Mirabilia Mundi: “Wonders of the World” in Comparative Perspective, Focusing on the Middle East and Europe
Mirabilia, comparative literature and culture, representation of the strange
The wonders of the world which form the object of this research are referred to as mirabilia in Latin and ʿajāʾib in Arabic and Persian. This form of discourse deals with marvelous phenomena and curious beings in remote places, strange worlds, and time immemorial. Episodes like these which tell of the bizarre affairs of unknown worlds are recorded in historical chronicles, natural histories, geographies, epics and romances, and travel journals from both East and West. Many of these descriptions were passed down from the ancient world to the Middle East and Europe during the middle ages and early modern period, and shared by people in various cultural spheres.
This joint research team will be comprised of experts in literature and history of the Middle East and Europe. Through their cooperation we hope to compare the wonders of the world from various historical periods and regions, in terms of diffusion processes, differences in world view, and dynamism of cultural interchanges, addressing the following three pivotal issues.
- Frameworks for genres and classification of motifs
- Diffusion of knowledge and changes in world views
- Religious, linguistic and cultural particularities and trans-regional universality
After determining the common themes shared by the research group, meetings were held to present papers and conduct discussions. “Wonders” in Europe and the Middle East were compared, focusing on “Wonders of the Sea,” “Wonders of Antiquity,” “Miracles, Magic, and Wonders,” “The African Continent as a Place of Wonder,” “Witnesses to Lands of Wonder,” “Visualizing Wonders,” “Compiling Wonders,” and “Collecting Wonders”.
Discussions revealed the following points:
- Mirabilia related either to the sea or the African continent provides evidence of the movement of people and the contact and fusion of traditions from different cultures. Such inaccessible spatial distance arouses a sense of curiosity toward mysterious phenomena in strange lands. In contrast, whereas fossil remains and relics from ancient times are fairly accessible, “temporal distance” makes it impossible to obtain a clear account of their history. For this reason, they tend to be regarded as “marvels”.
- Specific patterns are evident in the accounts of miracles, such as levitation and the healing of disease. Also, predictable narrative developments set them apart from mirabilia. In addition, a belief in God is enough to remove stories of miracles from the realm of suspicion. For wonders, descriptions must be used to make them plausible.
- One important element in the description of wonders is the authority granted to the act of “witnessing” a strange event or phenomenon. “Seeing” is the key to proving “existence.” A visual experience first generates a sense of amazement in the minds of witnesses. Wonder is “born” when this experience is shared with others. Accounts of strange elements that cannot possibly exist in everyday life generate no sense of surprise when they are already known to be works of fiction. In this respect, the topos of travelers who “witness” and serve as a medium for wonder play a major role.
- The “visualization” of wonders can be equated to the creation a secondary eyewitness. In the Middle Ages, painters are believed to have created images of marvels by using exaggerated shapes combined with unusual and strange imaginary objects, which they conceived from written accounts.
- Eyewitness accounts in travel books and other documents were classified by content, recompiled as natural histories, and then organized as knowledge. From the Age of Discovery, collected and classified objects of “mirabilia” were exhibited throughout Europe. This led to the development of museums.
- In Medieval Christendom, “mirabilia” were seemingly regarded as phenomena that occurred in the natural world, and thus different from either the “miracles” of God or the “work” of the Devil. However, in the Medieval Muslim world both “marvels” and “miracles” were regarded as acts of God. From that it seems Christendom and the Muslim world possessed conceptually distinct ways for positioning wonder between the existence of God and the natural world.