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Cynocephales

By Maître de la Mazarine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

SD Sykes on her favourite Medieval monsters!

Posted on: 21/10/2015 with tags: butcher bird, Medieval, monsters, sd sykes, Medieval

A real treat for you today, The Butcher Bird author SD Sykes tells us about her favourite medieval monsters!

My Favourite Medieval Monsters.

Read ‘Plague Land’ or my latest book ‘The Butcher Bird’ and you will see that I not only confront, but also embrace the medieval obsession with monsters. The people of this age couldn’t get enough of them. The best place for monsters to inhabit, of course, is in the unknown. In those places that lie beyond the horizon. In the age before long-distance travel, there was so little known of the world, but then cue Sir John Mandeville. An English knight who set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1322 but ended up travelling to India, China, Java and Sumatra.

I love Sir John’s book ‘The Travels’. Written upon his return to England in 1356, it was a medieval bestseller – transcribed into many European languages, and seen as a genuine and truthful account of the world. Columbus is said to have planned his 1492 expedition after studying Mandeville’s book. Raleigh declared that Sir John’s accounts were entirely accurate.

Reading this book in 2015, it’s easy to smile. For me, it sums up the jumbled yet ordered, rational yet superstitious place that is the medieval mind. Mandeville speaks with authority and general sense in the first half of his book, as he describes Europe and the Middle East, but the further east he travels, the further he descends into the realms of fantasy. Taken from the Penguin Classics ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ translated by Cambridge professor Dr Moseley, the descriptions below are my favourite monsters that he encounters on his journey.

1. ‘There are men who only have one foot, and yet they run so fast on that one foot that it is a marvel to see them.’

2. ‘Men and women of that isle have heads like dogs, and they are called Cynocephales. These people, despite their shape, are fully reasonable and intelligent.’

3. ‘There is another isle, where the people are covered in feathers and rough hair, apart for the face and the palms of the hands. They travel as well in water as on land.’

4. ‘In another part, there are ugly folk without heads, who have eyes in each shoulder; their mouths are round, like a horseshoe, in the middle of their chest.

5. ‘In another isle there are people whose ears are so big they hang down to their knees. In another, people have feet like horses.’

6. ‘In another part there are headless men whose eyes and mouths are on their backs.’

7. ‘Beyond that valley is a great isle where the folk are as big in stature as giants of twenty-eight or thirty feet tall. They have no clothes to wear except the skins of beasts, which they cover their bodies with.’

8. ‘In ancient times, some men had died in that land in deflowering maidens, for the latter had snakes within them, which stung the husbands on their penises inside the women’s bodies; and thus many men were slain.’

9. ‘In this wilderness are many wild men with horns on their heads; they dwell in woods and speak not, only grunting like pigs.’

10. But my all-time favourite is this: ‘This people lives on the smell of wild apple that grow there; and if they go far from home, they take some of these apples with them. For, as soon as they lose the smell of them, they die.’

But before I expose Sir John’s eastern journeys to complete ridicule, we should remember that he also wrote these words towards the end of his book. ‘There are other lands – if anyone wished to travel through them – by which men could travel right round the earth, and return.’  In an age when the shape of the world was still fiercely debated, Mandeville had the sense to know that it was possible to ‘girdle the earth’.

© Keeley Hoad Photography

Author: S D Sykes

SD Sykes lives in Kent with her family and various animals. She has done everything from professional dog-walking to co-founding her own successful business. She is a graduate from Manchester University and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She attended the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown where she was inspired to finish her first novel. She has also written for radio and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.

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