Monsters and Criminals: Defining Humanity in Old English Poetry

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This article argues that in Old English poetry a monster is a creature who inverts humanity so as to threaten society.

It begins by outlining the definitions of monsters that were passed down to the Anglo-Saxons from three great authorities: Pliny, Augustine, and Isidore. Despite the availability of these authoritative definitions, however, Old English poets appear not to have used them. Instead, as can be seen in the depiction of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon in Beowulf, monsters are distinct from both animals and human beings in their threat to society. This threat is not merely physical; in fact, its most troubling aspect is the way in which monsters parody and invert the society that attempts to exclude them. Thus the attack of the dragon arises out of the theft of the socially symbolic cup, and Grendel is a ‘hall-thegn’ who devours his ‘fellows’.

The depiction of the monstrous races in The Wonders of the East similarly grapples with the problem of creatures who are like human beings and yet insistently not human. The crucial defining line is not species (a 16th century invention) but rather conformance to social rules.

With this criteria, it is possible to identify other monsters: Cain, Heremod, Holofernes, and perhaps even the Wanderer. Understanding the importance of conformance to social rules also allows a modern reader to observe the close connection between the thief and the þyrs in Maxims II, as well as the similarities between wolves and criminals, and criminals and monsters, in Maxims I. In all these cases, it is the social rules constituting humanity which provide the framework within which monsters are presented in Old English poetry.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMonsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe
EditorsK.E. Olsen, L.A.J.R. Houwen
Place of PublicationLeuven, Paris and Sterling
Publication statusPublished - 2001

Publication series

NameMediaevalia Groningana

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