Sunday 29 July 2012

Taming the Monstrous Other

A while ago I had a tête-à-tête with probably one of the most distinguished medieval maps: the Catalan Atlas. Produced in 1375 by Abraham Cresques for Charles V of France, it reveals the Western gaze towards 'foreign' lands. As an object rooted in the mappa mundi tradition, it crosses the borders of categorisation while at the same time adapting qualities of the portolan chart (which David Woodwards called the ‘final transitional state'). Compared to maps like the Hereford map, where plenty of monstrous creatures roam the face of the earth, there are only a few left in this Atlas. A group of people, probably related to the mystical race of the Ichthyophagi, who live the eastern coast of Asia and a single mermaid with two fishtails, that inhabits the waters at the coast of Ceylon, make up the monstrous populace of the Catalan Atlas. 

This small rest of the of the former monstrous glory had to make room for a new, less grotesque, other: the Ruler of the foreign countries. They are now the prime inhabitants of the earth, their visage is not monstrous, but very much human. Stripped of its monstrous alien nature, the other in the Catalan Atlas has been dressed up in rich clothing, holding exotic treasure, native to the region they rule. Though exotic in some aspects, their pose alludes to the Western tradition of portraying the image of kings. The other is different, yet similar. His attributes differ but he betrays his subordination by conforming to Western traditions. The fear of him seems banned, hidden beneath the exotic clothing. He has become colonised, not physically but visually and from afar. He is bound by visual, epistemological shackle derived from travel reports like Marco Polo and Guillaume de Rubrouck. The Easterner and his lands have lost their monstrous nature, his otherness has become what Mary Bain Campbell has called the ‘familiar strangeness'. whether factual or fictional, these texts provided the knowledge on which this visual colonial discourse is based, the power that enabled the West to dispel the horror that was the East. However, it is not the question whether the image of the East is based on facts or fiction, that make it an effective tool of subduing the other in the mind of the audience, but the given impression of knowledge as according to Edward Said 'to have knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it.' And yet there remains a subtle threat throughout the map, hinted at by the overwhelming presence of seemingly Muslim cities and further projected into the future by the illustration of Mag and Magog and the reference to the Antichrist. The latter, however, also emphasises the role of the self within world. Magriet Hoogvliet suggests that the atlas puts a stress on the Christian mission to free the non-Christian population of the world, to bring Christianity to all parts of the world and, one might be inclined to say, to colonise it. The patron's own strong religious background might further support this reading of the map, especially as his own interest in knowledge already seems to be reflected in the partly scientific approach in the design of maps.

It does therefore seem as if it is the interest and the underlying function of the map itself is the crucial factor in the way otherness is expressed. This function also reveals the fears and desires of the self. It satisfies an interest for the exotic riches of far away countries and, within a Christian context, simultaneously reaffirms the position and role of the self against the non-Christian world by giving it authority over the other.


Photos@Bibliothèque nationale de France


  1. Firstly, great new blog! I am very much looking forward to following it.

    Secondly, I wonder if replacing monsters that once inhabited the lands with depictions of kings is more subtle than that. I wonder if by placing them in territories that were once thought to be the realms of monsters the artist was forcing the reader to make a comparison between these new inhabitants (i.e. the rulers or kings depicted) and the former monstrous inhabitants. Is the author using geography as a sort of rhetorical tool?

    1. Thank you very much for your encouragement.

      I think both the mode of depiction, relying on Western tradition etc., and the localisation in those parts of the map formerly inhabited by monsters are significant factors in the meaning created by the image of the foreign kings. The comparison between monster and king might, in my opinion, very well have come to the audience mind. Yet, I wonder in how far this might have actually transferred meaning from monster to man, because to me the foreign kingdoms on the map seem to be primarily characterised as culturally different (to a certain degree, which is balanced out by what I called their visual colonisation), also e.g. because the buildings representing foreign cities, unless Christian, feature cupolas that remind me of mosques (I did not go there in the post, because I was afraid the length might go out of hand). This results in the world appearing almost completely under Muslim control and seems to work well with the references to the Apocalypse on the map and the role that was ascribed to Muslims in these events. Yet, I think the foreigner's localisation in the (formerly) monstrous lands might have emphasised the difference, the status of an 'outcast' in a certain sense. I just thought of the factor of conversion, which seems to me to be relevant aspect as well. I wonder whether there are correlations between the conversion approach to non-Christians and earlier approaches towards the monstrous races, though I don't know too much about the latter regarding this matter.