Wonders and Wisdom: Anglo-Saxons and the East

Wonders and Wisdom: Anglo-Saxons and the East

Heide Estes

English Studies, 91: 4, 360 — 373 (2010)


What the Anglo-Saxons ‘‘knew’’ about Asia and its inhabitants was drawn from Biblical exegesis, saints’ lives, and other texts derived from Latin sources. Numerous Old English and Anglo-Latin texts of varied genre and contents give evidence of an intense interest in the East that serves both to define Anglo-Saxon origins and to depict outsiders of varying types that are made to perform as ‘‘Other’’ to members of the Anglo-Saxon community. Ælfric follows Augustine and Isidore in his division of the world into three regions whose people are descended from the biblical Ham, Shem, and Cham; the division is depicted in Anglo-Saxon world maps and referenced in poetry such as the Old English Genesis. The Beowulf-manuscript contains several texts about ‘‘the East’’ including the prose Wonders of the East, Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and Life of Saint Christopher, as well as the poems Judith and Beowulf. The outlandish creatures described and illustrated in each of these texts figure as outsiders to Anglo-Saxon culture and function to structure masculinity and social cohesion.

Images of monstrosity are interwoven with figurations of femininity to bring the ideation of the ‘‘other’’ closer to home. Old English texts that refer to ‘‘the East’’ have more to do with Anglo-Saxon preoccupations with locating themselves geographically and temporally in Christian Europe than with historical realities. ‘‘The East’’ becomes at once monstrous, marvellous, and mysterious, a place of the imagination in quasi-historical accounts ranging from the Letter of Alexander to Beowulf, each of which depicts a realm whose wild characters and characteristics opposed the wished-for stability of roles and functions ‘‘at home’’ among the English. With all of these figurations existing together in a single manuscript, it becomes possible to argue that Asia as a whole functions in the same position to medieval Christian Europe in a comprehensive fashion, anticipating the ‘‘orientalism’’ of the post-medieval period.

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