More on Umberto Eco`s Baudolino

This really should be under a miscellaneous header..but it`s okay.

Yesterday I finished reading Umberto Eco`s new novel Baudolino.


I am very satisfied, it was well worth the time and effort – while I suspect quite a few of us will be surprised reading the book through a second time, as certainly were the case with his epic The Name of the Rose – when details, subplots,symbols,characters,coincidences will begin to form new coherent patterns – it read like a “tall tale” , a tradition Eco does homage in his story of young Baudolino`s coincidential entry into capital letter “H” – History…
From a squalid,poor background as the surviving son of his farming parents in rural Fraschetta – his qualities as a fantast, a “liar” with qualities of imagination and fervour unparalleled by your common con-artists, impresses a passing red-haired, red-bearded German Knight, who just happens to be Frederick the IInd, nicknamed “Barbarossa” (red-beard) – thus Baudolino became the adopted son of what would become the first Holy Roman Emperor. Eco has Baudolino following on the campaigns of his “father”, and have him studying in Paris, and introducing the idea of intellectual freedom and self-sovereignty in the universities(?).. whiling the time as students would, only a fraction of daylight spent in the intense quest for erudition – Baudolino plots for the advantage of his father, Frederick II. This is where the story speeds up and grows… Byzantine.. in intrigues..


While not desiring to give any more away.. there are some ingredients which perhaps isnt too obvious from the blurbs and reviews, but which are quite interesting to the type of people I associate and correspond with.. these are, in no particular order:

Item A. Prester John, or the Presbyter John – or at least the rumour, myth and legend which follows him – plays a significant role in the story as it progresses..

An article in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 informs us that the first reference to one John, Priest and King, of India – appeared in the Chronicle of one Bishop Otto of Freising(1112-1158). Of this particular work, the same source informs us that:
“The “Chronicle”, dedicated to the cleric Isingrim (perhaps Abbot of Ottobeuren), is a universal history in eight books based in the main on the great medieval chronicles, especially on Ekkehard, but also on the church histories of Rufinus and Orosius. Otto’s work, however, is by no means a chronicle in the sense of its predecessors. He himself did not call it a chronicle, but gave it the title “De duabus civitatibus“, since, as he asserted, he did not wish merely to enumerate the different events but to combine, as in a tragedy, a picture of the evil which abounded in his time.For this purpose he adheres closely to St. Augustine’s teaching of two states, especially as elaborated in the “De Civitate Dei”, though he also used the ideas of Orosius concerning the misery of the world. Although the doctrine of the two states as it appears in Otto’s historical work can be variously interpreted, he undoubtedly wished to represent the conflict between the civitas Dei (City of God) and the civitas diaboli (City of the Devil), between the children of God and the cives Babyloniæ mundique amatores (citizens of Babylon and lovers of the world).”

Otto of Freising`s life ended before he could complete his second great work, while having time enough to be applauded and lauded for his accomplishment of the Chronica.. more from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“Otto began his second historical work, “Gesta Friderici”, almost ten years after the completion of his “Chronicle”. But he could not finish it, and at his death entrusted the continuation of it to his chaplain Rahewin.”
Bishop Otto plays a part in the story of Baudolino, in fact, Baudolino learns significant lessons from Otto`s pious, yet pragmatic approach to truth, especially the Historical. Like the Doctor of Gonzo, Dr.Hunter S.Thompson, Baudolino realises that with History, as for Dr.Thompson for Journalism, there are much less satisfaction from sitting in a deck chair observing and reporting events as they randomly flit by, than intevening and making things happen in a proper and appropriate manner… which is to say, according to his designs and desires. All that being said, no – Baudolino is not a Fear and Loathing in the Second Crusade..if Eco set his wits to it, im sure that he could have tumbled out something like that, but why on earth should he?

Trailing back to the famous Priest-King John. Kerala is known as the “Christian state” – situated in the West of India, facing its coast faces the Arabic sea, small sailing boats with goods make the journey from Oman to the Kerala coast on a weekly basis, even today… Christian communities in India were reported on already in the mid 2nd century, and the tales of the Oriental Christian churches report that St.Thomas the Apostle (see Herbert Christian Merillat`s The Gnostic Apostle Thomas to find out where he fits in with the Gnostic traditions, especially the Syrian) were supposed to have been sold by Jesus to a merchant so that he would make the missionary journey to the heathens of India, of which the Acts of Thomas is a beautiful monument.
The chief Apostolic succession of the modern Gnostic Churches originate from the Malabar autocephalous Catholic community of the 19th century which had roots in the fertile soil of the Thomas Christian,Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) and Nestorian traditions present from ancient times in India, only incidentally informed by the 16th century portuguese Roman Catholic missions to India which tagged along with the East Asian Company and their colonialist military occupation.
The Medieval Sourcebook online, an excellent resource – reproduces an english translation (by James Brundige) of the significant portion on Prester John in his Chronica – were we can find the following:
“We also saw there at that time [Dec 1145] the aforesaid Bishop of Jabala in Syria…. He said, indeed, that not many years since, one John, a king and priest living in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia, and who, with his people, is a Christian, but a Nestorian, had warred upon the so­called Samiards, the brother kings of the Medes and Persians. John also attacked Ebactanus . I . the capital of their kingdom. When the aforesaid kings advanced against him with a force of Persians, Medes, and Assyrians, a three­day struggle ensued, since both sides were willing to die rather than to flee. At length, Prester John ­ so he is usually called ­ put the Persians to flight and emerged from the dreadful slaughter as victor. The Bishop said that the aforesaid John moved his army to aid the church of Jerusalem, but that when he came to the Tigris and was unable to take his army across it by any means, be turned aside to the north, where he had been informed that the stream was frozen solid during the winter. There he awaited the ice for several years, but saw none because of the temperate weather. His army lost many men on account of the weather to which they were unaccustomed and he was compelled to return home. He is said to be a descendant of the Magi of old, who are mentioned in the Gospel.He governs the same people as they did and is said to enjoy such glory and such plenty that be uses no scepter save one of emerald. Fired by the example of his forefathers, who came to adore Christ in the manger, he proposed to go to Jerusalem, but he was, they say, turned back for the aforementioned reason. “
In the lieu of these rumours, contributed by the Bishop of Jarbala – at a significant stage of the power struggle between the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnenos, and Frederick Barbarossa, who had become the Roman Emperor at that time – which all revolved around the important pilgrim trail and the city of Jerusalem which still served as a grand symbol for the entire christianity – letters appeared, signed by the famous King, John the Priest.
CE reports: “About a hundred manuscripts of the letter to Manuel of Constantinople are still extant (with many variants), and afford an interesting insight into this exceedingly complicated fiction.” Eco has Baudolino write one of those letters, in fact, he lets Baudolino discover and invent the genre.
In his letter, Baudolino makes reference to a certain artefact which would be of great use for Frederick to authenticate his authority over the Papacy….while not mentioning it by name or direct reference, it was construed to be the Gradaal,
the Holy Grail.. which leads us smoothly to

Item B.The Gradaal,also known as The Holy Grail.
In Germany Wolfram von Eschenbach, in “Parsifal” ,was the first to unite the legend of the Holy Grail with this history of Prester John.
Baudolino contributes in this fashion.. choosing original means, which turns miraculous by way of a certain mythosophical psychology necessary, I suppose, for anyone in the middle ages to survive the pressures of its zeitgeist. Prester John and the Gradaal (or Grail) are beacons of light, vehicles or receptacles, according to the person, of a hope which extends beyond the bleak horizon. In fact, in Eco`s story of Baudolino and his merry company`s journey, although irreverent in treatment, holds up – both the story – as form,activity,occupation and reality – and its object – and the objects – as receptacles of such hope, an inventive, restless hope.. a hope like some scamp running circles around the noblemen, who grown up and sane and proper, knows better.. but for knowing, bears the heavy weight of their heavy heart every day, only dreaming the scent of an exotic bloom or the taste of ….green honey.

I now realise that I had better not contribute more about Baudolino… it will be handed around to my friends… “read it”, I`ll say… “it`ll do you good.”.


Item A. Prester John, or the Presbyter John – or at least the rumour, myth and legend which follows him – plays a significant role in the story as it progresses..

An article in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 informs us that the first reference to one John, Priest and King, of India – appeared in the Chronicle of one Bishop Otto of Freising(1112-1158). Of this particular work, the same source informs us that:

“The “Chronicle”, dedicated to the cleric Isingrim (perhaps Abbot of Ottobeuren), is a universal history in eight books based in the main on the great medieval chronicles, especially on Ekkehard, but also on the church histories of Rufinus and Orosius. Otto’s work, however, is by no means a chronicle in the sense of its predecessors. He himself did not call it a chronicle, but gave it the title “De duabus civitatibus“, since, as he asserted, he did not wish merely to enumerate the different events but to combine, as in a tragedy, a picture of the evil which abounded in his time.For this purpose he adheres closely to St. Augustine’s teaching of two states, especially as elaborated in the “De Civitate Dei”, though he also used the ideas of Orosius concerning the misery of the world. Although the doctrine of the two states as it appears in Otto’s historical work can be variously interpreted, he undoubtedly wished to represent the conflict between the civitas Dei (City of God) and the civitas diaboli (City of the Devil), between the children of God and the cives Babyloni

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