Gui de Cambrai’s Barlaam and Josaphat is one of many medieval versions of the life of Saint Josaphat and his teacher, Saint Barlaam. The story appeared in Latin in the eleventh century and was subsequently translated into virtually every European vernacular language. Gui de Cambrai translates his Barlaam and Josaphat from a Latin source into Old French verse; my translation brings the Old French version into modern English prose.
The early part of the story has long been recognized as a retelling of the life of the Buddha: a young prince is raised in isolation from the world because his father fears he will renounce the secular world to become an ascetic, as foretold by astrologers; the prince subsequently discovers illness, old age, and death, and chooses to renounce worldly pleasures and comforts in order to seek a spiritual reward. The Introduction to this volume, written by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., briefly explores the resemblances between the stories of Josaphat and the Buddha.
Gui’s Barlaam and Josaphat includes two unique additions to the story of the Christian prince. In most versions, after the pagan King Avenir divides his kingdom and gives half to his Christian son, Josaphat, the king sees the prosperity of his son’s domain, realizes his error, and converts to Christianity. In Gui de Cambrai’s version, the king sees the prosperity of his son’s kingdom, understands that Josaphat has converted all his people and many of King Avenir’s own, and resolves to take back the part of his land that he gave to his son. Avenir goes to war against Josaphat, and the story of the war between Josaphat’s Christians and King Avenir’s pagan Saracens clearly draws on the conventions of Old French epics, or chansons de geste, and on Crusade rhetoric.
Gui de Cambrai’s Barlaam and Josaphat also includes a debate between personifications of Josaphat’s body and soul. Gui imitates another popular literary genre, the dialogue that pits the appetites of the body against the spiritual desires of the soul. Gui’s version is a lively exchange between a whining, complaining body and a strict and unforgiving soul. It allows the narrator to reiterate in a sometimes humorous key the dangers that worldly pleasures pose to spiritual rewards, and to emphasize the values of renunciation that are promoted throughout the story.
Gui’s version of the story includes the many parables that Barlaam uses to teach his pupil, Josaphat (including the story of the four caskets, later used by Shakespeare), and lively accounts of King Avenir’s attempts to subvert his son’s Christian faith. As a Christianized version of the story of the Buddha, transmitted through Arabic into Georgian, Greek, and Latin, it is an essential source for understanding early connections among the world’s most popular religions.