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Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature by Dana M. Oswald (review)
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Having by now achieved the well-earned status of subdiscipline, the field of monster studies consistently produces some of the most interesting, daring, and provocative work in medieval studies. Dana Oswald’s Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature is no exception, and this well-written book is a pleasure to read. Like many other scholars, Oswald argues that “monstrous bodies represent the problems inherent in human bodies” (p.2), and that the boundaries they help to establish between the human and the nonhuman are by no means as clear-cut as either authors or audiences would like. Her project, built around a series of imaginative and theoretically informed close readings, bridges the traditional divide between Old and Middle English literature, although it finally upholds a very clear distinction between the two: in Old English literature, monstrosity is a permanent state and can only be erased, while in Middle English literature, monsters can be transformed or converted. Oswald is particularly interested in the categories of sex, gender, and desire, and the ways in which monstrous bodies stretch the boundaries of these categories, ultimately confirming their instability.

For Old English literature in particular, the search for evidence of “sex, gender, and desire” can be frustrating, but Oswald’s chosen tools of analysis—Lacanian and feminist theories of subjectivity and desire—are particularly useful for eliciting these hidden cultural elements from sometimes uncooperative texts. The first half of the book deals with this less yielding material, and it begins its investigation in Chapter One with the visual depictions of monstrosity in the illustrated Wonders of the East. In these illustrations, Oswald argues, the depiction of monstrous genitals produces a violent response in some audiences, resulting in the erasure of potentially offending penises and breasts. In some cases, the genitals are not even drawn in the first place, or are covered up with other images, yet comparison with other manuscripts allows Oswald to establish the nonpresence of these genitals as a conscious choice by the artists, since they do exist in the “metatext.” These different forms of erasure—scratching out, “never drawing,” and revision—point to strong anxieties on the part of both artists and audiences. Yet these erasures are not just examples of Anglo-Saxon prudery, Oswald suggests, since the same artists and audiences allow other depictions of genitals to remain; instead, they are responses to the threat that these hybrid monsters pose to the boundary between human and monster. Their reproductive capacity, she claims, is even more threatening than their monstrosity, but the erasure of their genitals leaves behind a trace of that anxiety that is visible to modern readers of the images.

The same theme of erasure carries through into Chapter Two, where Oswald examines the sexual undertones to Beowulf’s battles with Grendel and his mother—undertones that are deliberately erased in Beowulf’s later recountings of the battles. Like the visual erasures in Wonders of the East, these literary erasures call attention to what is missing; in this case, Oswald suggests, they “highlight moments of anxiety particularly related to the body” and to Beowulf’s masculinity (p. 67). For Oswald, Grendel represents the threat of excessive masculinity, which Beowulf takes on by defeating the monster and depriving him of his power. Grendel’s mother, on the other hand, represents the phallic mother, a much more grievous threat to the patriarchal order. Just as she robs Heorot of the symbol of masculine power, Grendel’s arm, so too does she rob Beowulf of his masculinity in an intimate and sexualized battle beneath the mere. Beowulf consistently downplays her importance: he replaces her decapitated head with Grendel’s as a trophy of the battle, and his multiple accounts of the event always emphasize the public and clear-cut victory over Grendel. Yet the literary erasure of Grendel’s mother, which the reading audience witnesses, actually emphasizes her importance, because, as Oswald argued in Chapter One, such erasures always leave a trace.

In both of these Old English examples of erased monstrosity, the status of the monster is never in question: once a monster, always a monster. For Oswald, this reflects the static nature of Anglo-Saxon society. As she...

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