David Williams

title.none: Jones and Sprunger, Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles (David Williams)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.008 04.01.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Williams, McGill University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Jones, Timothy S. and David A. Sprunger, eds. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Series: Studies in Medieval Culture, 42. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002. Pp. xxvi, 306. $45.00. ISBN: 1-58044-065-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.08

Jones, Timothy S. and David A. Sprunger, eds. Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Series: Studies in Medieval Culture, 42. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002. Pp. xxvi, 306. $45.00. ISBN: 1-58044-065-7.

Reviewed by:

David Williams
McGill University

Some publishers shy away from essay collections on the grounds that they sell poorly because of lack of unity among the different contributions. This does not seem to be a concern of the Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo which has come out with Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Mediaeval and Early Modern Imaginations. Editors Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger attempt in their introduction to lend the collection a certain unity, but it seems rather that they call attention to a divide by categorizing the collection as one in which "Some attempt to read in the light of mediaeval thought, while others apply modern and postmodern paradigms" (xiv), thus signaling what has become known as the split between "scholarship" and "theory." This turns out to be not a bad thing since both groups contain some very interesting essays. I would add a third category, however, which consists of essays that are not really principally on the topic of "Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles," but rather use the theme as a starting point for the discussion of entirely different topics. This, too, turns out not to be a bad thing. In this third group we find the very first essay, Paul Freedman's "The Mediaeval Other: the Middle Ages as Other," an intelligent, judicious essay that makes a convincing case against the current "Post Colonial" view of the Middle Ages as the cradle of Western hegemony and oppression of the "Other," a view which seeks particularly to indict Christianity. The difficulty with it as a lead article is that it may be read as disallowing the theoretical stance of some of the essays that follow. Some might also see as a difficulty the fact that Freedman's essay has little to do with marvels, monsters, or miracles. The theme becomes, instead, the occasion for a review of mediaeval scholarship and contemporary theory, but it is necessary review with something important to say.

Paul Battles' essay, "Magic and Metafiction in the Franklin's Tale" is similar: the theme of the collection serves as jumping off point to discuss Chaucer's tale. It is a very perceptive study and will certainly be on the bibliography for my Chaucer course, but it really doesn't tell us much about the literature of teratology or the culture that produced it. "Froissart's 'Debate of the Horse and the Greyhound'" by Kristen M. Figg also stretches the definition of the marvel to include what the author really wants to talk about, the talking animal topos, a delightful example of which Figg discovers in Froissart's work. Talking animals are a rhetorical device that may provoke amusement in the reader but not a sense of wonder, not in the Middle Ages any more than in a modern version such as Animal Farm. Figg herself recognizes this: "[Talking animals] are 'marvelous' in the sense of being interesting literary creations, but they do not invite the audience to think of them as real talking animals or to engage in any critical reappraisal of their place in the real world" (88).

Timothy Jones' "Fighting Men, Fighting Monsters" is probably in this same category, as well, since, although it briefly describes a Scandinavian monster of mixed ursine and human natures, its real interest is in the nature of rites de passage. In that context the concepts of outlawry, marginality, and rebellion and their relation to law, centrality, and social convention are interestingly fleshed out in this study.

Just as outlawry seems peripheral to the mediaeval conventions of monsters, marvels, or miracles, so does insanity. David A. Sprunger provides an exhaustive description of the representation of the insane in the Middle Ages, particularly in the thirteenth century Prose Lancelot. Sprunger shows us fascinating hair and baldness imagery connected to the iconography of madness. Despite the fact that the Middle Ages had little understanding of the nature and causes of insanity (even less than we do now) still the condition was not really considered marvelous, much less monstrous or miraculous. The closest we come to that is the Wildman, but even he is not normally identified as insane.

Most of the essays in this collection fall within the "Scholarship" category. In this group we encounter a number of descriptive studies based on close textual readings. We find, as well, several essays that combine careful examination of primary texts with a theoretical framework. Martin Camargo's study of Mandeville's travel book gives genuine insight into the symbolic thinking of the Middle Ages. Here our mediaeval forefathers are self-aware, self critical, and even exhibit a certain humility. In the longest essay in the book, Thomas N. Hall describes for us in great detail the miracle of the lengthened beam. Beyond the details of the legend itself, the migration of the narrative within folk culture, tales of Jesus' youth, and various saints' lives reveals a great deal about the structure and general nature of hagiography. In a primarily sources-and-influences study Malcom Jones traces the development and history of two female miscreants, Chicheface and Bigorne, the one an undernourished eater of honest women, the other an obese devourer of compliant husbands. The phenomenon of this pair presents us with the problem of the difference between the monstrous and the grotesque, if difference there is.

In her discussion of the Old English legend of Saint Christopher, Joyce Tally Lionarons gives a very full summary of the various versions of the narrative, especially as they relate to the versions known in Anglo-Saxon England. Unfortunately, because her secondary sources do not lead her to the connection between Saint Christopher and the dog-head Egyptian god, Anubis, nor to his connection to Hermes, nor Herakles, mythological and religious dimensions of the legend do not emerge. Michael W. Twomey's "Falling Giants and Floating Lead" is an admirable scholarly discussion of the relation of the Middle English poem "Cleanness" to Peter Comestor's Historia Scholastica and to Mandeville's Travels. There are oddities, however. To prove the influence on "Cleanness" of Hebrew onomastic glosses via the Vulgate, the author tries to connect the "nephalim" (fallen ones) to various references to giants in the Vulgate. For instance, Twomey cites Job, 16:15, "irruit in me quasi gigantes" as "he [the devil] falls on me like a giant" (157). The verb irruere (inruere) means to invade, rush at, or run upon, which is how both the Douai and King James translate the phrase. I can find no instance where it has the sense "fall down upon from above," which is what the author seems to need to connect it to "Cleanness."

In the "theory" category, Andrea Rossi-Reder stands in direct contradiction to Martin Camargo's view and depicts the mediaevals as the haughty proto-imperialists ultimately responsible for the hegemonic "colonial discourse," a discourse the origin of which Rossi-Reder feels has been mistakenly attributed to the later Renaissance. Though Rossi-Reder's commentary centers mainly on the Greek traveler Scylax and his source, the Persian Ktesias, these authors are never cited directly but always through secondary sources written by post- colonialist critics. Indeed, of the forty-one footnotes in the article, all but three are to secondary sources of this kind. Further, something of an ethical double-bind arises when Rossi- Reder censures as imperialistic a nineteenth century English colonist's condemnation of various crimes against women and children practiced in Indian culture, such acts as suttee (burning the wife with the dead husband), female infanticide, and murderous robbery. Many people, and certainly most feminists, would probably agree with the condemnation, even though made by a colonist.

As if to belie my perhaps frivolous structure of categories, a small group of three essays seems to defy the "Scholarship- Theory" distinction by bridging it. Norman R. Smith gives an economical summary of mediaeval teratological lore and its passage into the Renaissance. The effort to connect the mentality and conceptualization of the grotesque and monstrous to the contemporary moment's popular cultural products and television ethos is, however, less successful.

Greta Austin's contribution, "Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races?" is a brilliant theorization of a primary text, Wonders of the East, that reads the text on its own terms while illuminating it by bringing to bear intellectually relevant considerations. Here the reader learns! The Middle Ages conceived of the monstrous races, not as menacing Other, but as part of the broad human family and as potential recipients of divine Grace. Implicitly the essay contradicts the view of the Middle Ages as a racist culture that marginalized everyone and everything that was not totally familiar. Instead, it is suggested, it is the modern concept of race "which divides human peoples." In contrast, the mediaeval attitude to the other was, because of its foundation in the Christian belief in redemption, inclusive of all human people "who are descended from Adam" (51).

The most outstanding essay in the collection in my opinion is Mary Baines Campbell's "The Nude Cyclops in the Costume Book." Written in an engaging, personal style, the study treats contemporary, "post-scientific" perceptions of monstrosity with delightful irony, particularly anthropological procedures which she envisions as a methodological Chinese box. Against anthropology Campbell contrasts the method and ethos of the Renaissance costume book which is typological rather than empirical and thus preserves the concept of individual identity, of the "singular." Campbell glosses the concepts of nakedness and nudity as they help to determine certain anthropologies of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, on the one hand, and on the other, as they contribute to the semiotic systems of each culture. She returns toward the end of the essay to the opening theme of the Cyclops and "his//her/its" single eye and gathers into it the theoretical concerns of the essay, concerns that in some ways typify all of the essays of this collection: "Cultural historians recently have been fond of demonstrating ways in which the Renaissance "invented" the "subject" we have been trying yet more recently to banish. This Cyclops look like the moment of that subject's birth-- the creature that looks back, that is all eyes, that is the only one of its kind, is an amalgam, it turns out, of every mediaeval model of the Other" (300).