Medieval Monstrosity: Imagining the Monstrous in Medieval Europe
By Charity Urbanski
An examination of monster theory and how it applies to the Middle Ages, this book covers the way people looked at the monsters of literature and imagination (dragons, werewolves, revenants and monstrous races) and how they made monsters out of the other (women, children with disabilities, non-Christians). About half the book is analysis and the other a collection of primary sources.
Modern monster theory provides us with the tools to investigate monsters as cultural creations that do meaningful work, but the study of monsters is transhistorical and transregional. In order to understand the monsters produced by medieval Europeans, we also need to examine how they defined the monstrous, and how they theorized the functions of the monster. Medieval Europeans derived their views about monstrosity from their cultural ancestors, the ancient Greeks and Romans, but interpreted monstrosity within a Christian framework. For them, monsters carried philosophical and theological meaning. Monsters were representatives of alterity that helped medieval Europeans define their own identities and explore the dialectics of good and evil, civilized and barbaric, self and other, but they were also regarded as portents, as manifestations of God’s ineffable power and part of a divine plan.
Who is this book for?
This book serves as a good introduction to the idea of monsters in the Middle Ages, giving a nice blend of analysis with the actual sources themselves. While aimed at undergraduates, the book will be useful for those interested in a wide range of topics of folklore and how medieval Europeans approached other peoples. The large selection of translated primary sources will also help introduce readers to even more material.
Charity Urbanski is a Teaching Professor at the University of Washington, where she focuses on the political and cultural history of twelfth-century France and England. Click here to view her university webpage.
Charity explains there are two reasons for writing this book:
The first is that I’ve always been fascinated by monsters, and I’m constantly running across them in my sources. I wanted to explore what monsters like revenants, werewolves, and dragons meant in medieval Europe and how they functioned, and use them to explore how the medieval worldview differed from our own. The more important reason is that this book is really a return to the questions that drew me to medieval European history in the first place. I wanted to understand my own world and understand how and why certain cultural attitudes and assumptions had come into being. Specifically, I wanted to know why things like racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia existed. I’ve spent much of my career thinking about those questions and this book is in part an attempt to answer them. That’s why I devoted so much of the book to the rhetoric of monstrosity and how it was used to demonize others. I really hope that people in general will find that part useful, and that it helps explain how we got to where we are as a culture.
See also her article: How to Make a Monster
You can learn more about this book from the publisher’s website