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15.08.23, Mittman and Kim, Inconceivable Beasts

The Medieval Review

15.08.23, Mittman and Kim, Inconceivable Beasts

The Wonders of the East is an illustrated catalogue of creatures--humans, animals, monsters, hybrids--preserved on nine folios of the Beowulf manuscript, sometimes referred to as the Nowell Codex and part of the British Library's Cotton Vitellius A.xv. Inconceivable Beasts comprises a full-color facsimile, diplomatic transcription accompanied by line-by-line translation, a separate translation into idiomatic modern English, and a detailed study of the text and the images, in the context of the other materials in the manuscript as well as of other versions of the Wonders. Mittman and Kim argue that since all three Anglo-Saxon texts of the Wonders of the East are illustrated, the text must be read alongside the illustrations, though previous editions have abstracted the text. Thus, in addition to the full-color facsimile of the text, the idiomatic translation is accompanied by black-and-white reproductions of the images. This is an excellent resource for further study and also makes a valuable contribution to the scholarship on Wonders as well as on questions of editorial theory and practice.

The transcribed text of the Wonders makes some editorial interventions in the form of supplying words and letters that have been lost due to damage to the text. It follows the manuscript in the use of abbreviations, the Tironian note (albeit in slightly odd form) for "and," Roman rather than Arabic numbers. Capitalization and punctuation follows the manuscript, as does the division of words at the end of a line, though word spacing is normalized according to print conventions. Given the fragile state of the Beowulf manuscript, the provision of a color facsimile accompanied by transcription will allow many more scholars access to the manuscript and its contents. Mittman and Kim write that they decided not to provide an edited version of the text because "these images and this text demand consciousness of many processes of reading and viewing [and] recognition of the violence of those processes" (36). Yet students and scholars unaccustomed to manuscript study and perhaps less well-versed in Old English would benefit from an edited version of the text, with abbreviations expanded and punctuation normalized, and choices made about the emendations. The transcription and line-by-line translation, and the idiomatic translation accompanied by black-and-while images, are supplied in separate sections. There is value in retaining the pagination and foliation of the original in the transcription, but it would also be helpful to provide all of the materials related to each page of the original across a two-page spread, minimizing the need to flip among three different sections of the book to compare them all. (I am tempted to contemplate the possibilities that a digital edition might allow for users to choose what to see, and screen space to see multiple versions at the same time.)

The introduction to the volume makes the case for reading the Wonders in the form in which it is preserved in this manuscript rather than ignoring it in favor of the more competently written and illustrated later texts. Scholars have called the Vitellius version's text "problematic" and "clumsy" (8) and the images "rough and incompetent" and "childish" (7). Mittman and Kim note that this version of the Wonders has been little studied, and that even those who study Wonders alongside Beowulf have used later versions of the text and images. They call the style of the images "loose" and "vague" rather than "ugly" (15), and call the creatures drawn and described "liminal," their lack of specificity echoed in the description of Grendel in Beowulf. In this book, they combine close reading of the text, detailed examination of the images, and close study of the relationships between them, with "a broad range of theoretical approaches" (22) related to editorial matters as well as to study of the text and images.

The transcription and two translations of the text comprise chapter 2; these are prefaced by a discussion of "editing the female Wonders" that makes clear that textual editing is no simple procedure of copying the words in a manuscript but demands intellectual and theoretical engagement. The discussion fore-grounds previous editorial interventions in the representations of the Boar-Tusked Woman and other female figures in the Wonders. Following common practice in the editing of Latin texts, early editors of Old English texts were quite willing to emend them, and since the Latin has "obscenitate" at this point, previous editors emended the Old English version's "mycelnesse" ("greatness") to "unclennesse" ("filth"). Mittman and Kim ask "why it is so 'safe' and 'natural' [italics the authors'] to substitute 'filth' for 'greatness' in the description of female monstrosity" (29). The images of the Amazonian women "grasp, break, step out of their frames...frameless figures contest with text for space on the page" (31). Mittman and Kim argue that in image and text, the figures "trouble any reading of this text which attempts to foreclose them" (31).

Chapter 3 of the volume focuses on the "doubled men" of the manuscript, studying them in the context of discussions of monstrosity in Augustine and Isidore. Mittman and Kim comment on the difficulties of "reading of two passages (or a passage and an image) together as one" (73). Thus while it focuses on particular creatures within the Wonders, the chapter lays out problems with "reading" the collocations and collisions of text and image throughout and suggests that they point to "notions of identity in Anglo-Saxon English [that] are also multiple and contradictory" (79).

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with nakedness and nudity in the images and text, chapter 4 noting that the naked figures appear actually to be clothed in "naked suit[s]" (88). Mittman and Kim comment: "Many of the wonders we consider in this volume function by retaining bodies that are at once recognizable, continuous with normative experience, and legibly different, with a difference that both troubles and reifies the normative" (87). This recalls the issues of Anglo-Saxon identity raised in chapter 3; in this chapter, Mittman and Kim comment on how the doubly interpretable bodies anticipate post-colonial theories that subvert notions of the human body as total or singular. Chapter 5 theorizes distinctions between nakedness and nudity, drawing on and giving nuance to studies of classical art, and revisits questions of gender in a sustained examination of the image of the Blemmye. Scholars have assumed the creature is male, but Mittman and Kim argue this echoes "Galenic models of sexual differences, in which the feminine is an inversion of the ontologically primary masculine" (109), a medieval model which has persisted in modern scholarship: "the wonders, unless otherwise identified, are generally assumed in scholarship to be male" (111). In a careful discussion, Mittman and Kim make a persuasive case for seeing the figure as female rather than male, or possibly as challenging gender norms. They then turn to the gaze of the Blemmye, whose eyes are embedded in its chest or over its breasts and comment on medieval theories of vision that suggest vision requires physical contact between viewer and viewed: "the striking gaze of the Blemmye, and the association it creates between the eye and the female body, suggest that the eye--of viewer as well as image--is both penetrating and penetrated in the act of viewing" (131).

Chapters 6 and 7 concern space and place, mapping and traveling, the fact that the locations in the Wonders cannot in fact be fixed, and what that means for medieval and modern readings. Chapter 6 begins with by theorizing the frame in/around art, and demonstrating that the ways in which frames have functioned and the meanings they have held for classical and/or Renaissance art do not hold, for the medieval period and particularly for Wonders. Mittman and Kim also comment on the play of languages across the manuscripts and versions of Wonders--as well as the "not true glosses" (161) where a later hand provides Middle English versions of words used--and how translation carries texts across linguistic boundaries. They find fascinating analogues for Wonders in medieval Chinese and early modern Native American contexts. The chapter then moves toward other ways of thinking frames: framing the Wonders within the Beowulf manuscript, and reading the text and images of Wonders as a frame for Anglo-Saxon identities. Mittman and Kim point out that scholarly efforts to find "real" sources for the creatures described are bound to failure and draw on Baudrillard as well as Anselm in thinking about the consequences of describing creatures with no real-world analogue. For Anselm, the "real world" is a path to divinity, important as a way station rather than for its own sake.

Chapter 7 considers the "location of identity" in the text, mapping the places mentioned (when possible) onto the Cotton Map, found not in the Beowulf manuscript but in Cotton Tiberius B.v, which also contains a version of Wonders in Latin and Old English. (The chapter refers to an absent Fig. 7.1 with the route traced on a drawing of the map; instead, it is superimposed on the color plate. It would be valuable to have both so as to allow better readability of the map in its color version, alongside a drawing of the imagined journey described in Wonders.) The impossibility of making a journey to the places in Wonders suggests to Mittman and Kim that the text be read as "the basis for a sort of secular peregrinatio in stabilitate" (188). If, however, imagined pilgrimage has potential spiritual value, Mittman and Kim suggest that a safari in stabilitate could be spiritually and even literally dangerous: "the ambiguity of the internal distances traveled by the wandering wonderer only serves to further destabilize the security of the reader" (189).

Chapter 8 describes the damage inflicted on Cotton Vitellius A.xv in a 1731 fire and contemplates implications for editing and analysis of text and images, expanding on and extending the discussion of editorial problems begun in chapter 2. The discussion of the possible size of the original margins of the text has relevance for interpretations of the manuscript as a whole, which has generally been taken as the relatively frugal product of a scriptorium with limited resources: large margins, however, are a marker of luxury. In considering the manuscript as a "relic" (229), Mittman and Kim discuss the many references to loss within Anglo-Saxon texts and the scholarly sense that study of the period must involve coming to grips with the loss of information about and material artifacts from the period.

In a brief conclusion, Mittman and Kim look at the prevalence of knot-images in the manuscript and ask if they have "perhaps elided the equally striking emphasis not on movement, but on stasis, binding, and knotting" (235). Finally, they describe the Wonders as riddles without singular solutions. In the volume as a whole, Mittman and Kim display an impressive facility with the traditional tools and methods of manuscript study, textual criticism, and artistic analysis, as well as with modern theoretical approaches to textual, artistic, and literary study. They move confidently between and among different avenues of study, wearing their learning lightly as they advance complicated arguments with well-earned conclusions.