Monday, September 29, 2008

Freaks and Monsters

Whenever I teach the medieval lit survey, I always have a theme. The problem with any medieval lit survey is that there's no way you can do everything important. Even if you do fifteen major works in a class (a prodigious number for a 15-week semester) ... well, there are far more than fifteen major works of medieval literature, aren't there? Having a theme keeps the class from feeling scattershot, and keeps me from feeling guilty about cutting so many important texts.

The last two times I taught the class, the theme was "Sex, Love, and Marriage in Medieval Literature," but frankly, I'm getting really sick of talking about sex in class.* I wanted to do either "Faith and Belief in Medieval Literature" or "War and Violence in Medieval Literature," but my students requested monsters, so monsters it will be.

The working theme, then, will be "Freaks and Monsters in Medieval Literature,"** which will give me a lot of choices of texts. One thing I worry about, though, is small texts -- the short stories, short poems, etc. For example, I can't very well teach the class without including "Bisclavret," but making them buy an entire volume of Marie de France for just one story doesn't seem cost-effective on an undergrad budget. I'm hoping to fulfill all the short texts in just 1-2 volumes.

So, does anyone out there know of any anthologies of medieval monster literature appropriate for undergrads (i.e., in translation)? I know JJ Cohen has a couple of volumes of medieval monster theory (which I'm obviously going to have to re-read), but I'm thinking of primary texts.

Surely with In the Middle and the Mearcstapa crowd, if there are any good anthologies out there, you folks would know about them.

*If you could send that sentence back in time for me to read when I was sixteen, I'd not have even been able to recognize that words could be put together to form such a thought.
** The running gag among the medieval-oriented students is that with that theme, I'll just point to myself and the lecture will be over. I told them I'll just bring a big mirror to class and let them gaze into it for their research.


  1. You know, I just finished a summer course proposal on this very topic (though I love your title so much more than mine -- "Literature to 1500: Monsters in the Middle Ages". I actually couldn't find anything in that vein, though clearly I'd be excited to know about it. I ended up deciding that I'd assign *two* lais (Bisclavret, and then Lanval because -- loathly ladies are kinda monstrous, right? And raise interesting questions about gender...) and then make them buy Marie and Chickering's Beowulf. The rest -- well, I think I'm just putting together a course pack.

    I'll be intrigued to see what I missed if there is an anthology available....

  2. Its been a long time since I've attempted a version of a medieval monsters course -- and I should do one again, they are always fun and successful. I don't know of any anthologies of primary texts: doesn't that mean we need you, Dr Nokes, to edit such an anthology? I'd buy it.

    Like MKH I'd put Bisclavret and Beowulf in there, and then Sir Gowther, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and maybe Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mandeville's Travels...

  3. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature will do a customized course pack for you with just the texts you want. They have Bisclavret.

    Here's their website.

  4. Have you considered looking at marginalia? The Luttrell Psalter is an excellent example of this. Heck, there's an image of Becket getting the martyr treatment while three (or four?) grotesques look on and almost appear to be participating in the event happening in their midst - if memory serves, one grotesque almost seems to be assisting the knight dispensing Henry's 'justice'.

    And of course, you have images of Christians fighting Saracens, wonderful images of Constantinople, of cripples (three images as far as I know - one of a line of cripples going to a shrine out in the middle of a lake; a saint [in the next folio or two from the above image] preaching to a group of people and one man seems to have a grossly enlarged head [perhaps hydrocephalus?], and then the image of the crippled boy begging for alms that everyone seems to know quite well), and a lot more.

    If you want to get into some downright weird stuff, pull up the Smithfield Psalter - there's quite a bit of stuff in there, including rabbits hunting men (talk about role reversal!), animals dispensing medicine to human patients, and the like.

    You may want to throw in Wonders of the East - I think there's an Old/Middle English translation of it, but it's pretty lousy when you compare it to the Latin (which isn't exactly great in and of itself, either).

    I know my comments about marginalia don't exactly constitute 'literature', but the fact that they're included in literary works quite deliberately speaks to the mindset of the people who created these works and who commissioned them.

  5. Er, Smithfield Decretals. Woops.

  6. Many of Marie de France, including the one you mentioned, have been translated by Judy Schoaf and can be found here:

  7. I'm going to assume that your school doesn't let you put together a 'course reader' with photocopied sections from various resources? My supervisor is teaching a similar sort of course right now, and he made the kidlets buy Beowulf, but beyond that everything they've read has come in one comb-bound reader from the University Copy Shop.

    Can you scan smaller texts and upload to Blackboard or WebCT or similar? (much as I hate them) One course I took in second year the library scanned chapters from various texts and uploaded them to something called 'e-reserve', which saved the teachers the trouble of doing it.

    For something as tiny as Bisclavret- depending on how many students you have- you could even go the old-fashioned photocopied handout route?

  8. I promised myself that I wouldn't do another edited collection for a long while, but so many people have said (in the comments thread above and in private e-mails) that we need a medieval monsters anthology that I might actually consider editing one.

    If authors are dead, I suspect they are easier to work with; most importantly, they meet deadlines!

    Of course, I won't lift a finger (talon, in this case?) to do anything unless I've got a publisher in the bag. I've already got an edited collection languishing in an endless series of blind submissions because the original publisher changed editors, and the new editor didn't want it. It sucks. In fact, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, it's the suckiest suck to ever suck in publication Sucktown.

    Of course, that might mean putting off my current monograph, *Medieval America*, and I don't know if I want to do that. It's stuck in the mud because I'm teaching 5 courses this semester (3 freshman comps), and I actually find myself missing it.

  9. Anonymous9:00 PM

    Would a bestiary be too obvious?
    (And IIRC T H White published one in modern English, so there's a chance it's still in print.)

  10. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Try this, a transaltion of BISCLAVRET in a usable PDF

    Also, something I have often enjoyed is explaining the belief in monsters that was real in the Medieval period. Combine your desire for Faith & Belief with Monsters. They are much scarier if you actually believe they exist.

  11. It's really grest post! Thanks.