Archive for the ‘Middle English’ Category

As part of my assistantship in the VFL I was assigned the job of curating an exhibition in the lobby of Pius XII Memorial Library, on display Oct.1-Nov.1 2012 . Below are some representative images and further information on its organization and content:


“How shal the world be served?” Aspects of the Medieval Secular World

Curated by Ashley R. Nolan

Though the term secular might suggest any range of discourses concerning the separation of church and state in contemporary culture, for the medieval audience this differentiation is much more complex. In fact, the medieval application of the word secular distinguishes the spaces of religious life—a person who lives ‘in the world’ (secular)—from a person who lives in monastic seclusion (religious).

The first part of this exhibition’s title takes its sentiment from the monk of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose exclamation “How shal the [earthly] world be served?” expresses his interest in earthly, rather than spiritual realms. The monk’s lavish clothing and yen for hunting further sets him at odds with the discipline of solemn study and physical labor followed by his Benedictine order, revealing fluidity—perhaps problematically—in what constitutes religious and secular pursuits. This exhibit of medieval manuscript facsimiles focuses on secular themes in vernacular and Latin manuscripts:

Secular Origins features manuscripts concerned with The Matter of Troy, or the texts that adapt the classical stories of the Trojan War, including the adventures of Aeneas.

Secular Adventure encompasses a wide assortment of early adventure narratives that span the regions of Germany, Budapest, and Spain; these facsimiles include some of the oldest and best-known manuscripts of this genre.

Secular Leisure develops the idea that those who had lots of money also had lots leisure time. These facsimiles detail some manifestations of this leisure in the hobbies of hunting and falconry, as well as in courtly love (amour courtois), and will demonstrate that the range of leisurely activities often extends into discourses of love.

Secular Health brings together a variety of texts concerned with health and wellbeing, and includes medical miscellanies, anatomical images, and herbal treatises.

Secular Animals displays an assortment of realistic and imaginary illustrations of animals. Perhaps the greatest appeal of these representations lies in the proximity with which humans interact with these animals and the imaginative influence they aroused in the medieval artists who rendered them.





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With the help of the SLU Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies I have organized the following sessions for the upcoming Medieval Congress. Please attend if you are interested and tell your friends!

  • Saturday 10:00 am: Session 384, Schneider 1340

Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain I: Spaces and Buildings

Spatial Paradox and the Ambiguity of Guthlac A

Lindy Brady, Univ. of Connecticut

This paper addresses the crucial role of borderlands as spaces where identity slippages take place in the Old English Guthlac A, calling into question the poem’s traditional interpretation as a triumph of Anglo-Saxon sanctity over native resistance.  While Guthlac is typically understood as a heroic conqueror who enters a hostile wilderness for righteous battle, I argue that the complex narrative of Guthlac A creates a paradoxical landscape that reveals Guthlac’s own character to be equally unstable.  The poem places three simultaneously occurring yet mutually exclusive conditions of ownership on the beorg—it is granted to the demons as a space of respite, awaits the claim of a better owner, and stands outside all patrial rights.  These paradoxes are necessary to the unity of the narrative, for while Guthlac is tasked with righteous battle, the demons are given just cause to resist him; yet moreover, the suggestion that Guthlac is unjustly seizing another’s land complicates his saintly identity. Crucially, the nature of the landscape itself is as ambiguous as its legal status.  Previous criticism on Guthlac A has assumed that the beorg undergoes a linear transformation from dangerous wilderness to locus amoenus and taken this as evidence of the triumph of (Anglo-Saxon) civilization over (native British) wilderness, particularly in recent postcolonial studies of the work.  Yet such theoretical approaches are predicated upon a transformation of the landscape only once the saint has triumphed.  Guthlac A, however, depicts the beorg as simultaneously dangerous and aesthetically desirable to both Guthlac and the demons before the saint’s victory, and to read him as the sole transformative force is to ignore these positive elements of the landscape that make his role as an agent of change far less clear.

“Eald is þes eorðsele”: The Ancestral Landscape of The Wife’s Lament

Joanna A. Huckins MacGugan, Univ. of Connecticut 

[Joanna cannot attend the conference this year, but her abstract is still pretty darn interesting!] The nature and meaning of the narrator’s physical space in the semantically ambiguous Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wife’s Lament” has been the focus of considerable scholarly debate. The wife describes þes eorðsele, the place of her confinement, as eald, which suggests that she inhabits a place of considerable antiquity. R.F. Leslie was the first to identify this space as a chambered barrow in 1961, and Sarah Semple suggested in 1998 that the Wife’s situation represents secondary burial in a prehistoric barrow tomb. A careful analysis of the language surrounding eorðsele and its synonym eorðscræfe reveals not only that “grave” is the most likely meaning for the Wife’s physical space, but also that this grave corresponds with the known archaeological context for Anglo-Saxon reuse of earlier burial monuments. The poem describes an ancient underground location within a constructed enclosure that is now isolated, abandoned and overgrown, a place imbued with pre-Christian meaning and associated with death and damnation. All of these characteristics, particularly the poet’s emphasis on a connection with the ancestral past, are perfectly in keeping with what we understand of Anglo-Saxon monument reuse. Yet nowhere in Anglo-Saxon literature does an ancient barrow actually serve as a prison for the living, and this is the central problem with a living narrator. The idea that the Wife is imprisoned for her sins suggests a possible penitential context for the poem that has not yet been addressed in the scholarship. The present study builds on Leslie’s original argument for a monumental barrow tomb, evaluates textual and archaeological evidence for secondary burial, and explores how the “monument reuse” interpretation can both clarify and complicate the text.

Jedburgh Abbey: A Case Study of Kingship

Jessica M. Aberle, Lehigh Univ.

The Border Abbeys were conceived of as active political strategies by David I as part of his campaign to conquer Northumbria and Cumbria. If the abbeys are examined within the framework of the twelfth-century Normano-Scottish Border, a pattern emerges suggesting that the iconography and locations were intentionally chosen to create a visually complex program that proclaimed David I’s royal identity as the new Northern King of Britain by asserting his claim to the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. David I created a new royal heartland at Roxburgh Castle with the foundation of Kelso, Melrose, and Jedburgh Abbeys (1128-1138). David I’s approach to landscape can be explored using three themes: Location as it Defines Influence, the Creation of a Lordly Landscape, and the Appropriation of Site. David I manipulated the placement of the ecclesiastical foundations within the landscape in order to lay claim to Northumbria as the Northern King of Britain. Through the creation of a carefully crafted landscape focused on Roxburgh, David I challenged Stephen the Norman king of England with the intention of creating a Scoto-Northumbrian kingdom with its center at Roxburgh. For the purposes of this conference, I would use Jedburgh Abbey (1138) as a case study to discuss how David I used both architectural cues and the careful selection of location to express both his identity as the Northern King of Britain and his claim to Northumbria.

Spatiality, Ecclesiastics, and Community in The Book of Margery Kempe

Chiu-Yen Lin, Tamkang Univ.

This paper aims to employ Henri Lefebvre’s theory of social space in discussing the issue of spatiality and its relation to Margery’s mystical space, her audience, and their community in The Book of Margery Kempe. The concept of spatiality is composed by three parts: mystical space, religious space, and communal space. The first part of the paper surveys the social and historical context of King’s Lin and Norwich in relation to the development of commerce and the changes on the communal life and religious space. Lefebvre’s conception of absolute space and abstract space will be employed to aid this survey. It attempts to sketch out the context of The Book which Margery’s mystical space is derived from. The second part of the essay deals with Margery’s mystical experience in relation to the communal space and religious space. I attempt to argue that the unconventional manner of Margery’s mystical experience which comes from her meditative dialogues with Christ and her performance of affective piety is produced from and shaped by the specific communal space which allows her to intrude the male dominated religious space. The third part traces the interaction between Margery’s mystical space, communal space and religious space with an emphasis on how Margery’s unconventional mystical experience negotiates and alters power relations and social relations in the communal and religious space. In conclusion, by brining Lefebvre’s theory into the discussion I attempt to sketch out the interconnection of mystical, religious, and communal spaces in that it reveals different levels of power struggles in terms of seizing religious and communal places and spaces while at the time Margery’s mystical experience is deeply embedded in the intertwined spaces.


  • Saturday 1:30pm: Session 443- Schneider 1340

Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain II: Places and Maps

England in the Douce 98 Place List

Camin Melton, Fordham Univ.

In the manuscript Douce 98 in the Oxford Bodleian Library there is a list of 108 places in England written in Anglo-Norman French and dating to c. 1300. Each location featured in the list is coupled with a single notable characteristic, ranging from the industry or food that a particular town or region was presumably known for at the time to more abstract and often surprising characteristics like the “whores of Charing” or the “marvel of Stonehenge.” Though this list is unique among the surviving corpus of Anglo-Norman literature, it has only received passing interest from historians and literary critics. In this paper, it is my goal to provide a modern edition of the list and to present a translation of its places and things. I will also speculate on the nature and purposes of the list by considering it in relation to the earlier and later lists that attempt to do something similar. This text is worthy of greater consideration than it has received because it occupies a space between the itinerary and the map, between the simple listing of counties, bishoprics, and saints’ resting places and the more elaborate description of medieval towns and countrysides, between the assertion of the voracity of English religious history and the assertion of England as a locus for widespread mercantile activity, and finally between the practical text and the narrative text (if such a distinction can be made). Any attempt to render this place list a simple apparatus for achieving one practical end must surely give way upon further examination of and close attention to its narrative movement, its humor, and the multiple cognitive activities it encourages, from remembering the names of places to understanding those places’ collectively imagined part in the English whole to mapping out the industrial nexuses of the island.

My Land, Myself: Topographical Narrative and the Construction of Identity in

Sir Isumbras

Andrew Richmond, Ohio State Univ.

In the Middle English romance of Sir Isumbras, the experience of the narrative itself is intimately entwined with the presentation of landscape. Progressing from the loss of a cultural power for manipulating the use of his geological, vegetative, and animal surroundings, the eponymous hero is forced to learn the contours, “nature” and uses of his environment(s) by physical experience. In addition to the trying experiences of dangerous (or ultimately beneficent) beasts, forests and rivers characteristic of the romance genre, Sir Isumbras demonstrates a peculiar fascination with the rise and fall of the “londe” itself, tracing the minute progress of the hero up hills and across stones. These elevated spaces serve as literal and figurative platforms upon which Isumbras can decry (and in doing so define) his state, while often simultaneously providing stages for the scenes of sudden action that thrust the plot forward. This paper, then, will seek to demonstrate how Sir Isumbras ultimately ties the social and cultural “ascension” of the hero and his family to his ability to manipulate the matter of the earth, as he moves from stone-bearer to blacksmith to recast knight, ready to employ his environmental education to reassert his control over the cultural as well as physical landscape of the Sultan’s kingdom. For Isumbras, worth (practical, economic, social) remains inextricably entwined with the land, and narrative itself becomes a literal mapping of one’s progress across a countryside of cause and effect.

Aerial and Serial Perspectives in the Description of Cities Genre

Chelsea Maude Avirett, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison

When Gregorius first encounters Rome, he stands overlooking it from a panoramic perspective. He later describes this vista in his description of the city (in The Marvels of Rome), by presenting the city as a landscape object, viewing it from a distance and as a single entity. This type of panoramic and aerial view of cities — or natural landscapes — occurs frequently in medieval literature: Chaucer gazes across the countryside as he dangles from an eagle’s claws, manuscripts depict contained civic spaces, and the descriptio or encomium urbis genre describes cities, including depictions of London, from a dual (and dueling) perspective: from a distance and from the city’s streets. This paper examines how authors use the imagined aerial perspective of cities throughout the late fourteenth century, at a time when depictions of serial civic walkers become more prevalent as well. Does the aerial perspective offer an ideal of community, which nuances or conflicts with the individual’s serial and often solitary movement? Or does it offer an atemporal and asocial view of society in which architecture and topography replace the living breathing city? This paper draws on intersections between landscape studies and the geographic subfield of mobility. While usually considered as disparate disciplines — landscapes are, after all, static while mobility studies seeks to interrogate the cultural implications of movement — this paper looks at what happens when medieval authors switch from and between an aerial, landscape perspective to a serial, mobile one. I focus on cities because — as Michel de Certeau demonstrates in his analysis of city walkers — the experience of viewing one and moving through one are, on the surface, radically different. However, for medieval authors, both offered a rich way to examine the productive tension between two modes of interacting with architectural space.

“His Troublous Dysease”: John Leland, Mental Illness, and the Map of England

Ruth Babb, St. Louis Univ.

In 1549, John Bale published a letter by John Leland, a noted antiquarian who had worked for King Henry VIII before he “fell besides his wittes” in 1547. This letter, which Bale calls a “newe yeares gyft” and dates in 1546 (though some scholars have put it as early as 1543) details Leland’s attempt to catalog and make available the contents of the holy libraries of England. While this task is daunting enough, and one that both authors consider a “laboriouse journey and costly enterprise,” it is not the end of Leland’s ambition. The bulk of his letter is taken up with a plan to show “the old glory of your renouned Britaine to reflorish through the world.” This plan, which Bale says would have been “one of the greatest wonders that ever yet was seane in this regyon,” was meant to consist of a map of the land engraved on a silver table, fifty-six books of English history, and a catalog of England’s royalty. Unfortunately Leland’s madness interfered, and his work was lost. I will argue that Leland’s obsession with the land and his then-unique approach to presenting it were linked to his illness. In order to accomplish this, I will contextualize the “Gift” within the historical conception of madness and Leland’s extant corpus to illuminate the time and nature of his sickness. Then Leland’s project will be compared to other cartographical undertakings of the time to show its unusual nature, and a close reading of Leland and Bale’s writing will tie Leland’s ambitious pitch with Bale’s prayers for his health. While I will not attempt a diagnostic stance from this evidence, I will argue that conceptualizing England played a large role in Leland’s eventual madness.


  • Saturday 3:30pm: Session 501- Schneider 1340

Landscape and Culture in Medieval Britain III: Domestic and Wild Spaces

Wild Spaces, Wild Creatures: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Heide Estes, Monmouth Univ.

The narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains three very different landscapes: the courts of Arthur and Bertilak; the wilderness through which Gawain travels between the two; and the site of the Green Chapel. Gawain’s wilderness is populated by ferocious (but real) wild animals as well as monsters we understand as fictional. Gawain must fight them off at every turn — but the weather is worse. And so is the Green Chapel, with the Green Knight grinding his axe to a point and threatening Gawain’s death. In this paper, I investigate these kinds of spaces using Lawrence Buell’s paradigm separating “space,” “place,” and “non-space” to argue that the locations and landscapes described in the poem veer between these categories. In addition, I use the insights of authors such as Andrew Furman and Kimberly N. Ruffin, who challenge ecocritical valorizations of wilderness, to explore the meanings of wilderness and wildness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A careful reading of that text illuminates some of the assumptions that underlie contemporary discussions of place and wilderness, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of ecocritical discussion of landscape.

Gawain in Space

Ally McNitt, Univ. of Oklahoma

Theories of literary analysis are valuable tools for reading The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnelle.  The poem’s setting is freighted with significance; forests are not merely forests, and  sprawling, open spaces are far from empty.  Spatial analysis of the poem offers a new perspective on an old story, a new and illuminating way to examine the significance of Gawain’s quest to represent Camelot’s social position through his actions at a distance and through his bearing the “essence” of that place while physically remote from it.

Enclosed in the Castle: Gwenyver in Malory’s Morte Darthur

Molly Martin, McNeese State Univ.

Castles play a prominent and very visible role in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, acting as geographical landmarks, political centers, homes, prisons, and custom keepers. They are fortified and defended, attacked and overrun. They witness tournaments and battles. They are loci for the commencement and completion of countless quests. Castles even participate in the narrative, notably in the text’s construction of masculinity and femininity, creating gendered relationships through their ownership, their habitation, and especially their spatiality. The placement of knights and ladies within and without the castle walls, at and below—and even through—their windows, betrays the precarious nature of Malorian gender identity. For women, the castle often becomes a means of enclosure. This narrowing of space can reflect the Arthurian society’s need to restrict females both literally and figuratively. Whether by choice or by force, a woman enclosed in the castle feels the imposed architectural and geographical restrictions. In theory, the walls of the castle define her overlapping (and often small) spheres of movement and influence. At several crucial points late in the Morte, Queen Gwenyver is emphatically enclosed behind and within walls. However, from within this space she wields authority uncharacteristic of females. This paper looks closely at Gwenyver in the Tower of London, where she secures and defends herself from the sieging Mordred. What becomes clear is a surprising conflict between the expectations of an enclosed, female space, and Gwenyver’s ability to maneuver around the gender and space restrictions that she faces. The result is a redefinition of the social space of the castle, one that to a large degree rejects seemingly engrained notions of male hierarchy. The walls do not narrow or limit Gwenyver, but rather enlarge her authority and force a reconsideration of gender roles at this moment in the text.

L’Eau et le merveilleux: Water and the Marvelous in French Arthurian Literature

Katherine Snider, Univ. of Washington–Seattle

In French Arthurian romances of the 12-13th centuries I propose to examine the reciprocal relationship between people and the water they dream.  At this time, in this place, in literature inspired by the characters and/or landscapes of Britain, these authors have not lost the dream of water, and water has not been reduced to the (urban) utility of H20 that Ivan Illich identifies as concurrent with that loss.  The ways in which these people have made water the bearer of meaning reflect concrete realities of water’s effect on the landscape.  Sometimes water determines boundaries.  Bridges and fords across a river are places of challenge and attempted separation between the land of Arthur’s court and “elsewhere”, often explicitly the Other World. Sources of water such as fountains are also the meeting-place of danger, challenger, and/or love—consensual or otherwise, marvelous or otherwise. The marvelous is but one manifestation of the cultural construction of certain peoples’ relationship to water.  In this paper, ecocriticism brings to medieval studies a focus on the non-human world as exemplified by water—which these texts often populate with the marvelous.  Ecocritical theory also valorizes water’s and human’s effect on place.  Texts considered will include: Marie de France’s Lanval, Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion and Lancelot ou le Chevalier de la charrette, the 13th century prose Lancelot du Lac, the Lai de Tyolet, and La Bataille Loquifer.

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Space, Place, and landscape

Fen Remnants outside Crowland, Lincolnshire, England (Justin Noetzel, 2009)

Fen Remnants outside Crowland, Lincolnshire, England (Justin Noetzel, 2009)

*“Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.” Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

*“Landscape is first of all an effort of the imagination—a construed way of seeing the world which is distinctive to a people, their culture, and even their anticipated means of encountering the holy… Landscape is always an expectation which is brought to the environment, an interpretative lens placed over an otherwise dull, placeless void.” Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred

*The landscape that is constructed in the Old English poetry and Latin Vita of St. Guthlac is a “cultural image of the physical environment that mediates between the human mind and nature.” (Alfred K. Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Nation Building”)

Wisdom Poetry

1. What was the function of wisdom poetry for Anglo-Saxon culture, and what does it tell us about cultural beliefs and values? What differences exist in content or style between Maxims I and Maxims II?

2. What metaphors and images are the most prevalent, and why? (Lightness and darkness come to mind, for instance). How do the heroic cultural values compare to the Christian ones, and does one ethos in any way conflict with the other?

[***When we discussed this question, Anthony recommended A Store of Common Sense: Gnomic Theme and Style in Old Icelandic and Old English Wisdom Poetry by Carolyne Larrington. She is a fantastic dinner companion, by the way, because Michael and I had the pleasure to join her, Dr. Acker, and a few others at the London Grill in Kalamazoo a few years ago.]

The Seafarer and The Wanderer?

Norse Wisdom Literature: “Hávamál” from The Poetic Edda

-The poem’s context in Exeter Book with so much other wisdom literature “indicates how attractive to the AS mind was the rehearsal and propagation of received wisdom and knowledge in formulaic utterances, and the exercise of intelligence, often of ingenuity, in probing through the surface form of things to their inner construct and in perceiving in circumstantial detail of events the general precept. Broadly speaking, all this lore is anthropocentric: knowledge—of the phenomena and creatures of the physical world, as of kings and communities of history and the accrued experience of the human condition—is highly prized in so far as it forms a pattern according to which the discerning individual may rough-hew the ends of his own life.” (Bradley 344)

-Section A begins with nature of wisdom poetry and discusses the order of life on earth; Section B (and C) discusses nature, materialism, daily human activities, and proper gender roles; Section C discusses kings, warriors, and poets (and their proper places)

-Cotton Tiberius B MS Context and what precedes and follows this poem: “Menologium defines the process of the liturgical year, by which men may make the purposive orderliness of sacred history the organizing principle of daily living; Maxims II offers general precepts about the divinely ordained laws of the natural world and of the human hierarchy; and the [C-version of the Anglo-Saxon] Chronicle keeps the historical record of the actual vicissitudes of governing and being governed in an imperfect and transient world” (Bradley 512)

-the proper order and place of all things with the formula “X sceal on Y”: the wolf must be/ lives in the grove, the boar must be in the woods, etc.; the thief must go about in the dark weather, the demon/troll/monster must dwell in the fen, alone within the land (“þeof sceal gangan þystrum wederum. þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian ana innan lande.”)

3. What did you find interesting about the less famous and less read Old English poetry (e.g. The Rune Poem, Metrical Charms, and Durham)?

4. What culturally constructed worldview (beliefs, values, landscape, geography, etc.) do these poems illustrate?


Is “is so slippery, cold, / glitters like glass or gems / fashions a floor of frost– / Marvelous thing to behold!”

Eoh: “Yew is a tree that has rough bark / stands firm in the earth / protects the hearth . Rooted deep, it lights up parks.”

Ac feeds pigs who feed humans, and used for ship-construction

Aesc makes good shields

Heroic, Elegiac, and Other Poetry

-Previous Discussion Topics:

1. Poetics of Space and Architecture in “Guthlac A”

2. “Lichoma ond Sawl”: Bodily Conflict in the Poems

3. The Medieval British Fenland-Literature Tradition

4. Exeter Book and Other Anglo-Saxon (Dis)Continuities

Anglo-Saxon Landscapes

  • Metrical Charms (Raffel 216) (find them here)

-“the charms are directed against a wide array of maladies and misfortunes, including fevers, flux, dysentery, nosebleed, wens, chicken-pox, a noxious dwarf, various wounds, the theft of cattle or horses, evil spirits, the loss of a swarm of bees, unfruitful land, and aches in the eyes, ears, stomach, and teeth” (Fulk and Cain 42)

-conceptions of land: Charm for Unfruitful Land involves digging turfs from the edges of your land and mixing them with your cows’ milk, a splinter from each kind of tree on your property, and holy water…

[***Here’s a follow-up question: this poem describes the binary pairs of the world’s creation, including sky and river, waves and land, flood and fields, but the OE for that last pair is “flod wið flode.” Am I crazy, or should that last OE word instead be “folde”?]

  • Durham (D&M 125; Cambridge, Univ. Lib. Ff.1.2)

-“Known through Britain this noble city. / Its steep slopes and stone buildings / are thought a wonder; weirs contain / its fast river; fish of all kinds / thrive here in the thrusting waters. / A great forest has grown up here, / thickets throng with wild creatures; / deer browse in the deep dales” (1a- 8b)

The Fens…

5. Where does mythology, hybridity, and a hybrid landscape fit in this dichotomous world?

[My argument: Delineated coastland is easily understandable, as in the land and sea dichotomy expressed in Maxims I and The Order of the World, but the symbolic fens and the geographic Fens of modern Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are metaphorically hard to define and don’t fit the simple land and water binary. The Fens muddy the waters in this attempt at distinction (pun intended) and are more three-dimensional space than simple two-dimensional coastline. Here the land and water exist together in a tumultuous and hybridized state—the water of the Fens (both medieval and modern) is often silty and sandy, and therefore hard to navigate, and the land can be so muddy and watery that it is difficult to pass on foot. This land/water hybridity made the landscape hard to pass through physically and difficult to comprehend intellectually, and so the Anglo-Saxon people encoded fens and swamps as a monstrous entity and an isolating force. This claim is demonstrated by the examples below where fens act as an impenetrable boundary, a corruption of the gift of life, a reeking and stagnant plague on the landscape, the location of harmful plant and animal life, and the abode of monsters of demons.]


 6. What the hell is this poem really about? Does it fit better as an anonymous elegy, or a story from Germanic legend that the audience should know, or a riddle with s specific solution? History, myth, or metaphor?

-“Wulf is on an island, I on another. An island of forts [that island is secure], surrounded by swamp. That island belongs to bloody barbarians: Will they receive him, if he comes with force? (“Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre. / Fæst is þæt eglond, fenne biworpen. / Sindon wælreowe  weras þær on ige; willað hy hine aþecgan, / gif he on þreat cymeð. Ungelice is us” (4a- 7b).

-Alfred describes how water (grace, love, sacredness, and “the drink of life”) is a gift from God that He “pledged for the well-being of His people” (1a- 2b), and Gregory’s text supplies a refill of water for Alfred’s readers

-Water’s source is heaven, and it is drawn from there by “a chosen few / Who make scared books their study” and carefully spread the word among mankind, but, others “pour it freely over the land, / Though care must be taken lest it flow / too loud and fast across the fields, / Transforming them to bogs and fens [fenne]” (19b- 21b)

-“enjoyable for their wit and its poetic expression, are also of critical importance for the insight they afford into the intellectual structure of the As mind. The mentality which can simultaneously engage with the sense of the literal statement and with implicit and ‘truer’ import of the concealed meaning is a mentality alert to symbolism and allegory; and not surprisingly techniques of the riddle may be traced in poetry of other genres where ambiguity and systematic symbolism or allegory are deliberately cultivated” (Bradley 368)

7. How does Beowulf fit into all of this nonsense?

-Grendel is described as “se grimma gæst… mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold, fen ond fæsten” (“the fierce creature, the famed border-wanderer, he who occupied the moors and fens as his stronghold” (102 104)

*“The incredible nature of [the Guthlac stories] is irrelevant to the argument; the spirit which created them is an indisputable fact. They show something of what the barrier of the fens meant in the lives of people at this time. Only familiarity with the region in its most somber aspects can do justice to the fears of these early settlers. Many centuries did not assuage their terror; and at last the horror of the fen passed into tradition—so deeply was it grounded in the Saxon mind. Nor were all the horrors imaginary. They had indeed a very substantial foundation; for the Fenland was a pestilential place ‘of-times clouded with the moist and dark vapors’ [e.g. ague and malaria]” (H. C. Darby, The Medieval Fenland)

8. What other Landscapes or spaces are especially noteworthy in the Anglo-Saxon World (e.g. in The Wife’s Lament)? Where else is this kind of cultural construction of a landscape present? What about the later medieval world, or areas other than England?

[***This question guided much of our conversation. Amanda brought up the crumbling Roman stone- and earthworks that are being reclaimed by nature in The Ruin, and Thomas wondered how fens figure in gothic literature. Anthony added two examples of hybridized culturally constructed –scapes (Eolus’ mixed sky and sea in The Aeneid, and Prospero’s chaotic land and sea storm in The Tempest) and mentioned a tantalizing detail from The Brut that involved ponds, fish, and elves. Beth compared the Fens to the somewhat analogous otherworldly mist in Irish mythology, which blurs that land/ sea differentiations, and we also discussed peat bogs and coasts and their respective preservational (e.g. Seamus Heaney) and liminal powers. Nicely done, y’all—nicely done.]


Select Bibliography [***slightly enhanced from the paper handout]

Acker, Paul. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. New York: Garland, 1998. Print.

Aertsen, Henk. “Wulf and Eadwacer: A Woman’s Cri de Coeur—For Whom? For What?” Companion to Old English Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen abd Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: VU U P, 1994: 119-144. Print.

Daniëlli, Sonja. “Wulf, Min Wulf: An Eclectic Analysis of the Wolf-Man.” Neophilologus 91 (2007): 505–524. Print.

Delanty, Greg and Michael Matto, Ed. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Desmond, Marilynn. “Voice of Exile: Feminist Literary History and the Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Elegy.” Critical Inquiry 16.3 (1990): 572-590. Print.

DiNapoli, Robert. “The Heart of the Visionary Experience: The Order of the World and its Place in the Old English Canon.” English Studies 79.2 (1998): 97-108. Print.

Fulk, R. D. and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Howes, Laura L., Ed. Place, Space, and Landscape in Medieval Narrative. Knoxville: U Tennessee P, 2007. Print.

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My interest in medieval demons began with my research for an entry in the Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. I have been interested in monsters in general for a long time now, such as Beowulf’s Grendel and the draugar of Icelandic sagas, but it was a fascinating experience to focus specifically on demons, creatures that I define as fallen angels and malign supernatural beings of a nature intermediate between gods and men. In the early stages of this process I began to think more critically about what exactly a medieval demon is, and the wisdom of those who are more knowledgeable than I was a big help. For instance, in an email Peter Dendle pushed me away from simply classifying kinds of demons and towards thinking about different manifestations of “the demonic” in the medieval world, what he calls “a more nebulous, porous, [and fluid] conceptualization of a force, diffuse agency, or set of active principles, that may take on specific forms but is not necessarily bound by those forms.” Therefore, my revised understanding of “the demonic” refers to fallen angels, of course, but can also include elements of the natural world (storms, floods, and crop failure), harmful animals (whales and wolves), and even humans (invading armies, heretics, Jews, and Ethiopians). Along similar lines, Dendle mentioned how some prayers in the medieval liturgy use the same terminology for casting out demons and fighting storms, and some medical literature conflates demons (or demonic agencies) with elves, poisons, and worms, and considers these the cause of a wide range of physiologic dysfunctions.

After completing my research and my encyclopedia entry, I have come up with a working thesis that tries to account for many manifestations of the demonic in medieval European texts. I claim here (and possibly in a future published project) that medieval conceptions of the demonic evolve over the centuries, from an anonymous demonic plurality in earlier texts (e.g. Anglo-Saxon poetry) towards individually classified, named, and acting demons in later texts (e.g. the writings of Caesarius of Heisterbach, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante). These later medieval literary and philosophical texts describe the activities of individual demons and seek to classify demonic nature. Furthermore, the precise definition of “demon” and “the demonic” expands in the later medieval centuries to include not only fallen angels but also evil spirits in general, especially as we transition into the Early Modern World.

Question 1: Do you have any initial objections or points of clarification for my thesis? In addition to the examples that I list below, what other early or later medieval texts, art, or other sources would you add to this discussion that fit into my thesis, complicate it, or even contradict it? (For instance, my fellow Woode-walkers brought Anselm and Augustine into the conversation and added a great deal to my understanding of demons in medieval theological thought, specifically their ordering among moral and immortal beings and their possible intercessory nature.)

Early Medieval Demonic Plurality

Peter Dendle describes anonymous and plural demonic nature in Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. This manifestation can be found in texts like St. Boniface’s letter of 746 or 747 to King æthelbald of Mercia, in which Boniface describes how a single evil spirit (“malignus spiritus”) drove the king’s predecessor to a “madness clamoring with [multiple] demons” (“cum diabolis sermocinans”) (Dendle 90). Such coordinating (and often apposite) descriptors of demons fluctuate between a singular presence and a host of demons, and this manifestation occurs in Old English as well. Vercelli Homily 12 apposes the plural “helle gæstes” and “dioflum sylfum” (“evil spirits” and “devils themselves”) with the singular “dioful” (Dendle 91), and in the poem Juliana, the son or emissary of Satan is described as “wrohtes wyrhtan” and “fyrnsynna fruman” (“worker of evil” and “author of old sins,” lines 346 and 347), but this individual demon claims responsibility for endless evil and all of the crimes against humanity, including the original temptation in the Garden of Eden. In these examples and many others, demonic nature is a collective entity and one that fluctuates indiscriminately between a singular presence and a host of creatures. Demons also figure prominently in the Latin and Old English texts on the Anglo-Saxon saint Guthlac of Mercia, and I will write about him in the next blog post!

This plurality is also shown in the tenth-century Old English poem Christ and Satan, which centers on Christ’s triumph of Satan in the desert, while looking backwards towards the expulsion of Satan and the rebel angels from heaven, as well as forwards to Christ’s death, the harrowing of hell, and the resurrection. The early section of the poem includes a lot of “woe is me” sentiment by Satan and the demons, as they look back on their short existence in heaven and their current dire fate in the fires of hell, and the poet uses such sentiment to remind his reader to follow the righteous path and avoid such eternal punishment. The poem describes the demons in many colorful ways, including: “atole gastas, swarte and synfulle” (hideous spirits, black and full of sin (line 51)); “earme æglecan” (wretched monsters (74)); “blacan feond” (black fiend (195)); “godes andsacan” (God’s adversaries (279)); and “werige gastas, helle hæftas” (accursed spirits, prisoners of hell (628)). The poem also includes a further description of demonic classification, as one of the demons describes their nature: “Now this multitude must lie here according to its crimes; some to flutter aloft and fly above the ground. Fire envelopes each one, though he may be on high. He is never allowed to touch those blessed souls which seek upwards there from the earth; but I with my hands am allowed to snatch down to the depths the heathen chaff, God’s adversaries. Some are to roam about through the land of men and often stir up strife in the families of men throughout middle-earth” (254ff, all translations are from Bradley). In this poem the demons speak as a collective “we,” but also as a singular “I,” and they/ it are forever intertwined with Satan, but they/ it also seem to hate him for his overweening pride, telling him: “your appearance is hideous; we have all fared as wretchedly because of your lies. You told us a truth that the ordaining Lord of mankind was your son; now you have all the more torment” (53ff).*

Question 2: What connection or similarity exists between the demons (and specifically Satan) and other miserable exiled wanderers in Old English literature? In terms of the circumstances and reasons for exile, or the duration of the sentence, does a comparison between Christ & Satan and The Wanderer (for instance) reveal anything about Anglo-Saxon cultural and religious values?

Late Medieval Individual Demons

John Shinners’ textbook Medieval Popular Religion includes the chapter “Devils, Demons, and Spirits,” which describes a number of encounters with demons in rural Western Europe. In these stories and in texts like the fourteenth-century mystical vision Piers Plowman, we encounter individual demons with fabulous names and distinct personalities—Langland’s Gobelyn, Ragamoffyn, and Astarot are a few demons that immediately come to mind. Dante’s vision of hell in the Inferno includes the demon Alichino (the Allurer), who wields a hook and keeps the souls of the damned in boiling pitch, and he is assisted by Barbariccia (the Malicious), Draghignazzo (the Fell-dragon), and Malacoda (the Evil Tail). Demons also feature prominently in medieval drama, such as the buffoon like “stage demon” who appears in various works, including “Fall of Man” from the fifteenth-century York Mystery Plays, and Tutivillus, from the fifteenth-century morality play Mankind, who parodies monastic life. Also, one of my colleagues mentioned how Satan transgresses traditional dramatic boundaries by starting out in the audience  in the York Plays, and this invasion is echoed and answered by Christ’s invasion of hell in the harrowing episode after his crucifixion.

The later medieval period also featured many religious and philosophical texts that classified demonic nature by describing the different types and characteristics of the demonic. Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages describes a number of these demonological texts, including Caesarius of Heisterbach’s thirteenth-century Dialogus Miraculorum, which describes demons as a collective, infighting, and chaotic group that is often referred to as “the devil.” Caesarius (among other authors) describes human susceptibility to demonic sexual harassment and nocturnal intercourse by the female succubus and the male incubus, and these demons could fashion their earthly bodies from wasted human seed. Thomas Aquinas writes on demonic nature in his thirteenth-century texts, including De Malo and De Trinitate, where he claims that demons could change sex (and shape) to acquire human seed from a man and deliver it to a woman to propagate monstrous offspring. The Visio of fourteenth-century peasant woman Ermine de Reims describes how she suffered through nightly visitations by demons in the forms of animals, people, angels, and even God, and these demons often engaged in lascivious sexual acts. (During our discussion we also talked about related manifestations of the demonic in medieval visionary literature, such as the writings by and about women like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.) The late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century German churchman Johannes Trithemius furthers demonic classification in his writing—the Mystical Chronology divides demons by their elemental nature into Igneum (fiery demons), Aereum (air demons who cause overcast skies, thunder, and lightning), land-demons (who inhabit the woodlands and caves), and Aquaticum (water demons who topple ships and drown humans). Leander Petzoldt describes Trithemius’ demonology in the essay “The Universe of Demons and the World of the Middle Ages” in Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Newbauer’s Demons: Mediators between this world and the Other, which also describes the demonic spirits through which magicians could communicate over long distances in the Stenographia, including the water demon Hydriel, the air demon Icosiel, and Buriel the cave-dwelling light-shunner. (By the way, Jeffrey Cohen provides an insightful meditation on the demonic origins of Merlin in the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his blog In the Middle.)

Finally, medieval manuscripts showed the evil and chaos of Satan and demons through their illuminations. In stark contrast to the bright, peaceful, and graceful depictions of angels, the demons of medieval manuscripts are often dark and shadowy creatures with scowling or lascivious expressions and contorted bodies, shaggy hair, horns, long pointed or hooked noses, gaping jaws, faces that combine human and animal elements, goat or bird legs, hooves or claws, tails, and bird- or dragon-like wings. The thirteenth-century De Brailes Psalter (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 330) shows the demons being cast out of the orderliness of heaven and into the folio’s bottom half (image to the left), where they gain snarling and hideous demonic faces. The fifteenth-century Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 134) features numerous images of Satan and his attendant demons, such as fol. 98r at the top of this post. This astonishing manuscript depicts numerous demons attending to Satan or torturing humans with pitchforks, and no two share the same monstrously animalistic facial and bodily features. The overall effect is a haunting tableau of beaks and horns, tails and wings, and the many faces of evil, all with snarling and sadistic grins that forever seek to tempt the innocent and torture the damned. In addition to these visualizations, demons are also pictured as more human-like creatures, albeit with deformed and barbaric features. Norbert H. Ott’s essay “Facts and Fictions: The Iconography of Demons in German Vernacular Manuscripts” in Petzoldt and Newbauer’s collection describes the demonic as “a manifestation of the different, the non-human, the sub-human, signifying a disordered and therefore threatening nature” (27). Because of this sub-human nature, demons were also equated with the cultural and geographic “Other” as defined by medieval Christian Europe, especially Jews, dark-skinned Ethiopians, and the fantastic monsters of travel literature.

Question 3: Where does this impulse to understand and categorize demonic nature come from, and what connection do these texts have to medieval concepts of science and medicine? What changes in religious thought, philosophy, or even English (French, German, etc.) culture lead to such a seemingly different and more complex understanding of demons and demonic nature?

Question 4: How does medieval demonology connect with or progress towards the early modern witch-hunting craze and a broader definition of the term “demon”?

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*There are also a lot of fascinating spatial dimensions to Christ & Satan, and my fellow Woode-walkers know that I am intensely interested in spaces, places, and landscapes. These insights will have to wait for a future post, however, where I will examine how the demons are exiled from the “settled abode” and “wine-hall of the doughty” of heaven and forced to walk to earth as exiles, but also, paradoxically, remain trapped in the dark (but full of blazing fire) and confining (but also cavernous) abode of hell. There is something really interesting about heaven and hell as contrasting (or perhaps negatively related) homes or halls, each of which is heavily fortified in its own right, but such thoughts will have to remain on the back burner for now.


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Strickland, Debra Higgs. Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

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