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Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature

Carolyne Larrington
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 285
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  • Book Info
    Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature
    Book Description:

    The literature of the European Middle Ages attends closely to the relationship of brother and sister, laying bare sibling behaviours in their most dramatic forms as models to emulate, to marvel at or to avoid. The literary treatment of siblings opens up multiple perspectives on brothers' and sisters' emotions: love, hate, rivalry, desire, nurturing and ambivalence underlie sibling stories. These narratives are in turn inflected by rank, social context and most crucially, gender. This book examines these sibling relationships, focusing on the important vernacular literatures of Iceland, France, England and Germany, and building on recent research on siblings in psychology, history and social science. Multiple and subtle patterns in sibling interaction are teased out, such as the essential sibling task of "borderwork" (the establishment of individuality despite genetic resemblance), and the tensions caused by the easy substitutability of one sibling for another in certain social situations. When the sibling bond is extended to the in-law relation, complex emotional, strategic and political forces and powerful ambivalences nuance the relationship still further. Quasi-siblings: foster- or sworn-brothers complete the sibling picture in ways which reflect and contrast with the sibling blood-tie. Carolyne Larrington is a Fellow and Tutor in medieval English literature at St John's College, University of Oxford.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-511-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-x)
    (pp. 1-16)

    Sibling studies are the poor neglected stepchild of the history of the Western family. Interest in vertical relationships, in lineage and genealogies and in inter-generational strife has directed scholarly attention away from lateral ties, while Freudian paradigms have foregrounded mother–child bonds and the Oedipal acting-out of sons against fathers. The bond between brothers and sisters is, however, the relationship which lasts longest of all, from birth or shortly afterwards until death supervenes. From the beginning of the millennium historians of the family and literary scholars have been investigating sibling relationships in the post-medieval period, uncovering the social conditions which...

  6. 1 The Medieval Sibling in History
    (pp. 17-45)

    It is still too early to write the history of the medieval sibling, a history of the kind that has, in recent years, been written of medieval marriage and of the medieval family. The expanding field of the history of childhood has largely been shaped by an earlier historiography which saw as its primary challenge a correction of the views of Ariès, Stone and deMause. These historians argued that medieval parents did not make a strong emotional investment in their children: a detachment thought to be rooted in the high mortality rates for infants and young children. Attentive analysis of...

  7. 2 ‘Berr er hverr á bakinu nema sér bróður eigi’: Fraternal Love and Loyalty
    (pp. 46-75)

    Holed up on a steep-sided island off Iceland’s north coast, the outlaw Grettir and his younger brother Illugi face Grettir’s enemies, who have climbed up the island’s precipitous cliffs. Already mortally ill, Grettir can scarcely defend himself. When Illugi throws a shield over his brother and fights until he is overcome, Grettir tersely observes, ‘Berr er hverr á bakinu nema sér bróður eigi’ (‘Bare is the back unless one has a brother’). Once Grettir is dead, Illugi refuses to save his own life by swearing to renounce vengeance on his brother’s slayer. Defying the cowardly Þorbjǫrn hook, Grettir’s chief opponent,...

  8. 3 ‘Io v’ho cara quanto sorella si dee avere’: Sisters, and their Brothers
    (pp. 76-103)

    The previous chapter showed how brothers are imagined as working to reconcile the drive for differentiation from their male siblings with the strong social norm of kinship solidarity. However, opportunities for sisters to demonstrate love and loyalty are much rarer in medieval narratives. Girls often marry young; if they are of high social status they frequently live far from their natal family in their husband’s household. Enduring what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls ‘the hard fate of exiles’, their interactions with their siblings tend to become restricted.² Meetings with other sisters who have also married away or who are in the convent...

  9. 4 ‘Næs þæt andæges nið’: Fraternal Hatreds
    (pp. 104-128)

    For medieval Christians, human history began with a fraternal killing.² After Cain ‘slog his broðor swæsne’ (‘struck his dear brother’), and the earth swallowed Abel’s blood, ‘bealoblonden niþ’ (‘hostility mixed with evil’), as the Old EnglishExeter Maximsnote, became widespread amongst mankind.³ Fratricide and the impulses which underlie it can never be eliminated, for fear of replacement by the brother, that one who is the same as you, that one who can take your place, is deeply embedded in the psyche. ‘Because each sibling evokes the danger of the other’s annihilation, siblings are going to want to kill each...

  10. 5 ‘Te souviegne de ce que je suis ta seur’: Sisters and Hostility
    (pp. 129-154)

    Quarrels between sisters in medieval narratives are not so different from those between brothers; they range in scale from petty rivalries to conflicts which affect the destinies of outsiders beyond the family group, even – in a couple of texts – determining rule in Arthur’s Britain. As suggested in chapter three, the relative interchangeability of sisters, and the fact that similar adult lives, centring on marriage and motherhood, lie ahead of girls means that they are less often depicted as antagonizing one another through such common fraternal strategies as counter-identification or rejection. As among brothers, the surface motivations for sisterly...

  11. 6 ‘The king’s dochter gaes wi child to her brither’: Sibling Incest
    (pp. 155-180)

    Why should not brothers and sisters marry each other?¹ Clearly the children of Adam and Eve must have had little choice in the matter of mates, as Augustine makes clear in his most focused discussion of sibling relationships, inDe civitate Dei(The City of God). Augustine observes that at the beginning of human history men must have married their sisters:

    nec essent ulli homines, nisi qui ex illis duobus nati fuissent: uiri sorores suas coniuges acceperunt; quod profecto quanto est antiquius conpellente necessitate, tanto postea factum est damnabilius religione prohibente.²

    (‘as there were no human beings, except those who...

  12. 7 ‘So wil ich dir ce wibe mine swester gebn’: When Siblings Marry
    (pp. 181-207)

    Sibling closeness fluctuates at different stages of life. A brother’s or sister’s marriage entails a radical redefinition of relationships, both for the one who weds and for the other siblings.² Affines (relations by marriage) very often belong to the same age-cohort as the new spouses’ siblings, and thus they may feel themselves to be in competition, with same-sex in-laws in particular. Francine Klagsbrun suggests:

    What is re-awakened when a sib-in-law appears on the scene is the very old perception of being dethroned, as they had once been when a new-born sibling entered their lives back in childhood. And what they...

  13. 8 ‘Trewethes togider that gun plight’: Fictive Siblings
    (pp. 208-234)

    Brothers’ quest for differentiation leads them to carve out different roles within the family structure and, as chapter two argued, they often thrive best when keeping each other at arm’s length. Although brothers-in-law are chosen, rather than acquired by accident of blood, strategic considerations often operate to bring a socially acceptable but not necessarily emotionally congenial affine into the sibling cohort. Nevertheless, although ‘the sibling self is the social self’, as Juliet Mitchell avers, a friend differs from a brother in crucial ways.¹ In romance especially, when the young man sets out into the world he frequently looks for someone...

    (pp. 235-238)

    Unofficial, popular or folk theories of sibling psychologies and how these relate to children and to adults have become assimilated into our thinking about family relationships in the West in the twenty-first century. Although Freud sheered away from close analysis of the sibling bond, he formulated the insight that, in the case of siblings: ‘an intimate friend and a hostile enemy’ ‘come together in a single individual’.¹ Freud’s observation lacks nuance of course; he takes little account of how sibling relationships are conditioned by gender, by birth order, and by varying socio-historical factors, but his identification of the ambivalences of...

    (pp. 239-260)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 261-275)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 276-276)