National Geographic : 1908 Apr
MEDIEVAL TALES OF THE LOP BASIN IN CENTRAL ASIA* BY ELLSWORTH HUNTINGTON HE modern West discovered the Lake of Lop-Nor, in Chinese Turkestan, only thirty years ago, yet in the Middle Ages Chaucer and his predecessors seem to have known as much about that region as the average man knows today. In recounting the vir tues of the Duchess Blanche, Chaucer speaks of the sweet reasonableness with which she treated her many lovers. She did not hold them in suspense, nor for the sake of proving them did she: S Sende men into Walakye, To Pruyse and into Tartarye, To Alisaundre, ne into Turkye, And bid him faste, anoon that he Go hoodless to the Drye See, And come hoom by the Carrenare." Apparently the Dry Sea and the Car renare were the most inaccessible regions of which Chaucer had ever heard, more inaccessible even than Wallachia, Prussia, Tartary, Turkey, and other erstwhile re mote places of which he knew little. After much discussion by literary critics as to the geography of the places to which the Duchess did not send her lov ers, Prof. J. L. Lowest has shown that there can be little doubt that the Car renare is the small salt lake of Kara-Nor, at the eastern end of Chinese Turkestan. It lies in the vast "Gobi" or "Desert" about 200 miles west of the supposed end of the Great Chinese Wall. As a matter of fact the remains of the wall extend not only to, but beyond the lake, as Dr Stein has recently discovered. Pro fessor Lowes concludes further that the Dry Sea is the great sandy desert of Tak lamakan, a few hundred miles to the west of Kara-Nor. It appears to be either this or the broad salt plain of the ancient bed of the Lake of Lop-Nor, between Kara Nor and Takla-makan. The terrible * Abstract of an address to the National t Modern Philology, vol. iii, 1905, pp. 1-4 summer heat and winter cold of the whole region make it indeed a place to which few people would be so hardy as to go "hoodless" at any season. Apparently European knowledge of Central Asia in Chaucer's day was de rived more or less directly from the famous Letters of Prester John, perhaps by way of the plagiarized accounts of Sir John Mandeville. Prester John was a semi-mythical Christian prince who is supposed to have lived in Central Asia, and who sent boastful letters to the Pope of Rome in the latter half of the twelfth century. The Letters aroused great in terest in Europe for three or four cen turies, and many attempts were vainly made to find the author's country. At first he was supposed to live in Asia, as was probably the case. Hundreds of years after the writing of the letters, how ever, the Portuguese heard of a Christian king living in Abyssinia, and, supposing him to be the great Prestor John, sent sev eral expeditions to form an alliance with him. The vaunting boasts of the wide do minion and great splendor of Prester John, whose butler is said to have been a primate and a king, and his steward an archbishop and a king, are certainly false. Nevertheless the Letters contain a large amount of garbled truth, and their writer must have known a good deal more about Central Asia than has generally been supposed. He tells us that, "Among other things which are very wonderful in our country is a sea of sand without water. For the sand moves and swells in waves in the manner of all seas, and is never still. This sea cannot be crossed either by boat or by any other method, and of what sort the land may be beyond it no one can know. And although water is absent Geographic Society, January 17, 1908. 6.