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Wonders and Wisdom: Anglo-Saxons and the East

Heide Estes

What the Anglo-Saxons ‘‘knew’’ about Asia and its inhabitants was drawn from Biblical exegesis, saints’ lives, and other texts derived from Latin sources. Numerous Old English and Anglo-Latin texts of varied genre and contents give evidence of an intense interest in the East that serves both to define Anglo-Saxon origins and to depict outsiders of varying types that are made to perform as ‘‘Other’’ to members of the Anglo-Saxon community. Ælfric follows Augustine and Isidore in his division of the world into three regions whose people are descended from the biblical Ham, Shem, and Cham; the division is depicted in Anglo-Saxon world maps and referenced in poetry such as the Old English Genesis. The Beowulf-manuscript contains several texts about ‘‘the East’’ including the prose Wonders of the East, Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and Life of Saint Christopher, as well as the poems Judith and Beowulf. The outlandish creatures described and illustrated in each of these texts figure as outsiders to Anglo-Saxon culture and function to structure masculinity and social cohesion.

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