The Medieval Review 11.03.15

Miller, Sarah Alison. Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body. Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. 213. $113 ISBN 978-0-415-87359-8. .

Reviewed by:

Andrea Schutz
St. Thomas University

The monstrous continues to preoccupy recent work in Medieval Studies, and Miller's book is a useful contribution to the discussion. Attractive and frightening as all monsters are, none is more so than woman, an inherently monstrous being insofar as the criteria defining the normative body--self-containment, singularity and unity--do not apply to women. Pregnancy is the readiest example of the boundary problems women's bodies present: the already leaky body swells, ruptures, and finally becomes two beings. The fact that every female body has the potential to be this kind of monstrous makes even the most contained virgin body problematic.

However, monstrous female bodies challenge the easy ontological assumptions of most medieval thinking about monstrosity. Women are not as easily spatially marginalized as other kinds of monsters: while most imaginary monsters lived far away or long ago, and marginalized groups like Saracens or Jews were excluded from the self-definitions of the Christian world, a woman is the closest, most immediate monster--mother, sister, daughter, wife, or lover. This very proximity, Miller argues, allows the female body to demonstrate and resist the ways monstrosity operated in medieval discourse and imagination. As Miller points out, the female body's role in reproduction makes woman not only the monster next door, but also the monster out of whom all humans derive. It is this conclusion which is the most striking element of Miller's argument. Women are the monsters of origins, the monsters without whom no one exists. Where most studies of medieval teratology give voice to the monster as other, Miller argues that the monstrous female body is not other at all, but the matrix of the normative body, which must then forever deal with its own contributions to and participation in female monstrosity. As such, monstrous female bodies offer a continuous resistance to being read simply or uniformly; characterized as unstable and read as danger, women's bodies force the readers into acknowledgement of the instability and danger of those same readings.

Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body consists of 5 chapters (including Introduction and Conclusion), divided into 3 parts. Each chapter examines a particular thirteenth- or fourteenth-century text which represents a certain kind of authority about female bodies: poetical, medical and mystical. Part I, Ovidian Poetry, concerns Pseudo-Ovid's De vetula. Part II, Gynecology, considers the De secretis mulierum, a medical text attributed to Albertus Magnus. Part III, Mystical Theology, discusses Julian of Norwich's Showings. All authorities and texts concern themselves with women's anatomical/physiological instability, permeability and overflowing, a term which points to the fluidity of women's bodies not only internally but also externally: women's bodies do not stay bounded by their own skin but flow outward or split in two (menstruation, pregnancy and lactation). Women's bodies are therefore read as overrunners of the boundaries circumscribing normative bodies, threatening with contagion and disease. They also stand as harbingers of death, a change which comes even to normative bodies, but which those normative bodies would prefer to forget or at least contain somehow. Each text under discussion deals with these issues differently, and this book examines the increasing instability of each discourse, while at the same time trying to achieve a stability sufficient for making the discussion possible at all.

The Introduction clearly articulates the state of medieval attitudes about women and modern interpretations of medieval teratology. In particular, the Introduction sets up the parameters for seeing the female body as a thing which transgresses the very constructions which make bodies monstrous. As Miller cogently argues, women's bodies thereby become not meaningless, but meaning-laden, a distinction which renders the female body a matter of text, a thing to be read. Every monster is an interpretive site; women are the closest and most familiar texts. Declaring something to be readable and then determining the readings possible solidifies ontological boundaries; but as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has pointed out, "the monster always escapes" ("Seven Monster Theses," Monster Theory). Miller applies this monster thesis to show that the stable readings required by normative medieval theory are themselves frustrated by the very bodies defined as monstrous.

This idea becomes particularly clear in chapter 1, entitled "Virgins, Mothers, and Monsters: Ovidian and Pseudo-Ovidian Bodies." For all that this text draws sharp contrasts between the vetula's sagging, leaking, immoderate body and the puella's contained one, Miller argues that the poet cannot sustain the contrast: one of several excellent points notes that the poet's describing gaze makes the contained puella's body no more than a collection of fragmented attractive bits. This is what Miller means by the female body's ability to resist and overturn normative categorization, for under the normative gaze the maiden's body is neither whole nor contained, but broken and parcelled up, made more monstrous by being defined as the desired ideal. Moreover, the poet himself becomes implicated in his own distinctions and ends by seeing mixed natures (of whatever beings) as proper things in themselves, not monstrous errors. Crucially, the poet's conversion to Christianity, ostensibly a tidy rejection of the corporeal, is revealed to be an on-going encounter with monstrous bodies. Christ and the Virgin Mary are both category crises, crossing borders and complicating notions of bounded bodies.

Chapter 2, "Gynecological Secrets: Blood, Seed, and Monstrous Births in De Secretis Mulierum" considers how secrecy and women's bodies are forced to relate. This text was not to be consulted in medical practice, but is an educational tract about women's roles in reproduction. Pregnancy is characterised as a particularly monstrous process, since the already anxiety-inducing female body now swells and harbours another body within it. Pregnancy and birth therefore fit into a complicated discourse of secrecy and exposure in which the De Secretis takes part. Crucially, the secrets of women's bodies are both occluded from women and exploited by women to injure men by contaminating them, infecting them, or profiting from male vulnerabilities. The text aims to uncover the secrets women's bodies withhold, exposing them and making them incapable of their nefarious intentions. For this text, the female body exists to hurt men, even as it is necessary for bringing men into the world.

Miller's discussion changes substantially with chapter 3, "Monstrous Love: The Permeable Body of Christ in Julian of Norwich's Showings." Christ's maternal body shares the characteristics of the other women's bodies discussed--permeablity, overflowing and instability of definition--but these traits become the most important elements of her understanding of Christ. The monstrous body becomes salvific, not deceptive and dangerous, eternal, not time's victim, and "the ultimate source of comfort" (93), not a site of contamination and anxiety. Christ and Mary as monsters, already adumbrated in Pseudo- Ovid's De Vetula, function as powerful signs of the conjunction between the human and the divine.

Miller concludes by arguing that authoritative readings are themselves unstable and destabilizing. Throughout this book, the female bodies assert their necessity and therewith their resistance to the designation 'monster': for all that Pseudo-Ovid and De Secretis construct women's bodies as sites of disgust and danger, they cannot avoid recognising that those same bodies are the sites of birth and creation. Women are the monsters of origins, and as such, their unstable, permeable and overflowing bodies by definition construct the stable, inviolable and contained bodies imagined by (male) theological writers.

All in all, this is a fine, stimulating book which constructs a subtle, complex argument not only about monsters, but the theorizing of men and women in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I am somewhat disappointed that there are only three chapters to the book, and that three texts are left bearing quite a heavy interpretive load: while there is some discussion of other texts besides these three, more and broader contextualization would have been more persuasive. As it stands, however, this book is both a subtle continuation of feminist critique and a useful start in a new direction. It wears its theoretical obligations lightly: we are not bogged down with overly detailed descriptions of theories by now commonplace in work on monstrosity. Indeed, this book is situated squarely in the recent work in the field; if some parts of the argument are perhaps not surprising, they are no less useful for that. The medieval misogyny underlying the definitions of woman as monster is handled well; it is depressing reading, but that is not Miller's fault. Rather, her ability to turn that misogyny into its own illogic and rhetorical undoing is particularly refreshing. In short, this book offers new interpretive possibilities for both women and monsters.