Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript
Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning 'Hwæt' ('Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.
Although the manuscript has gone by a number of names over the course of its long history, it is most frequently referred to as the Beowulf manuscript in reference to the renowned poem, beloved of Anglo-Saxonists and English students alike. But Cotton MS Vitellius A XV is in fact a composite codex, made up of a number of different parts, many in Old English. Paleographical and codicological evidence suggests that these seemingly disparate bits were intended as part of a coherent whole, with a single scribe writing the bulk of the material. Besides Beowulf, the manuscript includes some texts from St Augustine, The Homily on St Christopher (now incomplete), the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, the poem Judith, and a number of others as well as the subject of today’s post, The Marvels of the East.
Detail of a miniature of gold-digging ants in the land of Gorgoneus, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r
The Marvels of the East (sometimes called The Wonders of the East) is a unique and fascinating text which first appeared in the 4th or 5th century. It is a composite work of long and complicated pedigree, although scholars have been able to track down a number of its sources. These include the works of Isidore of Seville, St Augustine, Virgil and Pliny, and other texts of ultimately classical origin.
Detail of miniatures of two-headed snakes and deadly horned donkeys, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 99v
Copies of the Marvels were apparently produced throughout Europe, but only three survive, all of Anglo-Saxon origin. The British Library’s version from the Beowulf manuscript is the oldest, dating from c. 1000; the other two are British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B V (first half of the 11th century) and Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 614, c. 1120-1140. All three copies of the Marvels were bound in miscellanies, and all three contain painted or drawn miniatures. Secular subjects such as these were very rarely illustrated in Anglo-Saxon texts, so the existence of three such copies of the Marvels is no doubt significant.
Miniatures of sheep and rams in the land of Antimolima, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 98v
The text of the Marvels begins without preface or explanation, with a description of an area near Babylon, called Antimolima; we are told of this place that ‘there are rams born there as big as oxen.’* This opening section is typical of the Marvels. There is no consistent geographical setting to the wonders described therein; the text jumps from marvels in Africa to those in Asia and back again, suggesting that the author’s interest is the strangeness of these creatures themselves, rather than their surroundings. A series of disconnected descriptions takes the place of any narrative in the Marvels. They are short and basic, generally consisting of four pieces of information: the name of the marvel or monstrous race, where it can be found, what it looks like, and finally, what it eats.
Detail of a miniature of the long-eared panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r
Belief in the existence of monstrous races of human beings was central to medieval thinking, although almost everything about them was open to debate and discussion. The only characteristic universally agreed upon was that they were always to be found far away, beyond the borders of the world as it was then known. Almost as common were references to the physical deformities of the monstrous races: there were gigantic races and tiny races, those with extremities misshapen, missing, enlarged, or multiplied, and every variety of human/animal hybrid. The Marvels provides us with a number of these creatures, many of which are unnamed. One such is the race that would later be called the panotii (see above), best known for having large ‘ears like fans’, which they were said to wrap themselves in at night to keep warm. The panotii were so timid that they would flee immediately upon seeing a stranger, ‘so swiftly one might think that they flew.’
Detail of a miniature of a blemmya, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v
The blemmyae are another monstrous race left unnamed by the author of the Marvels of the East (see above). We are told that ‘on another island, south of the Brixontes…are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.’ This short description does little to hint at the later fame of blemmyae; these creatures were extremely popular subjects for later medieval artists.
Physical deformity in monstrous races was of course their most obvious characteristic, and arguably the most visually striking as well. But other deviations from the European norms of language, dress, social structure, and dietary habits could be just as powerful. One final example from the Marvels might be useful here.
Detail of a miniature of a donestre consuming his victim, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 103v
This race of people is called the donestre, ‘who have grown like soothsayers from the head to the navel, and the other part is human.’ Donestre, we are told, are capable of speaking every human language, and use this knowledge to ‘beguile’ any strangers that approach them. Having disarmed the travellers, the donestre then attack and eat their bodies below the neck (see above), ‘and then sit and weep over the head.’
Be sure to check out the rest of the manuscript for further marvels, and remember that the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is an excellent resource for keyword searching (and now Creative Commons images) - I would particularly recommend having a look for blemmyae there. As always, please follow us on Twitter @blmedieval.
* Translations of The Marvels of the East are taken from the appendix in Andy Orchard’s excellent Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 184-203.
- Sarah J Biggs