Is it possible that monsters are a constructed part of the geographical terrain of the human-lived world rather than those oddities seen as contrary to nature? The following post features the opening paragraphs of a paper investigating this question, one that I will present at the Medieval Association of the Pacific’s annual meeting March 30-31st in Santa Clara, CA. The topic has been approached before, often indirectly, but my hope is that in applying the theories of Yi-Fu Tuan, we might gain new understanding of the human geography of Anglo-Saxon England.
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Much has been written about the Beowulf manuscript and the monsters it contains, The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle not excluded from such a focus. Yet perhaps the idea of the monstrous in Anglo-Saxon England is as much a concern of place and space as it is one of mythology, theology or monstrosity for the sake of monstrosity. The Letter of Alexander’s textual landscape, for instance, read through Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinctions of place and space, serves to create zones of habitation within which humans, animals and monsters might challenge categorization for the reader as well as the contrived audience of this spurious letter. Defying their otherwise physical characterizations, those creatures that populate the places of the text are more often than not either human or animal, while the spaces in the text are, at times, occupied by monsters.
Having recently contemplated the medieval boundaries of the human while in seminar, I am reluctant to place the marvelous beings Alexander encounters into strict categories. It could even be argued that the Anglo-Saxons generally made less of a fuss over these labels than the present day readers of their texts. Yet there still seems something to be gained from contemplating these categories that are inherently value-laden. Observing these creatures as benchmarks of space and place, indeed, challenges the ways in which one might typically go about categorizing. For, the Letter of Alexander seems to contain monsters that maintain their humanity as well as both human and non-human animals who have become monstrous. Instead of viewing each marvel in a vacuum, as one might be inclined to do in the study of a single image in a bestiary, Alexander challenges its reader to first locate each of its creatures within the landscape of the text before jumping to any hasty conclusions.
If we are to enlist Tuan’s distinction that place offers “security and stability” from which one becomes “aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space,” we might begin to geographically locate Alexander’s catalogue of living beings within either place or space. For a medieval audience, what creature could offer more security and stability than a human being? Crafted in the image of God, the human offers security through community and stability in physical form, particularly when thinking of Isodore of Seville’s strict corporeal allowances for a human. On the other hand, free from the constraints of human society while living in the open, monsters pose a multi-faceted threat to humans, their bodies, beliefs and, ultimately, their places.
In fact, the very definition of monsters relies upon a strictly ordered nature. John Friedman’s lengthy study of the etymology of the English word monster, through the Latin monstra and the Greek teras, shows its earliest uses as displaying signs of contra naturam, a meaning that beginning with Isodore of Seville, “transfer[red] from individual monstrous births to the idea of monstrous races.” Asa Mittman, too, relies on the ordering of nature for his definition of monsters, stating, “Once proper people, plants, animals, divine and demonic beings have been accounted for, what remains are the oddities of creation, which I would describe as monsters.” To these valuable definitions of monsters, I would add what I feel is a necessary geographical component. Monsters, however contrary to nature in form, inhabit those undifferentiated spaces of the world in the history of their becoming a place.
Since at least the classical age, and likely long before, monsters have been thought to populate the edges of the earth. This belief seems as strong as ever in medieval England. Jeffrey Cohen, Friedman, Mittman and Andy Orchard have each explored medieval monsters at length, using extant art pieces, travel/encyclopedic literature, and, in Orchard’s case, a single manuscript, to support their findings. Additionally, James S. Romm and Mary Campbell both investigate the “edges of the earth,” monsters included. The cumulative work of these scholars on monsters suggests, as an underlying theme, the importance of human geography. Both monsters and places are not things one just stumbles upon––they are instead constructed through action, perhaps even relying on one another for their existence.
–Christopher L. Stockdale