We Were Here First: a Medievalist’s View of the Reformation

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 produced celebratory lectures, books and ecumenical services worldwide, but Medievalists, those whose job it is to know what the Reformation was reformed from, were mostly not on the radar.[1] This is nothing new, alas: the name “Early Modern” itself implies, or rather, insists that not much could have happened or been invented before “Early.”  Our irrelevance dates back at least to 1905 when Weber published Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  As Yale’ s Reformation historian, Carlos Eire, noted in his celebratory 2017 lecture:

Over one hundred years ago, Max Weber argued that Protestantism “disenchanted” the world and eliminated “magic” from it. Today, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, … this assertion needs to be reappraised. Did Protestants really vanquish “magic,” and, if so, what was that “magic,” exactly, or the “disenchantment” that accompanied its demise? Exploring the various ways in which Protestantism redefined the sacred might…allow us to appreciate more fully what the Protestant Reformation bequeathed to the world.[2]

Eire’s clarion call to discover how Protestantism redefined the sacred is refreshing, but, as he notes, the ghost of Weber remains a stumbling block, leaving Protestantism misunderstood. So, too, I would add, his ghostly presence leaves the Middle Ages misunderstood, and underestimated, too.  Our period is the “enchanted” world that Protestants allegedly lost, like Adam and Eve all over again,  just a placeholder in someone else’s historiography. So, since these misconceptions are costly for mutual understanding and in shrinking market shares of the Humanities, let’s take a moment to remember what the Medieval era bequeathed the Reformation, and how heavily Luther and all who came after depended on it.

A 1617 broadside on the centenary of the German Reformation, “Göttlicher Schrifftmessiger…,” showing Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg. His over-sized pen knocks off the tiara of Pope Leo X. 

Weber had argued that the “ascetic” strand in Protestant ethics was a major factor in the rise of Western capitalism, and that the “disenchantment”(Entzauberung) so evident in Modernity stemmed originally from a devaluation of mysticism, “magic” and other (supposedly) pre-Modern worldviews.  For Weber, “disenchantment” grew out of mental habits of “rationalization,” which, along with burgeoning bureaucracy and valorization of the scientific, contributed to modern secularism. Little did Weber know that the Middle Ages were rife with their own forms of rationalization, bureaucracy, and secularism (scholasticism, laicization of the civil service, and disillusionment with clerical corruption and schism). In contrast, for traditional societies, Weber argued, “the world remains a great enchanted garden”.[3]

Mercifully, Weber’s patronizing vision is mostly behind us, but not far enough. Eire argues, rightly I think, that types of “enchantment” survived on both sides of the Reformation Protestant-Catholic divide, with different emphases in each religious culture, and, I’d stress, different aesthetics: e.g. Protestant painters like Rembrandt painted less medieval iconography, but experimented with inner and outer light; Protestant poets like Spenser reinvented medieval romance’s “enchanted” world as a four-part invention of inner and outer voices. But still missing from this more holistic picture is the recognition that, however many “disenchanting” attitudes one believes Protestants unleashed, they were already unleashed in the Middle Ages, itself as varied and unstable as any other period in history.

Medieval views of the supernatural were complicated at best, and often not naïve. Moreover, many forms of “disenchantment” flourished throughout Middle Ages, not just in the Late Middle Ages, the “age of decline” some Reformation historians conveniently blame. Carlos Eire noted the fact that many atheists were willing to die for their beliefs in the Spanish Inquisition, heralding a newer age, but I’d note that the High Middle Ages, too, saw many doubters who faced parallel dangers  (e.g. in England from 1161 onwards).[4] Books were even written to try to turn doubters: e.g. Peter of Cornwall, an Austin canon and prior of Trinity, Aldgate, tells us c. 1200 that he compiled his massive Liber Revelationum (now London, Lambeth Palace MS 51) to convince “unbelievers”:

“Since there are still some who believe that there is no God and the world is ruled by chanceand many who believe only what they see … I (ego, Petrus ecclesie S. Trinitatis Lundonie) have collected out of the lives and acts of the saints, these revelations and visions… . I have confined myself to those which occurred since Christ’s passion, excluding from my view the Old and New Testaments, to which all have access.”[5]

Whoever these unbelievers were, then, they were highly literate, apparently readers of Latin with access to the Old and New Testament – part of the establishment.  Medieval attitudes toward vision could range widely from the devout, like Peter (who nonetheless verified his witnesses officially) to skeptics, like Archbishop John Pecham (who in the 1270s questioned Hildegard of Bingen’s visions using historiographical methods worthy of later Renaissance humanists), to outright deniers, like John Wyclif (who denounced Hildegard’s visions as “extra fidem Scripture”).[6]

Without this range and complexity, the Reformation’s doubts, queries and changes would have been unimaginable, because their writers and reformers would have had less legal and theological precedent. In fact, I’d argue, Luther himself benefited enormously from medieval academic protections and precedents, achievements hard won via the legal and theological challenges of evolving academic institutions. These are the gifts that Medieval writers offered posterity, too often missed in the rush to pigeonhole the Middle Ages as simply “Other.”

Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum(The “95 Theses”), Nuremberg, Hieronymus Höltzel, 1517

What allowed Luther in 1517, then a Wittenberg professor of moral theology, to commit his famous act (actually a routine act at the time[7]) of nailing up theological propositions for dispute was the fact that medieval universities had rights and privileges. He posted the Ninety-Five Theses (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences) on the door of the Castle church (in fact, often used as Wittenberg’s university “billboard”), an action that depended upon a series of medieval inventions and precedents. First, a university had a right to some degree of self- governance independent of the local bishop, and to some forms of academic freedom (not so large as our own, but worthy ancestors of them). So, for instance, in 1290 Godfrey of Fontaine wrote his Quodlibet VII on whether a master of theology may contradict an article condemned by a bishop (“Utrum magister in theologia debet dicere contra articulum episcopi si credit oppositum esse verum”), deciding, strikingly, that on truths necessary to salvation a theologian should not comply with a condemnation he disagreed with, even if others are “scandalized” by his disobedience.[8]  Those outside of the protection of the university could be less fortunate: Godfrey later wrote an approbation of Marguerite Porete’s mystical work, which, however, did not prevent her tragic execution in 1310. Second, Luther had access to the technologies of medieval book and pamphlet production – like the university, the printing press, too, was a medieval invention,[9] but the pamphlet genre was even earlier, as was the broadside.[10] Third, in medieval university contexts, lists of “points” or topics for disputation were common, while “conclusions,” a related genre, were considered more aggressive. Famously in England, the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards were affixed to the doors of both St. Paul’s and Westminster Hall in 1395, though the genre does not itself imply heresy.[11] In fact, medieval universities had developed a very specific set of loopholes for academic freedom, from the famous Paris condemnations of 1277 (which reached even to Thomas Aquinas), through John XXII’s persecutions of dissenting academics, and beyond, resulting in an intellectual tradition of disputations probing the one problem that could override any episcopal censure: the question of what was necessary to salvation.[12] I would argue, then, that it was precisely on such matters of “truths necessary to salvation” that many reformers, including Luther, benefited from a protective umbrella, to some real extent, developed – and not without pain and sacrifice – by academics in the Middle Ages.  Lest we forget.

Medieval stained glass fragments gather after destruction by Cromwell’s soldiers, Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire.

So, when medievalists look at Luther 500 years later, they think not of rupture, but continuities – all the earlier times history came so close. Instead of thinking of the Reformation like the smashed fragments from Ripon Cathedral’s medieval windows (above), we probably think instead of one of the literally thousands of intact medieval windows across Europe, like the one from York’s Holy Trinity Goodramgate (below) of family-friendly saints smiling down upon the altar for centuries, over the Early Modern tablets bearing the Creed and Commandments in English.[13]  What divides us is never greater than what unites us.

15th-c East window of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, with (bottom row) female saints, biblical families and Holy Trinity (centre). For close-ups of each see Corpus Vitrearum.


The same window in situ, with Early Modern tables of Creed and Ten Commandments above the altar.


Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Emeritus Professor
University of Notre Dame



[1]My thanks to Mike Johnston for creating one welcome exception, Purdue University’s The Meaning of the Reformation” conference where this paper was first given Nov., 2017.

[2]I quote here from Eire’s blurb for “Reshuffling the Seen and the Unseen: A Reappraisal of the Legacy of the Reformation,” given Oct. 17, 1017 at University of Victoria for The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation series. See Eire’s, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven, 2016).

[3]Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion(Boston, 1971) p. 270.

[4]See the Chronology Chart in K. Kerby-Fulton, for Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England(Notre Dame, 2006) xix –lii (BUS); and “Skepticism, Agnosticism and Belief: The Spectrum of Attitudes Toward Vision in Late Medieval England,” in Women and the Divine in Literature before 1700: Essays in Memory of Margot Louis, ed. K. Kerby-Fulton (Victoria, 2009) 1-18.

[5]Quoted here from Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe, “Peter of Cornwall, The Visions of Aisli and his Sons,” Mediaevistik(1998): 248, from Peter’s Prologue.


[7]Andrew Pettigree, Brand Luther(London, 2015) 71. The Castle Church functioned as a classroom in the university, and its door was used as a billboard.

[8]BUS, 38-9.  For a similar case involving the privileges and liberties of Oxford (libertatum et privilegiorum universitatis Oxoniensis), see BUS,3.

[9]In Europe, but in China mechanical printing dates from the 8thc. C.E.

[11]Hudson, Select Wycliffite Writings, (Toronto, 1997) 150.

[12]BUS, 35.

[13]Sarah Brown, “Reformation, Iconoclasm and Restoration Stained Glass in England c1540-1830” http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/english-stainedglass/english-stainedglass.htm.


Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border

The language of monstrosity has long been used to demonize the other, the foreigner, the alien and the immigrant.

In the Old English poem, Beowulf, the Grendelkin are quintessential outsiders—lurking in the shadows and haunting the wilderness as scuccan ond scinnan “demons and monsters” (939). But the Grendelkin are also characterized with a measure of sympathy. Grendel is depicted throughout as a human suffering in exile, portrayed as rinc “man” (720), who is dreamum bedæled “bereft of joys” (721, 1275), and as feasceaft guma “miserable man” (973), forced to wræclastas tredan “tread the paths of exile” (1352).

Early in the poem, the narrator introduces Grendel as:

Wæs se grimma gæst   Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa,   se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten;   fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer   weardode hwile (102-05).

“The grim spirit was called Grendel, the famous mark-stepper, he who held the marshes, fens and strongholds, the unlucky man guarded the realm of monsterkind a while.”

Grendelkin fleeing Hroðgar’s Danish patrol. Image from Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ (2005).

The narrator names Grendel a mearcstapa, a compound generally understood to mean “border-walker,” in reference to his wandering in the wild. And later in the poem, Hroðgar characterizes both Grendel and his mother in virtually identical terms:

Ic þæt londbuend,   leode mine,
selerædende,   secgan hyrde
þæt hie gesawon   swylce twegen
micle mearcstapan   moras healdan,
ellorgæstas (1345-49).

“I have heard that the land-dwellers, my people, and hall-counselors say that they saw two such foreign-spirits, great mark-steppers holding the marshes.”

In this passage, the Danish king describes his monstrous neighbors as mearcstapan “mark-steppers” and as ellorgæstas “foreign-spirits” (a compound that highlights their status as other). Although Manish Sharma makes a compelling argument for “marked wanderer” as a possible translation of mearcstapa—referring to the mark of Cain and corresponding to descriptions of the Grendelkin as Cain’s progeny, in Caines cynne “in Cain’s kin” (107)—nevertheless, “border-walkers” remains the preferred interpretation of the Old English compound.

However, a third available translation of mearcstapa is “border-crosser” and this interpretation of the Old English compound focuses on the Grendelkin’s liminality and sorrowful journeying between the Danish kingdom and realm of monsters. Interpreting mearcstapan as “border-crossers” aligns the monstrous Grendelkin with immigrants, migrants, exiles and foreigners—the very groups actively demonized and discriminated against by the current administration, as demonstrated by executive orders and enforcement practices, including (but by no means limited to) President Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban and Zero Tolerance Policy.

A family of asylum seekers are taken into custody by Border Patrol near McAllen, TX on June 12th, 2018. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

In Allison Meier’s recent blog “How Medieval Artists Used Monsters as Propaganda,” discussing the Morgan Library and Museum in New York’s exhibit, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, she draws modern-medieval parallels regarding the monstrous characterization of marginalized groups. She notes how Trump’s rhetorical strategies often rely on this sort of stereotyping and fear-mongering, as demonstrated by statements during his announcement of his presidential candidacy in 2015 that those crossing the US-Mexican border were “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Donald Trump announces his run for presidency at the Trump Tower Atrium in Manhattan on June 16, 2015. Photo by Linda Rosier.

Meier’s point that Trump’s rhetoric on immigration appropriates the language of monstrosity in order to demonize undocumented immigrants and asylum-seeking refugees resonates with the sentiments of the exhibit’s curators, Asa Simon Mittman and Sherry Lindquist, who argue in their accompanying catalogue, “Monstrous imagery was often associated with members of socially disadvantaged groups in order to suggest that they were less than human; such a strategy rationalized repression and could even be used to instigate violence.” I can only add my voice in harmony with those calling for resistance against recent nationalistic and xenophobic (especially anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim) rhetoric, which targets and dehumanizes specific groups of marginalized peoples by characterizing them as monstrous and other.

 The effects of this normalized rhetoric are manifesting and have paved the way for ongoing atrocities and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the United States government. The current administration’s dehumanizing policies on immigration—including separating families, concentrating people in detention centers and holding children in cages—will undoubtedly have lasting social ramifications and could result in future blowback and retaliatory violence.

Son and father from Honduras are taken into custody by Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico Border near Mission, Texas. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

Cyclical violence is a frequent occurrence in the martial world of Beowulf. Yet, Grendel’s mother, who comes to avenge the death of her son, surprises Beowulf when she appears in the form of blowback resulting from Grendel’s defeat at the hands of the Geatish champion. Hroðgar, however, is not at all shocked by the monster’s reciprocal violence, and even goes so far as to implicate Beowulf in perpetuating the feud between the Danes and Grendelkin. The Danish king explains that:

Heo þa fæhðe wræc
þe þu gystran niht  Grendel cwealdest
þurh hæstne had   heardum clammum,
forþan he to lange   leode mine
wanode ond wyrde.   He æt wige gecrang
ealdres scyldig,   ond nu oþer cwom
mihtig manscaða,   wolde hyre mæg wrecan,
ge feor hafað   fæhðe gestæled (1333-1340).

“She (Grendel’s mother) then avenged the feud because you (Beowulf) killed Grendel yesternight, through violent nature, with hard grips, since he too long wasted and destroyed my people. He fell at war, guilty of life, and now another mighty criminal-slayer comes, she wished to avenge her kinsman, and has carried on the feud from afar.”

Grendel as a child. Image from Sturla Gunnarsson’s ‘Beowulf and Grendel’ (2005).

In this passage, Hroðgar seems to sympathize with Grendel’s mother’s plight, twice described as a sorhful sið “sorrowful journey” (1278, 2119), and frames her vengeful response to the death of her son in terms of his own feuding culture and revenge obligations. Nevertheless, the Danish king appears able to empathize with his enemy—a mother who has lost her child—perhaps because her situation is all too familiar to the human experience, then as now.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Baird, Joseph L. “Grendel the Exile,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 67 (1966): 375-81.

Higley, Sara Lynn. “Aldor on Ofre, or the Reluctant Hart: a Study of Liminality in Beowulf,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 87 (1986): 342-53.

Meier, Allison. “How Medieval Artists Used Monsters as Propaganda.” Hyperallergic (July 2, 2018).

Mittman, Asa and Peter Dendle. The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing, 2013.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-494.

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

Schulman, Jana K. “Monstrous Introductions: Ellengæst and Aglæcwif.” In Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, edited by Jana K. Schulman and Paul E. Szarmach, 62-92. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012.

Sharma, Manish. “Metalepsis and Monstrosity: The Boundaries of Narrative in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology 102 (2005): 247-279.


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.



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

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