A decade ago Sabine Réthoré, a French mapmaker based near Marseille, tilted the map of the Mediterranean ninety degrees on its axis, positioning its western extent at the top and its eastern shore at the bottom, so that the Strait of Gibraltar (the classical Pillars of Hercules) appears as the neck of a funnel into the alembic of the open sea. Her map, which she called “Méditerranée Sans Frontières,” did away with national borders and highlighted the port cities fringing the coasts. As part of a larger list, Alexandria, Tunis, Genoa, Venice, Tyre, Piraeus, Cádiz, Barcelona, Marseille, Livorno, Naples, Messina, Split, Athens, Antalya, Haifa, and Gaza appear strung along a common shore, their long colloquy remembered and thereby, it is hoped, revivified.
Remapping the Mare Nostrum in this way reveals networks that defy historical antagonisms, showing instead how geographical proximities, even in times of conflict, lead to encounters and exchanges, to mutual learning; how, especially in periods such as the Crusades, and later during the wars between the Ottoman Turks and the Holy Roman Empire, cross-cultural entanglements, sometimes in the form of trade, sometimes in the form of what could be judged intellectual property theft, led to significant cultural developments. Glass and metalwork, silk, velvet, and brocade, the palmette capital and the pointed arch were all developed in the eastern Mediterranean and its hinterlands and then copied and furthered in Venice and elsewhere. The Christian clerics in Outremer scolded Frankish women for running off to the bazaar for perfumes and spices and painting their eyes with kohl, along with other iniquitous customs acquired from the infidel Saracens—but consciously or otherwise, the women were acting as cultural go-betweens, a counterpart of interpreters, translators, and scribes.
In Medieval Marvels and Fictions in the Latin West and Islamic World, Michelle Karnes, an associate professor of English and the history and philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame, has made the admirable ecumenical decision to ignore the frontiers between Occidental and Oriental studies that demarcate university faculties and has written an adventurous comparative study of Christian and Islamic culture from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries, with forays into later works such as Don Quixote. She looks at natural philosophy and optics, cognitive theories, travel literature and wonder tales, seeing in these varied disciplines a common thread of intellectual curiosity.
Karnes is most at ease in medieval scholasticism, the subject of her 2011 book Imagination, Meditation, and Cognition in the Middle Ages, in which her focus is on Aristotle’s concept of the imagination and its resonance in Christian thought. In Medieval Marvels she makes up for her earlier neglect of the contributions made by Arabic scholarship, especially in the translations from Greek of major works by Plato and Aristotle, which chiefly survived in manuscripts made and translated in Baghdad and Toledo. Drawing on the detailed commentaries Arabic philosophers wrote, she returns to grapple again with debates about internal states, visions, dreams, demons, illusions, hallucinations—for example, William of Auvergne in the thirteenth century drew on the newly available Greek and Arabic material to ponder the case of a man who became convinced he was a wolf.1
Her book consequently spans a huge canvas: from classical antecedents discussing dream interpretation and the concept of phantasms to the fantastic adventures of Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, a legendary sixth-century king of Yemen, whose exploits, written down in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, echo somewhat the Alexander Romance. And she closes with reflections on Cervantes and the imaginary “Arabic historian” Cide Hamete Benengeli, whom the Spanish author, anticipating Jorge Luis Borges’s Fictions, claims as the source for the adventures of his Knight of the Rueful Countenance.
Medieval Marvels opens with a dense discussion of the imagination as explored by the eleventh-century thinker Avicenna in dialogue with Aristotle and by other medieval philosophers such as al-Ghazali, who declared, “In all that is possible there is nothing more wondrous than what is.” The imagination was deemed, in different degrees, to have the capacity to act at a distance and bring about marvelous transformations of phenomena. Al-Kindi, a philosopher working in Baghdad in the ninth century, the heyday of the Abbasids, believed the eye emitted rays, which took the form of “species” and, rather like ray guns in twentieth-century sci-fi, could “extend a thing’s influence outward” and, in a favorite example, cause a camel to fall down by merely looking at it.
Though this theory was contested by the Augustinian friar Giles of Rome in his Errors of the Philosophers (1270), Roger Bacon reprised and successfully disseminated al-Kindi’s ideas. Attributing such power to the gaze explained marvels such as the basilisk, which kills with a glance; it also underlies the fear that a menstruating woman looking into a mirror will cloud the glass. Individuals who possess the evil eye or have the gift of the “glamourie”—which the fabulist Alan Garner eerily dramatizes as second sight in his recent novella Treacle Walker (2021)—also cast a spell on the objects of their gaze.
From philosophy Karnes turns to the literature of astonishment, or ‘aja’ib, the Arabic term that distinguishes it from adab, meaning writing that reflects civilization and refinement, codes of conduct—in the literary context something closer to belles lettres. ‘Aja’ib mainly describes fantastic romances and fairy tales but extends to include some travel literature and scientific speculation. The powers of strange gems and unusual rocks, the marvelous beasts of land and sea—catoblepones, manticores, mermaids and mermen, pristers, and orcas—provided medieval travelers with sources of profound wonder.
The wanderings of adventurers, merchants, and scholar-diplomats fill the Arabic tradition (Sindbad is a trader, not a mariner), and tales of wonders they encountered migrate westward, as if by magic, on the flying carpet of reading. Karnes brings in several rich compendia of mirabilia, such as The Meadows of Gold and the Mines of Gems by al-Mas‘udi, another ninth-century polymath from Baghdad; she also cites The Wonders of Creation, an encyclopedic and gloriously illustrated overview of then-current knowledge—geographical, scientific, medical, and spiritual—assembled by al-Qazwini, an omnivorous thirteenth-century scholar and cartographer. These manuscripts are often sumptuously colored and illustrated, and it is a pity the University of Chicago Press has not included images, and that Karnes herself shows little interest in her sources as artifacts.
Some prodigies keep reappearing in the different cultures: mermaids, dragons, and other variations on monsters; magnets; animal parts with rare powers; bodies of water with magical properties. Reports of such phenomena are acts of imagination rather than empirical investigation. The author known as John Mandeville, Karnes notes, “presents an extreme case of the medieval tendency to write imaginatively about geography.” He is the chief source of reports of men with one eye and others with ears hanging down to the ground. Yet scholars now seem agreed that he actually never went anywhere but made it all up from others’ stories while staying at home.
“Part of imagination’s role,” Karnes writes, “is to create a pocket of excess significance that is never wholly depleted.” Her tellers of marvelous tales aren’t themselves necessarily believers or nonbelievers, and the marvels they relate are presented not as possible but as “not impossible.” Here she brings in al-Mas‘udi’s musings on the origin of dragons: “They might be explained, he writes, by an angel who steps into the far reaches of the Sea of China, thereby creating high tide, and then retracts their foot, making the water ebb.”
Such wild hypotheses recognize nature’s riches (thereby paying respect to the creator) and present a reasonable conjecture of creation’s infinite multiplicity. Karnes finds agreement between Islamic and Christian thinkers on the rewards of inquiry and the quest to find causes of phenomena. She quotes al-Qazwini: “The marvel appears confusing to someone because they lack knowledge about something’s cause or about the nature of its effect.” Thomas Aquinas endorses this approach: “God does nothing contrary to nature,” and “the whole of nature is like a work of art created by the divine mind.” Its mysteries were nevertheless hard to fathom. Alexander Neckham in the early thirteenth century exclaimed that it was “as if Nature were saying, ‘It’s my secret! It’s my secret!’” From this perspective a basilisk is no less likely than a porcupine, a stone that reveals a woman’s virginity no less likely than a magnet, pumice, or asbestos.
Most valuably, Karnes suggests that marvels—their origins, character, and purposes—offer common ground; wonder is a shared delight, a shared motive. She is setting out to refute widespread and ingrained notions that medieval men and women were more gullible and superstitious than our more recent enlightened forebears (and, by implication, ourselves). She also intends to reverse colonialist condescension toward Arab letters as irrational and backward, and concomitantly to change attitudes toward the Islamic imaginary—seen as thrillingly exotic, according to Edward Said in his controversial, classic polemic Orientalism, published nearly fifty years ago.
“Arabic sources were crucial to the treatment of marvels in the Latin West,” declares Karnes,
but not because they were irrational or exotic. Instead, it was Arabic philosophers’ rationalistic, natural philosophical approach to marvels that influenced philosophers in the Latin West…. Marvels themselves belonged no more to the one religion than to the other.
Islamic authors showed as much speculative curiosity as the most subtle medieval scholars, such as Roger Bacon, Thomas Bradwardine, and Nicolas Oresme. Much as I salute this change of perspective, I would turn her principal contention around and say that, then as now, to characterize European thought as rational demands a great dose of flattering self-delusion; that fantasy is the peculiar, troubling, default state of human consciousness; and that this propensity demands confronting rather than trying to argue it away as reasonable inquiry. Her approach overlooks the intrinsic pleasures of improbability and singularity that the literature of marvels sets out to give the reader, as she subordinates the aesthetic experience of ‘aja’ib to heuristic endeavors.
When one of the dervishes in The Thousand and One Nights embarks on telling his tale, he offers a weird and memorable image:
Mine is a tale that, if it were engraved with needles at the corner of the eye, would be a warning to those who wish to consider.
This arresting figure of speech points to the singular marvelousness of the story we are about to hear, and in the course of Shahrazad’s tales it becomes a refrain, uttered at moments of maximum ‘aja’ib. It projects the tale onto the bodies of those hearing it, tattooing them with the story’s unique wondrousness and setting it on the organ of sight, the very instrument of magical looking, as a warning, a stimulus to wisdom. To admit the limits of human understanding, to be astonished by the experience of the inexplicable, are desirable mental states; the enchanted subject who has been inscribed will thereafter see differently.
Readers have long recognized an eerie family likeness among medieval Persian romances, the Nights, and Arthurian and German legends of fairy queens, enchanted cups, flying machines, and powerful talismans. Scholars have tried to pin down the debts, to find a mediator, for example, between the ghazal and the sonnet; they have classified and numbered tale types and folk motifs from all over the world to analyze the cross-fertilization. Did Dante know of the epic poem The Epistle of Forgiveness by the blind Syrian poet al-Ma’arri (who died in 1057), in which he voyages through the hereafter and meets fellow writers in their various torments and joys, commenting with acerbic wit on his times, beliefs, and mores? If Dante did, it would have been by report, since he did not read Arabic.
The trade routes offered freedom for stories on the move, and mediators included disregarded figures—women, children, vagrants, and beggars—who also figure frequently as the heroes of such tales. Alongside Boccaccio and Chaucer, many of the writers who collected wonder tales and cast them into the shapes in which we read them now were not only travelers but came, like Marco Polo and Giambattista Basile, from port cities (Venice, Naples) along that broader Mediterranean littoral, cities that feature prominently in the stories they tell, about wondrous things encountered across the seas.
The overview I’ve given here is impressionistic and wouldn’t be acceptable in a philology class. The Mediterranean was undoubtedly a crossroads between the East (Karnes avoids this word) and the West (always qualified in her usage by “Latin”). The cultures met face-to-face in al-Andalus, where various Muslim powers reached as far north as Pamplona and Toledo, and in Sicily, where the Norman kings Roger II, his son William, and his great-nephew Frederick “Stupor Mundi,” who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1220, retained Arabs from the preceding regime alongside Greeks, Jews, and Christians to work in their scriptoria and studios, making maps, copying manuscripts, and designing Palermo’s marvelous buildings with muqarnas ceilings and arabesque mosaics.2
Alf Layla wa-Layla, commonly referred to in English as The Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights (the latter a name Karnes rejects as Orientalist), eloquently represents the shuttling to and fro of oral and scribal and back again: the earliest extant manuscript is probably from the fifteenth century, but the stories were circulating at least as far back as the ninth; they were first printed in the French translation of the Orientalist scholar Antoine Galland in 1704–1717.3 Shahrazad, the vizier’s daughter, is accomplished and clever, we are told at the beginning; she knows many, many stories because she has read them in her father’s library and committed them to memory, so is able to recount them over the span of the book’s 1,001 nights.
When her story strikes her listener most forcefully, a transcript is ordered to be made in letters of gold and placed in the royal library. As the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito has pointed out, this raises the dizzying possibility of an infinite recession of copies of copies—yet where is the original? But is this the right question? With marvels there seems to be no originator; all is report. Karnes shows how the material keeps migrating from one work to another regardless of borders. Amazing, wonderful stories were recited, and Arabic was not the only language: fabulous tales come from Persia and Turkey, as well as the subcontinent and Indonesia, and were composed and passed on—often performed—in those communities’ languages.
“Realness” is a helpful word Karnes uses to convey the vividness necessary for the marvelous to command our belief. She rightly distinguishes “realness” from what is “real” and from “reality” because imagination is constantly at play in the making, reporting, and reception of wonders, in true reports and fantasy narratives alike. Realness is an effect, a fictive quality, and a property conferred by active imagination on its products.
What is real and what is fiction? What is told in good faith or with intention to deceive? These questions recur throughout Medieval Marvels. Many of the tellers of tall tales appearing here protest their reliability, claiming fidelity to what they have seen or asserting that their source is unimpeachable. (Storytellers in the Grimms’ collection are still playing at this.4 Because teasing the audience or reader’s credulity is part of narrative pleasure.) The writers make vehement protests of their truthfulness to overcome resistance to the tales’ fantastic hyperbole: gems more dazzling than the sun, a crab that turns into a stone, a gigantic bird, the roc or rukh, that dines on elephants and carries away a hero like Sindbad. Karnes doesn’t condemn them for falsehood, because that would pitch us back into that wrongheaded sense of superiority to the past when people willfully peddled fantasies to listeners who were taken in by preposterous lies. Instead, her book keeps returning to the point that the drama and spectacle of wonders widen the scope of intellectual inquiry and potential knowledge.
The role of marvels, she asserts, is to unsettle complacency about existing states of knowledge, to excite further speculation and point up the indeterminacy of understanding. The scholar David Shulman, who writes about South India, is quoted approvingly: “Imagination requires a high-grade, tensile suspension in which reality and unreality come together in the mind of the listener or spectator without resolving the contradiction between them.” Karnes adds, “It is the job of marvels to create not conviction but cognitive uncertainty…. Marvels tend to inspire doubt.” Indeterminacy becomes the defining state of the marvel itself and of the beholder. This stance toward wonderful things reverberates in the Arabic equivalent of “Once upon a time”: “It was and it was not” (kan ya ma kan). The formula catches the playful, pleasurable undecidability of astonishing marvels.
But to support this view and persuade readers that wonders are catalysts to reasoning and questioning, Medieval Marvels has had to draw its boundaries tightly. Karnes mostly steers clear of canonical sacred scriptures, alluding to very few biblical prodigies (the parting of the Red Sea, Aaron and Moses before Pharaoh turning Aaron’s rod into a serpent). She is wary of engaging with the Quran and the Hadith, and avoids the trouble that arises when the marvelous converges with faith.
She alludes to the ambivalence of the jinn, who make many appearances in the Quran, have a sura named after them exploring their origin and nature, and cannot therefore be doubted, unlike fairies, who have no scriptural support. Karnes notes that al-Ghazali attributed jinn to “unchecked imagination,” which “invest[s] its creations with the cognitive status of perceived objects.” This is a surprising thought because revelation, Christian and Muslim, demands assent; indeed, religious faith means accepting the unverifiable when the divine speaks of wonders. Both Jesus’s and Muhammad’s biographies are characterized by their protagonists’ miracles. Their visionary powers and their prodigious feats—such as Jesus’s walking on water or the Prophet’s Mi‘raj, or Night Journey, on the Buraq, a marvelous white steed, depicted sometimes with the face of a beautiful woman—belong on a continuum with dream revelations and bodily transformations.
Karnes has previously written about Chaucer’s “The Squire’s Tale,” in which a mechanical flying horse appears, but in this book she has excluded the wonderful toys—artificialia—of legend and romance and passes over automata, such as the sword-brandishing guardians who watch over the dead queen in the City of Brass and lop off the heads of anyone attempting to loot her fabulous bier or touch her bejeweled body. This decision fits with Karnes’s dismissing the idea that medieval wonders are proto-scientific, as she considers this argument an attempt to validate wonders by retrospectively attributing ethnocentrically European enlightenment values to their makers. She has also set aside alchemy and astrology, although they figure strongly in both intellectual inquiry and wonder tales. By contrast, the historian Richard Kieckhefer in his inspired (and short) Magic in the Middle Ages (1989) demonstrates how the practices of alchemists, astrologers, artificers, and healers were intertwined with the thinking of theologians, philosophers, lawyers, and inquisitors.
The argument that wonders foreshadow scientific developments does, I confess, appeal to me. When the Alexander Romance describes its hero descending to the depths of the sea to discover what’s there, or harnessing griffins to a basket equipped with carcasses on spears just out of reach so they will transport him to view the earth from above, the fantasy is surely proleptic, anticipating through imagination what will later be discovered and invented. The enchanted mirror in which Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast” sees her father dying far away imagines the possibility of television—far seeing. The flying carpet dramatizes not so much airplane flight as hang gliding and windsurfing, and the idea of such aerial transport might arise organically from the imagination of a people who, as traders under sail in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, understood the power of the wind and how to harness it.
Medieval Marvels presents lots of rich evidence of the pull of the marvelous, but it also raises worries. Karnes makes a bold claim that she is the first scholar to take a comparative approach to the literature and philosophy of wonder in both Islamic and Latin culture. (Philip Kennedy’s important 2016 work Recognition in the Arabic Narrative Tradition doesn’t feature in twenty-five pages of bibliography, nor do Kilito’s wide-ranging studies.) Her desire to counteract the view that Islam is prone to magic and that the people of the Latin Middle Ages were naive believers also leads her to dial down the sheer cacophony of fantasy in philosophical, geographical, and fictional writings, to soften the authors’ far-fetched improvisations, and to dim the dazzle of their texts’ phantasmagoric excitement. There’s no hint of alarm at the evil eye, no cannibal ghouls or malignant sorceresses motivelessly poisoning their husbands.
Yet Karnes denies that her approach leads to disenchantment or “de-wondering”: “My explanation is that imagination did not explain away wonder but rather helped to produce it.” Occasionally she overdetermines her account: from a fine, wide-ranging article by Elly Truitt, Karnes picks out as an example of bigotry Christians writing of balm as a holy substance which only they were allowed to cultivate. She doesn’t mention the dynamic trade in the precious balm conducted by Muslims all over the region.
This misses an important aspect of marvels, as objects of exchange in commerce around which some common interests could develop. The garden of the True Balsam in El Matarea, on the outskirts of Cairo, which was identified as a resting place of the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt and the site of the origins of balm (from Jesus’s sweat, according to one version), became one of several sanctuaries that attracted pilgrims of both faiths in the medieval era and still today. The bushes on that site were indeed tended by Christian monks, as they yielded the chrism used in baptism, ordination, and the last rites, but this was not by any means the only place balm was cultivated.
Karnes is also far less sure of her ground when she comments on fantastic storytelling in her later chapters. She sets side by side medieval romances in Latin, French, and Arabic—including Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés, the anonymous Floire et Blancheflor, and two stories from The Thousand and One Nights—and proposes that in romance, marvels stimulate questions not only into the workings of nature but also into psychology and ethics. They are there to test heroes and heroines and reveal right conduct both to them and to the audience. While nature’s mirabilia awaken the mind, romance’s wonders instruct the spirit.
An unexpected choice for discussion, the romance of Badr and Jauhara from the Nights is imbricated within the fabulous “Story of Julnar of the Sea,” about a sea fairy who gives birth to Badr after she marries an earthling. Karnes indicts Badr as “aggressive” in his pursuit of Princess Jauhara, when the text describes this rather milksoppy youth as praising her wildly in the typical smitten state of lovers in the Nights, before asking her to accompany him to her father so Badr can ask for her hand.
This may be paternalistic on his part according to present-day values, but Karnes wants to demonstrate that marvels (metamorphoses and enchantments follow pell-mell in this sprawling tale) are serving a moral purpose, to reeducate Badr and bring him to new manhood. To argue for this interpretation entails silently passing over the marked duplicity and witchiness of Jauhara, who made a great show of reciprocating Badr’s love and then “clasped him again to her breast, but then, after muttering some unintelligible words, she spat in his face and said, ‘Leave this human shape and take the form of a lovely bird.’” The tale is a wild, antinomian romance packed with revenge and reversals, the ebb and flow of passion.
Like the decision to define and restrict the variety of marvelous phenomena under review, the interpretation strains the evidence, with Karnes, in her wish for reconciliation, redress, and mutual respect, staking out the ground to suit her arguments, the very approach she warns against in her introduction. The indeterminacy and reasonableness she finds in the tradition of wonders are desirable, but her emphasis sidesteps the stance of righteous believers who, from different religious standpoints, use violence against women who want to have authority over their own lives and bodies and against authors such as Salman Rushdie, whose work is steeped in the magic of the Nights and other works of Islamic ‘aja’ib.
And yet. The marvelous was—and still is—a source of endless delight. Medieval Marvels asks many intriguing questions about the imagination’s objects: What is the realness of a hippogriff? Of a cap of invisibility? Of a high tower with several walls of bronze set one aside the other, holding a maiden captive? Of a hero turned into a bird? A line of the poet Andrew McNeillie comes to mind: “Some things must be believed to be seen.”
For more on werewolves, see my review of Daniel Ogden’s The Werewolf in the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 2021), The New York Review, December 16, 2021. ↩
The world map of al-Idrisi, which Roger II commissioned to be engraved on a silver disc, was recreated by Factum Arte, which specializes in 3D-printing lost originals, and displayed in “Talking Maps,” an exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2019–2020. ↩
For more on The Thousand and One Nights, see Robyn Creswell, “Then What Happened?,” The New York Review, November 3, 2022. ↩
For more on the Brothers Grimm, see my “Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales,” The New York Review, July 9, 2015. ↩