Ivory in the Rust: Reading the Old English “Ruin” in South Bend

As a medievalist studying at the University of Notre Dame, I am afforded many luxuries. The university’s resources for research in my field are exceptional, and I can honestly say that from my personal experience both the Medieval Institute and my home English Department have proven to be places where intellectual curiosity flourishes and where the spirit of generosity pervades. It has been a wonderful place to pursue my graduate studies, and of course the campus is absolutely beautiful, as the university’s collection of scenic images affirms. But when I decided to move off campus my second year, out of the gilded bubble surrounding the university and into the rust belt of South Bend, I met with some starkly different and rather unsettling imagery.

University of Notre Dame’s Golden Dome and Main Building

The juxtaposition between the two spheres which I came to inhabit—between the gorgeous Neo-Gothic architecture that adorns the picturesque campus and the industrial ruins scattered throughout the cityscape of South Bend—became repeatedly reinforced by my regular journey between these worlds on each morning commute and then again each night as I returned home. Every evening, I would leave the Golden Dome behind and drive by boarded up houses and businesses, like this one on Sample Street, which I routinely passed on my way home.

Ruined Building on Sample Street, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Below is a closer view from the front of the building. I pause on this particular structure, because it became engrained in my mind over time—the beautiful green decay and broken bricks—the state of disrepair. To me, this building came to represent the rust belt ruins of South Bend. My wife—artist and graduate of Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey—photographed the rotting building and describes experiencing an overwhelming stench of mildew and mold wafting from the broken windows upon approaching the structure.

Sample Street Ruin, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

In my opinion, there is a certain beauty in the haunting imagery of this broken down building, which recalls a time before the place fell into ruin while simultaneously emphasizing its current dilapidation. This theme is well known to Anglo-Saxonists, as the question of ubi sunt “where are (they now)?” pervades the so-called Old English elegies, which reflect on the transitory nature of human existence, noting the decay of great civilizations passed. As I read these medieval poems in the ivory tower of Hesburgh Library, I found myself thinking about South Bend and the many other rust belt cities across the country, weathered by similar economic decay. More than any other Old English elegy, the Exeter Book Ruin prompted me to meditate on the industrial remnants of a former time in South Bend.

Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, f. 124r, all rights reserved Dean & Chapter Exeter Cathedral

The Old English Ruin is itself a ruin—appearing on fire-damaged folia in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). Fittingly, the poem bears its own marks from the wear of time and circumstance, and at first sounds almost like a riddle—beginning with one of the lexical markers scholars have used identify riddles (wrætlic meaning “wondrous” or “marvelous”). Moreover, in its manuscript context, the Old English Ruin is embedded within the two major collections of riddles found in the Exeter Book, amongst some stray riddles and the more enigmatic “elegies” in the codex, including The Wife’s Lament and The Husband’s Message. The Exeter Book Ruin demonstrates an interest in contemplating the destructive and the inevitable—crushing—passage of time, particularly on monumental manmade structures.

As Rajuli and I were discussing the poem and pockets of dilapidation throughout the city, she suggested that we drive around the city and take a family tour to document some of the ruins of South Bend, which I use here to complement sections of my translation of the Old English Ruin.

Ruined wall-stones in South Bend, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Wrætlic is þes wealstan wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston brosnað enta geweorc
Hrofas sind gehrorene hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen (1-4).

“Wondrous are these wall-stones,
broken by fortune, the citadels crumbled,
the work of giants ruined.
The roofs are collapsed,
the towers tumbled, the pillars bereft.”

Ruined South Bend factories, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall (27-28).

  “their fortification became deserted places,
their strongholds crumbled.”

Ruined factory near Western Ave, South Bend, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,
ond þæs teaforgeapa  tigelum sceadeð
hrostbeages hrof (29-31).

“Therefore these houses have decayed,
and this gabbled structure sheds its tiles,
the roof of ringed-wood.”

Red’s abandoned business on Indiana Ave, South Bend, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Sadly, the descriptions of desolation and structural decay in the poem reflects a bit too closely the current state of disrepair which still plagues certain parts of South Bend. This deserted business located on Indiana Avenue, once both Red’s Appliance Repair Center and Southside Electric, still bears obsolete information etched on the brick wall, whispering to us from the past. Reminding us that things were not always as they are today, and begging for renewal. Nevertheless, the enduring dilapidation that decorates the city stands as a reminder of how South Bend, and places like it, became collateral damage—destroyed by the tides of economic fluctuation.

Greeting sign upon entering the city of South Bend

As the sign suggests, South Bend is a city on the rise, racing to catch up to 21st century, and doing quite well in this effort. During my tenure at the University of Notre Dame, I have seen the city of South Bend improve tenfold—drawing new and thriving businesses, expanding campus infrastructure, renovating depressed neighborhoods, and even beginning to cultivate and encourage artistic movements within the city. Many rust belt cities do not have the advantage of housing such a vibrant university community which generates innovation and economic growth, and those cities have far greater challenges to overcome. Both the campus and the city at large often seem as if they are one enormous construction site: demolishing, repairing and rebuilding. Still, amidst citywide growth and revitalization lies the skeletal ruins of the rust belt economy.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Text and translation of the Old English Ruin

Collection of images “Rust Belt Ruins of South Bend

 

Skin-changers: Werewolves in the Medieval and Modern Imagination

This Halloween, I’d like to talk about werewolves, one of the classic monsters whose image helps to characterize this—my favorite—holiday.

Werewolves, while sometimes overshadowed by the more frequent and high-profile appearance of other monsters such as vampires and zombies in popular literature, have a mythology that has endured for millennia and still finds a way to haunt our cultural imagination. When they have appeared in popular literature, werewolves often do so in the context of a prescribed, age-old struggle between their kind and vampires. Werewolf-vampire racial animosity is dramatized in the film series Underworld (2003), which injects an unlikely love story into the ancient war between these monstrous groups. This conflict has since become a regular feature of modern vampire films, such as in Van Helsing (2004) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and in TV series such as Twilight (2008) and True Blood (2008). Penny Dreadful (2014), a show which delights in Victorian monstrosities, also nods to this tradition when two werewolf characters (Ethan and Kaetenay) are forced to battle a gang of vampires, while Hemlock Grove (2013) alternatively features both a werewolf named Peter and a vampyric upir named Roman who share mutual respect and admiration.

Vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy) battles werewolf in Len Wiseman’s ‘Underworld’ (2004).

Generally whenever we see werewolves in modern popular literature, it is in this shared context, which is also true of the the TV series Being Human (2011); however, werewolves have (in a few cases) been given center stage. The classic and most obvious examples are the films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).

More recently, in Harry Potter and the of Azkaban (2004), Remus Lupin, who is one of the wizard professors at Hogwartz and also a werewolf, is a main protagonists in the film, despite that vampires feature nowhere in the series and are rarely mentioned even in J. K. Rowling’s novels. For Teen Wolf (2011), a TV series focused on a teenage boy’s struggle with lycanthropy, the absence  of vampires is a point of pride. Often werewolves have been gendered male, but the TV series Bitten (2014) challenges this stereotype by centering the plot on a female werewolf protagonist and her struggles within a werewolf patriarchy. Unfortunately, and counterproductively, the series is plagued by a consistent hyper-sexualization of her character in a manner all too familiar from the modern vampire craze. I’d like to believe this inconsistent and contradictory messaging might have contributed to the show’s discontinuation in 2016, but somehow I doubt it.

Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) transforming into a werewolf in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004).

Today, we will discuss skin-changing and werewolfism in the medieval literary traditions of Northern Europe, primarily as contained in the context of the Old Norse fornaldarsǫgur. We will also consider how lycanthropy in the Old Norse Hrólfs saga kraka and Vǫlsunga saga inform certain instances of skin-changers in modern literature, especially in the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.

Numerous academic blogs have explored the topic of lycanthropy, usually—and unsurprisingly—around this same time of year. In fact, the website Sententiae Antiquae has, in years passed, written a blog series on werewolves in the classical tradition, including blogs on Petronius’ werewolf story from Satyricon (62), Pliny the Elder’s emphasis on clothing and description of werewolf superstitions in his Natural History (8.80-4), and an overview of classical lycanthropy producing a list of sources including, Herodotus’ Histories, Plato’s Republic, Pausanias’ Geography of Greece, anonymous Greek Medical Treatises on the Treatment of Lycanthropy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, and the 11th century medieval Latin poem, Poemata 9.841, by a monk named Michael Psellus (which is notably influenced by Greek medical treatises). These blogs have tended to focus especially on classical superstitions, such as nakedness being a prerequisite for transformation and the belief that a wolf’s gaze could paralyze humans.

Miniature of wolves and (below) the man paralyzed by their gaze from the ‘Rochester Bestiary’ in BL, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29r.

The British Library has also composed a blog on lycanthropy in the context of the influence of classical werewolf mythology on later medieval literature. This blog references classical werewolf stereotypes primarily derived from Pliny’s description of versipelles ‘skin-changers’ (his term for werewolves) in Natural History, and then moves to consider especially Bisclavret, the famous Breton lay by Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales’ description of an Irish folktale concerning lycanthropy in his Topographica Hibernica, both of which present a very positive image of a werewolf, complete with the capacity for human understanding and compassion.

Two werewolves and the priest from Gerald of Wales’ ‘Topographica Hibernica’ in BL Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r.

However, as mentioned earlier, werewolves appear also in the vernacular traditions of medieval Scandinavia, and this blog aims to expand the web-conversation surrounding versipelles ‘skin-changers’ in medieval literature to include examples from Old Norse saga prose literature, which contain numerous references to humans transforming into various beasts, usually wolves or bears.

This Old Norse tradition of skin-changers contributes directly to Tolkien’s character of Beorn, the werebear from The Hobbit (1937). Gandalf describes Beorn in chapter VII “Queer Lodgings” when Thorin and his company are traveling through the Misty Mountains:

“He [Beorn] is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough. Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Other say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale. He is not the sort of person to ask questions of. At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own.”

Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) speaks with Beorn in bear-form in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Beorn, like his namesake Bjǫrn (a hero from Hrólfs saga kraka), transforms physically from man to bear—though Bjǫrn’s transformations are the product of a curse by his evil stepmother, Queen Hvít, as opposed to Beorn who seems in full control of his metamorphoses in The Hobbit. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the King Hrolf Kraki reads:

“She [Hvít] then struck him [Bjǫrn] with her wolfskin gloves, telling him to become a cave bear, grim and savage: ‘You will eat no food other than your own father’s livestock and, in feeding yourself, you will kill more than has ever been observed before. You will never be released from the spell, and your awareness of this disgrace will be more dreadful to you than no remembrance at all.’ Then Bjorn disappeared, and no one knew what had become of him…. Next to be told is that the king’s cattle were being killed in large numbers by a grey bear, large and fierce. One evening it happened that Bera, the freeman’s daughter, saw the savage bear. It approached her unthreateningly. She thought she recognized in the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son, and so she did not run away. The beast then moved away from her, but she followed it all the way until it came to a cave. When she entered the cave, a man was standing there” (37).

This passage describes the power of the queen’s curse to physically transform Bjǫrn, which leads ultimately to his death at the hands of his own father and his warriors. However, it also emphasizes that, while Bjǫrn is dangerous to the livestock, he retains his humanity and at night transforms back into a man.

Beorn in bear-form in ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ by Justin Gerard (2009).

The character of Bǫðvar Bjarki, son of Bjǫrn (who too shares characteristics and some parallel achievements with Beorn from The Hobbit), also from Hrólfs saga kraka, trances and in doing so is able to inhabit the mind of a bear and control its actions. This is particularly crucial during the saga’s climactic battle between the monstrous army of Hjǫvard and Skuld and the forces of King Hrólf.

The ability to enter into and take over an animal’s consciousness, as a form of shape-shifting through meditation, appears also in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1991)—and corresponding HBO series Game of Thrones (2011)in the contexts of characters called ‘wargs’ who possess this distinct ability. This group includes a number of those in the Stark family (whose family sigil is appropriately a direwolf). In Martin’s series, characters described as wargs are always from the wintry North, and regularly use their possessed animals to battle their enemies, as in Hrólfs saga kraka.

Robb Stark and his direwolf Grey Wind confront a captured Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011).

The Old Norse Vǫlsunga saga, more famous for its dragon and dwarf (namely, Fáfnir and Regin) than its werewolves, does nevertheless have a section in which Sigmundr and Sinfjǫtli specifically wear wolf-pelts in order to transform themselves into wolves and roam the wilderness together in wolf-form. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the Volsungs reads:

‘One time, they went again to the forest to get themselves some riches, and they found a house. Inside it were two sleeping men, with thick gold rings. A spell had been cast upon them: wolfskins hung over them in the house and only every tenth day could they shed the skins. They were the sons of kings. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put the skins on and could not get them off. And the weird power was there as before; they howled like wolves, both understanding the sounds’ (44).

This passage describes the ability to ‘skin-change’ into a wolf by literally wearing a wolf’s skin. This version of ‘skin-changing’ is picked up and adapted in two of Martin’s fictional works: his short story “In the Lost Lands” (1982) and his novella The Skin-Trade (1988).

Illustration of Grey Alys from George R. R. Martin’s ‘In the Lost Lands’ (1982).

In Martin’s short story, a character named Boyce travels into the formidable ‘Lost Lands’ to the north, which constitute an endless frozen wilderness, with a witch named Grey Alys (who borrows heavily from mythology of Freya, especially with regard to her cloak of feathers).

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet and might be interested in reading this text, except to say that lycanthropy appears initially as a physical transformation, but by the end we learn that wearing the skin of a werewolf can produce the same metamorphosis for those whom the transformation isn’t biological.

Cover of George R. R. Martin’s ‘The Skin Trade’ (1988).

Similarly, in his later novella, The Skin-Trade, Martin establishes a world in which both biology and werewolf skin-wearing can result in lycanthropy. Werewolf fans may be happy to learn that The Skin-Trade is currently ‘in development’ by Cinemax under the direction of scriptwriter Kalinda Vazquez, who has written for other TV series such as Prison Break (2005) and Once Upon a Time (2011). However, particularly because there is currently no clear sense as to when Cinemax and Vazquez will have their version of The Skin-Trade ready for the silver screen, it may still be a while before there is a werewolf series to rival HBO’s True Blood or AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


Online Resources:

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (8.80-4)
Petronius’ Satyricon (62)
Marie de France’s Bisclavret 
Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica
Hrólfs saga kraka

Vǫlsunga saga

Old Norse Saga Translations:

  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, England: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of the Volsungs. London, England: Penguin Books, 1999.

Monstrous Ethiopians? Racial Attitudes and Exoticism in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East’

The flare of recent racial tensions, especially in the wake of the Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric, has had repercussions in Charlottesville and across the United States. White nationalist organizations, such as the Alt-Right, have become the face of this hatred and have renewed national concern about the nature of race relations and prejudices in the United States. And of course, the internet has opened new windows and doors into impressionable minds and offered these groups new ways to the spread their toxic rhetoric.

As medievalists it is especially important that we do our part to counter the way in which White supremacist organizations, who have historically appropriated medieval literature into their rhetoric of hatred. It falls especially to Anglo-Saxonists, who have historically been caught in an unfortunate web of association with White Supremacist rhetoric, to explicitly set the record straight and to offer alternative models of medieval thinking about race and ethnicity. The fact is that 20th century Anglo-Saxonist scholarship has intellectually contributed—even helped to create—the romantic idea of the ‘Germanic hero’ (whether in the paragons of Beowulf or Siegfried), and without the work of literary and linguistic scholars of Germanic philology, Hitler’s Nazi rhetoric regarding the racial superiority of an imaged ‘Aryan race’ may not have been possible or at the very least may not have had the same type of intellectual traction.

Moreover, the persistent assumption that medieval people in Europe were necessarily racist, and that they collectively held attitudes of racial superiority congruent with modern White supremacist groups, is both dangerous and non-factual. This assumption contributes to the narrative that ethnic Europeans always considered themselves to be somehow cultural better than their neighbors to the south and east. With all this in mind, I wish to return to the sources—to a medieval text from Anglo-Saxon England—in order to reflect on racial attitudes and prejudices in so far as the text presents them. My discussion will center primarily the Old English The Wonders of the East, which (as the title suggests) is essentially an Anglo-Saxon catalogue of wondrous places, peoples and creatures from the far way lands, generally somewhere in Africa and Asia.

Scholars Susan M. Kim and Asa Mittman have argued that Anglo-Saxon audiences would have likely considered the wonders described in the texts as truly existing and point out that, “the very status of the Wonders as wonders implies at once the stretching of possibility, and an insistence on the viability of the same possibility, at once the incredibility and the truth of the narrative” (1), leading to the conclusion that “the Anglo-Saxon readers and viewers of these texts probably considered them true” (2). The British Library agrees and states in their blog, describing the monsters illustrated in the Wonders: “belief in the existence of monstrous races of human beings was central to medieval thinking, although almost everything about them was open to debate and discussion.”

Marvels depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 101r.

The Liber Monstrorum, a Latin text similarly interested in monsters and wonders and which Michael Lapidge has argued was composed in Anglo-Saxon England, presents his marvels with more skepticism. Its opening disclaimer casts serious doubt regarding the veracity of many of the marvels described and offers an alternative perspective noting that quaedam tantum in ipsis mirabilibus uera esse creduntur “only certain things in the wonders are believed to be true” and that most may in fact be rumoroso sermone tamen ficta “nevertheless rumor by false speech.”

But, what about when one encounters a ‘wonder’ in a medieval text which (however distortedly) attempts to discuss a group of people or species of animal, which does exist in places far from Europe? What does it say about racial attitudes in Anglo-Saxon England if an ethnic group—such as Ethiopians—is included in a catalogue of monsters? How should we read this?

Before we get to the passage describing the sigelwara ‘Ethiopians,’ let’s begin by briefly discussing the text as a whole and some of the other wonders in the collection. The Old English Wonders is found in two manuscripts, (BL, Cotton Tiberius b.v and BL, Cotton Vitellius a.xv—often called the Nowell Codex or simply the Beowulf-manuscript). One of the monstrous people included in the text is the blemmyae, known explicitly from the Latin source text but left unnamed in the Old English Wonders. What makes these people wondrous is their unusual physical appearance. It is said of these people:

The blemmyae depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 102v.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Þonne syndon oþre ealond suð from Brixonte, on þon beoð men acende buton heafdum, þa habbað on hyra breostum heora eagan ond muð. Hy seondon eahta fota lange ond eahta fota brade. Ðar beoð dracan cende þa beoð on lenge hundteontige fot-mæl longe and fiftiges; hy beoð greate swa stænene sweras micle. For þara dracaena micelnesse ne mæg nan man na yþelice on þæt land gefaran. Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide. There are dragons born there which are one hundred and fifty feet in length, and are as thick as great stone pillars. Because of the abundance of the dragons, no one can journey easily in that land.

The blemmyae are pretty unbelievable by modern standards, and today we would recognize such creatures as a fiction or fabrication derived more likely from the imagination than from experience. Emphasis is on the peculiar placement of his face and his enormous size, which is followed up by the corresponding reference to the enormous dragons also found in the wondrous domain of the blemmyae.

Physical description is front and center in the description of the panotii, another unnamed people known from the Latin source text. The panotii are described as follows:

The panotii depicted in Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 104r.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Þonne is east þær beoð men acende þa beoð on wæstme fiftyne fota lange ond x on brade. Hy habbað micel heafod ond earan swæ fon. Oþer eare hy him on niht underbredað, ond mid oþran hy wreoð him. Beoð þa earan swiðe leohte ond hy beoð swa on lic-homan swa white swa meolc. Gyf hy hwilcne mannan on þæm lande geseoð oðþe ongytað, þonne nymað hy hyra earan him on hand ond fleoð swiðe, swa hrædlece swa is wen þæt hy fleogen. Going east from there is a place where people are born who are in size fifteen feet tall and ten broad. They have large heads and ears like fans. 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 someone in their lands, they take their ears in their hands and flee far, so quickly that the belief is that they flew.

These wondrous people are likewise described as monstrous in size and are identified by their unusual facial features, namely large heads and fan-shaped ears. They are described also as having milky white bodies, and so here reference to skin color is one of the ways in which the text physically depicts and characterizes the panotii. The passage goes on to describe their peculiar sleeping habits and speedy flight whenever they sense anyone in their territory.

Another group of people, described in the Wonders as hostes, Latin for ‘enemies,’ are also described firstly by their physical features—in this case their huge size and dark skin—and only after is the reference to their cannibalism.

The hostes depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 102r.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Begeondan Brixonte ðære ea, east þonon beoð men acende lange ond micle, þa habbað fet ond sconcan xiifota lange, sidan mid breostum seofan fota lange. Hi beoð sweartes hiwes, ond Hostes hy synd nemned. Cuþlice swa hwlycne man swa hi læccað, þonne fretað hi hyne. Beyond the River Brixontes, east from there, there are people born big and tall, who have feet and shanks twelve feet long, flanks with chests seven feet long. They are of dark color, and are called Hostes. As surely as they catch someone they devour him.

In this passage, we are told of a people who are to a certain extent characterized by skin color, and so it could be argued that a racial element has now come into play. In this example, we have reference to a group of dark-skinned cannibals. But, at least according the Wonders, the monstrous hostes are to be feared not because of their race or the color of their skin, but rather on account of their potentially life-threatening behavior.

Another reference to dark-skinned people in the Wonders describes a group who live upon a marvelous mountain:

Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Ðonne is oðer dun þær syndon swearte menn, ond nænig oðer man to ðam mannum geferan mag forðam þe seo dun byð eall byrnende. Then there is another mountain where there are dark people, and no one else can travel to those people because the mountain is everywhere burning.

Here what seems wondrous is the mountain, described as ‘everywhere burning’ and possibly the fact that these people are able to live in such an inhospitable environment. While I am not arguing that the reference to skin color is irrelevant, or to be ignored; however, I would suggest that what is being most marveled at is the mountain and the way it protects these inhabitants, and least of all that these people are described as swearte—‘swarthy’ or ‘dark’ in Old English.

Which brings us, at long last, to the passage on sigelwara or ‘Ethiopians’ in the Wonders, which begins not with reference to these people, but rather to the nearby marvelous trees, on which gemstones are said to grow.

The sigelwara depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL Cotton Vitellius a.xv, 106v.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Ðonne is treowcyn on þæm þa deorwyrþystan stanas synd of acende, þonon hy growað. Þær þa moncyn is seondan sweartes hyiwes on onsyne, þa mon hateð sigelwara. Then, there is a kind of tree, which grows there, on which the most precious stones sprout. There is also a group of people there of dark color in appearance, who are called Ethiopians (sigelwara).

Indeed it is the jewel-producing trees, which are the true wonder in this section, and the reference to the sigelwara appears as something of an afterthought, though they are characterized entirely based on their skin color. This physical feature is mentioned before the text swiftly transitions to the next wonder in the collection.

Though the Wonders refers to Ethiopians in its list of marvels, I would argue the text is more guilty of exoticism than racism, and reflects wonder about different groups of people without any reference to respective racial superiority or inferiority. In fact, that these people were from a far away place and are described as visually different seems only to heighten the interest and intrigue.

It is true that with the Wonders, we have a text that characterizes groups of people based on their physical characteristics, and so the text is—or at least can be read as—racist in this sense. However, it is important to note that white-skinned people are just as wondrous (or monstrous) as dark-skinned people in the text, primarily made marvelous by their status as strange, foreign and other. The Wonders demonstrates medieval fascination with the exotic and the marvelous, and the spatial orientation of the text may even reflect a desire to be elsewhere. Indeed, certainly in Anglo-Saxon England as with most of medieval Europe, people considered themselves to be living in something of a cultural backwater, and places to the south and east (whether cities such as Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, or regions such as Ethiopia or India) were considered culturally superior in that they were places full of knowledge and wonders.

While the Old English Wonders of the East should by no means be taken as a representative of all medieval people’s perception or interest in foreign wonders (as no single text could), it nevertheless tells quite a different story about racial attitudes in Anglo-Saxon England than the narratives pushed by modern Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups, who we all know are the real monsters.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


Works Cited:

British Library’s “Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript” (2013).

Fulk, R. D. The Beowulf Manuscript. Dumbarton Oaks, 2010: 16-31.

Kim, Susan M. and Asa Mittman. “Ungefrægelicu deor: Truth and the Wonders of the East.” Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art 2 (2010): 1-22. 

Mittman, Asa Simon. ‘Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?’ Postmedieval 6:1 (2015):  36-51.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. 1995.

 

MANSCRIPT SHELFMARKS:

London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius b.v fols.78v-87r.

London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv fols.98v-106.