MONSTERS I: Haunting the Middle Ages
Organizer: Asa Simon Mittman, California State University-Chico; Sarah Alison Miller, Duquesne University
This panel proposes to explore those monstrous figures that haunt the borders between the living and the dead: ghosts, revenants, animated corpses and skeletons. What do these figures reveal about the porous boundaries between life and death, soul and body? What do they communicate about the relationship between haunting, trauma and memory? How is haunting associated with space, whether that space be a geographical location, a physical structure, a fantasized realm, or human consciousness? How were these figures depicted in art and material culture? How might monster studies be considered a haunted domain? How might the Middle Ages be considered a haunted age?
Laying Down the Law: The Hauntings in Eyrbyggja saga
Joyce Tally Lionarons, Ursinus College
The thirteenth-century Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga depicts the development of a Christian, law-abiding Iceland haunted – both literally and figuratively – by its violent pagan past. This is seen most clearly in the hauntings at Fróðá, where a group of ghosts attend their own funeral feast and refuse to leave the farmhouse until they are summoned to a door-court and legally convicted of trespassing, after which the house is sprinkled with holy water and blessed to ensure they do not return. The simple allegory is complicated, however, by the fact that this is neither the first nor the last haunting in the saga: the ghost of Þórolf Twist-foot returns from the grave twice to kill people and cattle; the ghost of Þórgunna rises to cook breakfast for the men transporting her body across country for Christian burial; and even as the ghostly men sit by the fire at Fróðá, another revenant in the form of a seal – most likely the ghost of Þórgunna once again – rises through the floor in the next room to devour the farmstead’s store of food for the winter. This paper will explore the hauntings within the saga in the context of Iceland’s social and religious history to determine how the country’s religious and secular authorities attempted to lay down the law to Iceland’s recalcitrant ghosts.
Rebecca Merkelbach University of Cambridge
The Sagas of Icelanders constitute a body of literature that frequently juxtaposes the monstrous and the human. In them, a past is created that is both haunted and haunting, populated with revenants who represent the forces of chaos, coming from without to destroy human society. One particularly prominent example of these corporeal undead is Glámr, an antisocial and marginal man in life and a threat to civilisation in undeath. However, the hero who fights him, Grettir the Strong, is not unambiguously human before encountering Glámr, and afterwards becomes ever more and more monstrous under the influence of Glámr’s curse.
This notion of the human monstrous complicates the idea of the haunted past as it is established by the appearance of the undead: Revenant activity is always temporally limited, whereas mankind survives long after the undead have been put to rest – although pushed to the margins of society as in the case of the outlaw Grettir. In this paper I thus want to explore the relationship between the undead and those “dead to the world” as exemplified by the monstrous figures of Grettir and Glámr. Moreover, I will be looking at what this relationship tells us about Icelanders’ approaches towards their past, especially when coming from the late, fourteenth-century perspective of Grettis saga, looking at a difficult past and present, at monstrous humans and human monsters.
The Mysterious Case of the Ghost Who Was Not There
Amy Amendt-Raduege Whatcom Community College
In about 1400, an anonymous monk of Byland Abbey recorded one of the strangest moments in supernatural history. The monk recounts how a woman “caught a ghost and carried it home on her back,” where witnesses were puzzled to note that the ghost seemed “not solid but illusory.” The story is very brief, but it contains one of the most puzzling and contradictory moments in medieval ghostlore: if the flesh of the corpse was not solid, how could it be caught? But if the ghost was a physical presence, how could her fingers slip through it? Brief though it is, this story raises complex questions about the relationship of the ecumenical with the popular, and exactly about what ghosts in the Middle Ages were expected to be. I suspect that this story marks the point of fusion between two very different conceptions of ghosts. For centuries, clergy and layfolk alike had been hearing stories of the undead derived from the Roman tradition, in which ghosts were insubstantial. In the North, however, ghosts were something entirely different. Northern ghosts could eat, talk, and even attempt to bed a widow. This idea of a ghost was so commonplace that the monk himself seems surprised by the noncorporeality of the piggybacking ghost. The monk’s story is unique in its blend of the two traditions – a ghost that is solid and illusory, present and absent. It pinpoints an intersection of the two beliefs, a moment in which the corporeal revenants of the Northern world give way to the noncorporeal spirits of the South.
Kinship with Ghosts: The Reappearing Dead and Purgatory in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.
Caitlin Saraphis, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Ghosts and other forms of the (re)animated dead appear with increased frequency in the writings of clerics of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. While historians such as Nancy Caciola, C. S. Watkins, and Jean-Claude Schmitt have investigated these ghosts for their connections to xenophobia, folklore, and paganism, the evidence they provide about understandings of purgatory during this period has been largely overlooked. In those cases where ghosts have been used to illustrate concepts of the afterlife, as in the works of Schimitt and A. Ja. Gurevitch, the focus has been predominately on ghosts’ representation in visions, allowing assumptions about the physicality of their appearance to stand uninvestigated, despite the problematic language with which many of these ghosts are described.
In my paper, I analyze the reappearing dead in the works of Orderic Vitalis, Walter Map, and William of Newburgh to show that clerics, as well as the general populace, understood death to be a transitory state from which individuals could return temporarily for various purposes, particularly in order to beg or demand assistance from the living. The dead who appeared in this way, whether described as ghosts or animated corpses, were understood to be corporeal in one way or another, able to manipulate the world around them and to suffer purgatorial punishment not only to their spiritual but also their physical bodies.
I also explore how the Church’s ideas on the social aspects of purgatory emphasized the relationship between the reappearing dead and their former family and friends. Though drawing on an earlier, folkloric understanding of a reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead, these ghosts and animated corpses emphasize the living’s responsibility to ascertain the nature of the returning dead through shared memory, as well as to accede to the dead’s demands for assistance in shortening the duration of their purgatorial suffering. I argue that this responsibility had to function primarily along kinship lines because the transitory nature of death made the animated dead a threat to society that could only be ameliorated by establishing their identity as a member of the community through shared memory. Without these memories, the dead’s claim on the living could not be validated, allowing the living to ignore the dead’s demands and leaving the dead to languish in purgatory.
Ælla of Northumbria, Anglo-Saxon Historicism, and Fantasy Fiction
Donna Beth Ellard Rice University
This paper examines the spectral presence of Ælla of Northumbria in late twentieth-century history and early twenty-first century fiction. It argues that Ælla, a nearly unknown Anglo-Saxon king, haunts the margins of scholarly and popular writings as a ghostly signifier of ‘Empire’.
Ælla of Northumbria is a mysterious figure of the Anglo-Saxon ninth century. Among Old English texts, his identity is preserved in one line of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which mentions his death at York in 866 in battle with the Danish Great Army. In Scandinavian sources, however, Ælla enjoys a much fuller description. He appears in Ragnarssona þáttr (Tale of Ragnar’s Sons) as the murderer of the Danish pirate-king, Ragnar Loðbrog, and subject of Danish ire. Ragnar’s sons travel to Northumbria and kill Ælla in a revenge act that has since been referred to as the ‘blood eagle ritual.’
From the eighteenth-century forward, Scandinavian literature has been used by both scholarly and popular writers to fill in the gaps of Ælla’s biography and tease out the gruesome particularities of his death-by-blood-eagle. This paper examines briefly two clusters of the most recent academic and non-academic discussions regarding Ælla and his blood eagle: heated exchanges between Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic scholars Roberta Frank, Alfred Smyth, and Bjarni Einarsson; and fictional references by writers Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Barr Smith.
This paper examines the language of both clusters of writings in order to argue that the historical identity recreated for Ælla and the gory details of his blood eagle are not grounded in facts about the Anglo-Saxon past but in concerns about the Anglo-American present. It suggests that Ælla is a ghostly signifier that haunts the margins that hinge medieval history to popular culture. And it further speculates that the mutual ‘concerns’ surrounding Ælla’s blood eagle attend to the terror associated with two different kinds of contemporary empires: the colonial empires of Europe’s nation-states and the ideological empire of Islamic terrorism.
Marian Bleeke, Cleveland State UniversityThe transitomb, defined as a tomb that includes a sculptural representation of the corpse, is one of the more haunting forms of later medieval sculptural production. For the transi makes present what should be absent, visible what should be invisible, and so confronts its living viewers with the realities of death and decay. The fourteenth-century transi tombs of two English ecclesiastics, Henry Chichele and Richard Fleming, accomplish this confrontation through a doubled representation of the deceased; shown once as whole and healthy and again as an emaciated corpse. Each man is thus shown separately and yet simultaneously as both living and dead, both his soul and his body, while the exposed stone of the transi sculpture insists upon the dead body’s permanent presence. During their lives, both Chichele and Fleming were involved in the English church’s anti-Lollard persecutions and prosecutions. Their familiarity with Lollardry suggests that the Lollard critique of images, and in particular sculptures, as mere dead things may form a context for understanding their tombs’ striking sculptural representations of death and the dead body. Indeed, the Lollards seem to have been haunted by sculptures, as they asserted their deadness while worrying that they were not dead at all, and their inertness as things while worrying that they acted inappropriately as powers and presences. This paper thus argues for seeing these two transis less as commentaries on death or the dead, than as reflections on the not-dead qualities of sculpture and so on sculpture itself as a haunted and haunting medium.**************************************
Hana Videen, King’s College London
This paper will explore the ways in which monsters are defined by blood, both the blood of themselves and that of others. It will examine various ‘monsters’ of the Old English canon, including the Grendel-kin in Beowulf and the cannibalistic Mermedonians in the poem Andreas. Anglo-Saxon leechbooks describe the practice of using blood to transfer disease away from the body, and this paper will relate that to the transfer of abstract evil within the physical world. The tree of every evil in Genesis A grows from the blood of a good person, Abel, for the blood transfers the hostility and monstrousness of his brother Cain.
In Old English poetry blood functions in different ways to identify what is evil or monstrous. Grendel’s consumption of blood makes him all the more horrific, as he violates the command of God in the Old Testament. Furthermore, his blood is thought to be the blood of Cain, an inherited mark of his irredeemable soul. The blood of Grendel’s mother is so powerful that it melts a sword blade like fire melting ice. ‘Sawul-drior’, or ‘soul-blood’, alternatively represents life and death in the poem Beowulf. Monsters tread the boundary between life and death, an abstract realm represented physically by blood.
Organizers: Larissa Tracy, Longwood University and Asa Simon Mittman, California State University-Chico
Presider: Larissa Tracy
From images of Saint Bartholomew holding his skin in his arms, to scenes of demons flaying the damned within the mouth of hell, to grisly execution in Havelok the Dane, to laws that prescribed it as a punishment for treason, this session explores the gruesome, even monstrous, practice of skin removal—flaying—in the Middle Ages. This session proposes to examine the widely diverse examples of this grisly practice, and explore the layered responses to skin-removal in art, history, literature, manuscript studies and law. How common was this punishment in practice? How does art reflect spiritual response? How is flaying, in any form, used to further political or religious goals? The papers in this session will literally get beneath the skin of medieval sensibilities regarding punishment and sacrifice in a nuanced discussion of medieval flaying.
Skin serves as a physical and metaphorical boundary, separating the internal from the external. It is a passageway between what is “Us” and what is “Other”. Skin can serve as a marker of the human and as a way of illustrating an internal human core that is preserved from monstrous contamination. In Topographia Hibernica, werewolves are able to illustrate their core humanity to a priest by showing that there wolfish exterior is only skin deep and that their essential core is still human and therefore that their spirits are similarly still human and deserve last rites. In Guillaume de Palerne, the protagonists are able to wear the skin of animals and be mistaken for them while returning to their full human status by the removal of this skin. In the Volsungasaga, Sigmund and Sinfjotli don the skin of wolves and are transformed into wolves, unable to remove the skins for a period of time until they are able to regain their humanity. Their wearing of these skins allows them to question traditional age roles and behave outside of social norms.
Monstrous skins in these narratives serve a transvestitic role, a transformational piece of clothing that facilitates a different expression of identity. Skin becomes clothing in these narratives and clothing serves as a marker (and maker) of identity, dictating how to identify and perceive individuals and also, for the person wearing that clothing, how to perform their identity. Ideas like class, gender, ethnicity, and age are performed through clothing and, similarly, monstrous performances are vestic, clothed, and embodied in the skin, the outer appearance that is worn. The werewolf Bisclavret can only retain and re-re-express his humanity when he is provided with his human clothing, the performative place of his humanity. Cohen notes the role of the monstrous in policing boundaries in his Monster Culture: Seven Theses, but what polices the boundaries between the human and the monstrous? In this paper I argue that skin serves as a metaphorical boundary between the human and the monstrous, preventing and/or policing the interaction between the human and monstrous bodies in the transformed individual. This paper borrows from Mary Douglass in her discussion of the role of entrances and exits of the body for controlling the entrance and exit of foreign or taboo bodies, and on Judith Butler in her discussion of the performative nature of identity.
“Lo, his flessh al be beflapped that fat is”: From Flagellation to Flaying in the English Cycle Passion Plays
Valerie Gramling, University of Massachusetts
In the early plays of the English cycles skin is something that is put on the body, like a garment, to transform it – in Chester God clothes Adam and Eve in animal skins to transform them from immortal to mortal, while in the N-Town Annunciation Filius puts on human skin (“that wede”) to become God-as-man. The Passion plays, however, depict the beginning of a new transformation which demands an undressing, a removal of that mortal skin from the body of Jesus to reveal his divinity. Both clothing and skin mark Jesus as human, and in the cycles he is divested of both as his flesh is left “withowtyn [the] hyde” that signifies his mortality and humanity. In this presentation I argue that various moments within each cycle’s Passion suggest that Jesus is not merely stripped and scourged but actually flayed, his skin violently torn from his body in preparation for his resurrection. Though costuming records are scarce, I examine the language used by Jesus and other characters to establish the torture and transformation of his body as they gloss the performed mystery for the audience, and consider how relics of his skin appear in subsequent plays through Jesus’ burial cloths and seamless coat. Ultimately I assert that by symbolically flaying Jesus on stage, the cycle playwrights not only reinforce medieval readings of Jesus’ trial as one of treason but also allow his skin to be transformed into these relics which provide tangible testaments to his sacrifice and mankind’s salvation.
A window for the Pain: Surface, Interiority and Christ’s Flagellated Skin in Late Medieval Sculpture
Peter Dent, University of Bristol
From c.1300, the so-called crucifixi dolorosi, graphic images of Christ’s wounded and broken body on the cross, began to spread rapidly throughout Europe. These polychromed wooden sculptures combine elements of high relief and vivid colour in order to depict skin furrowed with the wounds of the flail. These patterns are sometimes applied following a grid system so that the bloody lacerations spread like the nodes of a web across the entire surface of Christ’s body. Variation in the size and depth of the lesions sets up a complex rhythm for the viewer to follow. On some crucifixes, the traces of under-drawing reveal the careful planning that lay behind such grotesque effects. In this paper, I propose to focus on the sophisticated articulation of the surface as a way of generating interiority. On the one hand, I will draw on late medieval ideas about wounds, in particular the episode in canto 13 of Dante’s Inferno where words and blood sputter in tandem from Piero della Vigna’s broken branches. In Dante’s description of della Vigna’s punishment, Harpies feeding on his leaves cause ‘pain and a window for the pain’. The wounds of the flagellation offer a window onto Christ’s interior suffering. On the other hand, I will also compare these crucifixes with the articulation of skin surface in sculpture from other periods, above all the classical sculpture of fifth-century Greece, where a set of comparable techniques is used to generate surface depth and, by extension, a similar effect of interiority.
To Love and Be Wise: Crimes of Love and Reticent Judgements in Medieval Fabliaux
Michael Dzanko, The Ohio State University
In Boccaccio’s Decameron, 8.7, Rinieri, a scholar, falls in love with the young widow Helena. Although she appears, at first, to reciprocate his erotic desires, the would-be lover is soon left, literally, out in the cold. He then exacts a calculatedly cruel counter-penalty, leaving her high on a tower, to be flayed by the sun. After the tale is told, a most curious judgement is passed on the participants, with the assembled court pronouncing that though the scholar’s dispensing of justice was admittedly excessive, ‘their compassion was restrained’ by the knowledge that the lady had partially brought her woes on herself. Any character or reader hoping for a sense of distributive justice, or a final judgement, however, is left wanting.
Nor are Rinieri and Elena alone in the dock, for the fabliau tradition contains many other examples of ‘comedies of retribution’, each featuring acts of flagellation and similarly indeterminate judgements. For his part, Chaucer was equally equivocal about the use of flaying by the characters of Phoebus and Absolon, in The Manciple’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale, respectively. Even earlier French and Dutch tales were not sparing in their use of this grisly motif, though they, too, were rather more ambivalent when it came to the crimes themselves. In this paper, I argue that though the genre itself has always been afforded a certain carnal licence, the recurring motif of flaying and the distinctly reticent judgements of it, raise some interesting questions about the problematic nature of the medieval response.