Indecent bodies: gender and the monstrous in medieval English literature
Oswald, Dana Morgan
Thesis: Doctor of Philosophy, Ohio State University, English, (2005)
While Old English literature rarely represents sexualized bodies, and just as rarely represents monsters, Middle English literature teems with bodies that are both sexualized and monstrous. In Old English, sexualized bodies appear in overlooked genres like bestiaries or travel narratives—the homes of monsters. Thus, monsters possess some of the only explicitly sexualized forms present in Old English texts. But it is not only the difference between paucity and abundance that marks the change from Old to Middle English monsters; it is also the shift from permanence to mutability. The bodies of Old English monsters are permanent and unchanging; many Middle English monsters, however, are capable of transformation. In order to study the shift from Old English monsters to those in Middle English, I offer four case studies, two Old English and two Middle English. I begin with a discussion of the desire by Old English writers and readers to erase the sexualized bodies of monsters in Wonders of the East. The author and characters in Beowulf, too, attempt to erase the monstrous and reproductive body of Grendel’s mother from the narrative, a tactic that only results in revealing the failure of human communities. In Middle English, monstrous bodies are trickier; they cannot be so easily erased. Because of their ability to transform, the monstrous bodies in Mandeville’s Travels either sexually under-or over-circulate in ways that disrupt proper community and class standards. However, the Middle English romance, Sir Gowther, presents a solution to the problem of the monstrous body; through penance, the child of a demon and a noble woman transforms physically and spiritually into a child of God. Most of these texts attempt to dispel the threat of the monster through erasure, be it the literal removal of the monstrous image, the killing of the monster, or the rehabilitation of the monster through religious means. Mandeville’s Travels, however, reminds us that monsters have infiltrated communities and cannot be easily recognized or erased. Only Mandeville’s Travels, then, acknowledges that the body and social system in which it exists are no longer stable.