By Danièle Cybulskie
If there’s anything we have in common with our medieval ancestors, it’s our love of monsters.
Take a look at an illustrated manuscript, and you’ll often find strange creatures peering out of the margins (along with the snails and bunnies). Beyond just creative illustration, medieval people were fascinated by the potential of a world that wasn’t fully explored, and imagined it was filled with all sorts of wild and wooly creatures both dangerous and deadly. The Beowulf manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV), is a collection particularly full of monsters, besides the marvelously creepy Grendel and his mother.
A while back, I posted on The Wonders of the East, a piece of travel literature that includes fun trivia, such as where pepper comes from. In addition to The Wonders of the East, the manuscript includes a letter (ostensibly) from Alexander (the Great) with all sorts of strange tales, and a section called Liber Monstrorum: literally “The Book of Monsters”. Today, let’s look at a few examples from Liber Monstrorum.
Liber Monstrorum takes its monster stories from a variety of sources (outlined comprehensively in Andy Orchard’s Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript– all quotes are taken from his translation), many of them stemming from Greek legend, such as the Cyclops, sirens, fauns, and Gorgons. Here are some other monsters which you may encounter in the Liber Monstrorum, as well as other medieval manuscripts:
1. Cynocephali, a race of dog-headed people (whom I’ve written about before) that I often wonder was inspired by Egyptian statues of Anubis, although the Liber Monstrorum’s author writes that they are “said to be born in India.”
2. Sciapods (Orchard translates this for the reader as “shade-feet”) have just one leg and foot, which is so massive they use it for shade.
3. Epifugi (similar to the Blemmyae) have no heads, but “have all the functions of the head in their chests, except they are said to have eyes in their shoulders.”
4. People who “are born reasonable in stature, except that their eyes shine like lanterns.”
5. “A certain monster of the night, which always used to fly by night through the shade of the sky and the earth, terrifying people in cities with its dreadful cry, and it had as many eyes and ears and mouths, as it had feathers.”
6. People with “ears like fans, with which they cover and conceal themselves at night, and when they see a human, they flee through the vastest deserts [or ‘most deserted wastes’] with ears outstretched”
7. Giants, who are known to be real because “their bones are often found, according to books, on the shores and in the recesses of the world, as a mark of their vast size.” (I find this particularly fascinating – were these whale bones? Fossils?)
Beyond the actual monstrous are descriptions of real humans which the author found so fascinating that he placed them among legendary species. These include Ethiopians, and Pygmies, whose physical characteristics he finds foreign enough to either doubt or fear (I’m guessing the author was insulated enough never to have met a human with physical characteristics that differed greatly from his own).
Looking at the many works that focus on the monstrous or different in the Beowulf manuscript, it seems evident that the author(s) and/or compilers took a definite interest in beings that lived on the fringes of the known world (of northern Europe in this case). Modern people can feed their fascination with medieval monsters by taking a look at the many works in that manuscript, or by glancing through some of the marginalia that surround various other medieval manuscripts. For a close look at the monstrous in the Beowulf manuscript, check out Andy Orchard’s book, and for a comprehensive overall view, have a look at John Block Friedman’s The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist