Lisa LeBlanc, Anna Maria College
Outlaws were considered the “other” in medieval society. Often referred to as bearing wolves’ heads, they lost their possessions, had no protection under the law and, in the early middle ages, could be killed with impunity, as a wolf could. In the outlaw tales of the Middle Ages, the main characters lost their positions in society and, in the case of outlaws from the upper class, their titles.
This otherness allows for flexibility of identity, and one characteristic of the outlaw tale is the use of disguise. In some cases, the characters borrow the identity of lower class laborers, even a prostitute. In others, the identity goes beyond occupation to physically changing one’s appearance or taking on a false name.
That the disguise motif appears often in outlaw tales is logical since the condemnation of someone as an outlaw essentially deprived the individual of identity as a citizen of the country. This paper will explore the slippery nature of identity in outlaw tales, looking at the interrelation of legal loss of identity as well as the creation of new, temporary identities by the outlaws.
Cyborgs in Shining Armor: Post-Human Knighthood in Medieval Romance
Rodger Wilkie, St. Thomas University
Cyborgs have been defined by Clynes and Kline as “self-regulating man-machine systems,” by Haraway as “the figure born of the interface of automaton and autonomy,” and by Hess as “any identity between machine and human or any conflation of the machine/human boundary.” What these definitions have in common is the configuration of the biological and the technological into a single system. Given the language of these and other definitions, it is not surprising that most discussions of cyborgs have focused upon periods post-dating the middle ages—periods in which the terms “machine” and, more basically “technology,” have been understood largely in contexts relevant to the industrial and post-industrial periods. And yet this quintessentially post-human figure is useful in understanding the relationship of the armored knight of medieval romance to the arms that he bears, and the role that these arms play in constructing a heroic identity.
The proposed paper will therefore discuss the armored knight of medieval Arthurian romance—specifically Perceval in Chretien’s Conte Du Graal, Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Lancelot in Malory’s Morte D’Arthure—in the context of cyborg theory, and will argue that the hero of chivalric romance is in fact a cyborg. It will address Perceval’s changing understanding of arms in relation to knighthood, Gawain’s relationship to his armaments in preparation for his encounter with the Green Knight, and the role of armor in containing the instability embodied by Lancelot. The paper will then explore some interpretive possibilities offered by treating the romance hero as a cyborg, such as considering the hero as simultaneously agent and tool, viewing the hero as a figure straddling the human/machine border, and therefore understanding heroic identity as distributed across both biological and technological components, i.e. as partially prosthetic.
Dr. Larissa “Kat” Tracy, Longwood University
Title: ‘For Our dere Ladyes sake’: Bringing the Outlaw in from the Forest—Robin Hood, Marian, and Normative National Identity
Few outlaw tales are as popular or as persistent as the legend of Robin Hood that has made its way from fifteenth-century ballads to modern blockbuster films. Within this long tradition, Robin Hood is often associated with the fair Maid Marian, his love, his paramour, his inspiration; but in the earlier tradition of the outlaw tales, Maid Marian does not exist, Robin’s singular devotion, like that of King Arthur and Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is to the Virgin Mary. It is this association that normalizes Robin in the ballads and places him in an exalted, nationalist position—contrary to his construction as a border walker and outlaw. For fifteenth-century audiences, Robin’s devotion to Mary makes him a mainstream hero, on par with Arthurian tradition, and contradicts his marginal status that has been celebrated in modern popular culture. After the Reformation, in order to bring Robin in line with English concerns of national identity, the Virgin Mary is transformed in the early-modern period into a secular lover, Maid Marian. Through Robin’s devotion to, first the Virgin Mary, and then her secularized successor, Marian, the famous outlaw is presented to medieval and early-modern audiences not as a figure of liminality and transgression but as a normative construction of national and religious identity.
Monster, Hero, Outlaw: Reading Grettis saga through Beowulf
Joyce Tally Lionarons and Melissa Pankake, Ursinus College
The similarities between the monster fights in Beowulf and Grettis saga have been noted—and contested—by scholars for over a hundred and fifty years. Most have chosen to use Grettis saga to illuminate portions of Beowulf; the possible analogue has been employed tentatively to clarify the exact nature of Grendel’s mere, the details of Beowulf’s youth, and even the cause of his death. But what happens if we turn the lens around and try to use the massive library of Beowulf scholarship to illuminate Grettis saga? In this paper, we will not seek to prove that Grettir’s story is related to that of Beowulf and Grendel, but to discover how we can read Grettir under the assumption that he is related to the themes of monstrosity and exile which Beowulf and Grendel exemplify. The fact that Grettir is comparable both to Beowulf (as a hero) and Grendel (as a monster) points to the inverted, ambiguous place he occupies in the saga. When we examine the relationship between men and monsters in the two texts, a shared tradition emerges in which a Christian society dealing with its pagan past must alienate its monster hunters and identify them with what they fight. Like Beowulf, Grettis saga is concerned with the social situations and psychological qualities that can make monsters out of heroic men.
On the Formulation of a Plan: The Rhetoric of the Devil’s Revenge in Genesis B
R. A. Burley, Boston College
After his fall from grace in the Old English Genesis B, the Devil finds himself exiled to Hell, brooding on his failure and plotting his revenge. Utterly powerless and chained in the pit, he still manages to cause the Fall of humankind. This paper argues that it is because of the rhetorical sophistication of his two speeches – especially his second, beginning at line 356 – that this is made possible. Through his eloquence, as defined by his use of larger rhetorical patterns, an exiled yet powerful Devil is created: one who is able to affect the course of events on Earth from his confinement beyond the borders of our world. In this way, then, the first outlaw and outsider becomes the very cause of unlawfulness and exile in humanity.
Loquelam animali dederas: St. Christopher and Definitions of Humanity in the Ninth and Tenth-Century
Melanie Kourbage, U. of Mass. Amherst
Today, St. Christopher is known as the kind-hearted giant who transported pilgrims over a river. Christopher’s identity as a cynocephalus, a dog-headed giant, was excised from his legend sometime between the late tenth and early thirteenth century. By the time Jacob de Voragine recorded Christopher’s tale in the Legenda Aurea in the late thirteenth century, few traces of Christopher’s cynocephalism remained. Though his cult could never boast of many shrines in Western Europe, the dog-headed version of St. Christopher achieved some popularity in the ninth and tenth centuries. No fewer than three hagiographical passiones, an anonymous prose passio from Fulda, a verse passio by Walther Speyer, and another anonymous verse passio, date from this period. The interest in Christopher stems from the usefulness of his legend in contemporary debates over the nature of humanity. Carolingians repeatedly asked: if the exotic races to the east exist, are they human? Did all races of men have souls, and if so, did the Christian west have an obligation to preach the gospels to them? In an age in which foreign invaders could seem less than human, these questions were timely and essential. For many scholars, cynocephali provided a convenient topic for discussing definitions of humanity. The passio Christophori contained in Cod. Vindobonensis 550 must be read in the context of contemporary discussion on the exotic races, as the anonymous hagiographer used this passio to comment humorously on the ontological questions of humanity and the folly of empty rhetoric.
Leslie Spitz-Edson, No Title Submitted
Along with the valkyrie, the berserker is one of the best-known “monsters” of the Viking Age. Unlike the valkyrie, however, who was most likely a construction of the male imagination (Jenny Jochens), the berserker seems to have been “real” – real enough, anyhow, to have been, at the beginning of the 11th century, forbidden by Jarl Erik of Lade to conduct certain activities that would “disturb the peace.” (Grettis saga). According to early sources the berserker was a warrior and a shape-shifter who could morph into a bear or bear-like creature without warning, enter into an insensible, trancelike state, and rage with a lethal battle-lust that could be directed at friend or foe alike. While in this condition the berserker’s superhuman strength and imperviousness to fear and pain made him an asset on the battlefield.
The connection with bears, which may have been attained during some sort of initiatory rite, bestowed upon these warriors superhuman strength and a unique position in the social order – after all the bear was the largest, most feared predator in the northern forests. However, the bear has other associations in the cultures of northern Europe, associations that tie it not only to combat, predation and death in this world, but also to fertility, rebirth and the supernatural. An exploration of these associations suggests that, while he was quite likely a liminal and somewhat unwelcome creature vis-à-vis society as a whole (particularly by the end of the Viking era), the special role that the berserker played can be seen as a key to the spirituality of the violent Viking age – a spirituality that, by the time of Jarl Erik’s prohibition, was being swiftly disavowed.
Sandra Ballif Straubhaar, University of Texas at Austin
To Kiss or Not to Kiss: The Polysemic Finngálkn in the Legendary Sagas
Two ambiguous female figures in the late-medieval Icelandic legendary sagas are called finngálkn — a rare word for a fabulous monster which has come down into modern Icelandic as a designation for “centaur,” but seems originally to divide up into pieces meaning “Finnish/Lappish” (i.e., exotic, foreign) and “frightful thing.” In both cases the finngálkn has some human body parts and some beastly ones (fangs, a tail and talons in one case; hooves, a tail and a horse’s snout in the other). Both of these female monsters can crossbreed with humans, since one has already done it — she is the mother of a particularly nasty, hero-threatening antagonist — and one will become the major love-interest for the saga’s hero. This second beast-monster, the more benign of the two, also bears gifts — notably a powerful sword intended for the hero, which he has already foreseen in a dream; but, as it turns out, he must kiss her horsey lips before she will part with it. The hero and the finngálkn then have a poetic conversation wherein the hero worries that his human lips will stick fast to her equine ones; but, as it turns out, they don’t, and the prize weapon is his.
I intend to compare and contrast the two legendary saga narratives — one from Örvar-Odds saga and one from Hjálmþés saga — with an eye toward their respective presentations of the finngálkn. Was the original saga audience meant to assume that such beast-monsters were common in foreign lands of adventure and quest, or would they simply construe them as fabulous elements in a fantastic story? Were these figures possibly meant to be construed as ordinary human women under magical spells? Questions like these, and others, will be the focus of my presentation.
Monstrous Spaces: The Fairies of Sir Orfeo on the Edge of the Medieval World
Using J.B. Friedman’s classification of the monstrous races and Michael Camille’s discussion of medieval marginalia, this paper will discuss the fairy world and its location in the romance of Sir Orfeo. The paper argues that the realm of fairies, and the realm of the monstrous, can be considered a liminal space that offers commentary on human society because of its unique position. The fairy world is also defined by the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century debates over the physical placement of purgatory and other mystical spaces. Monsters are always located on the edges of the world in medieval maps, and the fairies of Sir Orfeo also live somewhere between the human world and the spiritual world. The placement of the fairy world exposes both social and folkloric concerns with the placement of the “other.” Because of Sir Orfeo’s folkloric motifs, the text draws heavily upon Celtic and Welsh literary depictions of the otherworld. The fairy world in Sir Orfeo contains the residual, Welsh idea of the “not-world,” separate yet near human society. Like the marginal images that decorate the texts of many medieval manuscripts, fairyland is close enough that it can provide commentary on the human civilization, yet far enough away that it is located on the “edges” of the known. Monsters exist to break down the boundaries of what is human, so the place where monsters exist can also break down the boundaries between “here” and “far away.” The fairyland of Sir Orfeo is a unique space in Middle English literature because of its near-yet-far location situated on the periphery of human consciousness.
University of California, Riverside
Robin Hood and the Irish Knife: Outlaws, Monstrosity, and (Literal) Defacement
In the fifteenth-century ballad “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne,” Robin uses an “Iryssh knife” to enact gruesome vengeance on his foe: “Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe/and nicked Sir Guy in the face,/that hee was never on a woman borne/cold tell who Sir Guy was.” The “Irish knife,” the only weapon specifically identified in the ballad as having a foreign origin, is the weapon used to literally deface Sir Guy’s corpse Though not the weapon that directly kills Sir Guy, it is this foreign weapon that eliminates his identity, suggesting concerns about foreignness and outsiders that enter even into the idyllic greenwood space: this is a monstrous act, one that strips away human appearance and flesh. The Irish knife, unlike the unmarked sword that Robin uses to actually kill his adversary, stands out here as a more powerful weapon, carried by the outlaw against English knighthood (Robin, the forest-dweller, defeating the man referred to as Sir Guy twice in the four-line stanza describing the defacement). Throughout the ballad, the Irish knife acts as a weapon against human identity and human constructed authority, and introduces an anxiety about the monstrous nature of the foreigner, which becomes powerfully linked with the world of the outlaw in the heart of the England, the wild greenwood.
Infinite Deferral and Endless Adventure: Mandeville’s Travels Down the Via Negativa
Few critics have attempted to read Mandeville’s Travels as a theological project—as a map to God. I propose that, despite the spectacle coursing throughout the narrative, the text assumes a paradoxically apophatic attitude towards discovery.
The Other has long dominated Mandevillean scholarship, but a closer look at the text suggests that the most shocking thing about travel is the perpetually ‘new’ worlds behind the Other. Far more tantalizing than the spectacle of Travels is that which the author tells us he cannot tell us. Our explorer-subject subtly weaves allusions to inaccessible lands into a larger tale of wondrous sights and adventure. Whether a city cloaked in darkness, a place beyond the forbidding Gravelly Sea, an island of even larger giants beyond a land of ‘smaller’ giants, or Paradise itself—unreachable locations pepper Mandeville’s Travels. One might counter that this unknowability gets balanced by the concretization of holiness in Jerusalem itself. Each of the holy sites/objects, however, relies on empty space for its significance—such as the Sepulcher, the Ark, and imprints left in the ground by holy bodies. Paralleling the impenetrability of lands on the brink of Mandeville’s world, the center itself offers no direct conduit to Truth. These inaccessible places and hollow spaces call for an invocation of negative theological thought, even allowing us to read Travels as itself a theological project. This paper makes use of the works of the Pseudo-Dionysius, the Cloud-poet, and Jacques Derrida to flesh out the nature of Mandeville’s apophasis.
“Men and Monsters: Who’s Who in the Late Medieval ‘Fortress of Faith’”
Brooke Falk, Rutgers University
In the medieval Christian mind, clear distinctions among non-Christians often failed to exist. “Others,” including but not limited to Jews and Muslims, shared ugly physiognomies, visual manifestations of their social deviance as imagined by Christians. The perceived malignancy of non-Christians transformed them into a monstrous species. The “Fortress of Faith,” a Latin Franciscan text of around 1460 drew on this phenomenon explicitly linking the actions and appearances of heretics, Jews, Muslims and demons through both word and image. The “Fortress of Faith,” or Fortalitium fidei, and its subsequent copies intentionally conflated and dehumanized non-Christians and encouraged their expulsion from Christendom. This paper uses the “Fortress of Faith” to explore the medieval boundaries between humans and non-humans in relation to religion and race.
The text records a scathing list of crimes allegedly committed against the Church by its enemies. Three discrete volumes address heretics, Jews and Muslims, while a final volume is devoted to demons. Images of a fortress under siege punctuate the text and allegorically represent Christianity’s daily struggle to defend itself against the unfaithful. This message was received with widespread popularity due to contemporary Christian zeal and the work’s emergence at the pivotal moment when manuscripts and printed books were simultaneously produced. The various methods of production yielded variety in imagery, but both painted illuminations and colored woodcuts effectively convey the universal threat that non-Christians seemingly posed against Christian society. Most manuscript illuminations depict one enemy attacking the castle, but human and demon gestures indicate equally violent physical assaults. Woodcuts present the enemies in a single image; heretics attempt to uproot the fortress as their cohort outsiders observe. Both types of images and the text of the “Fortress of Faith” present non-Christians as demonic creatures of Christian destruction, blurring the biological distinction between medieval man and monster.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
“If anyone should slay this animal, would he be called a homicide?”:
Giraldus Cambrensis and the Werewolves of Ossory
In Giraldus Cambrensis’ The Topography of Ireland, he tells of a priest who is asked to give last rites to a woman in the guise of a wolf, the result of a curse placed on her people by Saint Natalis (every seven years, a man and a woman of Ossory must agree to become wolves; should they survive, they can then be transformed back while others take their place). Considering these transformed creatures, Cambrensis asks if they are more animal or human since they retain their reason despite their bestial appearances. This tension between inner and outer identity is common to many werewolf stories, yet Cambrensis emphasizes the border between those identities by allowing the she-wolf’s skin to be pulled back, revealing the woman within, and then refitted to its original shape. Through this act of undressing and redressing, Cambrensis suggests that her bestial appearance does not touch or alter the human within, yet a later confession by the he-wolf that his nation is sinful and deserving of punishment challenges an easy distinction between inner and outer appearances.
In this presentation, I use Cambrensis’ werewolf story and the somatic anxieties it raises to consider the role of skin in defining and delineating the nature of a creature whether human or beast. Comparing this story with other contemporary werewolf tales, I look at how the medieval werewolf was constructed and the frequent role that clothing or skin played in its conception. Finally, I engage with Cambrensis’ question “If anyone should slay this animal, would he be called a homicide?” Though Cambrensis responds by suggesting the question should remain unanswered, I consider the implications of his werewolf’s hybridity, and how its removable skin can be read as both a border separating beast from human as well as a covering that encompasses both.