Strange cousins from the East

Some of our strange cousins in Oriental lands, according to the anonymous book De Rebus In Oriente Mirabilibus (Marvels of the East or Wonders of the East).  This is a 4th or 5th century anonymous work which has survived in three manuscript versions, the most well-known being a copy that was copies with a number of works in a manuscript identified as the “Cotton MS Vitellius A XV“.  (Cotton as it was in the collection of a Sir Robert Cotton, MS being an abbreviation of manuscript … I’m not sure about all he details of naming conventions for ms. in the British Library though.)

Some of the familiar “monstrous races” seen in Medieval art and romances are here, but given different descriptions than usual.  For example, the dog-headed men or cynocephs of Pliny are described as having the dog face we expect, but they also have a horse’s mane and boar tusks, and can breathe fire.  They are called Cinocefali or Conopenae.  (Speculation that cynocephs are a garbled account of baboons seem to be confirmed by the mane and tusks, anyway.)  The usual blemyes, sciapods, and so forth are cataloged.

Other monstrous races are, as far as I know, unique to this book:

  • Near the Nile, there are 15′ tall giants with white skin, two faces, long noses, and red knees.  They sail to India to give birth to their children, which are three-colored, lion-headed, twenty-footed monstrosities.
  • Near the river Brixontes, there are 20′ tall, man-eating giants.  Their skin is black and their legs alone are 12′ long.
  • There are also 13′ tall women with white skin, boar tusks, ox-tails, and hair to their feet — which are the feet of camels.
  • Also, there are bearded women who wear horse-hides, and hunt with trained tigers, leopards, & other wild beasts.  They are normal-sized but still rather fearsome.

More info, and pictures, here.

Published in: on March 26, 2014 at 8:35 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. I seem to recall an explanation of the rest of the British Library naming system, which is pretty much useless to know, but kind of entertaining — and hey, possibly the kind of system pseudomedieval fantasy librarians might use.

    Each set of bookshelves has the bust of a classical author or personage above it. In this case, Vitellius (don’t know who he is without looking.) The shelves are labeled with letters. So, the Cotton manuscript is located under the bust of Vitellius, top shelf, 15th manuscript on that shelf.

    • Yeah, that sounds right. Before the Dewey decimal & the LC classification systems, call numbers worked the same way — just pointing you to the right shelf. So I guess the British Library ms. are “named” by their call numbers…

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