Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha

Translator(s): McCracken, Peggy

A medieval painting of three people by a tree with a dragon, unicorn, and other small creatures.


A new translation of the most popular Christian tale of the Middle Ages, which finds its roots in the story of the Buddha. To prevent the prediction that his son will convert to Christianity, the pagan King Avenir confines him to the palace, only to know the pleasures of the world, and not illness, death or poverty. As the prince grows up, he wishes to leave, and encounters Barlaam, a hermit who teaches him Christian beliefs through a series of parables. Later, Josphat converts to Christianity and is accepted by his father who shares the government then also converts. Josphat later resigns as ruler and goes to live in the desert, joining his former teacher Barlaam. Barlaam's parables have been appropriated by some of the greatest writers of the Renaissance. References to them and selections appear in the medieval bestseller The Golden Legend, The Merchant of Venice, and in Marco Polo's Travels. Philologists eventually traced the name Josphat as a derivation from the Sanskrit term bodhisattva, the Buddhist term for the future Buddha. Gui de Cambrai was a cleric from Cambrai, in Northern France. Around 1190, he composed Le Vengement Alixandre, a continuation of the popular story of Alexander the Great, and around 1220-1225, he translated Barlaam and Josaphat from Latin into Old French verse. He is thought to have retired to a monastery at the end of his life. Peggy McCracken is Professor of French, Women's Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her publications on medieval literature and culture include essays, books, edited collections, and, most recently, two co-authored volumes: Marie de France: A Critical Companion, with Sharon Kinoshita, and In Search of the Christian Buddha, with Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (introducer) is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, in the Department of Asian Languages.

Publication Information:

Publisher: Penguin

Year of Publication: 2014

Location: NY