The Monstrous Middle Ages. Bildhauer, Bettina and Robert Mills, eds. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 236 pp. $21.95. ISBN 0-8020-8667-5.
REVIEWED BY: Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (forthcoming in Sixteenth Century Journal)
In his 1970 account of the “possession” of the Ursuline nuns at Loudun, France in the 1630s, Michel de Certeau wrote that, “The imaginary is part of history” (The Possession at Loudun). Indeed, the essays collected in Bildhauer’s and Mills’ The Monstrous Middle Ages demonstrate that imaginary apparitions—whether monsters, devouring wolves, or demons—reveal and give shape to medieval cultural anxieties and processes of thought that otherwise could not be traced or mapped. And what is imagined also breaks from its usual habitation in waking dreams, nightmares, and the aesthetic to take the place of real, cultural Others (Jews, saints, mystics, pagans, hermaphrodites, the Welsh, etc.) who were believed to be situated at the outermost edges of the rational world. The things that go bump in the night are not really monsters or ghosts, it turns out, but cultural bogeymen whose ontological slipperiness threatens the order of the known world. In the words of the editors, medieval monsters were also “a means of circumscribing bodies and producing grids of intelligibility within which particular identities might be perceived” (20). Further, monsters, “like periods of history, can be subject to linguistic and cultural resignification,” and therefore, medieval monsters have positive as well as negative connotations, embodying “cultural tensions that go beyond the idea of monster as uninhabitable, unintelligible ‘Other’” (22).
Given the recent profusion of academic books devoted to medieval monstrosity, such as Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity (2001), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (1999), and David Williams’ Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature (1996), Bildhauer’s and Mills’ collection is a welcome addition to a growing body of critical literature on a subject that is an important sub-genre of cultural studies. “Monster studies” are important because they explore the compelling and difficult problem of how society (any society) confronts and negotiates the shadowy yet embodied figures of the social Others who appear in all times and places and call the status quo into troubling, bloody question. This is a problem, according to Certeau, that is central to the very operation of history itself, for there is always a “strangeness internal to history” that we can never be completely rid of simply because we place it “somewhere on the outside, far from us, in a past closed with the last ‘aberrations’ of yesteryear” (The Possession at Loudun 227). The past itself is, in Certeau’s words, a “menacing alterity,” a fact the editors of this collection recognize, for they note that the Middle Ages has historically functioned for scholars of other periods as a “temporal monstrosity, an aberration between antiquity and modernity” (3). At the same time, the medieval period “continually threatens to disrupt modernity from its position on the edges of history” and also functions “as a kind of historiographic monster, challenging ideas of modernity as radically different” (3). Monsters lurking at the edges of the medieval world and the medieval world itself as historical alterity writ large—these are the compelling subjects of the various essays collected in this volume.
Although the essays collected here range widely in their subjects, periods, and genres, the critical thought of two scholars in particular, Cohen and Williams, casts a long shadow over the volume as a whole. In his 1996 essay, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Cohen proposed several ideas about monsters that are clearly influential upon the essays gathered here—that the monster’s body is always a “cultural body,” a figure of the ontologically liminal that polices “the social spaces through which private bodies may move,” and “the abjected fragment that enables the formation of all kinds of identities—personal, national, cultural, economic, sexual, psychological, universal, particular” (Monster Theory 3-25). In addition, Williams’ argument in his book Deformed Discourse (cited above) that the uses of deformed figures in medieval culture “is an expression of the Neoplatonic, Pseudo-Dionysian principle that the most appropriate language for the revelation of the unknowable God, or for that matter, the revelation of the fundamentally real, is a negation leading to the ultimate transcendence of discourse itself” (286), is also central to many of the essays, although neither Cohen’s nor Williams’ thought is simply given amplification in this volume. Both scholars’ work is either expanded upon or revised in important ways. Therefore, in “Jesus as Monster,” Robert Mills does not believe that Psuedo-Dionysian thought had much of an impact on medieval culture, but he does agree with Williams that God, in the Middle Ages, was the ultimate monstrous “paradox,” and he examines some of the ways in which Jesus functioned, in female mystic writings, bestiaries, and religious manuscript illuminations as a kind of hybrid, monstrous figure. Looking also at the prohibition by the Church of images such as the three-headed Trinity, Mills explores the cultural anxieties that these images entailed, as well as the “exorbitant possibilities” that Christ’s body was believed to contain. In “Monstrous Masculinities in Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love and The Book of Margery Kempe,” Liz Herbert McAvoy looks at how Julian’s and Kempe’s writings questioned “traditional masculinist gender binaries—what Williams has termed ‘the overconfident constructs of rationalist analysis’ or, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen would have it, those ‘masculinist interpellations’—upon which patriarchal cultures have long been constructed and which have tended to relegate the fleshly female to the realm of the monstrous” (59-60). In the strongest essay in the book, “Blood, Jews and Monsters in Medieval Culture,” Bildhauer challenges Cohen’s and Williams’ ideas that the embodied monster is mainly a cultural construct or abstract theoretical concept, and she argues instead, with reference to the connections between monsters in thirteenth-century German texts and medieval ideas about Jews and blood, that “it is often not its own misshapen or hybrid body that makes the monster, but its relation to other bodies, social or individual” (75). Drawing upon Cohen’s idea that the medieval monster is a kind of epistemological “key” to reading cultural meanings, Sarah Salih, in “Idols and Simulacra: Paganity, Hybridity and Representation in Mandeville’s Travels,” investigates the meanings that Mandeville read into one particular type of monster—human-animal hybrids. Salih focuses especially on Mandeville’s distinction between idols and simulacra, and thus, between mimetic and non-mimetic representation, and she challenges Williams’ notion that the deformed figure is not “phenomenally real,” for Mandeville’s monsters “function, in their familiarity and alterity, as a distorted reflection of Mandeville’s Western Christian audience and of the traveller himself” and are “too concrete to function as signs of unknowability” (127). In “Hell on Earth: Encountering Devils in the Medieval Landscape,” Jeremy Harte questions Cohen’s idea that the monster is, strictly speaking, a liminal creature who guards the border between normality and the Other. Examining medieval stories involving supernatural encounters with shape-shifting demons, Harte argues that medieval expressions of demonic experience often subverted cultural expectations of the demon as an outlying and evil borderer.
Other essays in the volume explore how the monstrosities in Gerald of Wales’ travel writings “reflect on both his own identity and anxieties and a broader, emerging notion of English identity” (Asa Simon Mittman, “The Other Close at Hand: Gerald of Wales and the Marvels of the West” 97), how “the night was conceptualized in the Middle Ages and what this meant for medieval people’s experience of the hours of dark” (Deborah Young and Simon Harris, “Demonizing the Night in Medieval Europe: A Temporal Monstrosity?” 135), the changing functions of bestial devourers depicted in manuscript illuminations, architecture, Old English and Scandinavian literature, and the painting of Hieronymous Bosch (Aleks Pluskowski, “Apocalyptic Monsters: Animal Inspirations for the Iconography of Medieval North European Devoruers”), and how the varied encounters between saints and monsters, a commonplace of medieval hagiography, reveal a multiplicity of ideas about medieval monsters—both negative and positive—that allowed people to face, and also work through, their fear of the Other (Samantha J.E. Riches, “ Encountering the Monstrous: Saints and Dragons in Medieval Thought”). The editors close the volume with an extremely thorough and useful bibliographic essay on “further reading” in monster studies. Given the many violent conflicts currently raging throughout the world, in which misperceptions of cultural Otherness is both a cause and a symptom, the essays in The Monstrous Middle Ages don’t just shed light on our understanding of medieval culture; they also help us to better understand our own times.