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The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages
Lisa Ruth Verner
New York: Routledge, 2005; Series: Studies in medieval history and culture 33

Based on a 2001 PhD dissertation at Tulane University.

"Until recently critics have treated medieval monsters as embarrassments, evidence of the decline of science during the 'Dark Ages' or as sensationalism. My dissertation contributes to the literary redemption of monsters by investigating how the symbolic meanings of the monster reflect larger changes that took place from late antiquity through the fourteenth century. A system in which the monster indicated the presence and did the bidding of God through its ontological stability yielded to a fluid system in which a monster could signify on the spiritual, moral, and secular planes. Despite such changes the monster remained symbolic and literary rather than becoming scientific and objective. Chapter one reviews the classical source for the medieval monster, Pliny's Natural History, and examines how early Christian thinkers made the monsters they inherited acceptable and useful to their fledgling religion. Pliny stabilized knowledge by reporting facts; the Physiologus substitutes God and scripture for the physical world as the stable referent while Isidore of Seville's Etymologies substitutes divine intention as revealed in words themselves. Chapter two considers the monster tracts of the Anglo-Saxon age to see how stability remains while the works under consideration become more rhetorically sophisticated. Chapter three investigates the twelfth-century phenomenon of the Bestiary, a transitional text between the stability of origins and the relativity of movement. Secular morality and practical advice appear in Bestiary entries beside the traditional spiritual interpretations of animals and monsters. Divinely determined, fixed interpretations coexist with opportunistic, individualized interpretations. Chapter four examines the fourteenth-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a work in which stable reference has almost disappeared. The monsters no longer have fixed meanings but possess a variety of arbitrary functions, many of which are religious, but some of which appear areligious or anti-Christian. Monsters function politically, commercially, empirically and ethnographically, autonomously within these areas. My conclusion reviews the changes undergone by the monster but considers their consistent use as symbols within literary endeavors. The changes that take place within the monstrous symbolic alongside the stability of the concept of the monster as necessarily symbolic reveal a mindset that progressively welcomes diverse and individualistic interpretation without questioning the necessity of interpretation." - abstract

173 p., bibliography, index.

Language: English

ISBN: 0-415-97243-4; LCCN: 2004-18259; LC: PR275.M625; DDC: 820.9/37/0902; OCLC: 56198725
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