, the word Būdāsaf.

The Buddhist biographical accounts tell how prince Gautama’s father had raised him to be a political, not religious leader, sheltering him from the nasty realities of life, suffering, aging and death. But Gautama left the palace and, guided by his charioteer, was introduced to the disturbing facts of life. The prince couldn’t go back to a life of sweet carelessness and set himself on the path of total awakening.

The Persian-modified narrative didn’t stop either, but continued its journey into Arab lands. There, the text was translated into Arabic, and from there into Hebrew, Judeo-Persian and Georgian, where the Buddhist story was Christianised. We are now in the 9th century AD. The Georgian story was picked up by a Greek monk, who translated it. The Greek version was adapted into Latin, reaching the West by the end of the 11th century.

From bodhisattva to Budasaf and then to Iosaph.

Thus was born one of the most popular pious stories of the Western Middle Ages, that of Barlaam and Josaphat.

Guided by the hermit Barlaam, Josaphat, Iosaphat or Ioasaph, an Indian prince whose father has persecuted Christians in his kingdom, goes on a tour of human suffering, from which he returns transformed, in the face of human vanity, and is converted to Christianity, before retiring as a hermit.

Europe’s own Buddhist figure. Produit de terroir.

But the real conversion was not that of Iosaphat, but of the text itself, which, beginning in India, landed in Europe, tied in multiple cultural and literary knots, making a living on its own, but not at all uncoupled from its lofty beginnings.

The complete text of the Barlaam and Iosaphat story is available here (in an English translation from 1914, copyright etc etc).

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