Europeans became increasingly interested in the cultures and religions of Asia, or what they later called the Orient, as a result of trade relations throughout the first millennium CE. Images of Buddha with the Greek lettering ΒΟΔΔΟ – Boddo for Buddha – were found on gold coins from the Kushan empire dating back to the second century CE. Buddha was mentioned in a Greek source, Stromateis, by Clement of Alexandria as early as around 200 CE and another reference to Buddha is found in St Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum written in 393 CE. A religious legend inspired by the narrative of the Life of Buddha was well known in the Judaeo-Persian tradition and early versions in Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian and Georgian have been discovered. The story became commonly known as Barlaam and Josaphat in medieval Europe. The name Josaphat, in Persian and Arabic, spelt variously Budasf, Budasaf, Yudasaf or Iosaph, is a corruption of the title Bodhisattva which stands for Buddha-to-be, referring to Prince Siddhartha who became Gotama Buddha with his enlightenment.

A mention of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat in a marginal illustration in a manuscript famously known as the ‘Theodore Psalter’, although the story itself is not narrated here. Theodore, proto-presbyter of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople, made the manuscript in ancient Greek for Abbot Michael, in 1066 CE. Credit: British Library

Fragments of early versions of the legend seem to have been preserved in Manichean texts in Uighur and Persian from Turfan and it is thought that Manicheans may have transmitted the Buddha narrative to the West. From there the story was translated into Arabic and into Judeo-Persian and Syriac. An early Greek version is attributed to St John of Damascus from circa 675-749 CE in most medieval sources, although recent researches reject this attribution as it is more probable that the Georgian monastic Euthymios carried out the translation from Georgian into Greek in the 10th century CE. It became particularly popular throughout the Christian world after it was translated into many different languages in the Middle Ages, including Latin, French, Provençal, Italian, Spanish, English, Irish, German, Czech, Serbian, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish.

First page of an 18th-19th century poetical version of Barlaam and Josaphat with the title Shāhzādah ṿe-Tsūfī by Elisha ben Samuel in Persian in Hebrew characters. Credit: British Library

The spread of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat in medieval Europe was a cultural phenomenon second to none at the time. Poetic and dramatised versions of the legend became what would be called bestsellers, today. In Christian Europe, these two names were commonly known and the Buddha as St Josaphat became a Saint with his own feast day in the Christian calendar: 27 November.

Devotional miscellany in Old French including the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat on 69 pages, from France in the first half of the 14th century. The illustration depicts Barlaam in black and Josaphat in white dress. Credit: British Library

Although based on the narrative of the Life of Buddha, the content of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat was reshaped and supplemented to make it suitable for the Christian believer. In the Christianized story, an astrologer predicts that the newly-born son of King Avennir, or Abenner, in India, Josaphat, will become a follower of the Christian religion. To prevent this, the king forbade his son to leave the royal palace. The young prince was brought up in ignorance of sickness, old age and death. However, he found out about the dangers to life during excursions from the palace when he met a leper and a blind man, a decrepit old man and finally a corpse. To this point the parallels between the Buddha narrative and the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat are obvious, although names have been corrupted: King Suddhodana became King Avennir and Prince Siddhartha became Josaphat, for Bodhisattva. Then events in the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat take a different turn, and some figures are mixed up with others, like for example Buddha’s enemy Devadatta and Mara, the lord of desire.

A 12th-century Latin translation of Barlaam and Josaphat from the Greek version attributed to John of Damascus. The manuscript was owned by the Weissenau Abbey in Germany. Credit: British Library

A German version continues that after learning about sickness, old age and death, Josaphat met the Christian hermit Barlaam who converted him. Josaphat’s father attempted to dislodge his son from his new faith. He threatened him and then he promised him half the kingdom, but without success. Then the king met the sorcerer Theodas – a corruption of the name Devadatta – who advised him to send Josaphat beautiful women to seduce him, in which they did not succeed. In the Buddha narrative, this scene is related to Mara instead of Devadatta. Josaphat was also attacked by Theodas’ evil spirits which he fought off. Josaphat decided to renounce the world and to spend the rest of his life as an ascetic. In the wilderness of the desert, he was attacked by wild beasts and demons. Finally, he was reunited with the hermit Barlaam and they passed away shortly after one another.

An illustrated German version of Barlaam and Josaphat, printed in Augsburg around 1470 CE. Shown here is an illustration of Josasphat’s encounter of a blind man and a leper, and the text narrates how his attendants explain the reality of human suffering to him. Credit: British Library

The legend became particularly popular in Germany through the Austrian poet Rudolf von Ems’ poetic German version that was composed on the basis of a Latin version around 1230 CE. In Scandinavia, a translation into Old Norse was ordered by King Haakon Haakonsøn in the 13th century, which was the basis of later translations into Norwegian and Swedish. From a Syriac version, translations into Old Slavonic and then Russian and Serbian were produced.

'Rappresentatione di Barlaam et Josafat', an Italian poetic version by Bernardo Pulci printed in Florence in 1516 CE. The title page illustration depicts the birth of Josaphat in the imagination of a Christian artist. Credit: British Library

Printing technology helped to mass-produce copies of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat which made it more widely accessible. Frequently, pictures of Barlaam and Josaphat were added on the title page of printed works. Illustrations depicting scenes from the story were included in some printed books. Although the artistic representation of such images is characterized by the European fashion of that time, based on the imagination of artists who had never been to India, it is possible to identify certain scenes that are well known from the Life of Buddha. These include the Buddha’s birth as a prince, his four encounters, his renunciation of the world, Mara’s attack and assaults by Devadatta.

Illustrated Italian version of Barlaam and Josaphat printed in Venice around 1650 CE. The illustration depicts one of the four signs: Josaphat’s encounter with a leper. Credit: British Library
Title page of a version in Spanish which attributes the legend to John of Damascus, ‘Doctor of the Greek Church’. It was printed in Madrid in 1608 CE. Credit: British Library

Europe was not the final destination of the Buddha narrative in the form of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. The existence of the story was also known in Ethiopia, perhaps well before the 16th century. It was documented by Abha Bahrey, a 16th-century Ethiopian historian who mentioned the book, possibly a translation into Ge’ez or Ethiopic from Greek, in his Psalter of Christ dated 1528 CE. After the official adoption of Christianity in 330 CE, Ethiopian Christians began to translate the sacred texts: the Bible, the New Testament and the Pentateuch into the Ge’ez language. Many writings that were first compiled in Aramaic or Greek have been fully preserved only in Ge’ez as the sacred books of the Ethiopian Church. There is a vast corpus of scriptures that have survived exclusively only in Ge’ez.

Another translation into Ge’ez with the title Baralam and Yewasef was executed from the Arabic version of Bar-sauma ibn Abu ‘l-Faraj by one Enbiikom, or Habakkuk, for the king Galawdewds, or Claudius. It is dated AM 7045 which corresponds to 1553 CE. A surviving copy was written during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II from 1730-55 CE.

Handwritten version of Barlaam and Josaphat in Ge’ez with the title ‘Baralam and Yewasef’, copied at around 1746-'55 from an older translation from Arabic into Ge’ez. Credit: British Library

Jana Igunma is the lead curator of Buddhist artefacts at the British Library.

This article first appeared on the Asian and African Studies Blog, a publication of the British Library.