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Beyond the Horizons of Legends:Traditional Imagery and Direct Experience in Medieval Accounts of Asia

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The article deals with several medieval travel accounts about Asia, which were produced during the 13th and 14th centuries, in the time of the so called Mongol mission. These reports were written by Franciscan and also some Dominican missionaries, namely William of Rubruck, John Plano of Carpini, Odoric of Pordenone, John of Marignola, Jordanus Catalanus and a few others. The aim of the article is to analyze the encounter of European travelers’ “traditional” ideas about Asia with the actual reality. Did the friars mostly rely on their anticipations, or were they open to new information, even if this could destroy views often advocated by eminent authorities of European medieval thought? The article analyses three “traditional” topoi, each of them in the context of the above-mentioned reports: earthly paradise, the kingdom of Prester John and human monsters. All of them belonged to the medieval lore regarding the East, as testified by many literary as well as pictorial documents. Each of the authors adopted a slightly different strategy for how to solve the potential conflicts between “tradition” and experience. Finally, I suggest conceptualizing the problem of “tradition” and experience in medieval travel accounts with reference to a typology of “otherness” created by Karlheinz Ohle. According to Ohle, a “cognitive Other” (1) is an unknown, never encountered Other which can only be imagined, whereas a “normative Other” (2), is an Other which is directly encountered and gradually explored. In my opinion, the friars’ medieval travel accounts actually reflect a shift from imagination towards gradual encounter and exploration — in these reports the imagined (cognitive) fabulous East gradually turned into an explored (normative) reality.

Affiliations: 1: Department for the Study of Religions, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University Arna Nováka 1, 602 00 Brno, Czech Republic, Email:


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