Monsters and the Construction of Community in Medieval Literature
A little more than seventy years ago, the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien urged Anglo-Saxonists to rethink their approach to Beowulf. Up to this point it had often been considered a poor example of Old English poetry, but Tolkien thought in order to understand the poem as a poem one must examine its monsters. They were not, as the prevailing wisdom ran, “an inexplicable blunder of taste”; instead, he argued they were “essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem.” Thus began the genealogy of monster theory in medieval literature.
Over the years the approaches have changed: in 1936 Tolkien thought a study of Beowulf’s monsters would lead to the recognition of its literary merits and its placement within a specific genre. Contemporary medieval monster theorists, however, are more attracted to the analysis of monsters as boundary figures. The general shift in approach may have moved from formalism and structuralism to post-structuralism and cultural criticism, but the focus has never strayed from the monsters themselves.
Whether those monsters are medieval creations like the Grendelkin and Chretien de Troyes’ Harpin or their more contemporary brethren like Dracula and Freddy Kreuger, they may be characterized by a single tenet: monsters are what they are because they are both physically and culturally transgressive. This formulation transcends both cultural and historical contexts, but how monsters break these rules, on the other hand, is wholly dependent on the specifics of culture and history. Beowulf’s Grendel and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are not the same in their goals or methods, but their transgressions still fall into either the physical or cultural category. Grendel has glowing eyes and steel-like claws; Dracula is undead and can turn into a bat. Grendel is inimical to the weapons and armor so important to the humans of the poem and mocks the feast hall by making men into the meal; Dracula drains the Life Force from his victims and unleashes female sexuality in a way that threatens the Victorian sensibilities of the male
Each transgression (be it Grendel’s cannibalism or Dracula’s shape-shifting) necessarily marks a boundary—for without a line there is no crossing, no transgression. For Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and the other medieval monster theorists who largely follow his lead, the boundary is limned by the creator(s) of the monster. It is through their monsters that they tell us what they believe should not be possible, what they believe one should not think, speak, or do. In short, monsters have always done the job from which they got their names: they point out and show the line between “us” and “them,” this side and the Other side. Such a function was as true for the Victorian era as it was for our era of examination, the Middle Ages. It has also led Cohen to describe monsters as “the primary vehicle for the representation of Otherness in the Middle
Ages,” a statement on which there is widespread consensus.
This consensus deals with a functional analysis of monsters. Gone are the days of trying to identify Grendel or Harpin ontologically; the question of what they actually were is of less interest than the question of what they do in texts and the effects of those actions on an extratextual scale. As boundary figures, monsters symbolize the Other as they define knowledge and community values by demarcating their outer limits. Such a reading of monsters is not new and relies heavily on the Lacanian theory of the mirror stage—in which the infant uses her image in the glass to create an imago, or false vision of her Self. Key for monster theorists is the exteriority of the image: the use of a mirror’s image creates the Self, but at the same instant introduces the structural possibility of the Other. Lacan’s ideas have been extended by Hayden White into the realm of cultural criticism; he theorizes that communities must use “ostensive self definition by negation” to think of themselves as communities. For White, examples of medieval wildmen served to define what authors meant by “civilized,” “us,” or even “human.” The distinction is one that easily extends from wildmen to monsters, where they are agents of the Other and the negative by which a definition is created. Such a reading has gained traction with monster theorists. Most have accepted the premise that because communities are unable to craft positivist definitions of themselves, they use monsters as didactic exempla of transgressive behavior to work out what is not a part of their community and, conversely, help outline what is a part of it.
Such is the current state of monster theory as it applies to the Middle Ages: we mostly agree that monsters negatively define the cultures and communities that created them. However, no one has undertaken a serious, sustained interrogation of the specific processes by which monsters help form communities. I am interested in moving past what monsters do (boundary markers) to examine how monsters function and the consequences of those processes; that interest has brought me to the two following questions:
- What is the process by which communities adopt, adapt, or create monsters?
- How do monsters work to strengthen the communities’ sense of themselves?
The examination will begin by exploring the process by which the monsters of these two texts were (re)created. In Beowulf, I will look at how the Grendelkin threaten the community through their relationship to weapons. Certainly this culturally transgressive behavior is one among many they exhibit (cannibalism, silence, dress, etc.). But in a world where weapons have names and even lineages, it is significant that both Grendel and his mother do not use weapons favored by the human warriors of the poem and that Grendel himself seems to be enchanted against harm from Geatish and Danish swords. Likewise, a close study of Yvain shows the giant, Harpin, to be a threat to chivalric sexual mores because he is attempting to extort a lord’s beautiful, virginal daughter. Since he is usually shorthand for libidinal excess, a giant carrying off of a virgin is an obvious threat to female purity, but Harpin’s actions are much more subtle and significant: he does not desire her but instead plans on prostituting the courtly maiden to his knaves and dishwashers—the lowest members of his household. In Harpin, Chretien was able to present a threat not only to the idealized female purity upon which courtly love was built but also to the heteronormative vision of masculinity upon which chivalry was built.
Through the above examination, I hope to establish that communities (re)create monsters based on their own highly-prized cultural practices—in this case weapon use and sexual customs. The monster is created from foundational cultural beliefs and so can be thought of as a constellation of transgressions. These transgressions cut to the quick, threatening or questioning cultural practices that are, arguably, the defining characteristics of any community. To help explain how monsters define and strengthen a community’s sense of itself, I will turn to Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities. In both texts the monster is defeated, a sort of tableau vivant that plays out again and again—whether it be in classical, medieval, Victorian, or contemporary horror fiction. Grendel’s defeat by Beowulf and Harpin’s by Yvain signify not only the triumph of the individual heroes, but also the triumph of the cultural mores they defend. These mores, according to Anderson, are the very things that bind individuals together, making—and remaking—socially-constructed communities that are based on specific shared traits. It is in a community’s identity-formation that the function of the monster is most important; as a constellation of transgressive qualities, the monster is defeated, reaffirming a particular value set and in turn (re)defining or (re)constructing the community. If we can understand the construction of medieval communities, we can better comprehend how they envisioned themselves and their place in the world. Such an understanding has consequences far beyond the monsters in Beowulf or Yvain, for through their nightmares these communities tell us who they were.
1 “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95. 261.
2 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 3-25. 6.
3 For limits on thought, see Cohen’s “The Limits of Knowing: Monsters and the Regulation of Medieval Poplar Culture.” Medieval Folklore 3 (1994): 1-37. For limits on speech, see David Williams’ Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1996. For limits on action, see John Block Friedman’s The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.
4 The Latin monstro means to “show” or “point out” and is the root of the Modern English “demonstrate.”
5 “The Use of Monsters and the Middle Ages.” SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature 2 (1992): 47-69. 49 (Emphasis mine).
On this consensus, see also: Noël Carroll. The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1990; Albrecht Classen. “Medieval Answers to the Strange World Outside: Foreigners and the Foreign as Cultural Challenges and Catalysts.” Demons: Mediators Between This World and the Other. Eds. Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Neubauer. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998. 133-51; Edward J. Ingebretsen. “Monster-Making: A Politics of Persuasion.” Journal of American Culture 21.2 (1998): 25-34; and Franco Moretti. “Dialectic of Fear.” Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. Trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller. London:
Verso, 1988. 83-108.
6 About a monster’s physical (taxonomic) transgressions there is much to say. However, it is here that I must focus on the cultural side of the ledger. For more on physical transgressions and boundaries of knowledge, see Cohen’s “The Limits of Knowing: Monsters and the Regulation of Medieval Poplar Culture.”
7 Lacan associates this self/Other split that occurs during the mirror stage with Freud’s Innenwelt and Umwelt. See Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage” in Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 1-10.
8 Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. 151-52.
9 See: Lee Ramsey. Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1983, and Cohen. “Decapitation and Coming of Age: Constructing Masculinity and the Monstrous.” Arthurian Yearbook III. Ed. Keith Busby. New York: Garland, 1993. 171-90.
10 Anderson discusses imagined communities in the context of modern nationalism and its rise, but mutatis mutandis, his theory will be applicable to community formation, whether or not nationalism is involved.