According to The Marvels of the East, there is a place far from England where there are,
men akenned þa beoð awæstme fiftyne fota lange on bræde tyn fotmæla. Hi habbað micle heafda eran swa fann. Oþer eare hi him on niht underbredað & mid oðran hy wreoð him (f. 104r – digitised image 8)
[men who are born fifteen feet tall and ten feet broad. They have big heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other]
The text is filled with such gems of dubious wisdom. The Marvels of the East, which is written in Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons), is part travel guide, part quasi-zoological description. It describes a series of 36 strange creatures that can be found in the semi-mythical land of the ‘east’.
The text is based on the Liber Monstrorum (Book of Monsters), which was originally composed at some point in the late 7th or early 8th century. There are two versions of this text in Old English, called The Wonders of the East and The Marvels of the East.
What is so special about this manuscript?
The version you can see here is from a famous manuscript – Cotton MS Vitellius A XV – the manuscript which contains the great, Old English epic poem, Beowulf. This manuscript is dated to c. 1010. Alongside Beowulf, the manuscript also contains poems about St Christopher and the biblical Judith, as well as The Letter from Alexander to Aristotle – a supposed account of Alexander the Great’s military campaigns in India, where he meets many strange creatures, including snakes with two heads and flying mice.
The scholar Andy Orchard has noted that many of these texts are interested in monsters and argues that ‘monstrousness’ is the unifying theme of the manuscript. In the medieval period manuscripts often contained texts of many different types, in different languages, bound together in a single volume. We can see that in Arundel MS 292 or Harley MS 2253. The idea of monstrousness is, therefore, quite a loose theme. This manuscript is also special, however, because it contains striking, fantastical illustrations. On f. 100r (digitised image 4) we can see an image of one of the mythical fire-breathing creatures called the ‘Conopenae’, which have horses’ manes, boars’ tusks and dogs’ heads.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.
- Full title:
- The 'Southwick Codex' (including Old English adaptations of Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Prose Dialogues of Saturn and Solomon, homily on St Quintin); 'the Nowell Codex' (including a homily on St Christopher, Marvels of the East; Beowulf and Judith)
- Usage terms:
The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.
- Held by:
- British Library
- Cotton MS Vitellius A XV
- Article by:
- Claire Harrill
- Heroes and heroines, Faith and religion, Gender and sexuality
Claire Harrill considers how 'Saracen' characters are portrayed in Middle English romances, and what these texts can reveal about ideas of Otherness in this period.
- Article by:
- Victoria Symons
- Myths, monsters and the imagination, Heroes and heroines
Victoria Symons puzzles out the meaning of monsters in Beowulf, comparing the hero with Grendel, Grendel's mother and the dragon.
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and voice
David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.