Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

29 January 2023

Locating the earthly paradise

Where exactly was the Garden of Eden? Does it still exist? These are questions medieval scholars tried to answer by attempting to map Eden as a physical place on earth. In the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden (also known as the ‘earthly paradise’) is a place in which God creates the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their stay in Eden is short-lived, since Adam and Eve fled from the earthly paradise after they yielded to the serpent’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, and hid themselves in shame after their fall from grace.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by the serpent with a female torso; in the architectonic border is a scene of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Miniature of the Fall, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Southern Netherlands, 1486–1506): Add MS 18852, f.14v

As well as being a popular subject for illuminations in medieval Biblical manuscripts, the Garden of Eden also appears in medieval Alexander romances, Dante’s Purgatorio, and in medieval maps of the world known as mappae mundi. On maps, the Garden of Eden is usually represented by figures of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, and the four rivers at the top of the world, as shown in the ‘Map Psalter’.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers drawn on the central upper part of the Psalter Map.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers (England, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681 (‘The Map Psalter’), f. 9r

The upper part of medieval world maps typically represents Asia or the ‘East’, whereas Europe is drawn on the lower left and Africa on the lower right. This is part of a stylistic convention known as the ‘T-O map’. Isidore of Seville, an influential early medieval theologian, affirmed in his Etymologies that the earthly paradise could be located in Asia.

Latin text of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies with a diagram of the T.O map: Asia at the top, 'Europa' on the lower left and Africa on the lower right.

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 6 C I, f. 108v

Certain medieval texts claimed that some individuals had even managed to rediscover the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. According to some of the romance legends of Alexander the Great’s world conquest, which contain interpolations of Alexandri Magni iter ad paradisum and the Voyage au paradis terrestre, the Macedonian king eventually reached the gates of the earthly paradise, near India, arriving by boat at the furthest point of his world conquest. However, when Alexander got to the gates of paradise, an angel forbade him from entering there. An old man is said to have appeared, giving the Macedonian conqueror a special item as a tribute. This episode is illustrated in a beautifully-decorated manuscript in our Alexander exhibition, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Alexander visiting the gates of earthly paradise receiving a golden apple as a tribute.

Alexander visits paradise and is given an apple (Flanders, 1338–1344): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 186r

According to these medieval legends, the tribute Alexander received (sometimes an apple, a pearl or a polished stone) usually has a strange property. If you put it on a scale, it is always heavier than anything else you weigh, but if you cover it with soil, the scale's balance is restored. When Alexander asked the significance of this tribute, the old man would explain that the stone (or apple) represents Alexander himself: as long as Alexander is alive, no one can equal his power, but when he dies, and is therefore covered in soil, he will lose his power. This is a premonition of Alexander’s approaching death at Babylon, where he was tragically poisoned at his own coronation feast, according to the romance legends based on the Greek Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes.

An extended version of this episode is also found in Gilbert the Hay’s The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure, written in medieval Scots in the 15th century. In this version, an angel gives Alexander an apple:

‘With that ane angell to the wall couth cum,

Said, “Alexander, here art þow richt welcum –

For thai tribute ane apill here I the gif’

(ll.16296-8, edited by John Cartwright, 1990)

Three lines from the Buik off King Allexander the Conqueroure, quoted in the blogpost text above in Scots.

Detail from The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, early 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

Dante was another famous traveller to the earthly paradise during the Middle Ages, appearing as his own protagonist in La Divina Commedia as a pilgrim of the Christian realms of the afterlife. Dante ascended Mount Purgatory with his mentor, Virgil, and encountered the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, before travelling to Heaven guided by Beatrice. Dante witnessed the lush landscape as he wandered around Eden for the first time. He described the beauty of ‘that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— / which tempered the new day before my eyes’ (‘la divina foresta spessa e viva, / ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno’) (Purgatorio 28.2-3, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Digital Dante).

Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise, an angel flies overhead.
Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise (Tuscany, 1444– c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 116v

Although Dante may have surpassed Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt at entering gates the verdant Garden of Eden, both texts have undoubtedly inspired beautiful and imaginative illuminations of the earthly paradise.

Our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability. 

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on @BLMedieval

.