Defining the indefinable: the cultural role of monsters in the Middle Ages
By Emily R. Kovatch
Undergraduate senior honors thesis, Ball State University, 2008
Abstract: Monsters appear in a variety of sources and from a variety of periods in the Middle Ages. That they laid so heavily on the medieval mind is evidence not that men of this period were ignorant and foolishly believed in fictional creatures, but rather that these frightening creatures served a vital cultural role. As the physical and cultural landscape of Europe underwent a number of changes in the Middle Ages, monsters aided Christian European men to define their relationship to the world around them. Monsters served as a counter example to humans, defining what mankind is by illustrating what it is not. But forming a comprehensive worldview is not an easy task, and while monsters could aide mankind in creating a cultural system, they could also tear it apart. In their very nature monsters are indefinable. They both form and deform man’s worldview.
Introduction: The Middle Ages were littered with monsters. These strange creatures poked their heads out from behind courtly literature; they crept into theological discussions of the Church; they stood alongside factual persons in histories of the period; and they lurked always in the background of the medieval mindset. With monsters occurring in such a variety of sources ofthe Middle Ages, the modem reader cannot help but wonder – did medieval people truly believe in these bizarre creatures? Current audiences are driven to know the scientific truth to monsters, the explanation for their existence – if indeed they do exist. But this scientific quest is missing the point. Whether or not medieval Europeans believed in monsters as a reality is only secondary. The real question is why they wrote of monsters in the first place. Monsters played an invaluable cultural role, aiding medieval Europeans in their quest to define themselves, the world around them, and their place within it. It seems to be the human condition to ponder what exactly makes us “human,” and medieval Europeans were by no means excluded from this quest. Monsters were utilized in forming man’s conception of his humanity by providing an example of what he was not. By acting as the anti-human, monsters allowed medieval mankind to better define itself.