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Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature

Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature

Dana M. Oswald
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 236
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt14brr71
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  • Book Info
    Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature
    Book Description:

    Monsters abound in Old and Middle English literature, from Grendel and his mother in Beowulf to those found in medieval romances such as Sir Gowther. Through a close examination of the way in which their bodies are sexed and gendered, and drawing from postmodern theories of gender, identity, and subjectivity, this book interrogates medieval notions of the body and the boundaries of human identity. Case studies of Wonders of the East, Beowulf, Mandeville's Travels, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and Sir Gowther reveal a shift in attitudes toward the gendered and sexed body, and thus toward identity, between the two periods: while Old English authors and artists respond to the threat of the gendered, monstrous form by erasing it, Middle English writers allow transgressive and monstrous bodies to transform and therefore integrate into society. This metamorphosis enables redemption for some monsters, while other monstrous bodies become dangerously flexible and invisible, threatening the communities they infiltrate. These changing cultural reactions to monstrous bodies demonstrate the precarious relationship between body and identity in medieval literature. Dana M. Oswald is Assistant Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-889-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. LIST OF FIGURES
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Sex and the Single Monster
    (pp. 1-26)

    Johannes hartlieb’s 1461 portrait of Alexander the Great shows us a surprising version of the Greek leader (as reprinted in Petzoldt and Neubauer 41). This Alexander wears an elaborate three-peaked crown and a well-cut tunic, neither unusual nor inappropriate attire. His nose is decidedly Roman and his eyebrows pinch together in consternation over light-colored eyes that look intelligent. Despite all the signs of royalty and refinement, this Alexander bears two signs of barbarity: slender tusks protruding from his cheeks and an unkempt beard and hair. His clothes tell us of his wealth and political significance, but his crude animal attributes...

  6. Chapter 1 THE INDECENT BODIES OF THE WONDERS OF THE EAST
    (pp. 27-65)

    A man stares out from inside the frame of a picture. His hands clutch the right and left sides of the frame, and his feet – five toes on each plus a dog-like dewclaw – balance him on the base of the frame. He has well defined calves and thighs and strong shoulders. Just below his shoulders, however, are his ears. He has no head, but bears all of his facial features – eyes, nose, mouth, and even eyebrows – in his chest [see image 1]. He is completely naked in this image, but his genitals are partially obscured by a darkened spot on...

  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  8. Chapter 2 DISMEMBERMENT AS ERASURE: THE MONSTROUS BODY IN BEOWULF
    (pp. 66-115)

    Erasures mark a curious boundary in Old English texts. They manage a precarious balance between securing and sanitizing the monstrous body for viewers and articulating a clear division between the monstrous and the human. Artistic erasure works not to transform a body from monster to human, but rather to eliminate its most threatening elements while maintaining its monstrous essence. Like the monsters, called ‘micle mearcstapan’ (1348a) [great border-wanderers], ofBeowulf, erasures exist in the figurative margins of artistic creation but construct the central meaning of the text in significant ways. InWonders of the East, the removal of a monster’s...

  9. Chapter 3 CIRCULATION AND TRANSFORMATION: THE MONSTROUS FEMININE IN MANDEVILLE’S TRAVELS
    (pp. 116-158)

    If old english narratives figure the body as permanent, then in Middle English literature the body begins to look profoundly flexible, plastic, and, perhaps, unstable. The shift between the literatures of these two periods is often seen as being cataclysmic: the concerns of Anglo-Saxon authors might seem to be washed away by the voices of Norman and later Middle English writers, but 1066 is not a neat cultural dividing line, as has been long acknowledged. Some Old English writing bleeds past this famous date, and early Middle English literature sometimes reflects Old English poetic practices and concerns. However, the shift...

  10. Chapter 4 PATERNITY AND MONSTROSITY IN THE ALLITERATIVE MORTE ARTHURE AND SIR GOWTHER
    (pp. 159-196)

    Mandeville’s Travelsfeatures the bodies of four kinds of monstrous women whose transformative bodies have the potential to seem, rather than be, human. InMandeville, transformation permits monstrous women to transgress the boundaries between monstrous territories and human communities, demonstrating medieval anxieties about miscegenation and the potential for monstrous-human procreation. However, male monsters also embody these fears about miscegenation and procreation – and many of them appear in texts set far closer to home than the monstrous transformative women who populate the distant and mysterious East. Indeed, the forests of medieval Europe, as represented in medieval romances, teem with enormous men...

  11. CONCLUSION: Transformation and the Trace of the Monster
    (pp. 197-208)

    I began this book with a description of Johannes Hartlieb’s painting of Alexander the Great, in which Alexander is depicted with tusks. This fifteenth century painting presents us with an Alexander dressed in the trappings of nobility, but whose hair is disheveled and whose body has been infiltrated by the monstrous creatures he so desired to witness, report, and dominate. Although Alexander is the prototypical conqueror, the invader, in this image it is his own body that has been invaded and colonized by the monstrous. This portrait shows Alexander as a human whose body is no longer completely human after...

  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 209-220)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 221-227)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 228-228)