15.11.31, Larrington, Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature

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Cameron W. Bradley

The Medieval Review 15.11.31

Larrington, Carolyne. Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2015. pp. x, 275. ISBN: 978-1-903-15362-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cameron W. Bradley
Macalester College

Carolyne Larrington's new study is a useful addition to the small but growing field of medieval sibling studies. In eight chapters that traverse time, space, and genre, she introduces readers to the scores of brothers and sisters who populate medieval literature, all the while guided by insights drawn from psychoanalytic theory, developmental psychology, and cross-cultural psychology.

The book's introduction lays important groundwork for the remainder of the study, not least in its clear and succinct survey of the ways her guiding theories handle sibling interactions. She then looks briefly at siblings and spiritual kinship, found in the Bible and a few medieval literary texts, before turning to the question of significance. In response to her opening question, "Why siblings?" (1), Larrington asserts that the study of brothers and sisters brings scholars into contact not just with families themselves, but also with such topics as feuding, inheritance, and marriage, among others.

These larger topics are the core of Chapter 1, which serves as an historical introduction to the study by providing "an overview of the factors that influenced sibling experience" (18). There are subsections on siblings in childhood and in religious life, royal siblings, death and mourning, and she addresses the effects of inheritance practices and marriage on sibling relationships. Here also she expands on the reasons why she focuses on literary texts, a point she touches on in the Introduction (2). Larrington argues that "literary texts furnish the best evidence for the intimate sibling self" (19), and that "affective elements" of siblings' relationships tend to be "largely occluded in the analysis of historical or quasi-historical material about medieval siblings" (45).

Thus, chapters 2 through 8 turn to literature in order to explore the many and varied ways in which brothers and sisters interacted in the texts, as interpreted through the lenses of psychology and psychoanalysis. One of the strengths of the book is its balanced treatment of gender, inasmuch as the sources allow: brothers and sisters each get two chapters of their own. In Chapter 2, Larrington highlights the "positive aspects of brotherhood which recur in sibling narratives across medieval Europe: love, solidarity and uncomplaining acceptance of the different roles allotted to them by birth order" (47). Her argument that brothers are able to maintain cordial relationships when they successfully achieve differentiated identities by pursuing "different roads" (45 and passim) continues in Chapter 4, where she turns to fraternal conflicts. Larrington sifts through numerous instances of literary brothers fighting and killing each other to conclude, drawing on her interdisciplinary interpretive framework, that fraternal hostility is the result of too little differentiation (sparking the fear of replacement) or too much (understood by the fictional brothers as rejection). Either way, Larrington sees the hatred that the brothers featured in Chapter 4 bear toward each other as stemming from unresolved trauma and "infantilized rage" (104, 110, 119).

The chapters on sisters parallel those on brothers. In Chapter 3, the reader meets a host of sisters who express love and loyalty for each other (and their brothers). According to Larrington, although medieval sisters also harbor anxieties about interchangeability and the resulting erasure of their individual identities, their subordinated position within medieval patriarchy meant that they often were interchangeable in fact (77). The sorts of "borderwork" that medieval brothers do to differentiate their identities simply are not available to sisters (77), who, Larrington argues, have to rely on marriage and the resultant separation from their sisters in order to avoid conflict (102). The failure to attain such separation thus permits "the same psychological fears of displacement displayed by brothers" to infect sisters' relationships, leading to the rivalries catalogued in Chapter 5 (128).

With Chapter 6, Larrington turns to brother-sister incest, which she notes "is not a frequent narrative topos" (179). The themes of trauma and differentiation of identity return here as well. Incest might stem from inappropriately processed crises involving the family that result in alienation from sexual mores, or it could indicate "an extreme manifestation of failure to achieve identity differentiation" (170). Indeed, the very existence of the narratives about incest "speak[s] to deep-rooted concerns about the emergence of young people into adulthood" (156).

Chapters 7 and 8 move beyond brothers and sisters related biologically to address siblings-in-law (Chapter 7) and fictive siblinghood (Chapter 8). Larrington argues that the arrival of a brother- or sister-in-law brings the danger of a return of traumas from childhood, when the birth of a baby brother or sister causes a displacement. Thus, the same kinds of strategies that biological brothers and sisters must employ, detailed in the preceding chapters, apply to in-laws as well. Indeed, the problem of differentiation is particularly acute for brothers-in-law, since "similarities between husband and brother invite (often explicit) comparison" (182). For sisters-in-law, as for sisters, locale makes a difference: "Whether the married couple live close to the wife's or the husband's kindred is crucial to affinal relations" (196).

Fictive siblings, including sworn brothers and foster siblings, occupy the last chapter. Larrington argues that sworn brothers, despite their typically marked similarities in the literature, do not have to undergo the process of "borderwork" in order to maintain good relations: "released from the sibling pressure to differentiate himself from a brother and from the competition for parental affection and inheritance, the young man seeks someone who is just like him" (208). Foster brothers are not so fortunate, as Larrington shows in a tour of Icelandic sagas.

The book's conclusion recapitulates the themes drawn out in the preceding pages, and may profitably be read alongside the Introduction prior to launching into the body chapters. Here, the reader will find a clear statement of the book's aim, when Larrington writes "can we project modern sibling theory back a millennium to explain the sibling dynamics in medieval culture? I argue that the answer is a qualified yes" (235). Citing the fact that both medieval and modern families were and are "prone to disruption," she asserts that "the essential parameters of brothers' and sisters' feelings for one another: of love, of hatred, of loyalty and rivalry remain unchanged" (235).

The expansive coverage in this book rests on Larrington's impressive knowledge of literature that ranges from the eighth-century Latin vita of St. Guthlac to Malory's Morte Darthur in the fifteenth, from the Finnish Kalevala to Welsh and Irish tales, from Hartmann von Aue to Dante. Her knowledge of the sagas of Iceland is evident throughout the study, as they feature prominently in each chapter. Her choice to include numerous Scottish and English ballads collected by F. J. Child in the nineteenth century remains problematic; her justification for their inclusion is too cursory to be convincing: "they usually have medieval settings, and...analogues in other medieval genres" (79 n. 17). However, the details of sibling interactions and the plot summaries of dozens of sources will be particularly useful for anyone interested in the subject of medieval brothers and sisters. Moreover, as her bibliography indicates, many of the sources she consults are currently available in English translation, which enhances the book's value as a launching pad for further research. With the emphasis of Larrington's analysis on the internal workings of the texts and the ways in which psychology can be brought to bear, the book will be of interest to literary scholars as well.

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