Wonders of the East

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Marvels of the East, opening, fol. 039v-040r, early twelfth century, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The Wonders of the East or The Marvels of the East is an Old English prose piece, written around AD 1000. It describes a variety of odd, magical and barbaric creatures that inhabit Eastern regions, such as Babylon, Persia, Egypt, and India. The Wonders can be found in three extant manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries.


Amongst the wonders described are huge dragons who prevent travel, phoenixes born from ashes, and hens in Lentibelsinea who burn peoples’ bodies when they are touched. The Wonders of the East also tells of incredible scenarios, like how to steal gold from giant ants. Fantastical and barbaric people are also mentioned, for example, the Donestre race of cannibals, the Homodubii half human and half donkey creatures, and the panotti, with their fan-like ears, which they sleep on and with which they cover themselves. The Wonders of the East is an Anglo-Saxon contribution to the mirabilia genre, "literature in which a traveler in foreign lands describes exotic sights in a letter home.” [1] In addition, The Wonders of the East demonstrates the “mutual mistrust” between men and monsters because the creatures either flee from humans, harm those that come near them, or eat people.[2]

Manuscript versions[edit]

The Wonders of the East is found in three manuscripts. It is in the Beowulf manuscript (also known as the Nowell Codex, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv).[3] It is written in Late West Saxon [4] in a Mercian dialect.[5] Other than Beowulf and The Wonders of the East, the other works in this codex include: The Passion of St. Christopher, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and Judith. One scribe is believed to have copied The Passion of St. Christopher, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, The Wonders of the East, and first part of Beowulf, and another scribe wrote the remainder of Beowulf and Judith. This codex was most likely compiled by Sir Robert Cotton, who possessed many Old English manuscripts. In 1731 the Cotton Library, which housed this manuscript, caught on fire; therefore, the text almost did not survive and is slightly burned around the edges. The codex may have been intentionally put together because four of the manuscripts discuss monsters. Furthermore, it is a “liber monstrorum, or book of marvels, designed for entertainment along with usual edification.[6] The date of this manuscript is usually believed to be “within a couple of decades of A.D. 1000,” [7] no earlier than AD 997 and no later than AD 1016.

Furthermore, The Wonders of the East is also preserved in the Cotton Tiberius B.v, in both Latin and Old English, which was written down around AD 1050. In addition, it appears in the Oxford Bodleian Library, Bodleian 614 manuscript in Latin, which is from the “early twelfth century.” [8] The three manuscripts each differ in text and focus, but “all the Anglo-Saxon versions derive ultimately from a continental group of Latin texts, almost all of which share a basic epistolary framework entirely lacking in the Anglo-Saxon versions, and in which a variously-named traveler reports back to his emperor.” [9] More specifically, The Wonders of the East is initially from Greek origin. It was then “taken from a Latin collection of Mirabilia” (Wrenn 253). Furthermore, Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, also in the Nowell Codex, shares similar subject matter with The Wonders of the East and probably has a similar origin. The Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East exists in many manuscripts with a similar epistolary structure, “in which either a character variously named Feramen, Feramus, or Fermes writes to the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-38), or a figure called Premo, Premonis, Perimenis, or Parmoenis writes to Hadrian’s predecessor, the Emperor Trajan (A.D 98-116), to report on the many marvels he has witnessed on his travels.” [10]

All three manuscripts are illustrated with fairly simple pictures. The Tiberius manuscript most intricately illustrates the 37 marvels described in both Latin and Old English. The Bodleian 614 manuscript, only in Latin, depicts 49 wonders. Lastly, the Nowell Codex, in Old English, contains only 32 images. The images parallel the text, and provide a picture of the described creatures. The Wonders of the East may be considered a pseudo-scientific text because of the illustrations. Therefore, the images are “possibly intended to lend a note of authority by making specific plants, animals, or monsters easier to recognize.” [11] In addition, the images are simple and have one or two figures in each illustration. More specifically, “One of the most important characteristics of... their illustrations is that the races are seen in some sort of relationship to the viewer, rather than in isolation of an empty frame.” [8]



  1. ^ Jones 494
  2. ^ Orchard, Pride and Prodigies 27
  3. ^ Orchard, Pride and Prodigies 1
  4. ^ Sisam 73
  5. ^ Sisam 94
  6. ^ Wrenn 254
  7. ^ Baker 122
  8. ^ a b Friedman 144
  9. ^ Orchard, “Marvels of the East” 304
  10. ^ Orchard, Pride and Prodigies 23
  11. ^ Karkov 80


  • Baker, Peter. “Beowulf.” Medieval England: Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmack, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Pub., 1998.
  • Friedman, John Block. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  • Jones, Timothy. “The Marvels of the East.” Medieval England: Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmack, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Pub., 1998.
  • Karkov, Catherine E. “Anglo-Saxon Art.” Medieval England: Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmack, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Pub., 1998.
  • Orchard, Andy. “Marvels of the East.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
  • Mittman, Asa Simon. Maps and Monsters in Medieval England. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. University of Toronto Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8020-8583-0
  • Sisam, Kenneth. Studies in the History of Old English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953.
  • Wrenn, C.L. A Study of Old English Literature. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1967.

External links[edit]