By Danièle Cybulskie
When I was an undergraduate, I had the great fortune of taking a course that was entirely based on monsters in the Beowulf manuscript. Not only did we have the pleasure of reading Beowulf in its entirety in Old English, but we were also exposed to the many other works which are part of Cotton Vitellius A XV (the name of the manuscript). I fell in love with one of these, especially: The Wonders of the East.
If you’ve read my blog before, you may already know that I’m fascinated by the way in which people make sense of the world around them. The Wonders of the East is an author’s attempt to not only introduce readers to strange sights they may never see with their own eyes (since most people did not travel extensively), but also to make sense of some things they might see every day.
In “The East”, a traveler will encounter dragons, griffons, and phoenixes (naturally), but also humans. Some of the people the author describes may have actually been based on real people Europeans had come across, as there are descriptions of Ethiopians’ “black” (“sweartes”) bodies (p. 203). This difference in skin colour may have been remarkable to untraveled readers of Old English, but not necessarily to southern Europeans. Most of the humans, though, are straight out of fantasy. One species has “ears like fans” (“earen swa fann”). Here’s what the author has to say about them (excerpts and translations are from Andy Orchard’s Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript):
They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think they flew. (p. 197)
Other of the mysterious creatures that exist in the East are bearded women, and women who have “camel’s feet and boar’s teeth” as well as “ox-tails on their loins” (p. 201). Alexander the Great apparently killed those women, though, “because they have offensive and disgusting bodies” (p. 201).
My favourite parts of The Wonders of the East are the ants and the pepper. The ants are “as big as dogs” (swa micle swa hundas”, p. 190 – 191), and spend their time digging up gold. People who want the gold have to bring male and female camels to the ants: the male camels are left behind to distract the ants while the people make their escape on the female camels with the gold (p. 191). Pepper, on the other hand, is guarded by snakes: “In order to take the pepper people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee down into the earth; because of this the pepper is black” (p.189). (Now you know.) Readers who came across these stories may have found it easier to understand why gold and pepper were so expensive: clearly, it takes a lot of effort to attain them.
If you get the chance, you can read The Wonders of the East in modern translation by Andy Orchard here. It’s relatively short, but a fun and interesting window into the type of stories passed around to inform and entertain a thousand years ago.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist