By Charity Urbanski
Monsters haunt the physical and imaginative remains of the Middle Ages. They stalk the pages of manuscripts, peer out from cathedrals and castles, and even appear in the most historical of literary genres, medieval chronicles. But monsters weren’t just decorative. Ideas about monstrosity were fundamental to ancient and medieval debates about the nature of humanity, and the rhetoric of monstrosity was widely used to dehumanize certain groups in medieval Europe.
Modern monster theory assumes that monsters are cultural creations that do important work. Every society, including our own, creates its own monsters, monsters that embody its specific fears, anxieties, and values. The monster’s body can be marked by excess or deficiency (like too many heads or too few limbs), it can be a hybrid creation, or it can appear perfectly normal, effectively masking the monstrosity of its behavior. Whatever their particular shape or characteristics, monsters embody difference, they do not fit neatly into our systems of classification, and they challenge society’s norms by transgressing its taboos.
We tend to think of monsters as purely imaginary creatures, like vampires, werewolves, or zombies, but for most of Western history from antiquity to the nineteenth century, any creature whose physical appearance deviated from what was commonly found in nature was by definition a monster (teras in Greek or monstrum in Latin). The term teras is still used in medicine today to describe a fetus displaying abnormal features. Qualities like hybridity, excess, deficiency, and deformity were all considered features of monstrosity in the ancient and medieval West.
Imaginary animal hybrids like griffins or unicorns and animal-human hybrids like centaurs certainly qualified as monsters under this definition, but so did real human beings and animals with features we would now describe as birth defects like extra fingers or missing limbs. In this sense, ancient and medieval monsters really existed, and the fact that some humans were considered monsters based solely on their physical appearance had profoundly negative consequences.
For example, infants with birth defects such as these depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle were routinely referred to as monstrous births from antiquity until the twentieth century. Such children were generally interpreted as omens or signs of divine displeasure in ancient and medieval Europe. They were objects of wonder, but also sources of immense fear, and because of their association with divine wrath, one common response to such children was to kill them or leave them to die of exposure shortly after they were born.
Ancient and medieval ideas about monstrosity were not restricted to physical attributes, they extended to behaviors as well. Monstrous behaviors are culturally and historically specific, but any behavior a given culture deems taboo, such as incest or cannibalism, is regarded as monstrous, and any person or group of people who engages in these behaviors is considered a monster. More mundane cultural differences could put a group into the monstrous category as well. Any group with unusual customs, language, habitations, food, or clothing, could be designated as monstrous. All of these features were associated with civilization or the lack of it in the ancient and medieval worlds, and the concept of monstrosity helped ancient and medieval philosophers define what it meant to be civilized and what it meant to be human by embodying their opposites. This is particularly true of the “monstrous races” (gens monstrorum) that were believed to inhabit the edges of the world.
In the first century CE, Pliny catalogued roughly forty races with unusual physical characteristics or habits in his Natural History. Pliny describes these peoples as part of a larger consideration of the power and majesty of nature, and he includes real, historical peoples such as Ethiopians and pygmies alongside more fabulous races, such as the Sciapodes, who allegedly hopped around on a single leg with a large foot that they used to shield themselves from the sun, the Cyclopes who had only one eye, the Blemmyae who had no heads, and dog-headed people called Cynocephali whose speech consisted of barking. Pliny intended to demonstrate the diversity of mankind and, although he classifies some of them as monstrous due to their deviation from normal human appearance and customs, he is remarkably neutral in describing the vast majority of them. Pliny’s reputation as an authority led multiple authors in the Middle Ages to write about the Plinian races as though they really existed, and helped to perpetuate a belief in them that lasted well into the Early Modern era.
The existence of these monstrous races was taken seriously by no less an authority than Saint Augustine of Hippo. In the early fifth century, Augustine devoted an entire chapter of The City of God to pondering “Whether Certain Monstrous Races of Men are Derived from the Stock of Adam or from Noah’s Sons.” As a theologian, Augustine was concerned with trying to determine whether the monstrous races were human and therefore eligible for salvation. Although Augustine displays some skepticism about whether these monstrous races really exist, he reasons that since “monstrous births” or deformities regularly occur among humans in his own society, monstrous races in which all members deviate from normal human appearance are at least possible. Augustine reasons that although we might regard the appearance of the monstrous races as frightening and abnormal, if they do exist, then they are part of God’s plan and are therefore not really monstrous at all. Finally, Augustine concludes that if these monstrous races are simply unusual humans, they can be saved.
Augustine’s treatment of the monstrous races was part of a much larger debate about what constituted humanity. For Augustine, as for most ancient and medieval philosophers, the answer was fairly simple: man is rational and mortal. If these monstrous races existed, and if their members were rational and mortal, then they were human, which meant that they were descended from Adam and were eligible for salvation.
Augustine’s ideas about the fundamental humanity of the monstrous races inspired debates over their genealogy as medieval theologians and intellectuals tried to puzzle out how such races had originated. Unfortunately, these debates also tended to cast the monstrous races as just barely human. The most popular medieval explanation for the genesis of the monstrous races was that they were descendants of Adam’s son Cain who had killed his brother Abel and incurred God’s curse as a result. According to this theory, the monstrous races had inherited Cain’s curse and their sinfulness had been imprinted upon their bodies as physical deformities.
This association with inherited sinfulness was not only attributed to imaginary peoples, but also to real peoples who inhabited the medieval world, especially Africans. According to medieval genealogical theories, Africans were descended either from Cain or from Noah’s son Ham, who had also incurred God’s curse, and their dark skin was a mark of divine displeasure. The debate over the humanity and origins of Pliny’s monstrous races became the basis for debates over the humanity of real people during the Early Modern period as Western Europeans began enslaving Africans and the native peoples they encountered in the New World.
The idea of monstrosity was put to another important purpose in the Middle Ages. The rhetoric of monstrosity was routinely used to demonize groups that were deemed a threat by religious and secular authorities. During a period of intense reform in the eleventh century, the Catholic Church began identifying certain groups of people as harmful, deviant, or disobedient, and singling them out for persecution. These groups included religious dissidents like Jews and Muslims, who the Church portrayed as actively working to undermine Christian society, as well as Christian heretics who disputed or rejected the teachings of the Church and therefore posed a threat to Christian unity.
In addition to targeting religious dissidents, the Church also identified lepers, female prostitutes, and male homosexuals as groups that were deviant or polluting and were therefore believed to pose a threat to Christian society. Once the Church had identified these groups as threats, it began creating mechanisms for persecuting them. By the twelfth century, secular governments had begun instituting laws meant to enforce their separation from Christian society or eradicate them altogether.
Accusations against Jews focused on their assumed hostility toward Christ and Christians, and reflected Christian anxieties. Christians accused Jews of engaging in monstrous behaviors including kidnapping, murder, infanticide, and cannibalism. By the middle of the twelfth century, European Jews were the focus of elaborate charges that they kidnapped and tortured Christian children whom they ritually murdered in mockery of the Crucifixion. Later versions of this accusation would add cannibalism to the list of charges, alleging that the Jews ate their Christian victims in some form, usually by mixing their blood into flour to make matzo. In the thirteenth century, Christians began to accuse Jews of torturing the consecrated host in a reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, reflecting Christian anxieties over the doctrine of transubstantiation. Christians used these sensational charges of kidnapping, torture, murder, cannibalism, blasphemy, and host desecration to portray Jews as subhuman monsters and justify a whole range of violence against them, including forced conversions, segregation, expulsions, and massacres.
While medieval Christians held Jews responsible for the death of Christ and believed they were driven to monstrous crimes against Christians by their hatred for Christ, they viewed Muslims as an existential threat to Christendom and as defilers of Christian holy places. Christians tended to portray Muslims as violent, cruel, sexually depraved, filthy, and polluting. Above all, medieval Christians interpreted Islam as a false religion, a heresy that condemned Muslims to damnation and that threatened to infect Christians and deprive them of salvation as well. Just as the representation of Jews as monsters helped to fuel anti-Jewish violence, the monstrous representation of Muslims was used to authorize violence against Muslims. It was deployed to mobilize Christian armies, as well as ordinary Christians, during the Crusades and during the Reconquista in Spain.
Jews and Muslims in particular were also visually conflated with demons. They were usually portrayed with dark skin, which was associated with sinfulness and the demonic, as well as deformed or monstrous features such as grimacing faces, distorted proportions, or hooked noses, and they were easily identified by their distinctive headwear – a pointed hat for Jews and a scarf or turban for Muslims. Jews and Muslims were portrayed with physical appearances that intentionally mimicked that of the demons that were prominently featured in the artistic programs of practically every Christian Church in medieval Europe, visually equating them with the devil’s minions in a manner that medieval viewers would have easily understood.
The ease with which medieval people would have read Jewish and Muslim bodies as demonic or monstrous was largely due to the fact that there was a consistent pictorial code for representing demonic, sinful, and non-European bodies, and a separate code for representing angelic, saintly, and European bodies, which were portrayed as fair-skinned and blond, and tended to have slender, elongated bodies and graceful postures and gestures like this figure of Christ from the Winchester Psalter. The visual contrast between good bodies and evil bodies was reinforced by the sheer number and ubiquity of these images. Medieval churches in particular were not the sparsely decorated spaces that we see today, their walls were once covered in frescoes, paintings, and tapestries that employed the same visual language we see in surviving sculptures, paintings, stained glass, and manuscript illuminations.
Demons were depicted as explicitly monstrous, both in their appearance and behavior. Aside from possessing dark skin, demons were often portrayed as hybrid creatures that combined human and animal features, they often had excessive features such as multiple eyes or horns, or features located in unusual places, or they might be excessively large or feature prominent sexual organs. Demons were distinctly menacing and they were most often found torturing humans in elaborate scenes of hell or the Last Judgment, like this one from the Winchester Psalter.
Demons were understood as real and inherently threatening; they were believed to be actively working to undermine Christians in this life by tempting them into sin or doubt, and to be tasked with torturing the souls of the damned for all eternity. Demons were perhaps the most feared monsters in medieval Europe because of this, and they were certainly the most frequently portrayed in medieval art. The pictorial code that conflated demons, Muslims, and Jews by depicting them with similar features was thus a powerful way in which medieval Europeans declared that non-Christians were not fully human and that Muslims and Jews were demonically inspired monsters who were working to undermine Christian society and harm individual Christians.
Another group that was routinely demonized in the wake of the eleventh-century reform movement was women. One of the central features of the eleventh-century reform movement was a push to impose celibacy on the Christian clergy in Western Europe. This drive for clerical celibacy led directly to an intensification of misogynist rhetoric as reformers tried to convince the clergy to leave their wives by cataloguing the sins associated with women, detailing their vices, and portraying them as dangerous sources of moral and sexual pollution that were capable of depriving even otherwise virtuous men of salvation.
This view of women was not entirely new, of course, but the rhetoric generated by the reform movement was distinguished by its virulence and ferocity. Women had always occupied a liminal place in ancient debates about the nature of humanity. According to Galenic and Aristotelian medical theory, women were by definition monstrous because they were deficient or unfinished men. And according to Greek, Roman, and medieval medicine, women’s bodies behaved in monstrous ways. Women produced polluting effluvia during menstruation that was widely believed to be poisonous, and according to Hippocrates, women who suffered from hysteria, which was a blanket term used to cover most female ailments, owed their condition to the fact that their wombs wandered around their bodies in a monstrous way.
The physical defects women were believed to possess were compounded by a range of other deficiencies that ancient authorities attributed to women, including an excess of emotion that left them unable to regulate themselves, and mental deficiency that disqualified them from public life and relegated them to the status of perpetual minors in Greek and Roman law.
While the status of women was improved by the influence of Christianity, which at least assumed that women were fully human and could achieve salvation, plenty of medieval Christian theologians shared the ancient world’s dim view of women and saw them mainly as sources of temptation that were best avoided.
The legacy of Eve was crucial here. Eve was the mother of humanity, but she was also widely regarded as the cause of its current lapsed state, as she had succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden and then led Adam astray. Most medieval theologians and reformers ignored the fact that Eve herself had been an innocent victim of Satan’s duplicity, and routinely laid the bulk of the blame for mankind’s fall at her feet. This attitude was so widespread that in medieval depictions of the Fall the serpent is sometimes portrayed as having a female head that mirrors Eve’s appearance and serves to emphasize her culpability. Sermons, penance manuals, exempla, and treatises all harped on this theme, asserting that all women shared Eve’s guilt and portraying women as obstacles to men’s salvation.
Unsurprisingly, much of this rhetoric centered on female sexuality. Unlike the Victorians who viewed women as effectively lacking libidos, the ancient and medieval West viewed women as sexually voracious sources of temptation for men. While men were thought to be less susceptible to their passions, women were believed to be controlled by theirs and were seen as deceptive sirens who would stop at nothing to satisfy their lust. This excessive sexuality also marked women as monstrous since it transgressed the bounds of social acceptability. By the twelfth century, monks like Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard were arguing that even nuns, who took vows of chastity, had the potential to lead men astray and were better avoided by any man who valued his immortal soul.
Charity Urbanski is a Teaching Professor at the Univerity of Washington. Her latest book is Medieval Monstrosity: Imagining the Monstrous in Medieval Europe, just published by Routledge.