Here there be no dragons: Maravilla in Two Fifteenth-Century Spanish libros de viajes
By Karen Daly
Notandum, No. 29 (2012)
Abstract: Monsters, anthropomorphs, and marvels are common ingredients in medieval travel literature, and even narratives of real medieval journeys include these creatures, to the delight of the reading audience. At the beginning of the 15th century, two Castilian narratives of real journeys largely resist the impulse to marvel at monstrous beings, and instead marvel at the real world encountered in the journey itself.
Introduction: Early medieval literature is renowned for the marvels recounted of far-away places and fantastical events and beings: pilgrimage guides relate sacred journeys to the Holy Land, where pilgrims retrace the life of Christ and relive the miracles he performed, and travel accounts of journeys to the Orient describe grotesque anthropomorphs with feet large enough to shield their bodies from the noonday sun, dog-headed men, and anthropophagi (cannibals), to name but a few. For the medieval reader, in order to view curiosities and marvels, it was necessary to leave the known, the familiar, and travel to far-away, unfamiliar lands—terra incognita; for these wonders “appear at the limits of geographical knowledge—on the borders of the map,” and provide a “model of the world normal at its center and monstrous at its margins,” according to Mary Campbell. Marvels populated the medieval mindset and were not only accepted—they were an expected feature of travel narratives. One of many titles for Marco Polo’s narrative, El libro de las maravillas, attests to the desirability of marvels as a primary element of medieval travel accounts, which were often read more for their entertainment value than for their usefulness as guidebooks to faraway lands. Medieval travelers felt so compelled to incorporate these wonders into their accounts that marvels continued to play a role in late medieval travel narratives written prior to Columbus’s voyages to the New World, and even after 1492, well into the sixteenth century.