Carolyne Larrington

title.none: Bildhauer and Mills, eds., The Monstrous Middle Ages (Carolyne Larrington)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.014 05.09.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carolyne Larrington, St. John's College, Oxford,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Bildhauer, Bettina and Robert Mills, eds. The Monstrous Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 236. $50.00 0-8020-8719-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.14

Bildhauer, Bettina and Robert Mills, eds. The Monstrous Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 236. $50.00 0-8020-8719-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Carolyne Larrington
St. John's College, Oxford

Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills introduce, and themselves contribute to, a collection of essays by scholars mainly based in the British Isles about the cultural uses of monstrosity in the Middle Ages. It is by no means the first of such collections; the editors add a very useful annotated bibliography examining other monster material from Tolkien's "Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics" onwards. They interpret the idea of monstrosity generously, making it all the more valuable as a starting point for monster-researchers, and include items published as late as 2001.

Bildhauer and Mills's introduction identifies monsters as bodies operating in particular spaces and at particular times, but who are nevertheless "polysemous entities" (6). Monsters are located both on the margins and at the heart of society: Michael Camille's "monster within"--the Saracens, heretics or Jews. The monster participates in such primary medieval preoccupations as the Apocalypse, the exemplary behavior of the saint, the treatment of the Other and the allure of the exotic. In Derridean terms, the editors note, the monster is always already present in conceptual terms, mediating between irreconcileable oppositions. Picking up on Homi Babha's use of the notion of hybridity, the editors discuss how monsters combine "familiarity and difference" (18), playing on Freudian notions of the "unheimlich," what is alien to the idea of being at home and that which Kristeva frames as "abjection," that which will not conform to categorization and system. They conclude with an appeal, as they are careful to state, not for "monster power" or "monster rights" (22), but with a demand that we interrogate the strange pleasures of contemplating the monster as well as the horror he brings with him.

In certain other recent essay collections about monsters, for example K.E. Olsen and L.A.J.R. Houwen's Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe, published in 2001, the introductory overview throws up broader theoretical articulations, bolder speculations and more interestingly wide-ranging arguments than the individual contributions, which sometimes struggle to get beyond a simple survey or paraphrase of monstrosity in a particular context, or else are forced to interpret monstrousness very loosely in order to make their subject fit. This collection is largely innocent of the latter fault; only in reading Deborah Youngs and Simon Harris's essay, "Demonizing the Night in Medieval Europe: A Temporal Monstrosity?" is one conscious that the authors are stretching to the limit the volume's understanding of monstrosity. Youngs and Harris's contribution is largely a social-history analysis of what really went on at night in medieval culture; the question raised at the beginning of the essay as to whether night was a time for monstrosity, or whether it became anthropomorphized as monstrous, is not really answered. Although darkness is usually associated with evil, and the fear of vulnerability to night-time demons functioned as an instrument of social control, Youngs and Harris rightly observe that the night is often seen as a time of freedom and rebellion. This is not the only piece of social history in the collection; Jeremy Harte's fascinating essay shows--unexpectedly--how chroniclers often report exactly what their informants tell them about supernatural encounters, even when the phenomena under discussion do not conform to "normal" categorizations of monstrous or demonic behavior. Thus demons themselves turn out to be resistant to demonological systems and interpretations and act up in unpredictable ways. Though apparitions might portend famine, storm or political unrest, following the etymological connection between monster and Latin monstrare "to show," quite often they foreshadowed nothing in particular. Indeed, far from lurking in the marginal territories of wilderness or forest, they might unaccountably appear in such urban areas as the deer-park in the town of Peterborough.

Several essays place the monstrous in varying religious contexts. Liz Herbert McAvoy suggests that the East Anglian mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe offer a monstrous version of masculinity, the devil which attacks Julian, or the phallus-waving priests of Margery's despairing struggles with sexuality and sin. This formulation of the masculine normative both validates and contrasts with the positive emphasis both women put on the feminine hermeneutic in their visions of Christ. It is not only the visionary masculine which is monstrous; Margery's realistic accounts of male behavior, her fear of rape and her mistreatment by both priests and husband (by modern if not medieval standards), brings to light "the effaced subtext of of masculine and ecclesiastical fears" (69). Robert Mills argues at first astonishingly, but with increasing plausibility, for Jesus as a monster. This is an extreme statement, but Mills defines hybridity as essentially monstrous, and successfully demonstrates how the juxtaposition of Christ with forms of monstrousness or hybridity in bestiaries and in sculpture, ultimately persuades us that Christ signifies like a monster. Bildhauer deftly switches between the monsters Gog and Magog as marginal to, and yet encompassed by, Christ's body on the Ebstorf map, their cannibalistic subversion of the Eucharist, and the paradoxical notion of the Jews as living within a universalist construction of Christian community and consequently enjoying certain protections, at the same time as they were accused of cannibalism and treachery, and subjected to persecution. Irremediably associated with the incorporation of blood, like the monsters, the Jews are both within and without the different boundaries of community. Samantha Riches's wide-ranging survey of the interactions of saints and dragons demonstrates the categories of dragons who are killed, dragons who are banished, even helpful and grateful dragons, symbolizing, as Le Goff has suggested, the taming of natural forces by the power of God. The saint him- or herself is hybrid, both human and more-than-human, while the monsters waver between the material and the hallucinatory. Gerald of Wales' reports of human-animal hybrids and other marvels of Ireland link a number of essays, bringing the marvels of the east back home to the west and once again signifying both Other (the Irish) and the Self (Gerald's own Welsh-Norman hybridity) in Asa Simon Mittman's clearly-argued essay. Aleks Pluskowski ranges widely between Old Norse embodiments of the devouring monsters of ragna rök, the hell-mouths of Anglo-Saxon and later manuscript illuminations, the church door at Kilpeck, and the evidence in the widely-disseminated Visio Tnugdali of a horror of unnatural predation. In apocalyptic and hell-visions, the human being is consumed not only by the natural big beasts, the wolves, whales and serpents of Northern imagination, but by the creatures far below man in the hierarchy of creation: the reptiles, dogs, and birds of hell who make vividly clear how far the sinner has fallen. Sarah Salih's informative exploration of the distinction between simulacra and idols in John Mandeville's Book opens up thinking about pagan and Christian monstrosity in new ways. The idol, for Mandeville, is a mimetic representation, the simulacrum a potentially alarming hybrid and non-mimetic representation. But where conventional thinking suggests that the simulacrum is improper, Mandeville's tolerance for them (at least in the recension which Salih investigates) celebrates human cognitive ability and imagination in ingeniously combining different elements. As Salih notes, Mandeville makes the monstrous and the marvelous signify in complex ways in a text which is itself hybrid and freakish, subversive in its tolerance and popular in its appeal, "a fantastic original and ... itself the necessary monster" (128).

In a market where the study of monstrosity is increasingly popular, where new works distinguish themselves by engaging with different eras or genres or by taking differing theoretical approaches, any new monster-collection has to earn its place. The Monstrous Middle Ages in its breadth, diversity, close focus on the material and historical as well as the textual, and not least because of the publisher's generosity with illustrations, deserves a prominent place on any teratologist's shelves.