Did John of Marignolli meet Queen Tribhuwana?
It is sometimes claimed that the Italian priest John of Marignolli (aka Giovanni de’ Marignolli, Johannes Marignola) visited the island of Java in the middle of the fourteenth century and, while there, met the Javanese queen Tribhuwana (Tribhuwanā Wijayottunggadewī, aka Dyah Gitarja — before 1309?-1350? CE), who is believed to have ruled the kingdom of Majapahit up to 1329. Marignolli is also said to have encountered local Javanese Christians living on the island as well, and even to have converted some locals. One can read these claims in a number of works, and I’ve come across them several times in conversation with other Southeast Asianists.
In this post I’m going to go over Marignolli’s peculiar account of (possibly) Java. The claims above are not necessarily untrue, but their evidential base is, as you shall see, rather flimsy. A simple assertion that ‘Marignolli met Tribhuwana’ overstates the case — an overinterpretation of the evidence unfortunately rather typical of approaches to medieval foreigners’ accounts in the study of Southeast Asian history. In this case it may have something to do with the difficulty of accessing this account, which is best known through its English translation by Henry Yule (in the second volume of his Cathay and the Way Thither ), and also of the obscurity of the relevant text itself.
John of Marignolli’s writings on Asia are included in a work he was asked to write by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV (whom we have met before on the blog). In 1357 Charles invited Marignolli invited to move to Prague, Charles’s royal and imperial capital. Under Charles’s rule it had become a lively and interesting place, with all sorts of religious movements forming in the city and in Bohemia in general at the time. Marignolli was getting rather aged and venerable by this point, having been born in around 1290. A few years earlier he had returned to Italy from a papal mission to the Mongols, during which he had travelled as far as China.
The Emperor must have found Marignolli an interesting chap because he commissioned him to write a history of the Bohemians, which Marignolli did, finishing the work in 1358 — and interspersing through it several lengthy digressions on the history and geography of Asia. It is thus in this Annals of the Bohemians (Chronicon Bohemorum, sometimes Cronicã Boemorum [vel sim], as in Figure 1) that we find Marignolli’s descriptions of Java (if Java it be).
The Chronicon Bohemorum survives in three manuscripts — a tiny number next to the extraordinary profusion of copies of Polo and Mandeville:
1) Venice, Library of Saint Mark (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana), ms Lat. X, 188 (3628);
2) Prague, National Library of the Czech Republic (Národní Knihovna České republiky), I.C.24; and
3) Prague, National Library of the Czech Republic (Národní Knihovna České republiky), I.D.10.
The last of these has been digitised and hosted online, so I’ll be using that as the source text for this post, guided in my readings by Irene Malfatto’s 2013 critical edition of Marignolli’s Asian digressions. I’ve normalised the spellings in the manuscript — opting for e.g. ⟨Christiani⟩ rather than ⟨x͠piani⟩ — and translated everything anew, borrowing only a few elements from the earlier translation by Yule. (Latin philologists: Do let me know if you think any changes are needed here.) The text below should give you a good idea of the nature and contents of Marignolli’s descriptions, and you can decide for yourself if you think Marignolli met Tribhuwana or not.
The Queen of Saba
I have put seven extracts from the text below, comprising all of the substantial references to an island called ‘Saba’ — usually thought to be Java. The first excerpt (Figure 2 below) describes the location of this ‘Saba’, suggesting that it was on the sea route from China to Sri Lanka (Seyllan, i.e. Ceylon). This is where we first hear about the apparently renowned Queen of Saba. The second excerpt tells us that this Queen owned elephants, and that Marignolli rode on one of them; the third tells us that this Saba was south of the equator; the fourth that the Queen owned animals with human traits; and the fifth tells us — here’s the kicker — that this Queen of Saba was descended from the legendary Babylonian queen Semiramis. The sixth and seventh re-iterate some of the points made elsewhere about elephants etc., but they also throw in some comments about Sheba and Hebrew prophets which seem entirely irrelevant to a Javanese context.
You see, Marignolli appears to have confused the queen he met in Saba with the legendary Queen of Sheba (also called ‘Saba’). As he occasionally refers to both Queens, the Queen of the island of Saba/Java and the legendary Queen of Sheba from the Bible, and as the text is generally rather disordered, it isn’t clear which one he’s talking about in every instance. The sixth excerpt below seems to have little at all to do with Java; I’ve included it below to show how confusing the text is on this matter. The fact that Marignolli says that the island of Saba was conquered and ruled over by the descendants of Semiramis adds to this odd Saba/Java/Sheba mix-up, which makes the text seem less reliable in other respects than it probably is.
There are certainly some compelling features of Marignolli’s brief descriptions of Saba, but it seems to me that it cannot be said with any certainty that John of Marignolli met Tribhuwana. Although Tribhuwana may in some sense have ruled as queen of Majapahit at the time of Marignolli’s travels in Asia, her name does not appear in Marignolli’s account. It isn’t entirely clear that Saba is Java in the first place, and the little information that Marignolli provides would fit almost as well with some other islands (Sumatra, for example). In any case, the seven excerpts are below; you’re welcome to make up your own mind as to their reliability. You can read a little more about Saba and its queen in Yule’s translation.
ad famosissimam reginam Sa-
ba · a qua honorati post fru-
ctum ibidem animarum. sunt ibi
enim pauci Christiani. Deinde
perreximus per mare ·ad Seylla-
‘[…] I continued to the famous Queen of Saba, by whom I was honourably treated. After a harvest of souls — (for) there are a few Christians there — we proceeded by sea to Seyllan [i.e. Sri Lanka] […].’
in Seyllano sunt Cameli· sed
elephantes innumeri · qui licet
sint ferocissimi · raro tamen
nocent homini peregrino. Ego
equitavi super unum regine
Saba · qui videbatur habere
usum rationis, si non esset contra
‘[…] Not that there are any camels (1) in Seyllan, but there are innumerable elephants, which, though they be most ferocious, seldom hurt a foreigner. I rode one belonging to the Queen of Saba, which seemed to have the use of reason — were it not contrary to the faith [to think so].’
(1) Camels are mentioned in Old Javanese texts of this period, incidentally, including the kakawin Deśawarṇana, written in 1365 CE by Mpu Prapañca (59.7 — translated by Stuart Robson [1995:68]):
gaja kuda gardhaboṣṭra guluṅan gumuluṅ tan arĕn
‘elephants, horses, donkeys, camels [uṣṭra] and carts rolled ceaselessly onwards’
etiam apud reginam Saba · ubi
tamen oritur sol modo opposito
nobis et in meridie transit vmbra
viri ad dextrum sicut hic ad sini-
strum · et occultatur ibi polus ar-
ticus nobis gradibus · sex et
antarticus totidem elevatur ·
sicut dominus Leon de Ianua nobilis
et astrologus nobis ostendit
et multa in astris mira·
‘Nor [could I learn more when] with the Queen of Saba, where the sun rises in a manner opposite to [the way it does] by us, and at noon a man’s shadow passes from left to right, instead of from right to left, as it does here. The North Pole [star?] there was six degrees below the horizon, and the South Pole elevated as much above it, as the noble astronomer Master Leon of Genoa showed me, besides many [other] wonders in the stars.’
Sunt etiam monstruosi ser-
pentes et fere · sicut habet in clau-
sura sua pragensi dominus Jmpera-
tor Karolus. Sunt etiam
animalia quedam quasi ad figuram
hominis · maxime apud reginam
Saba · et in claustro de Camp-
say in illo famosissimo mona-
sterio · vbi sunt tot monstruosa
animalia · que credunt esse animas
‘There are also monstrous serpents [in Asia], rather like those our Lord the Emperor Charles has in his park at Prague. There are also some animals almost of the appearance of a man, particularly in the possession of the Queen of Saba, and in the cloister at Campsay (1) in that most renowned monastery where they keep so many monstrous animals, which they believe to be the souls of the departed.’
(1) Probably Hangzhou in China.
viri filiam quandam occulte
dicitur genuisse in Yndia · quam
adultam fecit reginam optime
insule mundi Saba nomine
in qua semper mulieres ibidem
communiter regnum super homines
habuerunt · et vidi depictas
hystorias in pallacio eius · in
throno scilicet sedentes mulieres·
viros flexis genibus · eas ado-
rantes · nam sicut vidi ibidem oculis
mulieres in curribus sedent in
cathedris · mariti ducunt bo-
ves uel elephantes·
‘[…] in India she [Semiramis, wife of Ninus] secretly gave birth to a daughter, whom as an adult she made Queen of the best island in the world, named Saba, on which women have always held the kingdom in common over men. And I have seen historical depictions in their palace, [showing], namely, women seated on the throne with men on bended knee adoring them, just as I saw with my own eyes that over there the women sit in chariots or on [sedan-? elephant-?] chairs, (while) the men drive oxen or elephants.’
Quo tempore deus misertus
populo suo fecit apparere heliam
qui ubi fuerit conservatus a deo
nescitur. Si verum est quod fingunt
hebrei · quod iste idem fuerit fine-
es filius Eleazari, ut recitat
Jeronimus super primum paralipominon
xxj capitulo dicunt tamen hebrei et
sabei · id est homines de regno
regine Saba · quod manserat in
altissimo monte · illius terre
qui mons gybeit dicitur · quod
sonat mons beatus · in quo mon-
te orabant magi sicut dicunt
in nativitate Christi nocte · quando
viderunt stellam· et est inacces-
sibilis quodammodo. Nam
a medio monte et supra aer
dicitur ita subtilis · et purus
quod nisi cum spongia plena aqua
super os · vix aliquis ascendere
possit vel pauci. Helias tamen
ut dicunt ibi mansit voluntate
dei absconsus usque ad tempora
illa. Dicunt etiam illi
de saba · quod ibi nunc etiam aliquando
apparet et est ibi fons · unde di-
cunt eum bibisse in pede montis […]
‘At this time God had pity on his people and caused Elijah/Elias, who had been kept by God (where none knew), to appear. It may be true, as the Hebrews allege, that he was the same as Phineas, the son of Eleazar, as Jerome relates in 1 Chronicles 21. But it is said by both the Hebrews and the Sabei, i.e. the people of the kingdom of the Queen of Saba, that he had dwelt in a lofty mountain of that land called Mount Gybeit, which sounds like a blessed mountain. On this mountain the Magi were praying, as they say, on the night of Christ’s birth when they saw the star. It is in a manner inaccessible, for from the middle of the mountain upwards the air is said to be so thin and pure that, unless they keep a sponge full of water over their mouths, scarcely anyone, or only a few, can climb it. They say, though, that Elijah remained hidden there by the will of God until the time [he appeared]. The people of Saba say also that he still sometimes shows himself there. And there is a spring at the foot of that mountain where they say he used to drink […].’
Reginam etiam illam fre-
quenter vidi et solempniter
benedixi · et super eius elefantem
equitavi · et in eius convivio
glorioso fui · et ipsa me, in conspectu
totius civitatis in solio resi-
dentem, honoravit donis ma-
gnificis · nam cingulum aureum
sicut ipsa donabat principibus
institutis michi donavit quem
latrones michi acceperunt in
Seyllano · Donavit etiam
michi vestes · pecias integras
pretiosas subtiles centum quinqua-
ginta · de quibus novem recepi
pro domino papa · quinque pro me
socijs principalibus dedi tres
pro quolibet · minoribus duas
et omnes alias in eius conspectu
distribui inmediate astantibus
servitoribus eius · ne essem
avarus · quod fuit summe com-
mendatum et magnificum repor-
tatum. Hoc incidens non displiceat […].
‘I also frequently saw the Queen and solemnly blessed her. I rode on her elephant, and was at a glorious banquet of hers. And while I was seated on a chair of state in view of the whole city she honoured me with magnificent presents. For she gave me a golden girdle, like those she gave to those installed as princes, which was stolen from me by thieves in Sri Lanka. She also gave me clothes, one hundred and fifty whole subtle precious pieces. Of these I accepted nine for our lord the Pope, five for myself, gave three each to my principal companions, with two apiece to the subordinates, and all the rest I distributed in [the Queen’s] presence among her servants standing by, so as not to be greedy. This was highly commended and nobly reported. May this incident not displease [His Majesty].’
Those are the main references to Saba/Java in the Chronicon Bohemorum. Here’s the situation as I see it:
John of Marignolli met Tribhuwana and some Javanese Christians…
- if Saba can be equated with Java;
- if the Queen of Saba means the Queen of Java (and not the Queen of Sheba);
- if the Queen of Saba in question can be equated with Tribhuwana (the name, of course, isn’t mentioned);
- if he didn’t make it all up.
With regard to the last point, I should say that Marignolli does appear to have visited Asia and, indeed, to have gone as far as China, and the account overall is not necessarily suspect. What he says about the status of women in Java isn’t right, but it does contain a kernel of truth, in that women in Java, and elsewhere in island Southeast Asia, do seem to have had higher social status relative to men when compared to most of the rest of Afro-Eurasia at the time. There are certainly serpents and animals that look like people (i.e. monkeys) in Java; the island is certainly in the southern hemisphere; and populations of elephants did once live there as well (Figure 3).
The Saba/Java/Sheba confusion is undeniably odd, but the use of the name Saba actually strengthens the case that Marignolli’s is a true and independent description of Java. ‘Saba’ does not derive from the names for Java common in other fourteenth-century Latin Christian descriptions, namely Jaua, Iana, and other variants (deformed for the most part through scribal error). ‘Saba’ is a plausible transcription of the Javanese word Jawa, and it is reminiscent of the word ⟨Шабат⟩ (Šabat) in the account of late-fifteenth-century Russian traveller Afanasij Nikitin, where it appears to refer to Java (or Sumatra).
This doesn’t seem conclusive to me, though. An earlier commentator, Friedrich Kunstmann, located Saba in the Maldives. Even if we assume that Saba is etymologically related to Java/Jawa, the location of Saba could well have been somewhere in Sumatra; Ibn Baṭṭūṭa was in Southeast Asia at around the same time and he uses al-Jāwa to refer to Sumatra, reserving the name Mul Jāwa for the place we know as Java. Sumatra is closer to Sri Lanka (Seyllan) than Java and was more likely to appear on the itinerary of a sea voyage between China and India. Marco Polo visited Sumatra on his way from China to Persia in the 1290s, but he did not stop at Java (though Odoric of Pordenone went to both). Parts of Sumatra are south of the equator; the accounts of Polo’s travels describe the disappearance of the North Star below the horizon in the section on Sumatra, which Polo/Rustichello refers to as Jaua le Menor ‘smaller Java’ (or similar). A Sumatran identification of Marignolli’s Saba might even help with this strange point about animals that look like people: is there another animal that better fits the expression quasi ad figuram hominis than a Sumatran orangutan? (A rhetorical point, but you see what I mean.)
There may have been Christian communities in medieval Sumatra as well. A thirteenth-century description by a Coptic priest named Abū al-Makārim claims that there were several churches in the camphor-producing region of ‘Fahṣūr’ (فهصور — a copying error for Fanṣūr فنصور, i.e. Barus in North Sumatra), including one dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Figure 4).
In any case, as the name of the queen who honoured John of Marignolli is not mentioned, and since there are no other remarks in the text that could be taken as diagnostic of the island’s identity or location, it seems rather unwise to assert that Marignolli met Tribhuwana. I’d say that it is wiser to study and acknowledge the peculiarities of this account than it is to use it as an authoritative source on the royal or religious history of Java. When it comes to texts like this, though, historians of Southeast Asia can be remarkably incurious, tending to rely in particular on old and outdated translations, and assuming rather than testing the veracity of the information in them. This is an account of relevance to the study of Indo-Malaysian history — but I’d say that the easily misinterpreted disordered digressions of an elderly cleric in a book on a largely unrelated topic do not constitute the royal road to historical fact.
I’d like to compare this Marignolli situation to the reception of another fourteenth-century text, also written by an Italian: Petrarch’s letter to Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro describing an ascent of Mont Ventoux in Provence (Epistolae familiares, book IV, I). Petrarch recounts his itinerary and the ascent of this mountain in some detail. The mountain is real, and there are no problems with its identification in the letter. It had been climbed before — perhaps even by Jean Buridan, renowned medieval French philosopher — and has certainly been climbed since. Petrarch had unquestionably been in the vicinity of the mountain on his way through France. Little about the event described is implausible per se. And yet doubt has been repeatedly expressed over whether Petrarch’s account is true or not. Certain features of it ring untrue in modern historians’ ears.
I suspect this scepticism has something to do with the abundance of documentary evidence available to historians of medieval Europe. It isn’t necessary to read so much into minor sources because there are so many others one could use, and the burden placed on any single source is lightened. That certainly isn’t the case with the patchy, fragmentary historical record of early island Southeast Asia. Surely, though, the absence of extensive documentary records should make us more and not less discerning, and we should approach odd texts like Marignolli’s carefully and cautiously.
Malfatto, Irene. 2013. Le digressioni sull’Oriente nel Chronicon Bohemorum di Giovanni de’ Marignolli. Edizione critica e cura. SISMEL e-codicibus. XII-28.
Robson, Stuart O. 1995. Desawarnana (Nagarakertagama) by Mpu Prapanca. Leiden: KITLV Press.
Yule, Henry. 1866. Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China. Volume II. London: Hakluyt Society.