1. Jenna Stook, Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary
Monstrous Unions and Hideous Progeny: A Consideration of the Lump Child in the Auchinleck King of Tars
The Middle English romance The King of Tars features both the motif of the monstrous birth and that of miraculous conversion. In the romance, the unnamed Christian princess marries the Saracen Sultan of Damascus, and later gives birth to a child. The women attending the birth are described as being “wel sori” for the child is decidedly monstrous: it is a formless lump of flesh without human physiology and without “liif.” This paper will begin by unpacking the description of the child as “lifeless.” The nature of the child’s monstrosity, I will argue, lies in its lack of an animating force (a presumably Christian soul) and its indeterminacy. The child, a product of an interfaith and interracial marriage, is a hybrid figure who occupies a middle space between human and non-human, Christian and Saracen. The paper will then consider the cause of the child’s monstrosity in light of medieval Christian injunctions against intermarriage and interfaith sex. The King of Tars presents the interfaith union and the child it produces as equally monstrous because both expose classificatory boundaries as fragile and both threaten to dissolve the border between self and other. The threat posed by the lump child to boundary order is ultimately contained through his miraculous conversion: the child transforms from a monster into a well-formed boy full of life.
2. Sarah Alison Miller, Duquesne University
“Twins and Hermaphrodites in Albertus and Pseudo-Albertus”
This paper explores how medieval philosophical and medical texts represent the relationship between the procreation of multiple births, conjoined twins, and hermaphrodites. Although conjoined twins and hermaphrodites fell squarely in the category of monstrosity, late-medieval theories of human generation acknowledged twins to be a species of monster produced by a number of possible factors: an unnatural conception, an imperfect womb, a lack or excess of matter, a failed process of material division, or the influence of a constellation. Albertus Magnus’ De animalibus and Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De secretis mulierum grapple with the disparate embryological models inherited from ancient medicine, Arabic gynecology, and medieval astrology in an effort to come to terms with the slippage between normative and monstrous offspring. Ultimately, though tacitly, these texts reveal the troubling combinations and divisions entailed by the creation of a human being. By considering how pleasure, sexual shenanigans, female anatomy, and the cosmos itself impinge upon this process, this paper probes the teratogenic conditions at the origins of all human life.
4.Jenny Howe, Tufts University
“sum fendys son”: Demonic Births and Monstrous Mothers in Sir Gowther
The folklore motif of the “Wish Child” appears in many medieval romances and legends. Such stories, in which parents desperate to conceive pray to God and are granted a child, are most often associated with accounts of the life of St. Anne and the Annunciation. But God is not always the benefactor of these prayers; instead, a devil or demon sometimes visits the mother, usually in the guise of her husband, and begets upon her a child wild and fiendish. The late fifteenth-century romance, Sir Gowther, provides a potent example of this type of Wish-Child motif, for Gowther, the product of such a coupling, is so aggressive and violent that he suckles nine wet nurses to death.
This paper will consider how the Wish-Child motif generally and Sir Gowther in particular manifest medieval anxieties surrounding maternity through the depiction of monstrous offspring. I will argue that, in light of medieval theories of the body that read the maternal corpus as a source of contamination and corruption to the child, the Wish-Child story reproduces precarious images of motherhood through the creation of children that are both mortal and divine, natural and unnatural. Turning specifically to Gowther’s unnatural corporeality and the violent acts that posit him as “sum fendys son,” I will show how Sir Gowther ultimately repudiates the maternal body and asks us to consider how monstrous births “monsterize” the women that engender them.
5. Maria Fields, Henderson State University
“Þerefore is lorn þis litel faunt”: Colliding Xenophobia and Late-Medieval Piety in the Auchinleck King of Tars
In the Auchinleck (National Library of Scotland Advocates’ Manuscript 19.2.1) King of Tars, the poet likens the child of the Christian princess and her Saracen husband to a monster, describing it as “a rond of flesche… wiþouten blod & bon” and having “noiþer nose no eye” (580-82, 584). The monstrous child functions as a symbol of the intersection of xenophobia and late-medieval piety and serves to further differentiate his mother from the Virgin Mary because he exists in opposition to the perfection of the Christ Child. Utilizing a deconstructionist approach, I examine the poem’s opposing symbols, their collision in the formless child, and the resulting societal implications.
7. Beth Sutherland, University of Virginia
Born for Monstrous Sanctity: Margaret and Her (Uncontainable) Dragon
This paper examines monstrosity’s role in three Saint Margaret vitae: the Legenda aurea, South English Legendary, and Katherine Group redactions. Margaret enjoyed immense popularity as the patron of childbirth due to her consumption by a dragon and eruption out of its belly. Her hagiographers, however, express discomfort with this plot-point. Laden with miracles, angels, and demons, taking saints’ lives literally would have required herculean feats of credulity. This specter of dubiety reaches its crisis point when the dragon slithers onstage. The dragon epitomizes all the vita’s semantic slippage, becoming a site at which the hagiographer can puncture the genre by expressing doubt. Deployment of the monstrous constitutes a violent but also a liberating move: eruption, but also birth. Two hagiographers conjure this monstrous spectacle only to disclaim it, exorcising readers’ concerns about their ‘good faith.’ That they protest on theological grounds is perplexing: one could easily redeem the episode as a Jonah analogy. Jesus claims that wonder-seekers will receive only the ‘sign of Jonah,’ taken as an allusion to the Harrowing of Hell. The third hagiographer has Margaret mention the Harrowing before being swallowed, and after asking God for a ‘sign’ of her enemy. He describes the dragon with delectation, recognizing it as a handy phenomenological tool, not a stumbling-block. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar describes hell’s inability to contain divinity. Sheol takes Jesus in but must immediately eject him. Hell’s spewing is akin to birth pangs, making Jesus a monstrous birth—issuing forth from what gets represented iconographically as the jaws of a beast. Erupting out of the dragon’s belly, the saint acts as a typological post-figuration of Christ while foreshadowing her rebirth through martyrdom . Monstrosity plays an almost biologically essential role in God’s soteriological project, acting as a womb for sanctity.
8. Stephanie Norris, University of Iowa
“This Can’t Be the Terrible Two’s: Nursing at the Breast of Violence in Sir Gowther”
The late fourteenth century English tale Sir Gowther, a derivative of the French Robert the Devil, narrates the quest for redemption of a knight whose lust for rapacious violence during his youth bears witness to his demon parentage. At the age of fifteen, Gowther’s gigantic stature and unbelievable physical strength facilitate the acts of excessive violence he commits against the people of Austria, particularly clergyman, female religious and married couples. However as an infant, before he was old enough to hang parsons on hooks or burn hermits alive, Gowther’s fiendish ancestry is made manifest in a seemingly insatiable appetite. In fact, the infant Gowther suckles nine wet-nurses to death prior to tearing his own mother’s nipple from her breast when she attempts to nurse him in their stead. Although shockingly heinous, Ian Mitchell-Smith suggests that such acts of excessive violence are sanctioned by the text and reaffirm the homo-social bond of the court, given that they are enacted within the appropriate context (outside the space of the court) and against the proper target (Saracens and other non-Christians). Advancing this perspective, I argue that the violence displayed by Gowther during his childhood actually betrays a cultural anxiety about the miscegenation of Christians with Jews and Saracens – and the threat to stable identity binaries such mixing poses – not just the legitimization of Gowther’s nobility through properly directed violent acts. Reading specific instances of violence in Gowther’s youth in light of his fiendish birth and the bizarre circumstances surrounding his conception in conjunction with the volatile socio-religious culture of late medieval England, I contend that Gowther’s adolescent rabblerousing performs an apprehension about the amalgamation of disparate racial and religious identities that the text struggles to quell.
9. Anna Dow, University of Alberta
In twelfth- and thirteenth-century epic literature the child occupies a liminal status as an empty figure of futurity, divided between death and the potential for heroism. In the Völsunga Saga Sigmund tests King Siggeir’s children for courage, and when they are found wanting he kills them; as neither child is destined to be the hero of the tale it is deemed unnecessary that either should exist. It is Sinfjotli who eventually passes the test, and is therefore permitted to progress into adulthood in order to fulfil his heroic destiny. In a second case, Cú Chulainn’s heroism in the Táin bó Cúailnge is supplemented by the recitation of his childhood deeds. In this instance the child is central to Cú Chulainn’s development, and yet exists only in futurity as a retrospective version of the hero himself. There are two primary points to be addressed here: first, the child’s status as a non-existent and hence monstrous ‘other’ in the literary examples provided; and secondly, the temporal status of the medieval child as a symbol for narrative and heroic potential. Each question also highlights a particular issue for contemporary medieval studies, which is the necessity to differentiate between original and contemporary perceptions of the literature at hand. Interestingly enough, recent work has emerged on the futurity of the child in contemporary society (see Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child), and it seems that the dismissal of the child as a symbol of futurity might have deeper roots in our literary history than previously thought.