Undesirable Reptiles: The use of Serpentine Imagery in Wonders of the East

By Lucie Lefler

Cotton MS Vitellius A XV f.99v.

Image is that of the verso side of folio 99 of the Nowell Codex in the Cotton Manuscript. Contains illuminations of a two headed serpent traversing the top centre of the page. On thecentred right-hand side is a bordered illumination of a horned serpent and a horned donkey. Both creatures cross the boundary the border provides.

Extract from Anon., ‘The Wonders of the East’, in Pride and Prodigies, ed. Andy Orchard (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003)

§ 5. Hascellentia is the name of the land on the way to Babylon, that is in length and breadth nine of the lesser measurements called stadia. It is subject to the kingdom of the Medes, and that land is filled with all good things. This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.

§ 6. In one land there are born donkeys which have horns as big as oxen. They are in that very great wasteland which is in the southern part of Babylonia. They retreat to the Red Sea, because of the multitude of snakes called Corsiae which are in those places. They have horns as big as rams. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies. In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee down into the earth; because of this the pepper is black. From Babylon to the city of Persia where the pepper grows is the lesser measure which is called stadia 800 units. It is reckoned in the greater measure that is called leuuae six hundred and twenty-three and a half units. The place is barren because of the multitude of snakes.

The Wonders of the East is an iconic catalogue of creatures and peoples encountered in the East that helped to construct Western identity in the Early Middle Ages. The narrative was originally penned in Latin, addressing the emperor Trajan in epistolary form; however, in this specific manuscript the narrative is in Old English. The manuscript containing Wonders is called the Nowell Codex (c. 1075-11252), is colloquially known as the Book of Monsters, and contains five separate texts that cross several genres but are thematically similar in that they contain the theme of identifying the monstrous Other. The extract above includes chapters five and six, but even those brief paragraphs give a remarkable insight into Western thought about encountering the Eastern Other. At the forefront of these chapters is the introduction of several creatures and a quick description of their defining characteristics, effectively acting as a bestiary. The creatures depicted seem to bear an intense moral and religious code facilitated by their biblical connections. The creatures are described in such a way that makes them monstrous beyond the fact that they are unknown to the intended audience. As such, it is important to make note of the audience of these tales, particularly because it was included in the Book of Monsters. The audience to speak of was predominantly people who would not have travelled to encounter these creatures themselves. The Book of Monsters, in turn, was a compilation of five fictional texts exploring the boundary between what was acceptable and what was monstrous. That being said, the fact that the Book of Monsters, and specifically The Wonders of the East, is fictional does not disclude its moralising tone. The boundary between the acceptable and the monstrous was centred around Christian morals and human anxieties, and it is these that are detailed in the extract provided, especially through the vessels of the snakes and serpents. The snakes and serpents in The Wonders of the East serve to identify characteristics of the cultural Other while calling into account the Christian cultural connotations regarding the creatures.

Christian spirituality is evident in the image of the serpents encountered in Chapter 5 of The Wonders of the East; however, this time it is used as a tool for Othering. Most of Chapter 5 describes an almost Edenic place within the bounds of the kingdom of the Medes, called Hascellentia, and it is detailed that this land “is filled with all good things.” The following sentence denotes that this land is also filled with serpents, and it goes on to specify that the serpents have two heads and “eyes that shine at night as brightly as lanterns.” The accompanying image in the manuscript is that of a two-headed serpent traversing the page, coloured in red, blue, and gold. In this case, the description paired with the image on the manuscript paints an intimidating picture: not only is this seemingly “good” place filled with two-headed serpents, but the serpent also fills the literal page. The effect of this is frightening when the reader-viewer takes into account the fact the serpents are used to identify the Other, because it means the negative traits the serpent embodies are occupying a worrying amount of space in the physical world. Additionally, the usage of the word “serpent” is purposeful because the next chapter of The Wonders is dedicated to describing snakes. If the narrator wanted to provide a legitimate catalogue of the creature and its characteristics, it could have just as easily called it a “two-headed snake.” The logical conclusion from this is that the narrator is not describing the serpent as a creature, but the serpent as a character by drawing on biblical imagery. In Genesis 3.1, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any other wild animal,” and goes on to tempt Eve into eating the Forbidden Fruit. The character of the serpent in Genesis is villainous: it is it who leads humankind to be cast from Eden through its trickery and licentiousness. Williamson (2006) argues “the images of the monsters destabilise the reader-viewer’s ability to…integrate the creatures into structures that might allow us to know them.” The image of the two-headed serpent destabilises the mental image the actual text provides. That being said, the illumination does add to the monstrousness of the serpent, if only subliminally. It contributes to the characterisation of the wily serpent as it traverses the entire page, carving out a space for itself between blocks of text. It harks upon the biblical word association of the serpent and breaking boundaries because the serpent pushes against the textual boundary provided in the manuscript.

Furthermore, the fact these serpents inhabit a land “filled with wonderful things” emphasises the Othering that is happening. The aforementioned characteristics of both the biblical and textual serpents are undesirable to a Western, Christian reader. The serpents, therefore, are an allegory to Adam and Eve described at the beginning of the chapter. These villainous serpentine characteristics of breaking or pushing boundaries and being crafty are undesirable traits to the western Christian narrator, and it is because of that serpentine imagery that Christian values are being pushed while also identifying the defining characteristics of the cultural Other.

Chapter 6 continues with the theme of the undesirable reptile after a brief interlude involving a description of a horned donkey. The narrative pits the donkeys against a species of horned snakes called the Corsiae, citing that “they retreat to the Red Sea” because of the amount of Corsiae that live “in those places.” The chapter then goes on to discuss the horned snakes in more detail. This note on the horned donkey provides a basis for the blurred “distinction between allegorical fantasy and travel literature.” It is important to be reminded, therefore, that The Wonders of the East is a compendium of stories about creatures unlikewhat would normally be encountered in the western world. It facilitates the maintenance of that initial element of fantasy, while still reinforcing the idea of the cultural other as being villainous. That being said, the horned donkey is not so insignificant to just be included to maintain the fantasy element. The horned donkey’s illumination on the manuscript poses it next to the horned snake which is posed as its enemy, suggesting they are of equal importance. Both the donkey and the snake break the boundary of the border in which they are contained, but the snake is more vibrantly coloured in reds and blues. The donkey, while also being coloured in reds and blues, has much less colour than the snake. It is for this reason that the horned donkey’s subject position is victim to the horned snake’s villain. The donkey’s purpose in the narrative is equal to that of the snakes, but only because the snakes drove them to “retreat to the Red Sea,” proving the snakes are more dangerous and the donkeys are included to be exemplum of the snakes’ cruelty. The snakes being posed as the ones driving the donkeys out introduces the notion that any serpentine creature is the other.

The narrator furthers the notion of the snakes being the villainous Other by first establishing “in those lands there is an abundance of pepper,” and then by saying “the snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness.” The narrator mentions the people use fire to get the snakes to flee from the pepper plants, and it is the first time in this extract that people are mentioned. Still, the description of the horned snakes’ role in the harvest of pepper serves as a “projection of sublimated anxieties” because the snakes “keep the pepper.” It can be seen that the snakes are greedy, and this is further shown in the illumination, where the snake’s tail breaks the boundary placed around it. This need to take up space and the narrator’s reaction to it is more indicative of the anxieties surrounding the connection between the western world, and the eastern world. This intersection would be the crossing of, in mediaeval thought, civilisation and barbarism, and it is reflected in the text. This anxiety is present throughout the last chapter of the extract, in which it is said that the place is “barren” as a result of the number of snakes present. There is a distinct othering in the way the snakes’ effect on their surroundings is described. The word “barren” suggests the western anxiety that there would be a loss of their civilization if they interact with the east and that they would be left “barren.”

Altogether, The Wonders of the East serves less as a tale of an explorer’s travel to the East, and more towards an amalgam of cultural anxieties surrounding the East and its involvement with the west. These anxieties are explored through the vessels of the creatures described in the narrative, specifically how the donkey serves to emphasise the horned snakes’ greed, how the two-headed serpent pushes Christian morals and explores the concept of the other, and how the incendiary hens and beasts facilitate the human anxiety of the unknowable divine.


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