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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Episode 14: The Wonders of the East Pt. 1

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

While COVID rages on one year later, we thought we'd kick this month off with a travelogue for all to enjoy from home. This text provides complete guide to traveling the "Far East," complete with illustrations of creatures that don't exist and irreconcilable measurement conversions.

We are also excited to welcome our first guest onto the podcast! Mary Osborne joined us for this three-part series, showcasing her skills in critical reading, adaptation, and a love of video games. Mary has a PhD in Children's Literature and co-hosts her own podcast, BookSquadGoals. If you're looking for some more contemporary reads, go check out the BookSquad ladies and support their work!

Our text for this month, The Wonders of the East, is an Old English work found in three manuscripts, most notably the Nowell Codex, which also contains the only Beowulf manuscript. The Wonders was copied around the eleventh century from a Latin version of the work. This Latin version was, in turn, derived from myths and rumor dating all the way to Pliny the Elder and Herodotus. The text itself claims to get its information directly from letters describing its contents. This tradition is found in many pseudo-histories in order to make the work appear more credible.

One notable feature of the text is its inclusion of illusrtations. How useful would a guide like this be without pictures to contextualize it, right? Turns out, most times the pictures don't help either. While the Tiberius Manuscript version of this text is more professionally illustrated, despite it's Seussian landscapes, the Nowell Codex's illustrations are clumsy at best. Because this text is the illustrated document in the manuscript, it is most likely that copyist simply felt he needed to include the illustrations because his reference included them as well. As Mac notes in the episode, medievalist Asa Simon Mittman, who specializes in monster theory, believes that the Nowell Codex's illustrations are more evocative.

The text begins with a description of Antimolima and their famous sheep, which are as big as oxen. This land, and presumably the flocks of sheep, stretch as far as Archemedon, the city of the Medes. This city does not actually exist, and is probably a mistranslation of a personal name for the leader of the Medes. In addition to sheep, the great wonders of Alexander the Great are in that land.

The next land the text mentions is Lentibelsinea, which stretches to the Red Sea and is famous for its red hens. If anyone should touch one of these hens, the text warns, they will immediately go up in flames, which is "extraordinary witchcraft." Lentibelsinea is also home to wild beasts with eight legs, two heads, and the eyes of a valkyrie (though we suspect someone just saw two animals standing very close together). These beasts flee if they are seen, and attack with a "sting" if anyone tries to attack.

Following Lentibelsinea is the land of Hascellentia which is filled with "all good things." Despite describing it so nicely, the only detail the text gives about Hascellentia is that it is filled with snakes, called Corsias. These snakes are two headed, have eyes which shine like lamps, a poisonous bite, and horns like oxen. The Corsias inhabit the desert wilderness nearby and guard the pepper located there with great devotion. According to the text, should one wish to harvest the pepper, they should set the plants on fire so that the snakes return to their burrows. Only then can one harvest the pepper, which, of course, is why it is black peppercorn.

The next location is only called "a certain land which is south of Babylon." Because this land is described as a wilderness, we suspect it might be the Sahara Desert. In this land are horned asses whose horns are as large as those of oxen. We inferred these might be Scimitar oryx, as they fit the description and were domesticated by the ancient Egyptians and Romans.

Near this land is the south of Egypt, where the Conopenas, or half-hounds live. They have manes like horses, tusks like boars, and breathe fire. Both illustrations depict the Conopenas as half-human, though this is not specified. Their realistic analog could perhaps be a lion.

Near the Capi River live the Homodubii, or the "doubtful ones." They are distinguished by their long hair and beards as well as their six-foot height. They apparently exclusively eat raw fish. Mac suggested these may in fact be some sort of ape.

Close to this place is Gorgoneus, where there are "black and red ants as large as hounds with feet like grasshoppers." While this description makes for a fantastic image, "ant" is most likely an earlier mistranslation of the word for "marmot." This text claims Herodotus as its source, who in turn cites an older Persian source. Somewhere along the line of copyists, the mistranslation "ant" stuck, but the marmot illustrations remained, so the text provides very foxy-looking ants. (For more about the mistranslation error, check our links below!) These "ants" guard gold, and when the locals want to harvest the gold, they bring three camels. On one side of the Capi river, they leave the camel foal while they cross with a mare and stallion. They let loose the stallion, leaving the ants to chase and hunt it down while loading the mare with gold and leading her back across the river to her foal. Notably, the illustrations seem depict how desperate the stallion looks in each rendition.

The final location in this section of The Wonders is Locotheo, which sits between the Nile and the Brixton (also known as the Brixontes) rivers. Here there are many animals, described by the Nowell Codex as olfenda, and the Tiberius manuscript as ylfenda in the Old English, but elephantorum in the Latin. While the two prior terms mean camel, the latter refers to elephants. This may be another scribal error, or both might have lived in this area at the time.

We've got a lot left to explore, so stay turned for more updates, segments, and a final rating of this text as we go through the rest of March!

Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!

Searching for our sources? Look at The Wonders of the East manuscript here, and check out our Library for more! The Nowell Codex can also be seen in full here, and the Cotton Tiberius B V manuscript is available here. (The Cotton Tiberius manuscript also contains the Cotton World Map, which is cool though unrelated. We thought we'd throw it in anyway.)

Additional references for interested scholars:

  • Herodotus. "Book 3." The History of Herodotus. Trans. George Rawlinson. 1910. Wikisource. Link.

  • Friedman, John Block. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Harvard University Press, 1981. Link.

  • Mittman, Asa S., and Susan M. Kim. Inconceivable Beasts: the Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013.

  • Mittman, Asa S., and Marcus Hensel. Demonstrare Vol 1: Classic Readings on Monster Theory. Arc Humanities Press, 2018. Link.

  • Mittman, Asa S., and Marcus Hensel. Demonstrare Vol 2: Primary Sources on Monsters. Arc Humanities Press, 2018.

  • Mittman, Asa Simon. Maps and Monsters in Medieval England. Routledge, 2006. Link.

  • Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. University of Toronto Press, 2003. Link.

  • Peissel, Michel. "The Ants' Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas". Collins, 1984. Link.

  • Simmons, Marlise. "Himalayas Offer Clue to Legend of Gold-Digging 'Ants.'" New York Times. November 25, 1996. Link.

We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!

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