Bettina Bildhauer &
Robert Mills, editors,
The Monstrous Middle Ages
(University of Toronto Press, 2003)

In the Introduction to The Monstrous Middle Ages, editors Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills submit that the book is about "the cultural uses to which monstrosity was put in the Middles Ages. ... Monsters, contributors assume, are not meaningless but meaning-laden." They buttress their case almost immediately by referencing J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal 1936 essay "Beowulf: the monsters and the critics," which pointed out that the monsters were "essential, fundamentally linked to the underlying ideas of the poem." This idea forms the basis for the essays included in this anthology.

The necessity of monsters and the monstrous in medieval thought is related to the necessity of differentiating between "self" and "other." This becomes particularly important in the context of medieval Christianity as differentiated from the rest of the world, including Jews and Muslims and the strange cultures of the East. Since Christianity was the single unifying force in medieval Europe, it follows that non-Christians and non-Europeans had somehow to be differentiated in easily apprehendible terms. This is particularly important to the medieval mind in this context because of the very basic idea that the universe existed under a divine order; those phenomena that upset this order (as understood by humanity) had to be explained.

On the whole, the contributions to this volume support this thesis admirably. Robert Mills, for example, in "Jesus as Monster," discusses the ambiguity of the concept of "monster" and of medieval representations, both artistic and literary, of Jesus and the Trinity, while Liz Herbert McAvoy, in "Montrous Masculinities in Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love and The Book of Margery Kempe," points out that these two women reversed the idea of the female as monstrous, Julian going so far as to describe the Christ in terms of the female.

There is also a strong linkage between "monstrous" and "marvelous," as pointed up in Jeremy Harte's essay on medieval devil sightings, "Hell on Earth: Encountering Devils in the Medieval Landscape." Harte notes the gradual process of developing an accepted format for dealing with physical characteristics of devils and demons; what makes the stories he relates interesting is that they don't conform to what the witnesses should have seen, indicating a gap between the reality of the monstrous in the popular mind and in the orthodoxy of the hierarchy (although the stories were all written down, of course, by monks).

The ways in which the various concepts of monstrosity shaped cultural attitudes in the Middle Ages makes absorbing reading. What is sobering is the realization of how much those attitudes have shaped our own ideas of the monstrous and marvelous, something that is more implied in the book than examined outright, although that discussion would have been a very welcome chapter or two.

This is a group of fascinating studies, but there is little opportunity to forget that they are scholarly essays, relying heavily on, in the editors' words, "concepts of postmodern identity-formations fashioned by the converging disciplines of psychoanalysis, gender studies, postcolonial studies and queer theory." (Their comments are directed toward an earlier study by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants, but apply equally well to their own anthology.) The use of this vocabulary is variable -- there are places where those not au courant with the cutting edge of contemporary critical theory are very likely going to be lost, while some contributions are quite readable, even by the non-specialist. All in all, though, this is quite definitely a scholarly anthology: although there are some absorbing sections, if you are not working in the field you may want to wait for the movie.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 18 September 2004

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