12.11.02, Oswald, Monsters, Gender and Sexuality

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Karl Steel

The Medieval Review 12.11.02

Simpson, James. Oswald, Dana M.. Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature. Gender in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2010. Pp. viii, 227. ISBN: 978-1-84384-232-3.

Reviewed by:
Karl Steel
Brooklyn College

Dana Oswald joins several other scholars who have argued that monsters at once generate and threaten normative identities. The book tends towards a crisis vocabulary: "danger," "excessive," "anxiety," and other such words appear frequently. While other critics have explored on how monsters energize or frustrate discourses of ethnicity, religion, and imperialism, Oswald focuses on sexuality, gender, reproduction, and miscegenation. Her texts are the three versions of the Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East, Beowulf, and, moving into Middle English, Mandeville's Travels, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and Sir Gowther. Oswald is a skilled close reader of both literature and medieval illustrations. She often supports her readings philologically, for example, when she examines Beowulf's concerns with category confusion and gender. She develops a reading of Grendel's mother as "phallic" (92) by observing how the poem describes her in both masculine and feminine grammatical forms. By examining the rare use of the dual form in lines 683-4, she argues that Beowulf and Grendel's fight conjoins them"in an identity of violent hybridity" (87). Her literary texts tend to illustrate key ideas from a set of philosophical authorities: primarily early Butler, but also Derrida on difference and traces, Gayle Rubin on the traffic in women, and, to a lesser extent, Lacan on the phallus and Deleuze and Guattari on the very non-phallic concept of the assemblage. Her arguments harmonize well with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Of Giants when, for instance, she characterizes giants as performing a kind of "drag" (161) of normative masculinity.[1] Strangely enough for a book concerned with sexuality and sexual "repression" (22), the production of norms, and a "state" (120) interest in policing reproduction in post-plague England, Foucault appears nowhere.

Three categories of "erasure," "never drawing," "removing," and "revising" (41), provide the framework for her reading of Anglo-Saxon texts. Oswald establishes her method by comparing the three Wonders of the East manuscripts. The donestre in the Bodley manuscript exemplify "never drawing," as they lack genitals, unlike those of the Vitellius and Tiberius manuscripts. The famous frame-grasping blemmye of the Tiberius manuscript has had his genitals removed to counteract the threat of its entering our world. Finally, the manuscripts' female monsters have all been censored in some way: for example, the unclothed torso of Tiberius's bearded huntress is breastless, even though she has been otherwise more lavishly colored and detailed than any of the manuscript's other human monsters.

Beowulf's various accounts of his fight with Grendel's mother similarly erase troubling details. Beowulf brags about defeating Grendel, but he tells Hrothgar little about his far more difficult struggle with Grendel's mother. He even implies that he had fought mother and son simultaneously, and goes so far as to return to the surface of the mere with only Grendel's head, as if Grendel were his only true opponent. As Oswald observes, Grendel's mother, though defeated, "has the power to make him cover his tracks" (108). All erasures, Oswald argues, leave a trace, either literally--like the smudging of genitalia in the Wonders manuscripts--or metaphorically, in that they call attention to the worry underlying the desire to erase. Hrothgar may be fooled, but Beowulf's readers know well the hero's anxiety over his masculinity.

Oswald argues that Anglo-Saxon monsters are "immutable" (17), whereas the monsters of Middle English can convert or transform. Monsters in these texts might therefore mingle among normal humans or even breed with them. Mandeville confronts the problems of monstrous breeding in its stories of the dragon-daughter, the necrophiliac, the Amazons, and the "gadlibiriens" and the poison virgins. Gowther goes out of its way to ensure that its sainted demonic hero has no heirs. And in an argument that might have drawn on Geraldine Heng's Empire of Magic [2], Arthur's defeat of the giant of Mont St Michel sees him take on the giant's own imperial and infanticidal violence, especially when he has Mordred's children killed. Examples outside her texts include the Cursor Mundi's Saracens, who upon seeing the wood that would become the true cross immediately lose their monstrosity; the werewolf of Arthur and Gorlagon, who produces a litter with a she-wolf; the dwarf of the Roman de Perceforest, who so inspires an ape with lust that she spontaneously gives birth to four little apes; or, most famously, Melusine and her children, as she appears, for example, in Geoffrey of Auxerre's Super Apocalypsin or Jean d'Arras [3].

Her focus on Old and Middle English means that Latin and French literatures receive virtually no attention, despite their importance both in Britain and in English continental possessions. Moreover, her texts are almost exclusively literary rather than legal, doctrinal, historical, or, for that matter, sculptural or numismatic. As a result, her claims about cultural change rest on far smaller foundations than they could. That said, she deserves praise for her attention to medieval manuscript images and to textual mise-en-page, especially since medieval literary studies remain so firmly attached to disembodied words. Oswald's emphasis on medieval monstrosity as a physically visible category does much to give monsters back their bodies.

I am, however, hesitant to endorse her equation of sexual representation with the literary or artistic representation of genitalia or breasts. The psychoanalytic material so important to her study would argue that all phalluses, including penises, are "symbolic phalli" (170), not just, for example, Gowther's falchion or the giant of Mont St Michel's captured beards. And since the same sources also argue that sexual desire can be expressed through or attach itself to any thing, claims about the general absence of sexual expression in Anglo-Saxon literature might require revision. Monster studies remains a lively field, in medieval criticism and especially in pedagogy. The next time I teach a monsters course, I will be happy to recommend Oswald's book to my students along with, for example, Sarah Alison Miller's Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body and Asa Mittman and Peter Dendle's gargantuan Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous [4]. While my own scholarly interests are leading me away from tracking down anxiety and transgression, Oswald's study, particularly in its close and suspicious attention to the images of the Wonders texts, shows the continuing vitality of this approach.



1. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

2. Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

3. Richard Morris et al., eds., Cursor Mundi (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1874), lines 8120–22; Mildred Leake Day, ed. and trans., Latin Arthurian Literature (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2005), pp. 216-19; Nigel Bryant, trans., Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur's Britain (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2011), p. 423; Geoffrey of Auxerre, On the Apocalypse, trans. Joseph Gibbons (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000), pp. 149-53; Alexander Karley Donald, ed., Melusine, EETS e. s. 68 (London, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1895).

4. Sarah Alison Miller, Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body (New York: Routledge, 2010); Asa Mittman and Peter Dendle, eds., Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2012).

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Author Biography

Karl Steel

Brooklyn College