The Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat was a medieval bestseller. Loosely based on some key episodes from the life of the Buddha, the history of the tellings and retellings of this story, which made its way from east to west and back again in languages ranging from Arabic (the earliest extant version and itself possibly based on earlier, now lost, Sanskrit or Persian texts), Georgian, Greek, Latin and many medieval vernaculars, including Old Norse, is a philologist's dream. The legend even has its own digital humanities project at www.barlaam.org (housed at the Norwegian Institute of Philology). The principal researchers on the project plan to establish a multilingual comparative digital edition of the text and study the complicated history of the transmission, translations, and adaptations of the text which a conservative estimate puts at least fifty versions but maybe as many as one hundred. However, beyond its philological value, the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat is especially important because of its global character. It bridges historical, religious, and cultural divides between medieval Buddhism, Islam, and both Greek and Latin Christianity. From a pedagogical perspective, it is hard to think of a more appropriate text for students of Medieval Latin / Late Latin to study because it simultaneously illustrates the global significance of Latin along with the rich, but often overlooked, history of East-West cultural exchange in the premodern world. And indeed, these are some of the stated aims of Donka Marcus in providing the editions and commentary of the Legend in this volume for the Michigan Classical Commentaries series (xi-xiii).
By the time the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat reached western Europe and was incorporated into the Golden Legend of the thirteenth-century Dominican author Jacobus de Voragine, whose abbreviated account provides the Latin text for the edition and commentary contained in this volume, most of the key Buddhist elements of the story had dropped out, and it had become thoroughly Christianized, celebrating Christian ascetic and monastic values. Moreover, it was linked to other legends about the conversion of India to Christendom in the time of the Apostle Thomas. The Legend is structured as a frame tale, recounting the spiritual awakening and conversion to Christianity of an Indian prince named Josaphat thanks to the intervention and instruction of an ascetic teacher named Barlaam. Various fables, parables, and exempla are embedded into this frame, so that the reader (or possibly listener) could be brought along with Josaphat into a state of spiritual enlightenment. The Golden Legend version of the story, like the other western Christian versions, has three clear parallels with the life of the Buddha: first, a king tries to keep his son sequestered from reality in order to evade unwelcome prophecies about his future; second, the son embarks on an expedition, or series of expeditions, beyond the walls of his palace and is forced to confront some unwelcome and disturbing realities about life; and third, the son is tempted, in both cases by beautiful and seductive women, to abandon his desire to leave the palace and seek enlightenment (in the case of the Buddha) or conversion to Christianity (in the case of Josaphat).
Donka Markus has made this entertaining story the centerpiece of a valuable textbook for the reading of Medieval Latin. The book is very well organized for the purposes of both teachers and students. In the preface, Markus identifies her intended audience as comprised of students who have completed courses covering the basics of Latin grammar and who have gained some experience in reading Classical Latin prose (xi). Moreover, she offers suggestions about how this intermediate reader can be used (xiii). The conventions, abbreviations, and grammatical guides that she employs throughout the edition and commentary are clearly indicated. Markus provides a substantial but not overly-long introduction outlining the basic philological and literary history of the Legend (1-9); a brief historical sketch of Jacobus de Voragine and the Golden Legend, the anthology of saints' lives in which the story of Barlaam and Josaphat appears (9-12); and a somewhat more extensive discussion of where Jacobus de Voragine's version of the story fits into the "transmission chain" of the legend (12-19). The introductory materials conclude with an overview of the context (including elements of genre) and the narrative storyline of the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat (19-31). The introduction relies substantially on D.S. Lopez and Peggy McCracken's recent book In search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint (W.W. Norton, 2014), thus giving readers a nice overview of recent scholarship on the tale. Perhaps a reference or two to current scholarship on the Golden Legend in light of medieval Dominican pedagogical aims and practices would have enhanced the bibliography. Although Sherry Reames's book The Legenda Aurea: An Examination of its Paradoxical History (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) is referred to in the footnotes--without title--it does not appear in the bibliography. Other ancillary components of this book include an appendix which provides examples of "nesting dependent clauses" (123-124) which I would have found incredibly helpful when I was a student. The final substantial component of this book is a section on grammar, which from the perspective of a student might be a bit more daunting--it refers, for example, to "pleonastic auxiliary verbs" (128)--but, in this case, should be very useful for an instructor. And rounding out the text are two other convenient tools for a student: a high-frequency word list and guide to personal names and anonymous characters who populate the tale.
All of the features enumerated above are evidence of the extremely thoughtful preparation of this textbook. But the star feature is, of course, the text of the Legend of Barlaam and Josaphat itself. The great beauty of this textbook for studying Medieval/Late Latin is that, because this particular Latin version of the story is quite brief, Markus is able to offer the reader two ways to read the text: the first is a text with medieval Latin orthography; this is followed with a second printing of the text, this time with spelling normalized in accordance with the orthographical conventions of Classical Latin (the normalized words are underlined). Students should thus find it relatively easy to visualize key characteristics of Medieval/Late Latin; such a familiarity with the Latin orthography of this period could assist in preparing students to work with medieval manuscripts in the future. The Legend is divided into ten parts of relatively comparable length, giving students reasonable chunks of the text to translate. Each sentence is numbered for ease of reference. The version of the text with medieval orthography is unencumbered with any notes or commentary, making it useful for sight-reading. The version of the text with classicized orthography is accompanied by extensive notes that provide context, vocabulary, and key grammatical explanations. These features would make the textbook useful for self-guided students, outside of a regular classroom setting.
When one sits down and reads this book straight through, one notices a certain amount of repetition. For example, we are given the main outlines of the story and its relation to the Buddhist versions of the life of the Buddha in the first section of the introduction (4), in the second part of the introduction (12-15) and again in the Text and Commentary at the appropriate points in the narrative. But this is a textbook, not a monograph. Neither students nor instructors will read the book all the way through in one sitting. So in this case, the repetition contributes to the book's pedagogical value and reinforces crucial aspects of cultural context.
As Markus points out in her introduction to the text, the hybrid genre of the Legend, containing elements of hagiography, romance and fable, combined with its exotic setting, was very attractive to medieval audiences, judging by the large number of versions, excerpts, and translations that circulated and have survived. I suspect that contemporary students will find the story of Barlaam and Prince Josaphat equally engaging, as it challenges some previously held assumptions about the Middle Ages, probably confirms others, and--maybe most importantly--provides students with a relatively painless introduction to the complexities of the relationship between Classical Latin and Medieval/Late Latin. I, for one, would have appreciated such a textbook in my college days.