This tradition had theoretical overlaps with humoralism (credited to the Greek physician Hippocrates: 460 BCE–370 BCE) in that it was believed climate could impact the balance of the Four Humours. This could explain the believed creation of these monsters and the religious ideology linked to their subhuman forms. They were a subversion of the perfect body of man created in God’s image and were thus anatomically, morally, and spiritually inferior and ungodly. Regrettably, these ideas informed emerging ideas of race. Europeans who, from the mid-fifteenth century, began interacting with other cultures used beliefs that ethnic and cultural differences could be explained by weather and humoral differences to justify the supposed inferiority of people from regions with more extreme climates.
This is alluded to in the Map Psalter, a late thirteenth century map depicting the world as it was known at the time. At the bottom of Africa on the right, you see a collection of semi-human creatures, illustrating the belief that in the extreme climates at the edge of the world dwelled monsters. Jack Hartnell makes the connection that this isn’t far different from the modern-day belief in the existence of alien life forms out in space, a belief which is
‘governed not by scientific truth but by the same very human impulses that formed these monstrous medieval races. The Blemmyae, then, sit at an intersection between medieval bodily fact and bodily fiction, giving us a glimpse less into the realities of pre-modern Africa than into the imaginations of everyday folk, their aspirations, their fantasies, their fears.’
Mapmakers in medieval times, Hartnell reminds his readers, were just as interested in depicting historical and mythological figures and events as they were in accurately depicting the geography of the known world. Hence, referring back to Perrone, medieval illustrations were – and remain – entertaining, educational, and expressive of fears and beliefs.