Barlaam and Josaphat


Barlaam and Josaphat
   by Rudolf von Ems
(ca. 1220–1223)
   Rudolf von Ems composed one of many medieval versions of the Barlaam and Josaphat story sometime between 1220 and 1223. He descended from a family of lower nobility in Hohenems in Vorarlberg (today western Austria) and was a ministerialis (servant in the lower courtly administration), perhaps in the service of the bishop of Constance. Apart from the Barlaam and Josaphat (47 manuscripts), Rudolf also wrote the merchant-romance Der guote Gêrhart (two manuscripts), an Alexander romance (three fragmentary manuscripts), the courtly love romance Willehalm von Orlens (29 manuscripts), and a major world chronicle (more than 100 manuscripts). The account of Barlaam and Josaphat originated in India sometime in the third century C.E. and spread both to the Far East and to Europe. Translations and adaptations of this Stoff (literary material) exist in Persian, Aramaic, Turkish, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and then in practically all medieval European languages. Basically, Barlaam and Josaphat derives its narrative material from the legendary account of the life of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha). In Rudolf’s version, which does not differ much from his sources, the Indian king Avenier cruelly persecutes the Christians.When his son Josaphat is born, prophets foretell that his son will be a great king one day, but will convert to Christianity. To avoid this, Avenier has Josaphat raised in total isolation to keep away all signs of human misery. Nevertheless the young man eventually observes a leper, a sick man, and then a dead man. The Christian hermit Barlaam becomes his teacher and subsequently baptizes him.When the father learns of this, he solicits the help of two sorcerers to cure Josaphat of his illusion, but both fail and convert as well. Finally King Avenier divides his realm in two and gives one to Josaphat. Immediately Josaphat’s kingdom prospers, whereas his father’s land severely declines.Now Avenier converts to Christianity himself and becomes a pious hermit. Soon after, the protagonist abdicates from his throne and joins Barlaam in the desert. There he dies and is buried next to his teacher. As the vast number of translations of this text from all over medieval Europe tells us, the ancient account of Buddha, rephrased in Christian terms, deeply stirred the various audiences and made this into one of the most successful “best sellers” of its time.
   Bibliography
   ■ Calomino, Salvatore. From Verse to Prose: the Barlaam and Josaphat Legend in Fifteenth-Century Germany. Scripta Humanistica 63. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1990.
   ■ Rudolf von Ems. Barlaam und Josaphat. Edited by Franz Pfeiffer, Mit einem Anhang aus Franz Söhns, Das Handschriftenverhältnis in Rudolfs von EmsBarlaam’, einem Nachwort und einem Register von Heinz Rupp. Deutsche Nachdrucke. Reihe: Texte des Mittelalters. 1843; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1965.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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