John Friedman

title.none: Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Friedman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.003 01.05.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Friedman, University of Illinois,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Cohen, Jeffrey. Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures, Vol. 17. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pp. xx, 235. $47.95. ISBN: 0-816-63217-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.03

Cohen, Jeffrey. Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures, Vol. 17. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Pp. xx, 235. $47.95. ISBN: 0-816-63217-0.

Reviewed by:

John Friedman
University of Illinois

This intelligent and provocative book is certainly one of the two best recent works on the subject of monstrosity (the other being Andy Orchard's Pride and Prodigies. Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript [1995]). Its wide-ranging theoretical base makes it, in my opinion, much superior to recent studies by David Williams, Claude Kappler, and Claude Lecouteaux. Betraying occasional 'anxiety of influence', Cohen builds on Walter Stephens' taxonomy of biblical giants in Giants in those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism (1989) and then distinguishes his own book from the earlier work: "wholly missing from Giants in Those Days is a consideration of the giants of English and French romance" (166)--a lack which Cohen promises to remedy. Of Giants can perhaps best be described as cultural criticism of medieval somatic and originary myths in which the author employs the discourses of psychoanalytic theory, identity-formation, gender studies, and queer theory. Not all of this work is new: about half has been previously published in the form of journal articles and book chapters, though this could have been more clearly indicated. For example, a portion of the material on Morte Arthure appeared in Arthuriana (1996); this article is cited in the Bibliography but not mentioned in the Acknowledgement.

Though Cohen is more interested in Lacan than in Freud, his approach to the giant is in some ways 'Freudian' and similar to that taken in Richard Bernheimer's wonderful study of the libidinous forest-dwelling wildman, especially in his excess, his sexual appetites, and his danger to settled and commodifying communities.

The book consists of an Introduction laying out the book's premises and methodology, six chapters and a brief afterword followed by Notes, Bibliography, and Index. There are five in-text black and white figures. As the first part of the title would suggest, Cohen is concerned chiefly with giants understood as individual named personages, though there is one monster discussed, the Donestre, which belongs to the tradition of monstrous races of men. His Introduction indicates that while Cohen is interested in all sorts of giants, it is those in medieval England which will preoccupy him.

At the risk of oversimplifying the structure and argument of Cohen's book, let me try to outline more or less what will be found in Of Giants, where it is most successful, and who would profit from buying or reading it. Chapter One considers giants of the Anglo-Saxon period with regard to individual and collective identity formation, where giants symbolize "access to that lost enjoyment that must at one time have been possible, access to a lost sense of oneness with the world". (20-21)

As Cohen develops these ideas, he shows that for the Anglo-Saxons the "giant is the fragmented body written across the landscape to provide its prehistory, its identity" (12) and he notes that in certain originary accounts the remains of giants "are visible earthworks and ruins". (59) While Cohen offers several convincing examples of this idea, an obvious link not mentioned between the mythic landscape of Britain and a vanished giant whose sexual excess was threatening is the earthwork giant at Cerne Abbas, Dorsetshire. This figure holds a club one hundred and eleven feet long, and has an erect phallus over twenty-one feet in length. On these giants see Paul Newman, Lost Gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill Figures of Britain (London: Wrens Park, 2000).

Chapter Two continues the focus on early British giants. "The installation of the giant at the heart of national identity" (xviii) results from Geoffrey of Monmouth's account in Historia Regum Britanniae of how the Trojan Brutus on his arrival vanquished the island's giants, particularly one Gogmagog: "the Trojan triumph over these bellicose monsters marks the birth of the British nation". (31). The giants in their "monstrous excess" cannot coexist with the "domesticating order" (34) of Brutus' colonization. To this foundation myth Geoffrey attaches the story of Arthur who combats the rapist cannibal giant of Mont St. Michel for the benefit of the nation. "Arthur materializes Britain. It did not exist as a continuous, corporate community until he was invented". (40) Again, the issue is identity, personal and collective, for Arthur's conquest of this giant allowed the Anglo-Norman conquerors to legitimize themselves as part of the Trojan diaspora. This same series of events has been more thoroughly analyzed from the perspective of postcolonial theory by Michelle R. Warren in a 1998 essay in Arthuriana and in her new study History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain 1100- 1300 (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2000). Warren's article is not mentioned in Of Giants. Less familiar is the originary legend where Albina and her sisters copulate with a devil and give birth to Britain's giants, of which Cohen offers an excellent account.

The moment when all these originary giants were erased from the landscape gives rise to a collective identity and official ideology for the rather miscellaneous peoples of Britain; by the sixteenth century statues of giants--one believed to be Gogmagog--celebrating this foundational moment were erected in the London Guildhall and the author provides an engraving of one of them as Figure 2. Though it is a small point, Cohen--apparently not relying on direct personal observation-- claims "these statues disappeared in the Blitz and now London's Guildhall stands empty of giants". (31) In fact they were recreated in 1941 as nine-foot-tall limewood figures by David Evans as the gift to the city of London by Sir George Wilkinson, then Lord Mayor. A visitor in 1998 found them alive and well, guarding the Guildhall's West Gallery.

Chapter Three treats the giants of "identity romances". (xviii) In these works the hero through combat, decapitation, and dismemberment of a giant establishes his identity as a step into adulthood. A self- restrained and regulated knight is often put in conflict with the giant "a creature of orality and appetite". (88) Problematized from a psychoanalytic perspective, the conquest of the giant without and within forms "part of the rite de passage from boyhood to manhood, from...potential ambiguity into the certainties of a stable masculinity". (73)

How the chivalric identity romance is linked to the earlier originary treatment of gigantomachy in Geoffrey of Monmouth and elsewhere is explained by the view that "chivalry is a mode of being that hinges on a fantastic originary moment when a 'spontaneous' decision to self- regulation was made by its adherents". (83)

From the large landscape of gigantomachy, Cohen moves in Chapter Four to the diminutive, arguing that Chaucer desexualized his own "character" and body in Sir Thopas, to fend off psychologically the public opprobrium over his supposed rape of Cecily Chaumpaigne as this event has been recently reconstructed by Christopher Cannon in an important article in Speculum. Too late for inclusion in Cohen's treatment of this matter is Cannon's "Chaucer and Rape:Uncertainty's Certainties" in Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22 (2000): 1-67. Cohen argues "that we cannot know whether Chaucer committed rape, but we can see in the possibility, in the accusation, the precipitation of a trauma that haunts his work". (115) Thus, the author believes of the three-headed comic giant Sir Oliphant that "by translating the familiar gigantomachia...from romance into comedy, the sexual threat that the giant encodes dwindles...much as Chaucer's possible rape of Cecily Chaumpaigne has been much diminished in the critical reading of Chaucer's corpus". (xix) In Chapter Five Cohen relates the giant to medieval incubi and cynocephali: "because he embodied fears about the fragility of Christian identity in the face of the Saracen threat, the medieval cynocephalus was a viscerally disturbing figure, very like the giant". (120) This view is developed by an analysis of the Middle English romance Sir Gowther, whose eponymous hero is fathered by a devil and whose young manhood was full of morally monstrous behavior. In penance he becomes a sort of dog living under the tables and eating dog scraps during a long period of purgation in a distant land.

Gowther's demand that his mother reveal to him "who is my father" and the resultant knowledge that he is a devil's child are key 'identity' issues in the text. Eventually, Gowther through a series of good deeds builds a new identity and is validated by the Pope as "goddus chyld"; thus his story takes on the character of a hagiographic romance.

Chapter Six offers readings of Gawain and the Green Knight and its successors Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle and the Turk and Gawain, as well as of Bevis of Hampton, the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Old French Aliscans from the point of view of identity construction and the stability of gender.

Of Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, Cohen claims that it "completely [rewrites] the gigantomachia at the heart of identity romance". (144) Building on Carolyn Dinshaw's view that Gawain and the Green Knight was "a normative text that circulated in order to circumscribe the desires of its audiences...[where ] the text renders unintelligible the possibility of homosexuality for its auditors" (150), his reading of the poem emphasizes its feminine subtext and Gawain's unstable gender (for example in the passive bedroom and blood on the snow "deflowering"/ beheading scenes), though without taking into account Geraldine Heng's key articles on the feminization issue published in 1991 and 1992. They are mentioned in the Bibliography, but not in the Notes.

Bercilak, who tempts Gawain to bodily enjoyment and ease as the Father of Excess and Indulgence, is eventually revealed as the Prohibitive Father. The test with the Green Knight/Bercilak is crucial to Gawain because, by not flinching on the final stroke, he " submit to the proper adoption of the Christian chivalric code that passes for an adult male identity". (149) He jumps away from the Green Knight, refuses his offers of further dalliance at the castle, and returns to his companions with a wisdom they cannot share.

Though Cohen's remarks on the Morte Arthure are penetrating and valuable, I am puzzled by his claim that in some way this work represents the "culmination" (152) of the giant decapitation theme in Middle English, since the same story turns up in Malory (Book V) with a nice effictio of the giant with a greyhound's teeth, the coat of vanquished kings' beards, and the like. He is also decapitated by Arthur and has his head displayed. Though Vinaver's edition of Malory is mentioned in the list of Primary Sources, Malory does not appear in the Index, nor is he discussed in the text.

The romance Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle continues the tradition of a Bercilak at once gigantic yet chivalric, for the Carl is a "dangerous wild man and a lord who efficiently manages a large household" (160). Interesting reversals of roles occur when the Carl is eventually made a member of the Round Table and Gawain performs tasks of sexual and gastronomic excess typically associated with the giant. He is now a giant who both "sternly forbids and happily compels enjoyment. Both functions are necessary to chivalric male embodiment". (165) A word of caution for the reader who wishes to follow out Cohen's discussion of this romance, the better text of which he locates in the "Porkington manuscript". (159) This MS--formerly NLW Porkington 10-- has been since 1993 housed in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth under the shelf mark Brogyntyn II.1. On this fascinating codex, see Daniel Huws (former keeper of Manuscripts at the NLW) "MS Porkington 10 and its Scribes," in Jennifer Fellows et al. eds., Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills (Cardiff: University of Wales Press,1996), pp. 188- 207.

Among the other works studied in Chapter Six, the heroic poem Aliscans with its legend of Guillaume d'Orange and his pagan giant servant Rainourt refutes the "glum" and "evil" giant view of Walter Stephens (167), and Cohen shows us some comic giants existing well before Rabelais. An English relative of Rainourt is Ascopart, Bevis of Hampton's giant page. These giants represent desexualized same-sex bonds between their chivalric masters before these masters move out of what Cohen calls "odd couple" patterns, the "'childish things' that must quickly be put away as the hero matures" and accepts "institutionalized heterosexuality". (176)

What works best in this book to my mind are the portions of these last chapters treating giants in several little known and underappreciated romances and heroic poems from England and France. An aspect of Cohen's analysis especially useful for the literary scholar is the way that such romances psychologized the concept of the tournament. He observes that tournaments "were transformed through the agency of romance into a public theater of good conduct...and bodily control..., heterosexual monogamy, channeling of aggression and respect for patriarchy...redirecting the forces of violent male conflict". (79)

Readers of Cohen's book will find little in the book which is tendentious. The Bloomian "anxiety of influence" I mentioned earlier, however, does appear in Cohen's criticism of Walter Stephens for quoting at secondhand (n. 30, p. 207). Ironically, most of the scholarship from primary texts in Of Giants is, in fact, quoted at second hand. For example, the material on Saint Christopher as a dog head from the Acta Sanctorum is not quoted from that work but from David White's Myth of the Dog-Man. (135) And a passage from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus Rerum in the Trevisa translation edited by M. C. Seymour is not quoted from Seymour but from an article by Lee Patterson (n.26 p. 202).

Though usually a lively and vivid writer who uses many examples drawn from movies and even video games to make his points, Cohen occasionally falters in passages of grammatically muddled writing such as "the monstrous enjoyment that smears the formal structure of Galfridian and romance masculinity ensures that the contradictions that lay at its center will strengthen its cultural power, its instance (agency, insistence), by ensuring that it remains beneath its smooth surface an identity category in constant ambivalent motion". (70)

Sometimes--especially in the methodological Introduction-- there are dense patches of Francophilic coterie-writing of the kind so comically portrayed by James Hynes in his recent The Lecturer's Tale, where among a cast of pretentious academic characters we meet Lorraine Alsace "whose chef d'oeuvre was Das Ding an Sich: A Cultural History of Cultural Histories." Such passages require a special knowledge which sits oddly with the generally accessible character of a book where any quotation not in modern English is translated.

His fondness for the terms to abject and abjection, which he employs some twenty-four times is a case in point. Cohen has used these words in a rather special sense seven times, before on page 27, explaining the concept (unhelpfully) as "'the vortex of summons and repulsion' that Julia Kristeva has called abjection." A term which bears so much weight ought to be defined at its first appearance; to his credit, Cohen does do this with the Lacanian extimite, another difficult term often used in Of Giants, which he takes adequate time to explain. In short, Of Giants is not a book that the inquiring scholar will come to for lore but rather for interpretation of a rather special kind.

This said, it will not soon be superseded, and anyone interested in giants in English literature would do well to buy and read this attractively produced and stimulating book.

Cohen's text was very carefully prepared and I found no typographical errors or other inaccuracies with the exception of "the giant's body...crumbles to the ground" when the author must mean crumple. (158)

Points needing attention in preparing a second edition are:


note 1, p.188 instead of Tolkein read Tolkien, and on the same page note

4 Tiberius Bv and Cotton Vitellius Axv should read B.v and A. xv

note 21, p. 205, and p. 218 George Carry should read Cary

Abbreviations p. 211 Patralogia Latina should be Patrologia


p. 212 Cohen cites Frank Coulson, A Study of the Vulgate Commentary on Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' and a Critical Edition of the Glosses to Book One from "Canadian Thesis on Microfiche. 1985", but this should be cited as The Vulgate Commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Creation Myth and the Story of Orpheus (Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1991).

p. 213 The editor of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae was Acton not Actom Griscom. On the same page, the 1971 photographic reprint of Jacques De Vitry's Historia Orientalis should have the publisher provided.

p. 215 Unlike other EETS citations, that of Skeat's edition of the Wars of Alexander lacks the date. On the same page the title An Eleventh-Century Anglo-Saxon Miscellany, ed. Patrick McGurk and Ann Knock, Early English Texts in Facsimile 21 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) puzzled me, since, when I reviewed this book in 1986, its title was An Eleventh-Century Illustrated Anglo- Saxon Miscellany and the publisher and date were Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1983.

p. 216 Richard Bernheimer's The Wildman in the Middle Ages was reprinted by Octagon books in 1970.

p. 222 the French publisher is Honore Champion not Chapion

p. 226 Universite de Picardie lacks the acute accent

p. 227 A. G. Rigg's article in Studi medievali lacks page numbers, and Rudolf Wittkower's seminal "Marvels of the East" article should be cited to the more accessible Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (NY: Thames and Hudson, 1987) a collection of his writing.