Reason and Monstrosity: Dog-Headed People from the Classical Antiquity to Mandeville’s Travels
Cynocephali, or dog-headed people, belong to the monstrous races that the Greeks believed lived in the East. They appear recurrently in numerous classical and medieval texts, and their half-human shape invites two different interpretations of them: as men or beasts. Their character is similarly divided: either they are depicted as sophisticated although deformed, or savage in accordance with their deformity. Dichotomy seems always to have accompanied the dog-headed race: theologians such as St Augustine argued, from the viewpoint of Christian dogma, about whether or not these creatures were humans created through divine will. The history of the reception of the motif of the dog-headed people indicates how two opposing descriptions passed down into the Middle Ages through the influence of Christianity and the reception of classical literature.
This paper examines the development of this monster from ancient Greece to medieval England, and, focusing on Mandeville’s Travels, illuminates how such research can be useful for understanding a given work in its literary context. A comparison of Mandeville’s Travels with other works that mention the dog-headed men, including Odoric of Pordenone’s ‘Relatio’ and Indica by Ctesias of Cnidus, indicates that Mandeville’s description of the ‘Dog Heads’ draws upon a variety of traditions to varying degrees. In Mandeville’s Travels, the motif appears as a well-balanced mixture of classical and Christian elements, which reflects the sophisticated amalgamation of classical and medieval texts that characterises the work as a whole. Thus the paper demonstrates the interwoven relationship between authority and compiler in the composition of literary works in the later Middle Ages.
Monstrous Doubles in Beowulf:
In Violence and the Sacred (1972, trans.Patrick Gregory), René Girard talks about monstrous doubles and how difficult it is to tell the two opponents apart, who get entangled in a heated physical confrontation. Monster and hero fall into the same matrix of monstrosity as their hand-to-hand battle requires the death of one over the other. As Girard specifies, “the monstrous double is to be found wherever we encounter an “I” and an “Other” caught up in a constant interchange of differences” (164). The highly physical confrontation between Beowulf and the giant Grendel in the Danish mead-hall, Heorot in Beowulf (manuscript c. 1000) is a prime example of the emergence of monstrous doubles as the onlookers fail to make out one from the other. In line 760b of the poem, the “fingras burston” (‘fingers burst’) could equally be interpretted as Beowulf’s or Grendel’s fingers. It becomes clear that Beowulf has to get ‘stained’ (fah) with the blood of monsters, as the poet mentions in line 420a (fah from feondum: “stained with the blood of fiends”) to be able to “cleanse” (fælsian) Heorot, which is the hero’s explicit aim (line 432b). As the hero fights the monster, Beowulf and Grendel are both described as the ‘fierce ones’ (graman) (line 777b). Also, Beowulf in a confrontation with his only human adversary, the Frank’s warrior and standard-bearer, Dæghrefn, reacts as if faced with a quasi-Grendel killing the opponent with the mere use of his hand (lines 2501b-2). Although Beowulf predominantly prevails over his monstrous adversaries, each confrontation with the monstrous Other, makes him more of a Doppelgänger to the monster. Ultimately, the monstrous doubling leads to what Friedrich Hegel has termed Aufhebung (‘sublation’) signifying the replacement of one stage with another that contains certain traces of the former
University of Oregon
Session 1: Monstrous Production and Reproduction
Engaging Multiplicity: Bertilak’s Rhizomatic Structure in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Bertilak, the lord of Haut Desert in the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a multifaceted figure. Generally, when interpreted in an analysis of the poem, he is restricted either to the category of Green Knight or host. For example, as the Green Knight, Bertilak’s physical appearance and behavior align him with the prevalent medieval ideas of both a wild man and the folkloric figure of the green man, while his green and gold clothing and his livelihood as the lord of Hautdesert give him courtly attributes. Considering just these aspects of his character often creates a binary struggle between nature and culture, or between wildness and humanness in his character, a contradiction that is usually interpreted as problematic. However, there are multiple other aspects of Bertilak’s character to examine, and creating a binary by which to discuss them is not inclusive enough to embrace every part of this complex, web-like character. This paper applies Deleuze and Guattari’s explanation of the rhizome to show that the Green Knight is not from one or another specific origin, but created from an amalgam of multiples. He does not have to be and is not one thing at the expense of another, but like the language of the poem itself, pulling from French and from Old English, his imposing figure results from a combination of origins, all of which must be examined simultaneously to fully appreciate this rich, complex character. Exploring Bertilak’s numerous origins, including figures from Irish mythology, and questioning his human, animal, and vegetable nature complicates our understanding of his character by giving him aspects of human, animal, wild man, green man, supernatural, imaginary and magical, symbolic representations of life and death, all at the same time.
Unnatural Births: Satan’s insceafte in “Solomon and Saturn II”
Karma de Gruy
The importance of apocryphal influences on the Anglo Saxon literary tradition has long been noted by scholars, from Oliver Emerson’s 1906 treatment of legends of Cain through Kathryn Powell and D.G. Scragg’s 2003 Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England. While, as Peter Dendle demonstrates in Satan Unbound, the devil serves various and sometimes contradictory roles in the Anglo Saxon corpus, in at least one case he is said to plan a curious sort of unnatural propagation. In “Solomon and Saturn II,” Satan says “ðæt he mid his gesiðum wolde / hiðan eall heofona rice and him ðonne on healfum sittan, / tydran him mid ðy teoðan dæle, oððæt he his tornes ne cuðe / ende ðurh insceafte” [that with his companions he wished to completely ravage the kingdom of the heavens and to occupy half himself, and procreate himself with the tenth part, until through this internal propagation he could give his anger an end] (444-447). Robert Menner has suggested that the hapax legomenon insceafte be glossed as an “internal generation,” i.e., from within the ranks of the fallen angels. However, I will argue that insceafte, a specific means of generation related to the verb form tydrian in line 446, should be examined in light of the latter’s various associations in the Anglo Saxon corpus.
These associations deal with literal, corporeal progeny and breeding, but also moral weakness, barrenness, and destruction; they hint at monstrous becomings and questions of the role of angels and their giant and monstrous offspring in the origins of humanity after Satan’s fall. Taking these connotations as a starting point, I hope to reexamine the “Solomon and Saturn” poet’s use of the word insceafte in order to trace a genealogy of association and evolution which results in this most striking and mysterious of descriptions of unnatural propagation. A philological and comparative examination of this hapax legomenon may lead us to a clearer understanding of how the spiritual and corporeal nature of some of the demons and monsters we encounter elsewhere in the poetic corpus was understood. As Oliver Emerson’s contribution to the discussion on the apocryphal tradition elucidates, there existed medieval connections between not only Cain and the devil, but Cain and the giants who were the offspring of the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6.1-4. The mingling of fallen angel, human, and monster in humanity’s dim past loomed large in the Anglo Saxon imagination. Just as, in Beowulf, the gigantas kin of Cain stand as shadowy figures at the beginnings of human life in the world, so too do fallen angels, who are associated with ancient giants in the apocryphal tradition where the human, the demonic, and the monstrous were not always so clearly delineated.
Nat he þara goda: Weapons and the Grendelkin’s Status as Monsters
(ABSTRACT) One of the problems with the debate over the nature of the Grendelkin is that we have been trying to apply an ontological definition to them when a functional definition would be more instructive. If we want to learn about and from the poem, we should be less concerned with whether the Grendelkin are trolls, zombies, or exiles and more concerned with what they can tell us about the cultural moment in which they were created.
To extend this line of thinking, this paper, which is part of a larger research project, examines how the poet(s) exaggerated the difference of the Grendelkin from humans by casting them as monsters via the manipulation of cultural markers. One of the most important processes for monsterizing the Grendelkin was to show their (mis)use of material goods, which helped delineate and reinforce the differences between the categories of “human” and “monster” for the poet(s) and the audience. By this criterion, the Grendelkin make the perfect antithesis to human cultural practices. In a world where weapons have lineages arguably as important as those of the warriors who wield them, both are inimical to human weapons and neither makes use of the enta geweorc in their own hall.
Their stance is no accident: it helps create one part of a pastiche representing what the Anglo-Saxon poet thought a monster would be. Through the exaggeration of cultural markers like weapons, we can see the Beowulf-poet(s) mining important cultural values for concepts with which to create the Grendelkin. Not only the end result of the monsters in the poem, but also the process of their creation can tell us much more about the fear, mores, and tensions of the cultural moment that spawned Beowulf than can the argument as to what they “really” were. (MDH)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Dept. of Comparative Literature, Medieval Studies
Kissed by a monster: Blonde Esmerée and Lady Synadowne as grotesque women of power
In Renaut’s de Bâgé 12th-century Old French romance Li Biaus Descouneüs, the character Blonde Esmerée appears as a hybrid woman who changes into a serpent-like body after having been cursed by a suitor whom she refused to marry. Also quite similarly misshapen, Lady Synadowne, the enchanted queen Thomas Chestre’s shape-shifts, and appears as a monstrous vuivre in the Middle English version Lybeaus Desconus of the Old French tale.
Although their serpentine shape can be traced back to a Celtic water fairy, the contradiction between courtly lady and serpent is a strong statement that can be interpreted beyond the description of otherworldliness or the world of enchantment. Finding a true other in bodies that are neither human nor beast, Blonde Esmerée and her later counterpart demonstrate vivid textual interaction and bear an ugliness that does not need to be remedied by a knight’s voluntary commitment to an ugly woman, as has been seen in the loathly lady motif.
In my dissertation, which is a comparative study across roughly two hundred years and four texts (besides the two mentioned earlier I include also the Old French Melusine and its German cognate), I am investigating female grotesque forms within the framework of the courtly romance genre and its continuations. I have developed my own definition of the grotesque as a critical framework that combines modern theory with medieval ideas and culture. In modern scholarship, the grotesque is understood as an artistic space in which human society is turned on its head by the depiction of an outlandish creature or event with clearly discernable aspects relating to daily life, which are, however, portrayed in some excessive form. For a medieval text, the rules are different insofar as that the literature of this time period is riddled with extraordinary creatures, places, and events, and one has to distinguish between a literary commonplace and an uncommon grotesque occurrence. In all four texts examined in my dissertation, the grotesque woman is a noblewoman whose character traits, behavior, and status conform to courtly culture, but who appears in an ugly and monstrous body that features at least one audaciously feminine feature desired by medieval knights. In each case of the grotesque woman, the woman’s role is pivotal for the knight’s development, but at the same time the man is overwhelmed and mocked; this double effect questions cultural norms on various levels, and exposes one aspect of gender relations in medieval culture: namely, the correlation between appearance and power. When the woman loses her human form, she gains power.
For your 2009-Kalamazoo session on “Monstrous Production and Reproduction,” I would like to suggest a comparative study of the two noblewomen, Blonde Esmerée and Lady Synadowne. I will discuss the consequences of female monsters in late medieval narrative with respect to cultural reproduction and genre development from classical Arthurian romance from the early 13th century to English popular romance in the later 14th century.