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.
We recently announced – to great fanfare and excitement –
the digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript;
the famous Cotton MS Vitellius A XV can be viewed online in its entirety here.
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
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
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