Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England 3031314646, 9783031314643

Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England offers a wide-ranging exploration of hybridity in medieval English liter

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Table of contents :
Chapter 1: Introduction: Notions of Hybridity
Chapter 2: Mixed Ethnicity in the Romances of Medieval England: The Hybridity of Ethnic Identity
Mixed Ethnicity in Medieval Britain: Some Historical Perspective
Handling Miscegenation: The Problem of Children
Bevis of Hampton: Land and Identity
Resolving Hybrid Identity: Mothers and Fathers
Resolving Unwanted Hybridity: The Supernatural as Sign
Resolving Hybridity: Thomas Becket and His Saracen Mother in the Early South-English Legendary
Chapter 3: Fathers and Mothers: The Case for Hybrid Identity in Medieval Merlin and Melusine Romances
Merlin: The Demon’s Son
Like Father, Like Son: Merlin and His Father
Merlin and His Mother
Melusine: The Faery’s Daughter and Her Sons
Unhappy Beginnings: Melusine and Pressine
Sad Endings: Melusine and Raymond
Chapter 4: Monsters and Shapeshifters: The Hybrid Body in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis
Transforming the Human Body: Wonder and Disgust
Human/Animal Hybrids from Classical Legend
The Hybrid Masculine Body
The Hybrid Gendered Body
The Hybrid Feminine Body
The Disabled Hybrid Body: Tiresias
Chapter 5: The Living, the Dead, and Those In-between: The Hybridity of Dying
The Reanimated Dead
The Reanimated Secular Dead
Tales of the Resurrected Christ
Corpse Brides and Things That Will Not Die
The Revenant
The Revenant: The Dream Apparition
The Revenant: The Corporeal Ghost
The Revenant: The Noisy Ghost
Chapter 6: Epilogue: Hybridity Extinguishes Itself
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
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Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England Rosanne P. Gasse

The New Middle Ages Series Editor

Bonnie Wheeler English and Medieval Studies Southern Methodist University Dallas, TX, USA

The New Middle Ages is a series dedicated to pluridisciplinary studies of medieval cultures, with particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history and on feminist and gender analyses. This peer-reviewed series includes both scholarly monographs and essay collections.

Rosanne P. Gasse

Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England

Rosanne P. Gasse Brandon University Brandon, MB, Canada

ISSN 2945-5936     ISSN 2945-5944 (electronic) The New Middle Ages ISBN 978-3-031-31464-3    ISBN 978-3-031-31465-0 (eBook) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0 © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors, and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland

In memory of my parents, Don and Lois Gasse, now absent from my life for more than forty-five and twenty-five years. Without them as my guides in life I would not be who I am today.


A finished book is never the work of one individual. I, for one, owe a debt of gratitude to many people who have helped and supported me during the writing of this book. I would like to thank my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and the Department of English, Drama & Creative Writing, especially Deanna Smid, Jonathan Allan, Lorraine Mayer, and Lynn MacKay, for their interest in my work and their unfailing encouragement. Whenever I was down, they made sure to pick me up again. I would also like to thank all the various people who have listened to conference papers and read drafts of this book in its various stages of development and provided feedback. I am particularly appreciative of the anonymous peer reviewer at Palgrave Macmillan who did not lose faith in me but kept pushing and pushing me to do better. My book is much the stronger for it. Finally, I express heartfelt best wishes to my editorial team, Allie Troyanos, Paul Smith Jesudas, Brian Halm, and Eliana Rangel, who put up with my endless questions. I thank all of you for your efforts.



1 Introduction: Notions of Hybridity  1 2 Mixed  Ethnicity in the Romances of Medieval England: The Hybridity of Ethnic Identity 21 Mixed Ethnicity in Medieval Britain: Some Historical Perspective  24 Handling Miscegenation: The Problem of Children  28 Bevis of Hampton: Land and Identity  35 Resolving Hybrid Identity: Mothers and Fathers  40 Resolving Unwanted Hybridity: The Supernatural as Sign  45 Resolving Hybridity: Thomas Becket and His Saracen Mother in the Early South-English Legendary   62 Conclusion  65 3 Fathers  and Mothers: The Case for Hybrid Identity in Medieval Merlin and Melusine Romances 71 Merlin: The Demon’s Son  73 Like Father, Like Son: Merlin and His Father  77 Merlin and His Mother  89 Melusine: The Faery’s Daughter and Her Sons  96 Unhappy Beginnings: Melusine and Pressine 104 Sad Endings: Melusine and Raymond 107 Conclusion 112




4 Monsters  and Shapeshifters: The Hybrid Body in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis123 Transforming the Human Body: Wonder and Disgust 125 Human/Animal Hybrids from Classical Legend 132 The Hybrid Masculine Body 135 The Hybrid Gendered Body 139 The Hybrid Feminine Body 145 The Disabled Hybrid Body: Tiresias 149 Conclusion 152 5 The  Living, the Dead, and Those In-between: The Hybridity of Dying155 The Reanimated Dead 163 The Reanimated Secular Dead 169 Tales of the Resurrected Christ 172 Corpse Brides and Things That Will Not Die 178 The Revenant 185 The Revenant: The Dream Apparition 192 The Revenant: The Corporeal Ghost 196 The Revenant: The Noisy Ghost 204 Conclusion 207 6 Epilogue: Hybridity Extinguishes Itself215 Bibliography227 Index245


Introduction: Notions of Hybridity

We are all mixed breeds. Pay a fee to any of several companies which offer genetic service and one can receive a report detailing where one’s ancestors came from with a statistical breakdown: 29% Great Britain and Ireland, 24% Southern Europe, 23% Western and Central Europe, 17% Scandinavia, and 8% Eastern Europe. DNA evidence does not lie about where a person’s ancestors came from, although the exact algorithm used may fudge the percentages. Even without the aid of genetic testing, trace anyone’s genealogy back far enough and it will become a tangled mess of relationships that cross boundaries of class, religion, ethnicity, and more, especially so given that the definition and practice of such so-called critically important categories of forbidden difference change over time. Less than a hundred years ago in Canada a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic could spawn the type of violent rupture that split families apart for generations. Such is less likely to happen today because old worries over Catholic and Protestant miscegenation have been replaced largely by new anxieties over other supposedly significant differences. Ancient and medieval points of forbidden intersection similarly would have presented an alternate set of worries from those of the modern period. We are all pure breeds. Humans descend after all from that same handful of homo sapiens who first evolved and who then chose either to stay or to leave Africa. Yet even

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0_1




this claim to biological purity for many people is a lie because Neanderthal and Denisovan chromosomes also exist in our human genetic pool, revealing that many of us have lived with mixed ancestry for a very long time. According to the National Geographic’s Genographic Project, most people of non-African descent who participated in their study discovered that they possess between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA (1.2% in my case). Genetic analysis, again, uncovers the often inconvenient and troublesome realities of our human origins and our biological connections to those others with whom we might prefer we had nothing in common. DNA does not lie to accommodate our wishes as to who we are, or from what part of the world we have come, or in what part of the world we and our ancestors have always lived. However, the dry genetics of the DNA evidence attesting that we are all one and the same does not suffice when most people think of who they are. Despite all the scientific evidence of our commonality, humans seem driven to look for difference and to make these alterities matter in the hierarchies of our daily lives, even if the precise identification of the differences that matter at any point in time exists in a constant state of change. This human drive to invent alterity existed in ancient and medieval times as much as it does today, though the differences involved have changed. Identity politics largely views things through the myopic lens of the present, often very short term, and it pays very little heed to what the science has to say. Whoopi Goldberg was suspended from the television talk show The View in February of 2021 for claiming that Antisemitism is not a type of racism. To Goldberg, racism in America is about skin colour and because most Jews are white skinned, Antisemitism, while undoubtedly bad in and of itself, is therefore not racism. Unfortunately for her, Goldberg was oblivious to the fact that, historically, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s had referred to the “Jewish race” in their hateful Antisemitic propaganda. The very concept of race had shifted fundamentally within three generations, but not enough to spare Goldberg public humiliation. With the exception of a brief reference to the Sanskrit play Shakuntala written by Kalidasa in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E. and read by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, an essay by Goethe is the earliest textual reference to be found in Homi K.  Bhabha’s Introduction to his influential work on postcolonial hybridity,  The Location of Culture.1 Most of Bhabha’s references 1

 Bhabha, Location of Culture, pp. 11–12.



throughout Location of Culture are very contemporary to the writing of his book. Bhabha’s choices in this regard are understandable because his interest in Location of Culture lies in a critique of European colonialism as practiced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In what ways Athenian colonialism, Roman colonialism, or Mogul colonialism might have differed in practice and effect between colonizer and colonized exist outside of Bhabha’s frame of modern reference and are unimportant to him, or at least they are not issues of concern to him in Location of Culture. Also outside of Bhabha’s frame of interest, and for the same reason, would be the colonialism of the medieval era and any manifestations of hybridity and hybrid interaction that came along with it. Before it is possible to discuss the forms that hybridity can take in the literature of the medieval period, one must confront the problem of hybridity’s very definition. There are multiple guises in which someone or something can be considered hybrid, so the challenge is to preserve the usefulness of hybridity as a theoretical concept without reducing it to simply being anything of mixed origin. Mixed ethnicity, mixed bodies, mixed languages, mixed texts, mixed operational systems, and mixed qualities can all denote things with mixed origins, but they are not mixed in the same way and they are not viewed with the same uniform result. That is, not every mixture is regarded as necessarily hybridic or as an example of anxiety-inducing alterity. For instance, we think of steel as an alloy, not a hybrid metal. Organic bodies, in comparison, can be regarded as mixed in a variety of fashions. Prosthetic implants and extensions, genetic chimeras, micro biomes, and a pig heart transplanted into a human chest all result in mixed bodies, but the average person is not likely to think of people as hybridic solely because they wear glasses, have an artificial hip replacement, and share the space in their gut with multiple species of bacteria and parasites. The disability studies theorist, however, may well be quick to point out that such self-recognition is precisely the way any human-­centred society needs more of its community members to think; that the challenge is to recognize our own bodily alterities so that we can cease to make the difference of other bodies matter so much in the way we treat people. Disability studies is one theoretical lens through which hybridity can be approached, but it is only one of many appropriate theoretical approaches which deal with the topic. Critical race studies, postcolonial studies, monster studies, gender studies, animal studies, cyborg studies, and translation studies also have something to say about the hybrid, though each one of these theories fastens onto a different aspect of the hybrid and no one



theory covers it all. Constructions of mixed identity, whether based in the biological, the cultural, the social, the material, the spiritual, or something else entirely can be a jumble of contradictory forces which result in different conclusions, different identities, at different times, and which only sometimes create the circumstance which we recognize as hybridity. In sum, hybridity must be more than just mixture and combination of contraries jostling together, but what is being mixed and how and why it is being mixed matter. Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England is an exploration of the slippery nature of hybridity in the medieval period through case studies of four fundamentally different kinds of hybrid. Without adherence to any one theoretical school of thought on the subject and yet pulling on several established theoretical threads, this book explores hybridity as a concept important to understanding the literary works of medieval England. In it, hybridity is regarded as something which needs to be understood in large terms and which needs to be approached from many general angles because, succinctly put, hybridity is too hybrid a thought for a single theoretical lens to grasp its nuance in full. The approach to hybridity applied in the second chapter does not, for instance, translate usefully to how hybridity is viewed in the fourth chapter because the two types of hybridity under consideration are so very different. Nonetheless, the value of studying hybridity in broad, general terms in medieval English literature bears questioning. What merit is there in taking such an approach? Hybridity, of course, can overlap with race, ethnicity, class, and alterity. All five are constructs which concern difference, and there is a bewildering array of differences which unfortunately matter to human beings covered by these five terms, including skin colour, religious practice, kin group, social stratification, lifestyle, gender identification, and body modification to mention just a few. Yet, there is something different about hybridity in comparison to the other four. Race, ethnicity, class, and alterity each fixate on the difference they identify; hybridity, however, although grounded in difference, points to sameness, what is held in common. This orientation towards sameness proves instrumental in medieval English literature as it enables potential erasure of difference. In sum, hybridity matters because it does not matter, and it can thereby act as a healthy counterbalance to the pull of the other four towards difference. Whereas race, ethnicity, class, and alterity inflame difference, hybridity seeks to extinguish itself.



Even so, hybridity is grounded in difference. It has at its base a simple premise: two things, when mixed, create a new, third form. When the original two things are, for some reason, regarded as antithetical to each other, a ‘bad’ or ‘unacceptable’ or ‘lesser’ mixed combination results which spawns anxiety, such as Catholic and Protestant in the twentieth century, Indigenous and settler in the nineteenth century, or human and demon in the fourteenth century, and the status of the mixed form can become monstrous and disruptive. Indeed, most postcolonial studies centre on hybridity when the results of mixing cultures are regarded as somehow problematic, as something deviant from the original. Some medieval English texts, especially historical documents and chronicle records, support this concept of hybridity, but not all. The second chapter, “Mixed Ethnicity in the Romances of Medieval England: The Hybridity of Identity”, focuses on likely the most typical definition of human hybridity since both before and after the eighteenth century. That is, this chapter is concerned with mixed ethnic or cultural identity. It considers mixed identity as dealt with primarily in romances written in Middle English. While race as we might biologically think of it today—because too many humans still insist upon using the term as a category of meaningful biological difference—is not often an aspect of mixed identity in English medieval romances, other so-called significant biological differences substituted. This second chapter takes a particularly genealogical approach to the hybridity found in these romances by focusing on the presence, or the absence, of children of mixed origin. The combinations include mixed cultural and religious divides, but also cases in which a species line has been crossed. While this chapter sometimes includes discussion of what it meant to be English in the Middle Ages, the definition of English identity is not the chapter’s primary concern. Instead, it is argued that the romances of medieval England address issues of genealogical hybridity broadly and they exhibit several narrative strategies intended to cope with and resolve anxiety produced by characters who potentially cross unacceptable boundaries of ethnic or cultural identity. Among these strategies of hybridic erasure is giving partially supernatural origins to characters of mixed background. The third chapter, “Fathers and Mothers: The Case for Hybrid Identity in Medieval Merlin and Melusine Romances”, likewise concerns biological and ethnic hybridity, but it investigates a flip side to what is examined in the second chapter. Instead of the several cases in which a partially



supernatural hero undergoes a process through which hybridity is erased by the character becoming recognized as wholly human, the third chapter is a comparative examination of two famous literary characters whose origins also mix the human and the supernatural but who are ultimately revealed to be wholly supernatural: Merlin is the son of a human mother and a demon father, while Melusine is the offspring of a human father and a faery mother. This chapter considers how factors such as gender and parental influence, especially of the supposedly more powerful supernatural parent, affect the playing out of their narratives in which both Merlin and Melusine end up forced out of contact with the human community. The fourth chapter, “Monsters and Shapeshifters: The Hybrid Body in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis”, takes the study in a different direction to consider the individual human body itself as a location of hybridity, but outside of the limited biological and cultural parameters of parentage, race, or ethnic identity considered in the first two chapters. Close reading of narratives within Gower’s Confessio Amantis, a text concerned much of the time with alchemy, form, matter, material, the mixture of animal and human, and the metamorphosis of the body or of its parts, reveals Gower’s belief that everyone possesses potential other identities lurking within themselves. The body is revealed as a hybrid space of commingled elements, a location of identity, and within that single, malleable space any individual identity exists in constant flux as the body’s various elements jostle and join into alternate forms and identities. Hybridity often cannot be resolved under these circumstances and the threat of difference posed by potential other selves, other bodies, other identities can arouse negative feelings of anxiety and dislocation. Hybridity nevertheless points to sameness and the different manifestations of the body are all expressions of one person. In counterbalance to horror and disgust, variations on the human body can also elicit wonder and amazement. Hybridity is revealed as inevitable for every living creature, a consequence of life itself. The fifth and final chapter continues to examine the body as a site of hybridity, this time through the lens of the dead and dying body. “The Living, the Dead, and Those In-Between: The Hybridity of Dying” examines how the bodies of the resurrected dead, of revenants, ghosts, and the like in the stories from the medieval period need also to be viewed as sites of hybridity because such are liminal beings perceived by the living as human identities caught in transition between life and death. Indeed, the human corpse is, at least to a human, the ultimate monstrous other. Inert and powerless, the corpse nonetheless is a powerful spectacle of fear, and



death is the one space into which the living cannot enter without becoming the other themselves. Yet, how do the human dead differ from the human living, and what position do the human dying hold in relation to human identity? That ill-defined borderland third space between the states of life and death in medieval literature challenges us to remember that dying and death are spaces through and into which we, too, inevitably will travel. In death, if not in life, our parts will recombine, and our corpse will be our human body in a different form. Dying is a reminder that, with our identities and bodies in a constant state of flux, we are all, in essence, hybrid. Before it is possible, however, to undertake any study of medieval approaches to the construction of hybridity, some historical context on the subject from both before and after the Middle Ages is required to frame the discussion. While it may seem obvious that the concept of hybridity would have existed in England and throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, anyone who wishes to engage in discussion of medieval concepts of hybridity must contend with the fact that almost all the language used in English discourse to talk about hybridity is from the modern period. This is not to say that labelling and categorizing of others by degrees of difference were absent in the premodern period: bias and prejudice flourished quite well in the ancient world and throughout the Middle Ages without the modern vocabulary of racism and bigotry and the corresponding preoccupation with skin colour. Nonetheless, the difference of the language and the approach to hybridity needs to be understood and accounted for. While hybrid itself derives from Latin hibrida (or hybrida), a word which is found in the writings of classical authors such as Persius and Martial and which refers to crossbred animals such as the mule (a horse and donkey combination) or to the children either of Roman fathers and foreign mothers or of a free man and a slave woman,2 other basic terms of reference for the concept of hybridity did not yet exist in the English dialect continuum of the medieval period. The earliest citation of hybridity found in the Oxford English Dictionary On-line dates only as far back as 1837, although hybrid appears much earlier in reference to animals (1601), then humans (1631), and then finally plants (1788). Mestizo and mestizaje do not appear in English until 1598 and 1943 respectively, while their francophone equivalents metis and metissage make their initial appearances in English in 1816 and 1891. Even derogatory and offensive terms describing human mixed ancestry, the use of which is largely avoided 2

 For references, see Lewis & Short, A Latin Dictionary, hibrida, p. 852.



today in the English language, are post-medieval: mongrel (1542), mulatto (1591), mule (1631), quadroon (1707), half breed (1760), subhuman (1793), and mixed blood (1817). It is noteworthy that, as cited in the OED, the earliest examples in English for mongrel and mule, when used in the sense of mixed biological background, follow closely the model of Latin hibrida. For example, the OED lists for mongrel, “1. A dog having parents of different breeds; a dog of no definable breed resulting from various crossings. Also: †the offspring of a wolf and a dog (obsolete rare). 2. Chiefly derogatory. A person of mixed descent; a person whose parents are of different nationalities; †a person whose parents are of differing social status (obsolete)”.3 Even broader common terms of reference to describe human origins in general are missing in the English language of the medieval period: race (1547) and human race (1623). According to the OED, the 1547 citation of race refers to a narrow and specific family line of genealogical descent. The word does not pick up an ethnic connotation until 1572, and not until 1612 a meaning which borders on what it generally does today. As Geraldine Heng in The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages has so amply demonstrated, one needs to look to the intricacies of the relationship between what she terms “religious race” and “genetic race”4 before one can reach the point of the 1612 definition. It bears remembering, however, that England throughout the High Middle Ages was a trilingual society functioning at various levels in Latin, French, and English. Thus, if Middle English lacked the vocabulary to express hybridity and concepts of race until the mid-sixteenth century, it could simply be the case that official discourse on such subjects was conducted instead either in scholarly Latin or in cultured French, the languages of learning and political power. Nonetheless, popular discourse in the English vernacular can also be expected to have dealt with significant issues of hybridity in its own way and in its own use of language. My aim 3  The earliest citation for the first definition of mongrel given here is 1460; for the second, 1542. The earliest listings in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for mule in the sense of hybridity are similar: “I. Senses relating to the animal and general extended uses. 1. a. A hybrid animal that results from crossing a male ass with a mare or, more rarely, a female ass with a stallion…. II. Extended uses specifically relating to the hybrid nature or the sterility of the animal. 4. A hybrid. a. A person who or thing which is a hybrid in some way”. The first usage of mule dates back to Old English times; the second noted here is cited by the OED as first appearing in 1631. 4  Heng, Invention of Race, p. 149.



in Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England is to crack the code by which English vernacular texts in the medieval period broached these questions and handled the anxieties of their time and culture posed by matters of hybridity. Hybridity seeks to extinguish itself by pointing to sameness, what is held in common. How does it go about doing so? For example, in the romance Havelok the Dane, is the marriage of the Danish Havelok and the English Goldeborough to be understood as a ‘mixed’ marriage and are their fifteen children to be considered ‘half breeds’ as a result? Yes, and no. English and Danes are two different peoples, two separate gens, to use the Latin term.5 At the beginning of the text, England and Denmark are separate kingdoms with their own kings, Athelwold and Birkabein, as indeed they were again in the thirteenth century when the romance was composed. It has even been argued, as by Larissa Tracy, that differences in Danish and English approaches to law are embedded in the text “in how [Havelok and Goldeborough] reclaim their rights, how they enact justice, and, potentially, how they will rule”.6 Yet, the two groups share a common Germanic ethnic and cultural background, and Lincolnshire, in which much of the story is set, is an English regional space with much historical Scandinavian influence stretching back to the Danelaw, as both Thorlac Turville-Petre and Alexis Kellner Becker have pointed out.7 Similarly, English and Danish, although languages in separate dialect continuums, derive equally from the larger Germanic branch of the Indo-European linguistic tree. In all these senses, Goldeborough shares more in common with the Danish Havelok than she does with her fellow countryman, the Cornish Godric. Havelok and Goldeborough are also united, of course, by their shared Christianity, and Havelok, brought to England as a young boy by his foster parents, was raised in an English environment. Is there then enough difference for this couple to transit for either their marriage or their offspring to be labelled, in any sensible application of the term, as hybrid? Or has the sameness between them extinguished the difference? 5  For the range of possible meanings for gens, see Robert Bartlett’s overview in “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity”, pp. 42–44. Bartlett centres his discussion on the word’s use in William of Malmesbury’s early twelfth-century Gesta regum Anglorum. 6  Tracy, “Flaying and Identity in Medieval Romance”, p. 342. See also the close connection between law and national identity in Havelok the Dane as argued by Robert Rouse in “English Identity and the Law” at p. 75. 7  Turville-Petre, England the Nation, pp. 142–180; Becker, “Havelok the Dane’s Political Ecology”, pp. 92–93.



In a cosmology where monogenism—the belief in one common origin for all humanity through one act of divine creation—was the only available paradigm within which to discuss human origins, what separates out the mixed breed from the pure breed in the medieval period had to be something other than a question about the legitimacy of a person’s full human status in the biological sense. For instance, in Book 16, Chapter 8 of his influential City of God, Augustine of Hippo surveys the range of monstrous races known to him through Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis. Although cautious about accepting the veracity of Pliny’s remarkable accounts of peoples born with dog-heads, or a single leg under which they shelter in hot weather, or having no neck but eyes in their shoulders, nonetheless, should these people exist, Augustine is firm in his judgement when it comes to their human origins. He explains, “Now we are not bound to believe in the existence of all the types of men which are described. But no faithful Christian should doubt that anyone who is born anywhere as a man—that is, a rational and mortal being—derives from that one first-created human being. And this is true, however extraordinary such a creature may appear to our senses in bodily shape, in colour, or motion, or utterance, or in any natural endowment, or part, or quality”.8 As tangible evidence that the human body can manifest itself in extraordinary, marvelous forms and still host a rational mind, Augustine points to individuals born with unusual physical traits, such as hermaphrodites “possessing the characteristics of both sexes” and to a likely case of conjoined twins. Of the latter, Augustine remembers, “in my time, a man was born in the East with a double set of upper parts, but a single set of the lower limbs. That is, he had two heads, two chests, and four arms, but only one belly and two feet, as if he were one man. And he lived long enough for the news of his case to attract many sightseers” (p.  663). Though physically divergent, these individuals nevertheless trace their lineage back to Adam and Eve just as much as Augustine does. If bodies like theirs are monstrous it is not because they are, but because gawking sightseers make them out to be so. Monstrosity is thus an invented construct, and the problem is grounded in the one who sees and who fixates upon the bodily difference of the other person. That is, being reduced to the figurative level of a beast through someone’s deliberate application of simile and metaphor is not the same as being subhuman, because all of


 Augustine, City of God, Book 16, chapter 8, p. 662.



humanity, in whatever strange shape the human body might exhibit itself, derives equally from a sole source, Adam and Eve created by God.9 Instead of degrees of humanness, medieval constructs, both of hybridity and of prejudice against alterity more largely, therefore needed to be grounded in something less biological, more social and cultural, just as it had been for the Romans, who sometimes called the children of Roman fathers and foreign mothers, or the children of a free man and a slave woman, hibrida. From the Roman perspective, Rome, Roman citizenship, and status within Roman society established the social and cultural standard from which all else deviated: being a hibrida was less than being a full Roman but better than being a total outsider like a German barbarian or a slave. The standard was arbitrary, but logical, based on Roman imperium. It was also a definition of insider, mixed, and outsider which logically would hold sway only as far as the influence of Rome extended. Beyond Rome’s sphere of influence, a different construct of insider, mixed, and outsider must prevail, one pertinent to the local circumstances. Parthians, for example, would not define themselves by Roman standards. The modern period invented most of the language of the discourse on human origins and descent. It also demonstrates an approach to the construction of hybridity which differs from the classical and medieval periods. Indeed, the first sustained discussions of hybridity date from the eighteenth century and stem from scientific biological discourse, as practices in agriculture and animal husbandry were transposed to thinking about the origins and the development of the human species. On the surface, the socially and culturally biased elements which had largely informed Roman and medieval concepts of hybridity were taken out of the equation in favour of what might seem a more impartial and scientific approach. Nonetheless, in these early biological arguments on hybridity it is evident that their concept of the insider, the outsider, and the mixed reflected larger European social and cultural anxieties, the current fears of their age expressed through a choice to focus upon hybrid notions. In early nineteenth-century America, for example, intermarriage between white newcomers (usually male) and Indigenous Americans 9  Not every theologian or scholastic agreed with Augustine on the necessary human status of the monstrous races. John Block Friedman in The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, pp. 178–196, offers an excellent survey of the arguments of medieval theologians and philosophers about the monstrous races, both for and against their inclusion as human. See also Karl Steel’s survey of theological opinion specifically regarding the Cynocephali in How to Make a Human, pp. 141–150.



(usually female) was at first viewed positively by the European side of the equation, and it was even encouraged by some as a means of ‘civilizing the Indian’ by bringing this branch of the human species, who within the paradigm of monogenism were believed to be descended from Adam and Eve as much as were Europeans, up to the supposedly higher cultural standard of their white cousins.10 Indeed, a Roman would have recognized this way of thinking about outsiders, as also would have the Welsh Marchers who bridged the gap between Welsh and English in the Middle Ages. But by the 1830s, as noted by Gerhard Ens and Joe Sawchuk in From New Peoples to New Nations, attitudes in the United States had shifted, and mixed marriages between whites and Natives became socially condemned as the economic advantages of having relatives among the Indigenous population in frontier areas declined and as scientific discourse in the United States became increasingly dominated by the polygenists “who maintained that each of the major human races had been created separately and differed radically not only in appearance but also intellectually and emotionally. This theory was used to oppose the emancipation of blacks and to provide a scientific gloss for the widespread conviction that Indians were incapable of adopting a European style of life”.11 Yet, while the polygenic theory of race and racial hybridity was used by some in the United States to support the so-called biological argument for slavery and to justify discriminatory government policy against all those supposedly lesser beings classified as Indians and the like, behind the theory itself lurked other powerful social factors driving the agenda: anti-clericalism and anti-biblicism among scientists who wanted no part of the Edenic account of human origins in rational discussions on evolution; the cherished national myth that America’s natural balance was always that of three separate races living in uneasy conjunction with each other.12 In nineteenth-century Canada, where monogenism prevailed as the accepted theory on human evolution, the discourse on racial hybridity took an alternate, though not necessarily better turn because the larger political and social context was different.13 Crossing over and mixing together, that is, only becomes noticeable as hybridity in the face of social 10  An old strategy. For example, Pierre of Dubois, circa 1307, in his tract De recuperatione terre sancte advocated intermarriage between Westerners loyal to the Roman church and Easterners as a means to seize and maintain economic and spiritual dominion over the Holy Land. See Zrinka Stahuljak’s discussion of Pierre’s treatise, pp.  151–153, in “Medieval Fixers”. 11  Ens and Sawchuk, From New Peoples to New Nations, p. 20. 12  See, for instance, Stanton’s argument in The Leopard’s Spots, p. 193. 13  See Ens and Sawchuk, pp. 22–30, for discussion.



fear and cultural anxiety. Whether the source is culture, ethnicity, gender, language, accent, politics, race, religion, social class, body shape, height, weight, eye colour, physical ability, genetic makeup or some other factor of alterity yet to be invented by humans, something triggers someone to see an important binary, a separation or division into at least two parts which are then deemed to be illicit to mix together on the grounds that the two parts are supposed to remain distinct from each other. When circumstances change, the disruptive binary will change also. The question centres on what circumstances, what fears and cultural anxieties, are in play in any historical period to create the conjoined binary monster, hybridity. For Bhabha in The Location of Culture, the circumstance is white European colonialism and its effects on those non-white populations subjugated by colonial rule; the binary shifts to colonizer/colonized within that political context. Bhabha’s definition of hybridity emphasizes it as a continuous political process that actively subverts the dominant narrative of the colonizer. In Bhabha’s own words, Hybridity is the sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities; it is the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminatory identities that secure the ‘pure’ and original identity of authority). Hybridity is the reevaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects. It displays the necessary deformation and displacement of all sites of discrimination and domination. It unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but replicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power. For the colonial hybrid is the articulation of the ambivalent space where the rite of power is enacted on the site of desire, making its objects at once disciplinary and disseminatory—or, in my mixed metaphor, a negative transparency. (p. 112)

That is, while Bhabha’s notion of hybridity as a theoretical framework affords increased recognition of the agencies of subaltern or marginalized groups, it is also firmly tied to one specific model of colonialism as a construct and, to be used properly, it must not be taken out of the circumstantial context of that imbalance of political and racialized power. Every theory has its weak points. Without a user’s strict grasp upon colonial power structures Bhabha’s theory easily lends itself to unintended negative effects for the very groups his postcolonial approach claims to give voice to. Because the ability to be a hybrid the bulk of the time is an



attribute of the colonized, rarely the colonizer, in whom we are more likely to interpret cross-cultural actions as appropriation than as hybridity, the concept can raise troubling questions about what is and what is not considered ‘authentic’. In Indigenous Studies, for instance, questions such as those following have the power to be hurtful and divisive in the answers they receive. Is a Cree artist, for instance, an authentic Cree artist if she paints outside of the traditional Woodland style? If one cannot speak the Dakota language, can one truly be a Dakota?14 If one accepts the premise that one cannot be Dakota without knowing the language, then what are the implications for those Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots, and Welsh in Britain who can speak only English? What happens when the colonizer does easily admit that a mixed group possesses its own unique stand-alone identity separate from that of either the white colonizer or the other colonized, as happened early on in Canadian history with the Métis?15 What happens when the colonized becomes the colonizer, as happened in the

14  This question is especially poignant about authenticity because so many Indigenous languages across the world are in imminent danger of disappearing. The current UN estimate of Indigenous languages at risk is four in ten. See https://news.un.org/en/ story/2019/08/1043871. Indigenous language rights are an essential element of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Article 13, adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007. 15  Being of mixed blood does not automatically result in metissage—if one identifies/is identified with the dominant culture (e.g. my ancestry is Irish and French but I regard myself/am regarded as Anglo Canadian) that is what one is; if one identifies/is identified with an oppressed culture (e.g. I know my ancestry includes white forbearers but I think of myself/others think of me as black) that is what one is. The political metissage which has given rise to the Métis Nation in Canada is of a different order yet again: political metissage in the modern world is forged by political activity, government polity, and legal interpretation and it is therefore a rare phenomenon. It entails a group mentality in which individuals identify/are identified with neither original group, dominant or otherwise, but form a new community with a unique political and cultural presence (e.g. our ancestry is French and Cree but we think of ourselves/others think of us as Métis). The formulation of this new ethnic identity is not a simple process, as the range of different definitions for Metis outlined in Sawchuk’s 1998 The Dynamics of Native Politics: The Alberta Metis Experience, pp. 18–27, can attest. For more recent scholarship on the tricky question of what it means to be Métis, see Contours of a People, edited by St-Onge, Podruchny, and Macdougall and also Métis in Canada, edited by Adams, Dahl, and Peach, as well as Ens and Sawchuk’s From New Peoples to New Nations. Note that even the choice of whether or not to include the accent mark in Metis/Métis is controversial as it questions the necessity of French ancestry as a marker of Métis identity. Scottish or English ancestry is just as likely as French for someone who is Metis.



case of the state of Israel? How do cultural change and adaptation balance against persistence and survivance? Because Bhabha’s theory gives all too often inadequate answers to multiple questions like those listed above, disciplines such as the archaeology and anthropology of colonialism have begun to distance themselves from Bhabha’s concept of hybridity as an effective theoretical framework. Stephen W.  Silliman for instance, speaking of North American social archaeology, asks the following disturbing questions of postcolonial hybridity: Consider the case of Native American and colonial interactions again. If one were to consider Native American societies, like the Eastern Pequot, that adjusted to colonialism as hybrids (or in the process of hybridization), when did they stop being so? When did they reestablish themselves again, or when was a new culture in place? Or have they been adrift since then? Are they still hybrids? These questions should make archaeologists rightly uncomfortable, for we need to give people in the past, especially indigenous and colonized people, a way out of the binds we impose upon them with our ontological vice-grip of hybridity. Otherwise, we trap them in analytical frameworks that make them, as Bhabha (1994: 142) would say, ‘always less than one and double’, or forever less than they started and not quite whole again.16

Although focused on North America and therefore on a different racialized binary of native and newcomer, many of Silliman’s essential questions are applicable to the interactions of hybridity in the medieval period. Substitute, for example, the Welsh or the Irish of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries in Britain for the Eastern Pequot of seventeenth-century America and ask the same questions. Bhabha’s theory remains useful, but like any theoretical construct it must be used with care. Extra caution needs to be exercised before applying a politicized theory which was developed around colonialism as practised by European powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to earlier literatures written in very different cultural and political contexts. The work of critics such as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Shirin A. Khanmohamadi, both cited in this volume, show that it can be done well with certain texts, yet caution is imperative. The colonialism of the present age, after all, is a different beast from its many incarnations in the past.  Silliman, “A requiem for hybridity?”, p. 286.




Hybridity, moreover, is an especially slippery subject because so many different things can be mixed. Indeed, an entirely different theoretical approach to, and attitude towards, hybridity is modelled by the French philosopher Michel Serres in his book The Troubadour of Knowledge.17 While the principles of Serres’s work can and have been applied to notions of cultural hybridity especially in the creation of mestizo identity,18 Serres himself is not concerned in Troubadour of Knowledge with the commingling of two ethnic, cultural, class, or racialized groups. His notion of hybridity in this text is not biological at all but of an altogether different sort from that of Bhabha’s focus upon colonialism or from those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concerns about the pros and cons of animal husbandry and biological human miscegenation. Serres is interested in pedagogy, and in Troubadour of Knowledge he is advocating for an intersection of the humanities and the natural sciences (Serres’s binary) whereby the educational experience can become a better crossbreeding exposure to new and innovative ideas. For Serres, the potentiality of the hybrid to disrupt the pure status quo is a positive attribute and should not cause an anxious response in anyone. The thwarted left-hander, the sinister ambidextrous half-breed hermaphroditic troubadour who can find the third space that bridges the chasm between these two banks of one river, the two universal suns, the comic Harlequin and the tragic Solomon is the trouvere, the finder of what was not said or known before.19 If the reader can make it past the heavily poetic language and the arsenal of metaphors which Serres deploys in his writing, the point is clear that hybridity to Serres is something to be admired. While not everyone is capable of being a troubadour, those hybridic few provide an invaluable social function by opening, in both directions, innovative pathways in the subject of knowledge. Hybridity bestows advantage in formulating new worldviews suited to contemporary Western society, and it is not political, except insofar that educational systems are always politicized and good citizens since before the time of Aristotle are always politically minded. The anxiety present in Serres’s work comes down to the absence of hybridity pulling what some want kept apart together: the dire outcome for any culture when its 17  The original French title of Serres’s work is Le tiers-instruit. The French text is available in print today through Gallimard (1992). 18  An approach seen, for example, in Vieira’s article “Life Stories, Cultural Métissage, and Personal Identities”. 19  Serres (or his translators) employs all of these metaphors in the course of The Troubadour of Knowledge. See, for instance, pages 5, 10, 13, 54, 69, 104, 145, and 162.



educational systems do not disruptively intersect the knowledge systems of the natural sciences and the humanities. STEM closes down and limits; STEAM opens up and broadens. Serres’s work on the importance of intersection between the humanities and natural sciences reminds us that hybridity need not always be construed as monstrous or centred on the biological mixing of racialized cultures or ethnic heritages or social classes, but that hybridity can manifest itself in many diverse forms. The binary which invents hybridity can literally fasten itself onto anything and when it concerns the body, monsters are apt to result. Even if monsters are not typically actual hybrids but either humans or the denizens of their own supposedly distinct biological species (to use modern terminology), they still express, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen notes in regard to monster theory, human concerns with cultural miscegenation: “monsters are … expedient representations of other cultures, generalized and demonized to enforce a strict notion of group sameness”.20 The premodern imagination understood the fluidity of what adds up to hybridity very well, easily allowing for hybrid forms that mixed the human and the animal in literal ways that went beyond ordinary simile and metaphor. The Minotaur, Centaurs, Sirens, and Pliny’s dog-headed Cynocephali are four prominent examples which date back to the classical period and which make appearance in medieval literature. Of these four, only the Minotaur is a true hybrid in the strict biological sense, being the result of human/bovine sexual congress. The other three, in contrast, only appear to have crossed some forbidden line of biological generation between human and animal bodies. Sirens and Centaurs are not human but distinct species. Pliny’s Cynocephali may look as if they are half human, half dog crossbreeds, and yet, if the Cynocephali exist at all, the paradigm of monogenism, as Augustine argues in City of God, only allows for them to be wholly, if strangely human as soon as they pass the essential test for the degree of rationality believed exclusive to humans. Nevertheless, in the absence of their availability to be tested, their Cynocephalic bodies do not on paper look same enough to escape being anxiously perceived in the imaginary by furless ape-heads as necessarily hybridic and therefore monstrously dangerous as outsiders to the human group’s sense of itself. Hybridity cannot always erase difference, nor should it. Sometimes the pull of race, ethnicity, class, or alterity towards difference prevails.

 Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, p. 15.




The second and third chapters of this book centre on the most obvious type of hybridity in literary (not historical) texts: biological miscegenation in which ancestry is mixed, and cultural status complicated, by having parents from two different groups. In some cases, the boundary crossed which results in a mixed child is cultural, a mixture of human ethnicities or of religions, while in other cases, the biological mixture crosses an actual species boundary, although in contrast to the unfortunate Minotaur who looks as bi-formed as his mixed parentage, the children in Chaps. 2 and 3 at least outwardly look ‘same enough’ to pass as human, though appearances can be deceiving and further tests may reveal different results. As the classical imagination envisioned demigods who crossed the boundaries of human and god, so too the medieval imagination conjured mixtures of human and demon, human and faery. However, these vernacular stories of supernatural hybrids ought not to be read in literal terms, but as expressing in code at the popular level of discourse how genealogical hybridity was regarded and resolved within medieval English circumstances and community. If these two chapters concern crossings of social and cultural boundaries, the fourth chapter turns attention to the body and body parts as literal matter. The boundaries transited are not communally social and cultural sometimes masked as biology, but individually human and animal, person and thing, male and female, able and disabled, concepts which seek to understand hybridity through such established lenses as disability studies, gender studies, monster studies, and even cyborg studies. The shapeshifting body challenges essential cultural notions of sameness through questioning the stability of the matter which combines to form human bodies. If matter cannot remain stable and inert, hybridity is inevitable as the only material state supported by nature. The fifth chapter, on the hybridity of dying, at first glance may appear to be a poor fit with the rest of the book. Nonetheless, that seeming poor fit is only because the fifth chapter challenges the reader to conceive of hybridity in a strikingly different manner from that of the other three main chapters, but as a hybridity which is centred on process. The other chapters, of course, also involve process. However, in the second and third chapters, process resolves hybridity: a character, born hybrid, can undergo cultural trials and social experiences which winnow out the elements which make the character mixed. By the end of the process, the character once thought hybrid is no longer so but, willing or not, a member of only the one group. Hybridity has extinguished itself by emphasizing what is held



in common and reducing any remaining difference to the inconsequential. In the fourth chapter, process is again apparent as bodies undergo transformations and transitions into different potential forms. In the fourth chapter, hybridity is centred in the person’s capacity to be more than one identity, summed up by the malleability of matter as identity in the human body. The hybridity manifests itself in the existence of opposite poles in the process, the difference between the beginning and the end—the human body/the human body as object, male/female, old/young, human/animal. Another sort of process is also key in many of the narratives discussed in the fourth chapter because Gower’s tales are often translations of other sources in which the story, an object itself caught in the third space between the demands of two languages, two authors, two cultures, and two time periods, must start as one thing and finish as something else. In the fifth chapter, however, hybridity is centred in the very process itself: unlike the processes mentioned before, either which resolve hybridity, or which reveal hybridity’s presence through two opposing states at start and finish, it is the process of dying which renders the person a hybrid. The body begins the process as one thing, alive, and by the end of the process the body has become something entirely else, dead. But it is only in the act of transition itself, indeed only because of a transition that renders the body in a state in which the process can go in either direction, a bi-directionality unlike the transitions discussed in the other three chapters where the process, once begun, can go in only the one direction, that the dying person, both alive and dead at the same time, is hybridic. Of all the current models to describe hybridity, although it was never designed with this purpose in mind, it is Serres’s figure of crossing a river, a journey which can go in either direction at any point in the process, which best sums up the process of the hybridity of dying. Serres reminds us that hybridity can be a good thing because it is disruptive. Both banks of the river, the humanities and the natural sciences, have equal value to contribute to society and the individual. Bhabha similarly tells us that hybridity is the state of the modern world and there is little that we could, or should, do to prevent it. The various types and angles upon hybridity discussed in this book reveal that hybridity was equally the natural state of the medieval world and that it possessed the same degree of disruptive, yet transformative potential. The difference lies in the problematic binaries in play as to what was being mixed, and how, and why people thought it mattered. The medieval experience of



hybridity, that is, has much to teach us about how to deal with the supposedly problematic mixtures and anxieties of our own time. Grounded in difference, hybridity has the capability to erase that difference if only we would allow it. As both Bhabha and Serres point out, clinging to the notion that we should maintain the integrity of our past identity as some static constant, whether that identity is constructed as literal or as figurative, can hold us back, stifle the growth of individuals and of communities. We may fear Cohen’s monsters, but we must embrace them to evolve. As Kofi Campbell in Black Atlantic Literature says of the hybridic Ethiopian giants in The Sultan of Sowdone, “as is the case with many Middle English portrayals of Saracens, the portrayal of Africans in this romance is not quite so one-sided. There are moments when the Ethiopian giants exceed the attempts to signify them as wholly other enemies in need of containment, and begin to demonstrate behaviour that the text’s audience would have recognized as not only appropriate, but perhaps even commendable”.21 That is, although hybridity is grounded in difference, it points to our sameness even with those we label monsters. Experience of the world, exposure to new ideas and new ways of doing things, though such actions may make us mixed and deviant in the eyes of some, can also reshape who we are and the communities we live in for the better by expanding our conception of what sameness is. With our bodies and our identities and our cultures all in a constant state of flux, we should all, in essence, commit to living out our lives as half breeds. We should all allow hybridity to extinguish itself.

 Campbell, Black Atlantic Literature and Culture, p. 62.



Mixed Ethnicity in the Romances of Medieval England: The Hybridity of Ethnic Identity

Stories that centre on couples from two different ethnic backgrounds are commonplace in the medieval period. These love matches range from strictly human pairings such as those of Jason the Greek and Medea the Colchian, Havelok of Denmark and Goldeborough of England, Floris of Muslim Spain and the Christian Blancheflour, Bevis of Christian Hampshire in England and Josian of Muslim Armenia, and even the famous example from outside of the medieval period of Othello the Moor and Desdemona the Venetian, to love matches such as that of Sir Launfal of Camelot and Dame Tryamour of Faery which cross the human and the supernatural realms. English writers in the later medieval period generally recognized and even celebrated the mixture of diverse ethnicities that made up the British Isles: Britons could be the descendants of Picts, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, or Normans, or they could even be the children of those interlopers who were just passing through along the vast network of trade routes that connected Britain to the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. In contrast to the numerous tales of mixed couples to be found, stories that centre on characters of hybrid ethnic identity, the inevitable offspring produced by those numerous ‘mixed marriage’ couples, are far harder to find in the English literary works of the medieval period. Indeed, stories which contain any substantial reference to such dually ethnic characters are rare, almost as if one might suspect that there is something unacceptable or deviant about their mere mention or existence. In addition,

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0_2




children as central characters in medieval narratives are found few and far between, and those that are central, such as Bevis and Havelok, often quickly grow up and become adults. As late as 2012, Daniel Kline noted that in contrast to the plethora of historical studies of children in the medieval period and the recent explosion of critical interest in medieval children’s literature, “literary scholars still seem prone to the Ariès effect and have not attended to the widespread appearance of children and childhood in Middle English texts”.1 Those few that do attend to children as characters in medieval texts rarely turn their attention to the child of mixed origin. Kline, for instance, in his article just cited considers children such as Havelok and the Pearl Maiden in Pearl. Paul Broyles meanwhile in his recent article “Foreign Guardianship” spends much time on Havelok and Bevis while giving Bevis’s mixed offspring bare mention.2 Jennifer Fellows in the Introduction to her Early English Text Society (EETS) edition of Bevis follows suit, reviewing the importance of Bevis’s relations with Saber (his uncle), Josian (his wife), and Arondel (his horse) and noting Ascopart, Yvor, and Brodmond as villains, but omitting any reference to Bevis’s sons.3 Going further back, Brian Lee briefly considers the case of Robert in the Middle English version of Robert the Devil, but as an example of a socially maladjusted child instead of a human/demon hybrid.4 Given their absence within the literature itself, the critical silence regarding ethnically mixed offspring is not surprising. Yet the narrative hole is notable. Despite many years of their occupation of Horn’s kingdom of Suddene in King Horn, the Saracens never seem to settle down and intermingle with the local women. While the reader might assume that once united in marital bliss Floris and Blancheflour will live happily together and produce many children of mixed ancestry, their Middle English narrative is strangely silent at its end upon that point in spite of the fact that, as Eve Salisbury and James Weldon point out, children are “often the conventional index of a successful medieval marriage”.5 The 1  Daniel Kline, “Children and Childhood”, pp. 21–22. The “Ariès effect” is an allusion to the work of Philippe Ariès who argued in Centuries of Childhood that “In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist” (p. 129). 2  Paul Broyles, “Foreign Guardianship”, pp. 171–194. 3  “Introduction”, pp. xxii–xxvi. In her commentary note upon lines 4303–8 in Volume 2, p. 404, of her edition, Fellows notes, “It is a characteristic of the ME Romance that it envinces much less interest in the hero’s children than does Boeve” (the Anglo-Norman version). 4  Brian Lee, “Seen and Sometimes Heard”, p. 41. 5  Salisbury and Weldon, Explanatory Notes to Lybeaus Desconus, p.  182, note 2199. However, it is not at all uncommon for romances to end without mention of children within a marriage.



procreativity of Launfal and Tryamour’s sexual union similarly is marked by textual silence on the subject of children. Simply put, where are the children in these narratives? Why are they not being mentioned?6 Historically, a long discriminatory view against the offspring of mixed marriages was all too often true, especially when difference in religion was involved. In Saracens and the Making of English Identity, Siobhain Bly Calkin, for instance, points out that “When sexual activity and procreation between converts and Christians entered the picture … the convert’s previous religious existence was often raked up, even many generations after conversion. The children conceived between Christians and converts found it difficult to escape their mixed origins and to function socially in the same manner as the offspring of long-time Christians. For example, in his attacks on Pope Anacletus II in the early twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux repeatedly brought up the fact that Anacletus’s great-­grandfather was a Jewish convert”.7 When religion was the source of difference, in historical practice the anxiety induced by hybridity could linger on for generations to the point of thinking of the mixed offspring as solely the other, so it would seem. Literature, however, often differs from history in how it presents its themes. This chapter applies the significance and nature of this remarkable textual silence about children of mixed origin to an understanding of hybrid identity in English medieval literary texts, primarily in the romances. Not all the romances discussed in this chapter deal with England or with a specific sense of English identity, but they do all deal with the ramifications of mixed biological origins, and they all offer insight into the vexed question of how hybrid identity generally, sometimes English hybrid identity specifically, was regarded by the English in the High Middle Ages. Because the sources are all literary texts and not historical case studies, instances both of mixed human origins and supernatural miscegenation are considered as two different ways to express one and the same problem: the risk to the group posed by genealogical hybridity if not handled appropriately. This chapter examines the various 6  In “Victimized Children”, Tasdelen, for example, points out on p. 160 that Floris’s father “does not approve of his son Floris’ affair with Blanchelour, a non-Christian [sic] slave girl …. Apart from the difference in social rank, the difference of race and faith is presented as a reason for rejection of the lovers’ union, and implies the significance of keeping the bloodline pure”. Given that children are not mentioned at the end of the story, is the reader to understand that the father’s concern about the purity of his bloodline narratively lingers? 7  Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity, pp.  81–82. See also Stephen F. Kruger, “Conversion and Medieval Categories”, pp.  169–76; Ambrisco, “Process of Conversion”, pp. 213–21.



strategies which resolve the hesitations, the reluctances, and the silences associated with mixed ethnic identity, and which illustrate the process by which hybridity acts to extinguish itself.

Mixed Ethnicity in Medieval Britain: Some Historical Perspective The silence of medieval English literary texts on the subject of children of mixed ethnic background is surprising in that it does not reflect the social reality of a period in which intermarriage was common and happened between different cultural groups in Britain even under very hostile circumstances (Norman/English soon after the Conquest of 1066; English/ Irish and English/Welsh in the mid-twelfth century), not to mention those less formal or less consensual conjugal relationships which could result in pregnancy. Of course, there is also the famous declaration of Richard FitzNigel in Dialogus de Scaccario (Scarrario) made a generation after Henry II’s accession to the English throne in 1154, that “nowadays, when English and Normans live together and intermarry, the nations are so mixed that it can be scarcely decided who is English by birth and who is Norman”.8 Even if the ethnic divide between those of Anglo-Saxon stock and those of Norman ancestry had largely dissipated by 1189 as historians such as Hugh M. Thomas have claimed,9 throughout the medieval period other 8  Dialogus de Scaccario, edited and translated by Johnson, p. 53. For some contextualizing discussions of FitzNigel’s statement, see Thomas, p. 68, p. 154 and Christopher Daniel, p. 31. 9  Thomas, pp. 67–69; for a less optimistic view see Daniel, pp. 26–33. The situation for the native English was better, of course, relatively speaking in comparison to the immediate aftermath of the 1066 Conquest. In Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity, Cohen points out that during the reign of Stephen and not that many years before FitzNigel’s statement, the divide was very much a part of people’s ordinary lived experience in medieval Norwich: “the city was still composed of a privileged minority of former aliens living alongside a majority population who could not fail to notice that differences in status and prestige may have lessened over the years but continued everywhere to be visible. Norwich was a hybrid space, a geography that melded differences but left them disjunct” (p. 157). Similarly, in Cultural Difference and Material Culture, Dominique Battles argues “the cultural distinctions and conflicts between Anglo-Saxons and Normans originating with the Norman Conquest of 1066 prevailed well into the fourteenth century and are manifest in a significant number of Middle English romances including King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Tale of Gamelyn, among others” (p. 2). Interestingly, of the texts which Battles mentions, only Havelok the Dane includes reference to children of mixed ancestry, and that a very cursory one at the very conclusion of its story.



significant ethnic differences close to home remained deeply entrenched in the English worldview. To be English was to be something separate from being Irish, or Scottish, or Welsh, or Cornish, or Manx, or Marcher, or Scandinavian, or Fleming, or French, or Jew, even if some of these ethnic groups were co-existent with the English on the same land that made up the British Isles and even if the king seated on his throne in London claimed lordship over most or all of this territory and well beyond it. Indeed, it seems clear that what it meant to not be English was better understood by the English than the far less clear concept of English identity itself. As David Matthews points out in Writing to the King, “Medieval English nationalism is based, much of the time, on fear: fear of the other, whether the Scots or the French, a fear which was periodically whipped up by monarchs and […] lesser folk”.10 To become virulent, fear of the other needs only a clear identification of who the other is. Race, ethnicity, and alterity, pointing towards difference, provide the rest. The consequences of this fear and hatred of the foreign other were variable for the offspring of those procreative liaisons existent on either the literal or the metaphorical borderlands between groups. Indeed, history textbooks are full of examples of people who seemed to have had, at least in part, the freedom to choose their group identity. While the twenty-first century may designate the ethnic identity of Gerald of Wales as Welsh, in his own time period the ethnic identity of this denizen of the border marches was far from being clear cut, as can be seen in the fact that he sometimes identified/was identified as Welsh, sometimes as English, and at least once as a Norman.11 Gerald’s ethnic identity in his own generation was essentially unstable, to both himself and to others, and always subject to the immediate circumstances at hand. Moreover, according to Cohen in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity, the Marcher Gerald of Wales was “never allowed to forget his hybridity. His argument that the Marchers might constitute a gens was haunted by forced remembrance of constituent impurity. Gerald complained in his Symbolum Electorum that his enemies in England dismissed him as Welsh, while to the Welsh he seemed  Matthews, pp. 26–27.  Thomas, p. 73. Three excellent recent discussions of Gerald’s hybridity as shaped on the colonial frontier of the Celtic periphery are those of Cohen in Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity, pp. 77–108; Khanmohamadi in In Light of Another’s Word, pp. 37–56; and various chapters in the volume edited by Henley and McMullen, Gerald of Wales, especially that written by Owain Nash. A more general discussion of Marcher identity can be found in Rhonda Knight’s article “Werewolves, Monsters, and Miracles”, especially at pp. 57–60. 10 11



Norman French: ‘both peoples regard me as a stranger and one not their own … one nation suspects me, the other hates me.’”12 Gerald existed on the outside of two groups, wanting and yet not wanting in. Yet, at least for Gerald, he could find a full sense of belonging among the Marchers, by Gerald’s generation a significantly sized and identifiable group in its own right. While today it is not recognized as an identity separate from the Welsh, Gerald himself argued for a separate Marcher identity, and even if his argument outside of Marcher circles fell largely on hostile, deaf ears, among the Welsh Marchers themselves his call for their unique identity rang true.13 It is among this group that hybridity successfully extinguished itself by creating a third and separate identity. Michelle Warren observes that the Marchers had developed “border laws (lex Marchie) distinct from Welsh and English law”.14 Moreover, regardless of English and of Welsh prejudice to the contrary, as Emily Dolmans has pointed out, the Welsh Marchers soon developed their own particular sense of identity and even created a mythic past unique to themselves to cement their claim to the concept of their identity. According to Dolmans, through texts like Fouke Le Fitz Waryn, they also constructed a sense of their Marcher territory not as a borderland on the outskirts of “England’s edge, but rather as a central part of Britain, under the political influence of the English king, but with its own customs, laws, myths, and identity. Fouke’s Marcher protagonist is a lord of the border, neither Welsh nor entirely English”.15 Labelling of others by ethnic difference long endured, as much a fact of life in medieval England as it is in the world today. For example, in the famous tavern scene in the Confession of the Deadly Sins in Piers Plowman B, the bar’s many patrons are identified by any of up to three means: name, occupation, and place.  Cohen, p. 82.  Critical to any debate on hybridity is who is doing (or who is allowed to do) the thinking. Following on from Stephen Silliman’s argument observed in the Introduction, in a discussion over the hybridity of the Eastern Pequot, for example, whose point of view takes precedence in case there is a disagreement? The Eastern Pequot? Those Eastern Pequot judged by someone’s definition (whose?) to be ‘true’ Eastern Pequot? The expert cultural anthropologists with their supposedly impartial academic eye as outsiders? The federal or state government? The United Nations? Different answers to these questions will result from different agencies. The hybridity of the Welsh Marchers in the medieval period was no less a case of whose voice was being listened to in its authoritative definition. 14  Warren, History on the Edge, p. 8. 15  Dolmans, “Locating the Border: Britain and the Welsh Marches in Fouke le Fitz Warren”, pp. 133–34. 12 13



Clarice of Cokkeslane and þe Clerke of þe chirche, Sire Piers of Pridie and Pernele of Flaundres, Dawe þe Dykere, and a dozeyne oþere – A ribibour, a ratoner, and rakiere of Chepe, A ropere, a redyngkyng, and Rose þe Dysshere, Godefray of Garlekhiþe and Griffyþ þe Walshe.16

For two of the characters, Pernele of Flaundres and Griffyth the Walshe, place implies their ethnicity. Unlike for the Raker of Cheap and Clarice of Cokkeslane, both of whom are associated with streets in medieval London where presumably they either work and/or reside, the geographic tags Flaundres and Walshe identify Pernele and Griffyth as outsiders to England. Living and working in London do not combine to bestow upon Pernele and Griffyth an English identity, but these two individuals continue to be identified by the land from whence they came. Langland does not, however, specify the grounds upon which this alien status continues to be attached to Pernele and Griffyth, and there are several plausible explanations to account for the continuity of their outsider status. Perhaps “Griffyth the Walshe” is identified as Welsh because his tavern companions do not recognize in him English manners of style, behaviour, and pronunciation, or perhaps because they do not recognize any distinction between someone who is Welsh and someone who is a Welsh Marcher. Or perhaps Griffyth is identified as Welsh because that is how he self-identifies to the group: he does not recognize within himself an identity akin to the English denizens of the tavern and he introduces himself accordingly. The text is too opaque to articulate any nuance upon the manner of his alterity or its consequences. It only notes that the difference is significant enough to be observed and that the difference is situated in his land of origin. Nor does the text consider whether the alterity can be overcome. If “Griffyth the Walshe” were to adopt English modes of dress and work at losing his Welsh accent, would his drinking comrades start to think of him as a Londoner, if not exactly as English? If he had children born of an English mother and raised in London, would his offspring be English, or would others think of them as Welsh because their father is so? Langland through his text makes no effort to answer either of these questions because he never asks such questions in the first place. He notes only the geographic difference of Griffith’s identity, neatly balancing acceptance of the foreigner as a part of the tavern group with maintenance of his outsider status. 16  William Langland: Piers Plowman A Parallel-Text Edition, edited by Schmidt, B.5.312–17.



Handling Miscegenation: The Problem of Children This chapter examines hybridity in terms of genealogy and biological inheritance. If hybridity is a social construct grounded in difference but pointing towards sameness, it acts in this regard against two of the other constructs of difference, race and ethnicity, both of which point emphatically in the opposite direction towards unlikeness. It is thus worthwhile to pause and consider what these two other cultural constructs entail. Any reader who possesses even the most rudimentary understanding of critical race theory believes Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s classic statement to be true: race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin colour, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, are dwarfed by that which we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with distinctly human, higher-order traits, such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior. That society frequently chooses to ignore these scientific truths, creates races, and endows them with pseudo-permanent characteristics is of great interest to critical race theory.17

Ethnicity is not the same concept as race, but it is very similar in being a social construct which is all too often mistaken for being a permanent, fixed fact of existence.18 Citing the work of Patrick J. Geary and Fredrick Barth, Shannon Lewis-Simpson notes that Currently, ethnicity is most often thought of as a ‘situational construct’ that is mutable and instrumental, meaning that innate characteristics are enacted and manipulated by any individual ‘according to current need.’ Certain cultural practices and forms signify ethnic identity but these can be modified depending upon the particular situation in which a group, or individual, is found. The givens of birth which characterize ethnicity such as genetic ori Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, pp. 8–9.  For two groundbreaking arguments that race as a concept existed in the Middle Ages, see Thomas Hahn’s 2001 “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World” and Geraldine Heng’s 2011 two-part article, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages”. 17 18



gin, one’s name, and feelings of belonging, which arguably are ‘in the heart’ or primordial characteristics, are combined with the choices made by an individual throughout life ‘in the head’ to express instrumental characteristics of ethnic identity. Thus, considerations of both primordial and instrumental characteristics are of equal importance in discussions of ethnic identity.19

In both the case of race and ethnicity, membership in a group is as much if not more determined by the group which chooses to accept or reject an individual as one of their own, as it is established by the personal desire of the individual to join.20 Hybridity, the recognition of sameness within difference, is the countervailing influence which can determine the group’s response, but its pull can be limited. As both Cohen and Calkin have pointed out, historically, long before the Spanish Inquisition began, Jewish converts to Christianity faced persistent suspicion regarding the veracity of their new religious identity:21 the group effectively exercised a veto against these individuals who allegedly wanted to join as members of the Christian community, or it placed significant qualifications upon their membership. For a person of mixed ancestry, of course, there is danger in the possibility that neither group will accept the unwanted half breed as their own, a position which may still be safe and accommodating provided that there are enough individuals in that mixed category to form a third, viable 19  Lewis-Simpson, “Assimilation or Hybridization? A Study of Personal Names from the Danelaw”, p.  19. The reference to “situational construct” is to Geary’s article “Ethnic Identity as a Situational Construct”. Lewis-Simpson’s other references are to Barth’s introduction to his edited collection Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. 20  As Robert Bartlett has pointed out in “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity” using examples from the twentieth century, “Ethnic identity results from a process of labelling (identification). This may be self-labelling, but labelling by others is also involved, since ethnic identity may be contested. In the 1930s many people who considered themselves Germans were told they were not; they were Jews instead. It made a good deal of difference which label stuck. This labelling and self-labelling is also strategic and situational. To identify oneself or others in this way is almost invariably to claim something or deny something. To call oneself, or be called, ‘black’ or ‘British’ or ‘Irish’ or ‘Jewish’ is not a neutral statement of the obvious but a political and historical assertion, with implications for one’s rights and relationships. Different identities can be asserted in different situations” (p. 40). 21  See especially Robert Stacey, “The Conversion of Jews to Christianity”, pp. 276–278, pp.  281–283, and Kathy Lavezzo’s summary of scholarship, “Jews in Britain-Medieval to Modern”, pp. 1–10. See also Calkin, pp. 80–82; Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain, pp. 28–29.



group to which one may belong instead, as Gerald of Wales belonged to the Welsh Marchers. The notion of a third group emerging out of the hybrid conjoining of two pre-existing groups was not unprecedented. After all, according to Vergil’s great exercise in the forging of a new myth of national origin in the Aeneid, that is how the Romans came to be. In Vergil’s epic, there is no single dominant culture, and the next generation will be neither newcomer Trojan nor native Ausonian. Instead, a new god-­ sanctioned politically ethnic metissage, one which is an equal blend of father’s blood and mother’s blood but one which holds identification with neither parental group, is created.22 Vergil’s inspiration was to invent a third group to which all the following generations of Italians would then belong. But for a lone individual of mixed identity, being an outcast could be a perilous position in which to exist, the summation of the problematic hybrid grounded in difference aided and abetted by the divisive influences of race and ethnicity. Sometimes, indeed, children of mixed ethnic background seem born only to die and erase the problem from existence, of whom prominent examples are the two sons of Jason and Medea, a story from the classical period that remained well-known throughout the Middle Ages and was told by both Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. The doomed sons of Jason and Medea, killed by their mother to avenge herself against their father, illustrate neatly Delgado and Stefancic’s point that society “invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient” concepts of race and ethnicity. In the classical period as represented in Euripides’s Medea and in Seneca’s tragedy by the same name, Jason and Medea are a mixed couple, civilized rational Greek and barbaric emotional Colchian. But this cultural difference which was so important in Euripides and Seneca had lost its relevant 22  The mingling of ethnicities is necessary in the Aeneid, first, because in Book V the remaining Trojan women were left behind in Sicily and, second, because presumably so many young Ausonian men have died in battle against the Trojans. Of the romances considered in this chapter, Havelok the Dane perhaps comes the closest to envisioning something similar to Vergil’s conception in that Havelok presents a foreign Danish (Trojan) army invading and defeating a national English (Ausonian) army. But in Havelok there is a dominant culture and the result of the action is not a new original blending of two old cultures, but the acculturation of one group (the small band of militarily triumphant Danes) into the other group (the defeated majority English) just as happened historically to the militarily triumphant Normans whose descendants were soon absorbed into an ‘English’ identity, however that murky concept might have been construed. The dominant culture, then, to which everyone in medieval English literature wanted to belong—the ethnic identity that mattered in medieval English literature—was, understandably enough, English, even if what that meant was unclear.



edge by the Middle Ages. In the medieval period, Medea remains dangerous, but the problem she represents is unrelated to her ethnic origins and is due instead to her status as a wronged woman who is also a powerful witch.23 Her sons, nonetheless, continue to die whether told outright by the storyteller or through the reader’s knowledge of the tale’s larger horizon. Chaucer might suppress that part of Medea’s story in his Legend of Good Women to make her sympathetic, but he cannot erase her murder of her sons entirely. As Amanda Holton says in observation of Chaucer’s handling of the story of those two other child killers, Philomena and Procne, “the story … was so well-known that the way Chaucer stops dead only two-thirds of the way through the narrative unit and pretends the story has come to an end fools no one”.24 A strategy which is related to killing the ethnically mixed child to render moot the anxiety caused by potential introduction of hybridity into the group is for the unacceptable spouse to die instead before any children can result from the mixed union. This can be seen to happen to the Saracen first ‘husband’ of Constance as told by Chaucer in the Man of Law’s Tale and by Gower in Confessio Amantis.25 In Shakespeare’s later Othello, of course, both Desdemona and Othello die before any children result from their marriage. Nor should it be overlooked that, in an ominous anticipation of mid nineteenth-century racial miscegenation, some Middle English texts indeed go to great lengths to suggest the monstrosity of sexual pairings too far removed from one’s own European and Christian culture.26 In the early fourteenth-century confessional manual Handlyng Synne, for example, in the Tale of the Tempted Monk the Devil promotes a monk’s lust for a beautiful Saracen girl: to have her, the monk must forsake his baptism, his monastic vows, and his God.27 A reliable sign of Vortigern’s villainy in the Percy MS version of Arthour and Merlin is that not only does he 23  On Medea in the classical period, see the sources compiled in Ogden’s Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts, pp. 78–94. On Medea in the medieval period, see Morse’s The Medieval Medea, Saunders’s Magic and the Supernatural at pp. 162–69, and also Irvin’s Poetic Voices of John Gower at pp. 217–25. 24  Amanda Holton, Chaucer’s Poetics, p. 15. 25  Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale at ll. 428–30 in The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Benson; Gower’s Confessio Amantis at 2.685–92. 26  On the medieval horror of crossing the colour line as seen particularly in The King of Tars, see Heng’s detailed discussion in Empire of Magic, pp. 227–36 and p. 421 n.75. 27  Handlyng Synne, edited by Furnivall, ll. 198–201.



himself marry a heathen Saracen bride, but also he forces “the Christen men/To marry the heathen women/Soe that nighe all England/Was fallen into the Devills hand”.28 While children could and would result from these mixed, forced liaisons, both texts employ the strategy of discrete silence to avoid having to deal with the subject of hybridity. It is as if children of mixed background are never born. One text in which there is pronounced relief at the failure to consummate a potentially procreative sexual match between two different racialized groups is Ipomadon. Had the villain been successful in winning the lady in Ipomadon, what frightful result might have been born from the sexual union of the fair, bright, and beautiful Fere and Sir Lyolyne from India Major? Hys hed ys row with feltred here, Blake brysteld as a bore, Hys browys full they hynge, Wyth longe tethe, I warand yow, Euery lype, I dare avowe, Hyngth lyke a blode puddynge. This dare I sauerly make asethe; His nose towchys on his tethe, His mothe wry this all way, Blake as any bleche hys face, As two doublers every eye he hathe, Wyth gorget gret and gray; His berde as pyche ys blak, His body hath an euyll smake, The vesnamy fovle I saye; Neke as an ape, nebe as an owle; In all this worlde ys none so fovle.29

Although he is given the insider’s honorific title of Sir and the social rank of a gentleman, Lyolyne is presented as a racialized outsider and his sexual advances are most definitively unwelcome to both the Fere and the reader. Lyolyne fits exactly Cohen’s monster “of other cultures, generalized and  Arthour and Merlin, edited by Macrae-Gibson, ll. 416–19.  Ipomadon, edited by Purdie, ll. 6145–63. The term India notoriously lacks geographic precision in medieval texts, but in Book 3 of Marco Polo’s Travels, Greater India roughly corresponds to modern-day Pakistan and India. Lyolyne’s animalistic description in Ipomadon should be noted. 28 29



demonized to enforce a strict notion of group sameness. The fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity”.30 Lyolyne’s physical description only once notes the different colour of his skin, but both through simile and through literal detail the description emphasizes repeatedly the animal and the monstrous to underscore the degree of his unacceptable difference. For the Fere to produce progeny with Lyolyne would be thus akin on a figurative level to a mixture not of race, but of species and the conjoining would produce something unacceptable. Human/animal procreative results can have a particularly demonic angle to them in medieval literature, making the potential monstrous cross-species breeding in Ipomadon all the more potent. In Dives and Pauper, for instance, “many of þese myschapyn þingis þat ben born boþin of women & of bestis, as a calf with a neddrys tayl, a child with a neddrys hefd, or a child born of a schep with wolle in þe nekke” are the results of demonic spirits mixing the “materie & seed” of humans and beasts through sexual intercourse.31 As the Dives and Pauper example attests, the medieval imagination allowed for the species line literally to be crossed in matters of reproduction. Many examples of cross-species breeding with monstrous hybrid results can be cited in literature, both ancient and medieval. The best-­ known classical example would be the half human/half bull Minotaur, but there are many medieval literary cases, too. In Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, for instance, Constance is falsely accused of giving birth to a misshapen half faery child: “so horrible a feendly creature/That in the castel noon so hardy was/That any while dorste ther endure” (ll. 751–53).32 Merlin when born in Arthour and Merlin has the form and shape of a human being but nonetheless “Blak he was wiþowte les/And rouȝh as a swyn he wes” (ll. 981–82), skin colour and animal simile both acting as visible signs of his father’s demonic nature.33 Although not a case of cross-­ species hybridity, a comparable situation is found in The King of Tars, in which, born the ultimate disabled child, a shapeless lump of flesh at ll. 574–82, the fair-skinned child of the white Christian princess and the dark  Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, p. 15.  Dives and Pauper, edited by Barnum, Part 1, Vol. 2, pp. 118–19, ll. 30–33, l. 19. 32  For the same story in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, see 2.964–74. 33  In The Prose Merlin, “the wemen were sore afeerde, for they sye [the new-born Merlin] more roughe than other childeren that they had seyn …. And ther was none othir women that durste norishe it but the moder, for it was so grysly to sight” (‘Birth of Merlin’, pp. 27–28, at ll. 252–263). Merlin, of course, demonstrates that a child’s physical condition at birth need not be always due to the mother. 30 31



Muslim Sultan only gains human status after it has been baptized a Christian, through which means finally “It hadde liif and lim and fas/And crid with gret deray”.34 In The King of Tars, the hybrid son of the white-skinned Christian princess and the dark-skinned Muslim Sultan plays little role other than being born a lump, thereby demonstrating through its existence not only visceral horror at the parents’ unnatural interfaith marriage, but also a celebration of the transformative power of Christian baptism. The child’s conversion of form leads shortly to his father’s own conversion of skin colour and faith through baptism. Other texts, if kinder in their attitude towards such cross-cultural matches and their procreative results and less dogmatically pro Christian on the surface, are likewise often cursory in their mention of the children of mixed ethnic unions. The fifteen children of Havelok and Goldeborough receive five brief lines at the end to mention the improbable detail that somehow, they all become kings and queens. Yonec, the titular character of Marie de France’s tale yet not its main character or focus, is a diverse progeny across species, being the offspring of the shapeshifting hawk-man Muldamarec and a nameless 34  The King of Tars, edited by Chandler, ll. 770–71. According to Irina Metzler, “Medieval notions of congenital disability were … extremely gendered, in that the prime causes for any disability present (or observable) at birth, or within the first few weeks in the life of an infant, tended to be blamed on some failing of the mother. One should remember, however, that this blame was not exclusively placed on the mother, even if in a majority of arguments the maternal physiology, maternal behavior or moral laxitude were identified as factors. In that minority of causations where paternal blame was identified, it was alongside maternal error …. Since in medieval medical discourse, taken on from classical traditions, the female tended to be viewed purely as a vessel receiving the procreative powers that resided exclusively in the male, it was readily assumed that when things went wrong, this was the result of maternal malfunctioning, whether at a purely anatomical or at a moral level, which caused the pristine paternal seed deposited in the maternal body to be corrupted” (p.  179). The King of Tars neatly fits Metzler’s description: the mother’s paradigmatically unacceptable conversion is an example of corruptive maternal behaviour and moral laxitude, but the father’s unacceptable religion and his imposition of marriage upon his Christian wife are complementary to the child’s disability. When the father converts, his “pristine paternal seed” somehow retroactively converts and the child’s disability is gone. For discussion of the lump baby in King of Tars, see Chandler’s Introduction to his edition, pp. 14–16, as well as Gilbert, “Unnatural Mothers and Monstrous Children”, pp. 333–36, and Heng, Empire of Magic, pp. 228–29.



Christian lady.35 Yonec is not, however, a prominent character in the story named after him because Yonec is not mentioned in the story until almost its very conclusion. Appearing only in the last fifteen lines or so in the text, Yonec avenges the murdered birth father he suddenly discovers he had and then the orphan assumes his rightful place on his biological father’s throne. In both Havelok and Yonec, the hybrid child may be the culmination of successful action in the narrative, either the establishment or the continuation of dynasty, but the hybrid serves little function other than existing as this triumphant end point. The narrative centres on the mixed couple rather than the hybrid result. Strategies to deal with the apparent problem of the mixed child thus exhibit a range. On the one level, there is passive textual silence on the subject, which is essentially either a discrete refusal to acknowledge within the narrative that sexual interaction between a man and a woman of different backgrounds can result in children of mixed origin (Floris and Blancheflour, King Horn, Sir Launfal, Arthour and Merlin), or a minimal willingness to engage with the fact that such children exist (King of Tars, Havelok the Dane, Yonec). Other texts, such as Ipomadon, are more aggressive in their textual silencing, taking active measures to tout the possibility of mixed children being produced only to prevent the necessary sexual intercourse from taking place and to suggest such coupling to be unacceptably monstrous. Most aggressive of all, of course, is silencing through acts of violence, killing either the child or the prospective parent to eliminate the problem.

Bevis of Hampton: Land and Identity Nonetheless, there are several medieval English texts in which hybrid children exist and play more than nominal roles in the story. Two mixed-­ background children who receive substantial narrative attention are Guy and Miles, the twin sons of the English Christian Bevis and the Armenian Saracen Josian in Bevis of Hampton. Although they are twins and raised separately until age seven by different foster fathers under circumstances 35  In Fallen Bodies at p. 59, Dyan Elliott has suggested that Muldamarec “represents a kind of transitional stage in perceptions of the supernatural …. The times were changing and that the bird-knight was, historically, doing his last medieval shape-shift from fairy into demon. Fifty years later, Vincent of Beauvais would doubtless have included this remarkable bird-­ knight in his list of demon-lovers”.



which easily could have suggested an elemental opposition of earth and water due to Guy being taken in by a kind-hearted forester but Miles by a kind-hearted fisherman, the author makes no attempt to develop a theme of mixed ethnic identity through having the twins feel a separate accord with different cultural models. Guy does not, for instance, identify with Islam and Miles with Christianity; both are Christian. The emphasis in Bevis of Hampton is upon equal and positive treatment of the twins because the narrative provides no sibling conflict between Guy and Miles of the sort seen between the Bible’s Jacob and Esau, and it similarly does not suggest that the twins might disagree about culture, law, language, and customs, which are typical markers of ethnic identity. Bevis himself, in contrast, exemplifies significant issues around conflicted identity due to the fact that he is the Englishman-in-exile born of a Scottish mother who spends most of his life after the age of seven in Saracen lands far away from England and who returns home to his native land only twice, both times to enforce his legal claim to a patrimony of land which he ends up giving away to his uncle Saber as a reward for good service, and who dies of old age as the king of Mombrant in the far distant exotic East, and yet who somehow in spite of all this foreignness still is known as the hero Bevis of Hampshire who comes from England.36 Bevis’s ethnically mixed twin sons on the other hand do not inherit their father’s conflicted identity except insofar as they come to reflect its East/West division. First, when Guy and Miles reunite with each other and join their father, they are of the same age as was Bevis when he lost his father at age seven and left Christian England for the lands of the Saracen East. Second, both sons become kings: Guy inherits from his maternal grandfather the throne of Armenia in the East while Miles in the West marries the daughter and sole surviving heir of King Edgar in England. Indeed, Bevis of Hampton and Yonec, though centuries apart in composition and coming from strikingly different cultural milieus, support the contention that a specific English sense of identity could not have been based in blood quantum (i.e. the idea that to be English one must be born of a certain ancestral stock to a specified degree). They confirm instead Bettina Bildhauer’s argument that the cultural anthropologist’s 36  References to Bevis of Hampton are from the text edited by Herzman, Drake, and Salisbury. A good discussion of “the fantasy of Englishness” in Bevis of Hampton is that of Thomas Crofts and Robert Rouse in “Middle English Popular Romance and National Identity” at pp. 83–85.



expectation of “a preoccupation with blood to define hereditary bonds of race or nobility” is simply not to be found as a metaphor for lineage and inheritance in the Middle Ages.37 Nor could Englishness have been an ethnic identity easily based on another typical marker of identity found in cultural anthropology—language—though no doubt which language(s) one spoke was becoming an increasingly sensitive topic in Britain during this time.38 Language was, moreover, particularly fraught as a marker of identity given the linguistic diversity of the British Isles. Even if one could overcome the challenge posed by dialect at a time when the English language had lost an elite standard by which to define itself, the idea that to be English is to speak/write English holds some peculiar outcomes in the medieval period. At the very least, it could lead to the strange conclusion that Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, who wrote within the dialect continuum to which English linguistically belongs, would have been identifiable as Englishmen. Meanwhile, English men and women who functioned in their daily working lives in one of medieval England’s other two ‘official’ languages, Latin and French, would somehow have ceased to be English! Language is simply too unclear a sign of identity in medieval Britain to be relied upon. Instead, Englishness in the medieval period needs to be understood as existent within two very elastic poles of identity. On the one side, it must be an ethnic identity based on cultural practice, custom, and law: to be English one must look and act in a particular way to be recognized as English.39 But most of all, an English identity in the medieval period

 Bildhauer, “Medieval European conceptions of blood”, at S72.  Two particularly strong recent discussions of the language situation in medieval England are those of Jennifer Alberghini in “Matriarchs and Mother Tongues”, especially at pp. 150–53 in regard to French, and of John Scattergood in Occasions for Writing, pp. 17–37. For an extended study, see Ardis Butterfield’s The Familiar Enemy. 39  But what did looking and acting English entail? The stereotypes associated with the English in the Middle Ages include a reputation for hospitality, rowdy overindulgence in drinking ale, prodigal wastefulness, and, most intriguing of all, the possession of a tail! For these and other medieval stereotypes about the English, see Thomas, The English and the Normans, pp. 297–306. 37 38



demanded a legitimate and recognized connection to the English soil.40 In Bevis of Hampton, Bevis maintains his legal claim to the land of Hampshire until his proxy, his son Miles, is in a position to lay claim to all of England as its future king. The same occurs in Richard Coer de Lyon where the factuality of Richard’s Englishness is unassailable due to the simple truth that Richard is the king of England with a claim upon all its land, regardless of the historical man’s Norman ancestry, his inability to speak the English language, his vast holdings of land on the Continent, and the minimal time he spent in his kingdom throughout his lifetime. Recognized connection with a foreign soil should, therefore, logically create an outsider identity, as it does for Langland’s Pernele of Flaundres and Griffyth the Walshe. Such can also be seen in Book XX of Malory where, because Launcelot’s lands are held entirely in France, for all the time that he spends at Arthur’s court in England Launcelot remains always a French knight: “But say the sothe, sir Launcelottis […] was lorde of all Fraunce and of all the londis that longed unto Fraunce”.41 On the other hand, we should not expect that defining what it meant to be French in the Middle Ages was any less of a conundrum than trying to define medieval English identity at this same point in time because the answer was not so simple as which king, the English one based in London or the French one in Paris, the locals recognized as their sovereign. Gareth Knight, for instance, points out in The Book of Melusine of Lusignan in History, Legend and Romance that at the end of the fourteenth century, “when Jean 40  Kofi Campbell for instance, notes the strong connection between Bevis, land, and identity in “Nation-Building Colonialist-Style in Bevis of Hampton”: “Bevis, the wronged and exiled Englishman, has traveled to the lands of the East and South, taken a Christian wife and sired Christian children, taken lands away from the Saracens, and united a great deal of property under his family name. What remains? Why, only to unite all of England under that same name, which the English King Edgar conveniently steps in to do by marrying his daughter to Bevis’s son. So while Bevis himself never becomes king, his actions allow for a unified England to emerge, an England which has now taken land from the Saracens to enlarge its own kingdom and sphere of influence. Bevis’s travels in the Saracens’ lands also allow the text to construct a sense of Englishness against those Saracen, constructing an Englishman who is brave, strong, an able fighter, capable of taking land from his enemies and converting them to Christianity and, most importantly, of bringing these aspects together under a unified banner of Englishness, symbolized by his family’s eventual ascension to the throne” (p. 231). Campbell, however, somewhat overstates his argument: the Saracen lands do not become part of England ruled by Miles but remain separate kingdoms ruled by either Guy (Armenia) or by Bevis himself (Mombrant). 41  Malory: Works, edited by Vinaver, p. 699.



d’Arras wrote Melusine a large part of Western France was under English domination … Almost all France was divided into a French party and an English party. The war with England was less a foreign than a civil war … We need to distinguish between the English of the French nation and the English of England. It often came about that a man divided his life between the two warring nations. The French might ‘turn English’ and then return to being French … Nothing was stable, everything was confused”.42 By the same land-based logic, even as the English continued to express vile prejudiced notions against the Celts as uncouth barbarians, they without apparent contradiction could lay claim to the non-Anglo Saxon Arthur and Gawain as their own while disavowing any connection to that villainous invader Hengest who held no due title to the land.43 Even Layamon, who is generally careful to refer to his characters as Britons who live in Britain, makes the Arthur/English connection. Towards the end of the Arthurian section of the Brut, for example, Modred attempts to enter London (l. 14158) and flees from Winchester, leaving most of his army and the citizens of the capital of Wessex, an important Anglo-Norman centre, to their grisly fate (ll. 14161–14201). Guenevere meanwhile flees to safety from ‘Eouwerwic’ (York at ll. 14203, 14208). Merlin’s prophecy of Arthur’s return concludes the section with “that an Arthur sculde ȝete cum Anglen to fulste” [that an Arthur should come again to aid the English] at l. 14297, unintentionally ironic considering how many Anglo Saxons the very Celtic Arthur slew in his time.44 Dunbar and Henryson meanwhile could write in a Scottish variation of the English dialect continuum but still think of themselves as Scots without feeling anything like postcolonial guilt or anxiety for doing so, because their connection as recognized by everyone was to the soil of Scotland.45 Nor did the recognized connection with the land need to be one of long standing. History 42  Gareth Knight, The Book of Melusine in History, Legend and Romance, pp. 76–77. For another point of view on this matter, see also Kenneth Hodges’s excellent article “Why Malory’s Launcelot is not French” in Mapping Malory, pp. 135–55. 43  On the ambivalent status of Hengest in the medieval and early modern period, see Margaret Lamont’s article “Hengist” in Heroes and Anti-Heroes, pp. 43–57. 44  See Layamon’s Arthur: The Arthurian Section of Layamon’s Brut, edited by Barron and Weinberg. 45  The murky political situation between England, Scotland, and Orkney (which is recognized here as not officially being a part of Scotland until the late fifteenth century) as shadowed in Malory’s Arthurian context is well covered by Hodge in “Sir Gawain, Scotland, Orkney”. For English/Scottish relations during the reign of Edward I, see Matthews, pp. 52–90.



affords the example of Lanfranc, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the immediate Post-Conquest years, 1070–1089. Lanfranc was born in Lombardy and resided in Normandy for many years, and yet within a few years of living in England began to describe himself as a “new Englishman”.46 How one (was) identified with the land is what mattered most of all in issues of medieval English identity, and that identification opens the door to hybridity’s capacity to extinguish itself.

Resolving Hybrid Identity: Mothers and Fathers Many medieval English literary texts express hesitancy, if not outright hostility towards the products of mixed marriage, and narrative reluctance suggests that being of a less-than-singular ethnic identity was a problematic position in which to exist. Indeed, other than dispensing with them altogether either through textual silence or through death, another literary strategy to resolve the issue of children of hybrid origin is evident in Bevis of Hampton: minimization. The aim of this narrative strategy is to reduce the problem to the point where it no longer functionally matters, even in the continuing face of evident biological hybridity. This action demonstrates hybridity extinguishing itself. Whereas Ipomadon points to difference by exaggerating the racial dissimilarity of the villainous outsider Sir Lyolyne of India Major, Bevis of Hampton points to sameness by stressing the similarity of its Saracen-born heroine Josian, who is described in the conventional terms of European feminine beauty and womanly accomplishment. So faire she was and bright of mod, Ase snow upon the rede blod Wharto scholde that may discrive? Men wiste no fairer thing alive, So hende ne wel itaught; Boute of Cristene lawe she kouthe naught. (ll.521–26)

Only one thing sets Josian apart from being recognized as a member of the reader’s dominant culture and that one thing is found not in the biological inheritance of the body which she cannot change, but in external 46  On Lanfranc, see Daniel in From Norman Conquest to Magna Carta at p. 32. See also Thomas, pp. 72–73, pp. 285–86.



religious practice and belief which she can. When for love of Bevis this Saracen princess converts to Christianity, her flimsy cultural difference easily dissolves and Josian for all intents and purposes joins the ethnicity of Bevis so that, according to Calkin, she can now act further to reinforce and proclaim the durability of her husband’s “identities as land-owning, Christian, English knight”,47 even if at least two of these four identities exist on shaky grounds. Indeed, Josian’s conversion to Christianity, to paraphrase the wording of Cohen, can be read as a self-declaration of turning into what she always already was.48 Her twin sons, Guy and Miles, as a consequence of their mother’s conversion possess no problematic mixed identity with which to trouble themselves because, while they technically may remain hybrids in the biological sense, they are not ‘in essence’ hybrids in any way that meaningfully matters. The problem of the hybrid child has been resolved by narratively erasing the difference of the aberrant parent and emphasizing her sameness. A similar correlation is true of the fair-skinned lump baby and its father in The King of Tars. The son’s hybrid identity disappears the moment his father self-declares through conversion, both literal and spiritual, what he has always been. The text’s logic is that noted by Thomas Hahn, who in his influential article, ‘The Difference the Middle Ages Makes’, points to “the power of color to signify difference”.49 If different colour signifies religious and cultural difference, then similar colour must signify similarity. Hence, once the family unit’s colour is uniformly either fair-skinned or dark-skinned, any other apparent difference between the wife and her husband evaporates and their child becomes the same one thing that they are. Biology and genealogy are not the driving forces of what determines identity in this text. Symbolism and faith are the meaningful factors, and once symbolism and faith are in accord, visualized as a uniform skin tone, the child’s hybridity is extinguished. What the family unit now holds in ­common—its Christian faith—outweighs what differences used to or may continue to exist among them. This is again the essential strategy of textual silence on the subject, but a silence this time founded on ignoring any remnants of difference rather than emphasizing them. The King of Tars reveals that biological miscegenation does not have to matter if other unifying cultural and social forces at work, especially faith, are thought more  Calkin, p. 90.  Cohen, “On Saracen Enjoyment”, p. 121. 49  Hahn, “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes”, p. 10. 47 48



important. Hybridity, grounded in difference yet pointing to sameness, extinguishes itself in this text as soon as sameness is literally achieved in the family being all of one colour. Of course, in historical reality, difference could well emerge again as socialized factors such as race and ethnicity reassert themselves. However, within the controlled confines of the literary text, hybridity’s victory over its own difference is complete. Indeed, as Cord J. Whitaker argues, the message of The King of Tars demands not social intervention on the part of the reader, but personal reflection: “Attentive readers of The King of Tars will avoid judging others based on skin color or religious faith; instead, they will react to The King of Tars as a wake-up call that they must keep a careful watch on the state of their own souls”.50 In Bevis of Hampton, the wife through religious conversion crosses over to the ethnic identity of the husband, bringing her children fully over with her, while in The King of Tars, it is ultimately the husband who ends the back and forth process of conversion in the story when he crosses over to his wife’s side following his son.51 Discussion of identity in these two texts may in fact invite readers to consider some of the same questions asked by historian Hugh M.  Thomas in The English and the Normans about the formation of mixed ethnic identity at the socially elite level in the High Middle Ages: “To what degree would these [gendered social] imbalances have limited [mistresses/wives’] ability to affect ethnic relations and identity? To what degree could wives and mistresses influence and acculturate the new immigrant circles in which they found themselves, and to what degree could they pass on their culture to their children? Whose identity mattered for children, their father’s, their mother’s, or both?”52 Historical records suggest that when it came to children of mixed parentage the socially more advantageous ethnicity (which was almost always that of the father) was what mattered. Moreover, as David Matthews points out, by the late thirteenth century the social elite of English and of Scottish society were all essentially hybrids of one sort or another through  Whitaker, Black Metaphors, p. 45.  In Empire of Magic, p. 229, Heng points out that in this story centred on acts of conversion, it is the Christian princess who first converts to Islam. Heng suggests “perhaps the princess’s terrifying public act of betraying the Christian faith [through conversion to Islam] procures a monstrous lump of flesh” as its result. Texts such as Bevis and King of Tars, of course, accept without question the supposed superiority of Christianity as a religion. Religion—the correct religion—indeed matters very much. 52  Thomas, p. 140. 50 51



intermarriage, posing in some circumstances a potentially threatening political situation.53 Yet, while it may be a common assumption that only the father’s line held influence in these cases, the evidence suggests to the contrary that there was a determined belief in the maternal line’s power to shape identity beyond the strictly physical ability of the maternal imagination, as Irina Metzler notes, to “affect the shape and nature of the unborn or even unconceived child”.54 Such a belief in the power of the maternal indeed must constitute the root of the fear behind Christian men being forced to marry Saracen women in the Percy MS version of Arthour and Merlin. A related expression of fear regarding maternal influence on identity is evident in the concerns expressed by theologians like Bernardino of Siena and by Pope Honorius III about the careless engagement of unsuitable wet nurses from the wrong community group because, as Peggy McCracken puts it, “mother’s milk carries an essential identity from the breast to the child”.55 Whether by looking at inappropriate images during pregnancy or allowing their Christian child to ingest foreign bodily fluids after birth, negligent Christian parents, in theory at least, could find themselves raising a Jew or a heretic by mistake. Some texts from England certainly demonstrate the power of the maternal in shaping mixed identity. In Marie de France’s Yonec at the end, for example, the titular Yonec does not hesitate to cut off the head of the man he has just learned is his stepfather and the man responsible for the murder of his father. It can hardly be credible, however, to think Yonec’s identification with a biological father he never knew is on its own capable of spurring such an act of extreme violence against a man who/whom both thought until the very last moment was Yonec’s father and who by all accounts as described in the narrative raised him and treated him as his  Matthews, p. 68, p. 136.  Metzler, p. 166. According to Metzler, the mother is imprinted by the visual images she sees or imagines during intercourse and then pregnancy. A woman who thought of a cow during intercourse, for example, could produce a child which resembles one. The phenomenon is also known as the mother’s mark. According to Angela Florschuetz, “Simply speaking, the mother’s mark writes upon the child’s body the unruly and unpredictable content of his mother’s mind and emotions. A stray thought, a desperate craving, or an abject terror might give rise to the phenomenon, which manifests as an imprint of the women’s mind upon the child’s body—a birthmark in the shape of a longed-for pickle, a deformed nose reminiscent of a wolf’s muzzle” (Marking Maternity, p. 1). 55  See McCracken, The Curse of Eve, The Wound of the Hero at p. 71. For Honorius III’s views on inappropriate wet nurses, see Heng, Empire of Magic, p. 98. 53 54



long-awaited heir with all due honour and kindness.56 It must, therefore, be Yonec’s identification with the maternal that lies behind such an outburst of violence as is necessary to decapitate an adult human male with one swing of a sword. Indeed, rather than expressing shame at his mother’s public admission to adultery and his own resultant illegitimacy, Yonec beheads his stepfather immediately upon the death of his mother at the tomb of her lover (ll. 544–50). The pull of the matrilineal line is observable also in Havelok the Dane in that Havelok of Denmark and Goldeborough of England choose at the end of the story to reside and to raise their fifteen children in her kingdom rather than in his. The ethnic identity of their fifteen children must, therefore, be influenced far more by their matrilineal English line than by their patrilineal Danish inheritance. The Constance story, as told in Chaucer and Gower, affords another example of matrilineal dominance. While Constance’s son Maurice/ Morris is reunited with his father Alla when Alla visits Rome, Maurice does not take the opportunity to return to Northumberland with his father, but he remains in his mother’s territory and inherits his maternal grandfather’s position as Emperor of Rome, a far more advantageous position. Nonetheless, there are many romances in which the hero’s connection with his father is paramount. In Sir Degaré, the titular hero is a human/ faery hybrid. Unlike Miles, Guy, and the lump baby, Degaré’s hybridity is not resolved for him by the actions of his parents, but he must resolve it himself. Degaré’s quest to find his faery father comes after the disturbingly incestuous reunion with his human mother in which he marries her after defeating his powerful maternal grandfather in battle: both parental bonds are important but a successful search for the paternal (achieved through a sword!) is suggestively the conclusive end to Degaré’s ability to enter upon adulthood and to commit to a successful marriage with his own suitable bride.57 Yet, unlike the fully human Horn and Havelok who in their romances must grow into the men their fathers were in order to regain their lost identities through reclamation of their father’s land, Degaré by  The Lays of Marie de France, edited and translated by Gallagher, ll. 463–70.  Sir Degaré, edited by Laskaya and Salisbury. In both cases, the recognition of familial connection must happen before catastrophe strikes. If Degaré does not recognize his mother in time he will commit incest with her. If he does not recognize his father in time he may kill (or be killed by) him in battle. Fortunately, Degaré remembers in time to ask his mother (whom he has just married) to try on the magic gloves which fit only his mother’s hands, and Degaré’s father notices the broken tip of his son’s sword, the token he left with Degaré’s mother to be able to recognize his son. 56 57



contrast must not become his father in any sense of the word: not in taking his father’s place in his mother’s bed and not in replicating his rapist father’s actions.58 Degaré’s challenge in effect is to recognize his father in order to undo history, to transform the father who raped his mother and abandoned his family into a worthy husband and a desirable son-in-law within Christian marriage in a Christian land so that Degaré might do and be the same.59 Such undoing illustrates hybridity extinguishing itself in another manner. In Lybeaus Desconus, in comparison, another hybrid hero finds both a proper name—Guinglain—and his father Gawain in the course of the story. Moreover, being illegitimate proves to be no significant barrier to Guinglain as he tries to find acceptance among the ranks of respectable knights at Arthur’s court, just as it proves to be an unimportant factor in the genetic paternal inheritance which enables him to survive the Dragon Lady of Synadoun’s enchanted kiss.60 Though Gawain played no part in Guinglain’s child rearing, clearly it is a biological connection to his father, Gawain, that matters for Guinglain in this regard.

Resolving Unwanted Hybridity: The Supernatural as Sign Guinglain’s conception at the liminal edge of a woods between the worlds of courtly civilization and of wild forest is suggestive of his hybrid identity and it adds a new and powerful element to the treatment of ethnic hybridity in medieval English narratives. Not only does the forest’s edge location visualize Guinglain’s social marginalization as a bastard son unrecognized by his father, an outsider who exists at best on the fringes of polite

58  Degaré must also not become a faery like his father, but his father will need to become human, as I will discuss later in this chapter. 59  Degaré can be seen to rewrite history when he kills the knight who attempts to rape his beloved, ll. 881–89. He also rewrites the bad history of his father in the way that Degaré comes together with his mother, as Kenneth Eckert points out in “Absent Fathers”: “Degaré, moreover, wins the princess’s body fairly in open trial as his father emphatically did not, in a thematic redo of the fairy knight’s covert molestation of her”. 60  Only Gawain or one of his kin can survive the kiss, a regular feature of the ‘fierce kiss’ literary trope. Lybeaus Desconus, edited by Salisbury and Weldon, Naples MS, p.  134, ll. 2130–38.



medieval society,61 it also serves to foreground a certain two-sidedness to his origins. Like those other bastard hybrids, Yonec, whose shapeshifting hawk-man father comes to his mother through the liminal point of an unglazed window in a high tower, a location which connects the different worlds of immaterial air and earthly stone,62 and Degaré, who is also conceived out of wedlock in a forest, Guinglain is implicitly of hybrid origin with a touch of the supernatural. Notably, in the Naples MS of Lybeaus Desconus, when at the end of the story he publicly acknowledges Guinglain to be his son, Gawain admits “I wanne him bi a forestis side/And gate him of a giantis lady” (ll. 2248–49). Eve Salisbury and James Weldon argue that this detail may be something more significant than a scribe’s textual fumble: in the French Li Biaus Descouneüs and the German Wigalois versions of the story, the mother is a faery and there is likewise the well-­ established “folklore tradition in which a giant’s daughter helps the hero or marries the hero”.63 One may question whether Guinglain’s maternal ethnicity and his birth on the outer fringes of a forest in Lybeaus Desconus matter beyond what the latter suggests about his social marginalization. After all, his mother is reduced to namelessness both by her own lack of a personal name and by her apparent inability to give her son a proper name (she calls him simply ‘Beaufits’—beautiful son). Moreover, because she is said in the Naples MS to be a giant’s lady, she is herself identified by connection to a male line as either a wife or a daughter. Taken all together, these may imply that she, despite being the sole caregiver in Guinglain’s youth, possesses little or no means by which, to paraphrase historian Hugh M.  Thomas, she might pass on her giant culture to her child.64 The human male line it would seem wins out in Guinglain, though not without need of significant qualification. In spite of his seeing a slain knight “made ful tame” (l. 36) and lying unburied to rot on the ground 61  In their introduction, Salisbury and Weldon note at p. 22 that Guinglain’s “story demonstrates the ramifications of illegitimacy and the lack of a ‘proper’ name in a world that demands identities, genealogies, and verification at every turn”. 62  In his edition of Marie de France’s Lays, Edward Gallagher points out on p. 100 that Yonec affords another example of liminality: “the tunnel in the hillock through which the lady follows the wounded Muldamarec marks a boundary between the ordinary realm of mere mortals and the otherworldly region inhabited by exceptional beings”. 63  Salisbury and Weldon, Explanatory Notes to Lybeaus Desconus, p. 182, note 2192 ff. See also Salisbury’s article “Illegitimacy and the Spurious Mother”, pp. 80–82. 64  Thomas, p. 140.



where he died, the potentially violent result of the knightly occupation graphically splayed in the dirt before him, Guinglain’s immediate impulse at the sight is to strip the knight, don his armour, and head off at once to Arthur’s court.65 Yet comparison to Yonec suggests there is reason to pause before assuming here that it is only the paternal line that matters for Guinglain’s identity. Yonec, after all, finds it disturbingly easy to turn violently on the man he has mistakenly believed for his entire life to be his father. His quick turn against his stepfather could be rooted in an implicit (and seemingly quite Freudian) desire to connect with his biological father by using his real father’s sword, or it could reflect Yonec’s (also seemingly quite Freudian) identification with the nurturing acts of his mother. If one hesitates over the parental influences at work in the case of Yonec, one ought not to be too quick to discount the potential power of the maternal line in shaping Guinglain’s hybrid identity in Lybeaus Desconus. Indeed, Guinglain’s mother tries to prevent her son from ever seeing an armed knight, For that he was so savage, And blitheli wolde do outrage To his fellows in fere. (Naples MS ll. 19–21)

The source of this ‘blithe savagery’ that Guinglain’s mother so fears will bring her beloved son into disrepute is not explicitly stated in the text and it can be attributed to the simple fact that Guinglain is illegitimate and therefore he lacks learned social refinement. However, a more satisfying explanation due to the complexity it bestows upon the narrative, is that this blithe savagery is evidence of his mother’s line, a reminder that he is half-giant and from the non-human ‘savage’ world of the forest. 65  One hopes Guinglain pauses to bury the corpse first, though the text does not mention such! Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival offer a parallel instance. In Wolfram, raised in the forest by a mother who has withdrawn from the world after the violent death of her husband in battle and who has instructed her servants to “keep all knighthood” from her son, when at the start of Book III Parzival by chance encounters three knights while out hunting he immediately begins to pressure his mother into letting him go to Arthur’s court. See Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, edited and translated by Mustard and Passage, pp. 66–71. Chrétien’s version is similar, except it is the deaths of his two brothers in battle which motivate Perceval’s mother to attempt to prevent her third son from also becoming a knight. See Perceval, Or, The Story of the Grail, edited and translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, ll. 310–488.



Guinglain encounters several male giants in his quest, and two of these, Maugis and Lambard, are not only giants, but they are identified in such a manner as to be ethnic outsiders to Arthur and Gawain’s Britain. Maugis is “blakke so eny picche” (l. 1310) with eyebrows as bristly as pig’s hair (ll. 1322–23) and he has the strength of an ox (ll. 1330–31). Not only do his skin colour and animalistic nature recall Ipomadon’s villainous outsider Sir Lyolyne, but they also separate Maugis from any possible British ethnic identity whether such is understood as being Pictish, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, or Norman in origin. So too does religious worship because on his shield Maugis bears the image of four pagan idols (l. 1360) and he is said specifically to worship Termagaunt (l. 1386). Maugis could, therefore, be recognized by an English medieval reader as little else other than a Moor. Lambard, on the other hand, while much less a monstrous and much more a positive figure than Maugis, by name and by simile is ethnically a Lombard (l. 1655).66 The Lombards made up an ethnic group which, although Christian and Trojan-descended just like Arthur and Gawain, nonetheless were maligned as outsiders to Britain,67 and their small, but visible foreign community living in fourteenth-century London often faced violent discrimination.68 In the course of his adventures Guinglain kills Maugis (ll.1472–80) and subdues Lambard (l. 1710) and so clearly then, in this story the mother’s ancestral line does matter, but in the negative sense. It is a bad inheritance which the text implies must be rejected and expunged. In killing Maugis and subduing Lambard, Guinglain is demonstrably killing and subduing that side of what he is and might have become. Guinglain in effect must choose which of his two 66  In his edition of the Ashmole Codex 61 Lybeaus Desconus, George Shuffelton observes that there is no manuscript version in which Lambard’s portrayal is “entirely coherent” (p. 479 n1574). 67  As Michelle Warren notes in History on the Edge on p. 10, “In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the most active struggles for ethnic and family identity deployed Trojan ancestors. By the end of the twelfth century, many of the ruling families of Europe had traced their genealogies back to Troy. The process did not create bonds of identification among these families, but rather sought to differentiate each group from its potential rivals. The genealogical use of the Trojans shows how the perception of difference rather than identity structures the boundaries between groups”. 68  Rouse, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance, pp. 89–90. English hatred of the Lombards could be insistently determined. In Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal, the eponymous hero travels from Britain to Lombardy to fight the giant Sir Valentine, whom he kills. Launfal also slays all the lords of Lombardy before he returns joyfully to a hero’s welcome in Britain. See Sir Launfal, edited by Sands, ll. 505–612.



different family lines he wants to be—a knight like his father or a giant like his mother—and while both options are open to him, the one is presented as being a better choice than the other. Fortunately, from the point of view of the romance at least, Guinglain leaves the blithe savagery of his mother’s ancestry behind, and he chooses the paternal line of courtly chivalry which, if equally violent as giantkind in many respects, restrains its violence within the rules of knightly conduct. Yonec and Degaré, in contrast, do not need to cope with such an ethnic problem suggested by their paranormal origins because neither exhibits any supernatural abilities inherited from the paternal line, and indeed Degaré’s father, except for his exotic azure shield and the magic gloves which he sends to the mother from his forest location in the west (l. 993) has himself but few supernatural traits. In terms of culture and practice then, the paternal inheritances of Yonec and Degaré are resolved by hybridity’s self-extinguishment to be the same Christian and chivalric model as their maternal line, as any potential difference caused by hybridity, big or small, is minimized yet again to the point where it ceases to wield meaningful influence. If one takes the supernatural out of the equation, Guinglain’s choice in Lybeaus Desconus is arguably that between two ethnic identities: Guinglain must choose between his father’s culture (presumably the dominant culture) and that of his mother (regarded as being somehow inferior). The difference in the Naples MS is not one of class, estate, or of some other social stratification: the mother, after all, is herself “fre” (l. 2232) and a lady (ll. 2249–50). The difference can be recognized, therefore, as ethnic expressed in a code which puts a negative supernatural at odds with the human and which exists in tandem with the hero’s illegitimacy, even though being a bastard bears no ultimate taint or disadvantage to social advancement in the text. Moreover, Guinglain is not permitted to maintain contact with both his cultures: he cannot be both giant and knight, a giant knight, but he must choose between being one or the other. In the Naples version of Lybeaus Desconus, Gawain’s embrace and blessing of his illegitimate half-giant son at lines 2253–64 demonstrate the dominant culture’s acceptance that the knight of questionable background has successfully undergone a process of acculturation which has fully winnowed out the unwelcome half of his two ethnic heritages that once upon a time made him laddish and ungallant. If at the start of this romance we might be inclined to regard Guinglain somewhat as Bhabha’s mimic man trying



to camouflage his right to be at Camelot,69 by the end of his story he has surpassed any lack of authenticity and become something else. With Gawain’s embrace and blessing, Guinglain, as described by Eve Salisbury, is now “returned to the realm of the socially and politically acceptable. Whereas the name bestowed by Arthur [‘Lybeaus Desconus’] literally renders the aspiring knight into an abstract signifier that could apply to any physically attractive and anonymous young man, the new name pronounced by Gawain at the poem’s end [Guinglain] provides him with a patrilineage that promises to restore his nebulous position in a very material environment”.70 This environment is the diverse mix of knightly culture at Camelot, itself a hybrid cultural and ethnic space given unity at least for a time through the inclusive chivalric code of the Round Table under the leadership of Arthur. With hybridity triumphant in foregrounding sameness and erasing difference to zero, Guinglain, now regarded as fully one of the boys, is at last free to become a king and a good husband in his own Christian land. The draw of Guinglain’s choice to identify with the dominant culture, moreover, is so strong that it is even capable in the Naples version of Lybeaus Desconus of pulling his giant-born mother out of her culture and location (seclusion in the forest) and into his chosen cultural identity at Camelot, because his mother attends the bridal feast where she meets and reveals to Gawain his identity as Guinglain’s father.71 In Sir Degaré, the pull of the dominant culture acts upon Degaré’s faery father instead, drawing him out of the forest and into the maternal family’s culture and land. Here too is found bestowal of official recognition and acceptance by a powerful male authority of the dominant culture: the maternal grandfather who thanks God for knowing the certain identity of Degaré’s father and who also assents to his daughter’s marriage to her son’s father (ll. 1086–91) despite the rape that happened long ago. His 69  In “Of Mimicry and Man”, Bhabha describes mimicry as “In mimicry, the representation of identity and meaning is rearticulated along the axis of metonymy. As Lacan reminds us, mimicry is like camouflage, not a harmonization of repression of difference, but a form of resemblance, that differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically”. The Location of Culture at p. 90. See also pp. 120–21. 70  Salisbury, “Illegitimacy and the Spurious Mother”, p. 78. 71  Perhaps only temporarily, however. Salisbury notes that Guinglain embraces only his father and that his nameless mother, unlike in other versions of this tale, does not marry Gawain at the end. Salisbury argues that something “spurious”, illegitimate, remains attached to the mother. In my reading of the text, figuratively that illegitimacy would be her own essential nature as a giantess. See “Illegitimacy and the Spurious Mother”, pp. 82–98.



acceptance of the faery knight as a suitable son-in-law in turn resolves any lingering hesitancy about Degaré’s own mixed identity and questionable legitimacy. As seen in texts like Richard Coer de Lyon, fairies by tradition cannot abide the power of the Christian sacraments. To marry the human princess in Sir Degaré therefore, the faery father arguably must have been pulled entirely into the human fold, bringing Sir Degaré in retrospect along with him.72 Ethnic difference in both texts, regardless of what that difference entails or how extreme it might be, is narratively minimized by hybridity’s emphasis upon what is held in common to the point that difference no longer matters. To an even more extreme degree, the same pattern is found in Sir Gowther where the eponymous hero is half human, half demon. In this text, the mother is human, the father a demon, and the son has, therefore, no legitimate claim through paternal inheritance upon the dukedom of Estryke (Austria).73 From the moment of his birth, although he looks wholly human, Gowther acts according to his demonic side, killing nine of his wet nurses and biting off his mother’s nipple.74 The older he grows, the more violent and unrestrained he becomes. Gowther’s violence, especially against women and those in religious life (as one might expect of a demon), knows no bounds. He rapes nuns, maidens, and wives, he murders husbands and clergymen, and he sets a poor widow (ll. 196–204) and an entire convent of nuns (l. 701) on fire. Yet, as with Guinglain whose first sight of knightly armour triggers some apparently inborn memory of his other parental lineage, Gowther too has an encounter that redirects his identity. Gowther, however, is confronted with the evidence not of what he wants to be (a knight, like Guinglain) but of what he is when one of the old duke’s councillors accuses him of being a demon’s son: “Syr, why dose thu soo?/We howpe thu come never of Cryston stryn,/Bot art sum fendys son, we weyn,/That 72  Degaré technically becomes a mantle child—that is, a child born out of wedlock whose parents later married. As Moss points out, the legal status of such children differed between canon law and English common law but parents could make appropriate arrangements to provide for their mantle child’s future. See Moss, Fatherhood and its Representations, pp. 169–70. 73  Alcuin Blamires in “Twin Demons” has suggested that Sir Gowther expresses deep-­ seated fears about breeding and dynasty—the illegitimate heir, the failure of heredity, and the corruption of dynasty. Blamires’s point is about the binary of unacceptable difference in social stratification rather than fears about biological miscegenation. 74  Sir Gowther edited by Laskaya and Salisbury, ll. 119–20, l. 130.



werkus hus this woo” (ll. 207–10). Unlike Guinglain and Yonec who are seemingly unaware of their ethnically supernatural difference until it is revealed to them at the happy conclusion of their stories, Gowther’s knowledge of his partial demonic ethnicity drives most of the narrative. When the possibility of his being a fiend’s son is first suggested to Gowther, the very thought is immediately repugnant to the hero and somehow, for some unexpressed reason in the narrative, Gowther’s human side emerges and then becomes from that point onwards the more powerful presence in his life. After confronting his mother at once to discover the truth of his origins, Gowther spends almost all the rest of the story fighting to distance himself from the demonic inheritance which makes him in more than one sense hybridic and impure in favour of his human, and pointedly very Christian, half. Travelling to Rome, Gowther is granted his quest towards atonement by the pope. After a series of trials, including being reduced to silence and to eating food taken only from the mouths of dogs, he saves the Christian emperor of Alamayn and his daughter from the wicked Saracens, he experiences a symbolic death and baptism in the presence of the pope, and he is absolved by the pope of all his past misdeeds. Much of Gowther’s struggle is expressed in a coded ethnic form. In his trials, for example, Gowther must confront his supernatural otherness through combat with a human foe from an obviously different cultural group, one which is also associated in the text with extreme anti-Christian violence, the Saracens. As Ilan Mitchell-Smith has pointed out, Gowther resembles the Sultan in several significant ways: “the Muslim Sultan is presented in terms of violent sexual advances aimed at the emperor’s daughter and his wooing consists of threats (of violence) against her family and people. The Sultan and his Muslim soldiers are also described as specifically wearing black, and during the first day of fighting against Muslims, Gowther’s armor is also black [….] Gowther’s violence against members of the church […] combines with the threat of sexual violence […] to make the Sultan a double of the pre-redemptive Gowther”.75 Likewise, as Alan S. Ambrisco has observed, Gowther’s weapon of choice, his falchion, is strongly associated with the Saracens, though unlike Mitchell-Smith, Ambrisco would have Gowther continue to be identified with the Saracens

75  Mitchell-Smith, “Defining Violence”, p.  158. See also Dana Oswald’s discussion in Monsters, Gender and Sexuality, pp. 183–85.



at the end of the text.76 The strokes are broad and carve out in coded form, just as it happens for Guinglain, Gowther’s willingness to kill the bad half of himself, a desire which is figuratively carried out through Gowther’s decapitation of the Sultan himself, so that by the end Gowther has completely expunged a rejected potential identity (demonic/Saracen) in favour of becoming identified as wholly part of the dominant human/ Christian community. Emily Rebekah Huber also describes Gowther’s struggle with unwanted identity. The pope imposed upon Gowther the penance to eat only food from the mouths of dogs: not only then is Gowther literally a human/ demon hybrid, but he becomes a figurative human/animal hybrid also. According to Huber, Gowther’s progress towards redemption follows through on this canine association: “Still a predator, Gowther must demonstrate his reformation by attacking the appropriate quarry, showing his new Father his newfound ability to redirect appetite and take control of his will. And Gowther must confront another kind of creature: he must ‘tree the Devil.’ In attacking the Sultan, Gowther confronts an earlier version of himself: predatory, destructive, and aggressive toward both vulnerable women and Christians. The Saracen enemy besieges the Emperor on the basis of his sexual desire for the princess, manifesting the same creaturely appetite that fueled the most atrocious of Gowther’s sins in his earlier career”.77 In a pattern similar to that seen in the case of Guinglain, the successful Gowther at the end of his trials is finally and formally embraced as a member by the dominant culture through the kiss of its most ­powerful male authority, the pope, who declares Gowther to be a child of God (ll. 670–75), reversing Gowther’s cosmic alignment from evil to good. While it is tempting to read the narrative as have Alan S. Ambrisco and E.M. Bradstock before him,78 Gowther’s is not truly a conversion story, though it is very much a narrative about change and second chances. 76  Ambrisco, “Process of Conversion”, pp. 207–11. Ambrisco questions the successfulness of what he argues is Gowther’s attempted conversion to Christianity, positing that “Gowther becomes more, rather than less, like a Saracen after his supposed conversion early in the romance, and this peculiar identification serves to question the legitimacy of his religious commitments. Occupying the position of both Saracen and Christian, Gowther’s post-­ conversion self is as much a hybrid figure as his pre-conversion, demonic self, and this unstable identity casts asper- sion on the work of conversion, on its ability to effect lasting change” (p. 225). 77  Huber, “Redeeming the Dog”, p. 311 78  Ambrisco, “Process of Conversion”; Bradstock, “Penitential Pattern”.



Gowther at the start is already a baptized Christian, at least nominally in theory if not in practice, but he faces the additional impediment of an unresolved demonic inheritance which has been kept secret from him as well as from the man and the community tricked into raising him as one of their own. That is, Gowther himself needs to personally and especially renounce Satan and all his works: it cannot be done for him as an infant by his deceptive mother and his unknowing godparents at the point of baptism because his biological demon father has a claim upon him too. Hence, Gowther must, by his own choices, die and be reborn so that he can experience a second baptism at the pope’s own hand, only at that end point finally ridding himself of any connection to his unwanted demonic ethnicity. Gowther’s struggle has always centred on the problem of his mixed background: he needs to resolve an unwanted hybridity so that he can be one ‘pure’ thing rather than a mixed combination of two different things. Moreover, unlike The King of Tars in which the lump child can only progress in one direction towards Christianity or else it must remain a lump forever,79 the potential in Sir Gowther exists for the resolution to go either way: there is no necessary reason, other than the demands of plot, that abhorrence will be Gowther’s reaction to being told he must be a demon’s son, for he could have reacted with joy at the thought of having done his true father’s evil will so very well. Fortunately for the people of the dukedom of Estryke and for the daughter of the Emperor of Alamayn, given the choice between being a human or being a demon, Gowther chooses humanity. Because he never held a legitimate claim upon the dukedom and the land of Austria, Gowther does not end by reclaiming his position as Duke of Estryke. Instead, he travels there to restart his mother in married life by giving her to the man who revealed Gowther’s true nature to him,80 and then Gowther returns “home” (l. 709) to the land he fought to save from its enemies, where he has married its heiress princess with the authenticating approval of both the pope and the emperor and where he inherits the 79  The Sultan at lines 620–60 places the lump on the altar of his gods and prays for their help in his time of need. Even after the Sultan beats them and smashes their idols, they do not have the power to transform the lump into a child. Only baptism into the Christian faith can save the child, proving the superiority of Christianity. The idols, of course, reveal that the author of King of Tars has, to say the least, a very poor understanding of Islam. 80  It is a peculiar restart, given the implied ages of Gowther’s mother and new stepfather; nonetheless, because the emphasis at the end is upon new beginnings and second chances, in that thematic sense, the marriage works.



throne when his “father” the emperor dies (l. 711).81 A bad family history has been entirely rewritten, although some anxiety may perhaps still linger, as argued by Dana Oswald who points to how the story ends. In Oswald’s view, the narrative’s conclusion appears contradictory to the anxiety identified at the beginning of the story in which the trouble began because of worry over future political instability in Estryke in the face of the Duke’s childlessness within his marriage. However, as Oswald notes, at the end of the story Gowther too remains childless in his marriage: “Gowther and his wife never conceive a child. The poet wants to make doubly sure that Gowther’s monstrosity is excised from both body and community. While we can reasonably trust that Gowther’s body has been transformed, the poet cannot take the risk of Gowther’s reproduction. So while Gowther’s own paternity is resolved by the power of God, it is not so absolute that Gowther himself can father an entirely human child”.82 In this text, perhaps, hybridity’s grounding in difference remains potentially eruptive and so the possibility of a hybrid child in the next generation must be dealt with through the familiar strategy of textual silence—the problem child never comes into existence—a narrative act which is considered more important for a reader of English background than securing the future dynastic stability of far-distant Alamayn after Gowther’s passing. A more curious example of the human/demon hybrid is the story of King Richard I of England as told in the a version of Richard Coer de Lyon, which manipulates several historical details, including the identity of Richard’s mother who, according to this text, was not Eleanor of Aquitaine but a supernatural entity from Antioch by the name of Cassodorien. Scholars have commonly assumed that Cassodorien is a demon because she cannot abide the sight of the consecrated host and flees with her daughter by flying off the rooftop, never to return, when she is forced to stay and witness the holy moment at which the host is elevated during the mass. Indeed, Richard is referred to in the text several times as a devil or 81  The emperor, of course, is Gowther’s father-in-law. The editors of Sir Gowther note at this point that the term father-in-law does not appear in the English language before the late sixteenth century. However, Chaucer uses the term in The Legend of Good Women at F l. 2272 to describe Pandion, the father-in-law of Tereus. 82  Oswald, pp.  193–94. Merlin, another human/demon hybrid, also has no children. Another parallel instance of seemingly necessary hybrid sterility is possibly Geoffroy Big Tooth, one of the sons of Melusine, who also dies without issue, although in his case the supernatural parent is a faery and a younger, fertile brother (who is equally biologically mixed in ancestry) exists to inherit his position and carry on the family line.



fiend, and the story is crafted to appeal to rumours of demonic origins which circulated in Richard’s own lifetime and to which the historical man is known to have alluded on more than one occasion.83 Richard’s demonic pedigree would also seem to reveal itself, as described in this text, in his notorious acts of cannibalism and violence and his willingness to take unfair advantage in battle. How such a demonic lineage is supposed to correspond with the text’s elevation of Richard to the status of English national hero and the epitome of superior English masculinity is puzzling. Moreover, there is little evidence that Richard in this text feels any need to expiate his ‘dark side’, as Gowther struggles long and hard to do, although it has been argued, most notably by Nicola McDonald, that Richard’s crusading and the eucharistic undertones of eating human flesh act in this regard.84 Yet, given that Richard exhibits few, if any of the demonic traits seen in Gowther, it is questionable whether Richard is in fact presented as half demon in Richard Coer de Lyon. Indeed, he may well be a different sort of supernatural hybrid altogether, for the narrative is playful with the story of Richard’s partially supernatural origins. On the one hand, many characters over the course of the narrative say that Richard is a devil: The thrydde knyght to speke bygan: ‘This is a devyl and no man’ (ll. 499–500) ‘Iwis, Sere kyng’, quod Sere Fouke, ‘I wene that knyght was a pouke.’ (ll. 567–68) They wende it hadde ben mennes bones. And sayd he was the devyll of hell, That was come them to quell. (ll. 2678–80)

Yet, on the other hand, the narrative voice of the text itself never makes this claim. Nor does the text itself ever identify Cassodorien as specifically a demon except through the indirect evidence of her inability to abide the sight of the sanctified eucharistic host. The site where Cassodorien and Henry II first meet is a liminal position “on mydde the see” (l. 57) where the wind suddenly drops until the fabulous white and gold vessel 83  For tales of Richard’s demonic ancestry and his historical response to the rumours, see the sources cited by Larkin on p. 6 in his edition of Richard Coer de Lyon. 84  McDonald, “Eating People”, pp.  140–43. For two other eucharistic readings of Richard’s cannibalism in this text, see also Akbari, “The Hunger for National Identity”, pp. 199–200; and Leverett, “Reading the Consumed”, pp. 302–307.



mysteriously comes into view bearing Cassodorien and her father seated on his carbuncle throne. This liminality suggests that the location is the maritime equivalent of a forest’s edge and Cassodorien is far more faery princess than she is demon bitch from Hell. Though some theologians of the period might argue the equivalence of these two paranormal ethnicities, if Richard’s partial supernatural origins are regarded as fay rather than as demonic, the difference is significant because it means that Richard has no evil inheritance with which he needs to contend by figuratively killing that part of himself to resolve his monstrous hybridity, as must Gowther. It is a mistake above all to assume that medieval literature, especially within the genre of the medieval romance, makes no distinction between faery and demon, because they can, and they do. While a spiritual handbook such as the early fifteenth-century Dives and Pauper may well equate demons and elves as definitively being one and the same thing,85 this is not to say that every medieval literary text will be based upon the same assumption. The Early South-English Legendary, for example, regards elves as angels cast out of Heaven for not taking a clear side during the war in Heaven.86 Yet, there were two sides in that celestial war; hence, the uncertain nature of any elf a person may encounter. On the one hand, an elf could be one of those harmful spirits who “heolden sumdel” with Lucifer and who will, therefore, at doomsday be sent to Hell (45.193–200 on p. 305). Because these fallen angels did not side fully with the Devil, their punishment is justly lessened in severity by being sentenced to Earth until the end of time. On the other hand, an elf could be one of those helpful spirits who “heolden betere with god”. Though cast out of Heaven at the end of the rebellion for their lack of absolute fidelity to the divine, these angels will return to Heaven at the 85  See Dives and Pauper, edited by Barnum, Commandment VI, chapter 21 in particular. “And þe fendis þat temptyn folc to lecherie ben mest besy for to aperyn in mannys lycnesse & womannys to don lecherye with folc & so bryngyn hem to lecherie, & in speche of þe peple it arn clepyd eluys” (Vol. 1, Part 2, p. 118, ll. 10–13). 86  “In many derne weye/grete compaygnie men i-seoth of heom: boþe hoppie and pleiȝe,/ þat Eluene beoth i-cleopede: and ofte heo comiez to toune,/And bi daye muche in wodes heo beoth: and bi niȝte ope heiȝe dounes./þat beoth þe wrechche gostes: þat out of heuene weren i-nome,/And manie of heom a-domesday: ȝeot schullen to reste come”. The Early South-English Legendary, edited by Carl Horstmann, Chapter 45, lines 253–58, on p. 307. The supplemental life of St. Michael in The Gilte Legende regards all elves in the same straightforward manner as does Dives and Pauper: elves are wicked spirits, also known as the “mare” (incubi), who tempt men and women into illicit sexual behaviour in desolate fields and woods. See Supplementary Lives, edited by Hamer and Russell, 27.23–34, on p. 275.



end of the world, their fitting punishment for “heore defaute in heouene” at long last at its end (45.201–209 on p. 305). That is, the nature of elves found in any text needs to be recognized as a highly contextual situation, appropriate to that text, and to that one faery. After all, Sir Degaré’s faery father represents a problem for the hero to resolve not because the father is supernatural but because he is a rapist who knowingly impregnated his victim with Degaré and then left her to fend for herself,87 and recognizing the bird-man Muldamarec as Yonec’s true father is the solution to the narrative, not the cause of its problem. Perhaps the most astute observation of Richard’s supernatural status in Richard Coer de Lyon is voiced by Saladin who “mervayled than/And sayde it was none erthly man:/‘He is a devyll or a saynt’” (ll. 6933–35). There is indeed much play with ambiguous signs in this text, especially during the Three Day’s Tournament in which Richard fights in a different disguise each day. The ambiguity causes the reader to continue to puzzle over the nature and significance of Richard’s supernatural identity throughout the story. Whereas the one knight sees the black knight and his raven crest as demonic, the narrative voice contrarily identifies the raven as a signifier of the church bell calling its congregation together (ll. 280–81). Indeed, the use of colour here reminds us of Cord J. Whitaker’s observation in his discussion of The King of Tars that “metaphors often call forth ostensibly opposed ideas at the same time: black can serve as a metaphor for sin or salvation, for lack or presence; white for presence or absence, for purity or loss”.88 Richard’s other two fights at the tournament are marked by similarly ambiguous signs. Whereas to the knight who recounts the fight, the red knight with the red hound upon his crest “semyd weel to ben a qued” (l. 522), the voice of the narrative text provides the contradictory identification of the red hound as  The situation made bad by sexual assault, of course, is further complicated by the fact that the rape results in pregnancy. See Kenneth Eckert’s comment on Degaré’s predicament in his open-access article “Absent Fathers”: “The fairy knight’s actions must be presented as deeply consequential but non-human and thus non-moral, for Degaré cannot as a chivalrous knight punish his own father for rape; the only choice is that his assault must be seen as injurious without being sinful, allowing Degaré to heroically atone for his father while pursuing his own attainment. In brief, the rape is not the moral problem, for this is what fairies do, but the fairy knight’s intrusion into human affairs precipitates the material and ethical challenges that humans must deal with. It is the fairy knight’s abandonment of the princess and the charged space he leaves behind which chiefly troubles and motivates Degaré to corrective action”. 88  Black Metaphors, p. 7. 87



a “sygnyfycacyon” that Richard is a Crusader who is meant to slay heathens “for Goddes love,/And Crysten men to brynge above” (ll. 339–42). Likewise, the white knight with the red cross on his shield and the white dove upon his head in “Sygnyfycacyon of the Holy Spyryte” (l. 394) is nonetheless (mis?)identified by his opponent in the field to be “a pouke” (l. 568). The text, indeed, challenges the reader to decide upon whether Richard is devil, saint, or even a hybrid devil/saint. The tale’s handling of Richard’s partially supernatural origins keeps the reader continually guessing as to its significance. This fluidity contrasts with the straightforward hybridity enabled by Richard’s consumption of a raw lion’s heart (ll. 1100–1109), an act of ingestion that at least incorporates within him symbolically, if not necessarily literally, the lion heart after which he is named.89 However, Richard’s supernatural background is ultimately a case both of misdirection and of minimization. Richard’s origins may be partially supernatural, he may receive supernatural aid from angels, and he may play upon the fearful expectations of others in the text that he is half-demon, but Richard himself possesses no supernatural abilities inherited from his faery mother: Richard cannot fly off rooftops and he can abide the sight of the consecrated eucharistic host, both because he is human. On the other hand, without the aid of an angel to advise him against Saladin’s necromantic ploy of the demon colt and its dam, he is vulnerable to supernatural attack, again because he is human. Playing up his hybrid human/ demonic origins, therefore, is a deliberate performance on Richard’s part meant to impress his allies and his foes alike. The ploy is also very much a narrative performance on the part of the author. In the end, a far more significant minimization of difference is going on at the heart of this text: resolving Richard’s potential difference as king from his English subjects. The historical Richard I possessed many ‘ethnic identities’ in the sense that he was not only the King of England, but he was also the Duke of Normandy, and the Count of Anjou, and the Duke of Aquitaine, and the Count of Poitiers, and the Duke of Gascony, and the Count of Maine, and the Lord of Cyprus, and the Count of Nantes, and the Overlord of Brittany. Richard had a recognized and authentic claim to 89  Some critics suggest that the incorporation exists on a literal level. In “The Hunger for National Identity” at p. 208, Suzanne Conklin Akbari, for instance, suggests “By eating the lion’s heart, Richard becomes lion-hearted, earning an altered name to suit his altered identity: the lion’s strength becomes his own”. Lynn Shutters has similarly argued that literally eating the heart of a lion infuses Richard’s masculinity with animalistic qualities.



the land of all these domains, but the author of Richard Coer de Lyon is interested only in Richard the King of England: the other potential identities need to be erased by hybridity’s power to point to Richard’s sameness with his English subjects. In Empire of Magic, Heng observes the multiple ways in which Richard’s Englishness is emphasized in this text, such as Richard’s wielding of a great Anglo-Saxon battle-ax and calling out the Anglo-Saxon greeting “Wesseyl” (l. 6802) in a mock toast to his enemies’ health.90 In his introductory comments to his edition of the text, Peter Larkin notes that the author, also to achieve his narrow focus solely upon Richard’s English identity, makes a determined effort in his narrative to distance Richard particularly from his French ancestry.91 In the end, Richard’s supernatural origins, in whatever manner those origins might be construed in this text, seem to function largely as a distraction away from the truly monstrous hybridity that could surface otherwise: far worse than the possibility of this extraordinary English hero being the son either of a demon bitch or a faery princess seems the chance of the hero being the son of a French woman from Aquitaine, perhaps one particular notorious French woman from Aquitaine.92 The author expects his reader to regard Richard as wholly English in this romance, just as the readers of Bevis of Hampton are expected to overlook the inconvenient detail that the strangely English Bevis of Hampshire is in fact half Scot through his villainous mother’s side and functions, as Robert Rouse has phrased it, as “a complex manifestation of hybrid English-Eastern identity, seemingly never comfortable upon return to the land of his birth, and

 Heng, Empire of Magic, p. 106. See Heng’s discussion generally, pp. 101–07.  Larkin notes in the introduction to his edition that Richard Coer de Lyon doubly distances Richard from his French ancestry, first by displacing Eleanor of Aquitaine as his mother (p. 13) and secondly by dispatching the French language “to near oblivion” (p. 14). A parallel instance to this “Englishizing” of the king of England can be found in comparison of two elegies written upon the death of Edward I in 1307, the Anglo-Norman original and a Middle English translation. Matthews argues that the Middle English version of the elegy is specifically English in context in ways that the more internationally focused Anglo-Norman text is not. See Writing to the King, pp. 91–94. 92  Chapman in “Demon Queen” at p. 394 points out that legends had attached to Eleanor of Aquitaine in her lifetime that she was a demoness. He suggests that Cassodorien is nonetheless meant to be recognized by readers as Eleanor. See also Angela Florschuetz’s discussion in Marking Maternity, pp. 121–154. 90 91



continually forced back to the East”.93 The maternal influence upon identity in these two particular texts must be reduced to zero, as identity is made out for the moment to be exclusively determined by the father’s line, an identity the same as that of the English reader. Medieval English literary texts thus seem to possess but few narrative strategies to resolve mixed ethnic identity in the few places where such ethnically hybrid characters occur. Outright silence on the subject is one strategy; determined effort to minimize difference to the point where it no longer matters, another. The possibility that a person might want to owe something to more than one ethnic identity, to be a code-switching Gerald of Wales, for instance, does not appear to occur in the literary works of the period and it seems that only half-supernatural characters are ever faced with this dilemma. If English medieval literature has a code for expressing a mixed identity that somehow transits the line of acceptability, a link to the supernatural is a far more instrumental signifier of disruptive ethnic difference than the simple fact of illegitimacy, which can, of course, occur without the need for any unacceptable cultural or social divide to be crossed. Moreover, the literature presents such supernatural hybridity, where it happens, as a problem for the afflicted character to narratively resolve: Yonec must choose between a true and a false father, rejecting the false patrimony of the one by cutting off his head to gain his true inheritance as the son of the other. Yonec needs no formal embrace of a powerful male authority to authenticate his new ethnic identity and de facto legitimacy in full: he becomes that powerful and legitimate male authority himself when he uses his true father’s sword and assumes his throne. Degaré resolves both his identity and his legitimacy when he reunites his parents in lawful matrimony under the sanction of his powerful maternal grandfather the king. Guinglain and Gowther, who come apparently from less civilized supernatural origins, do not have the option of drawing on their darker halves when circumstances may seem to warrant the employment of extraordinary strength or magical power. Their giant or demon 93  Robert Allen Rouse, “For King and Country?”, p. 121. There may be present an element of ‘enlarging’ England’s sphere of influence and ‘twinning’ England and Armenia through the twin sons both becoming kings, such as Kofi Campbell in “Nation-Building Colonialist Style” (p. 231) and Emily Dolmans in Writing Regional Identities (p. 154 and p.  159) both suggest, but ultimately Armenia does not become England any more than England becomes Armenia. The two kingdoms remain geographically, politically, historically, and culturally separate entities and their peoples represent two separate gens, though united by a common religion and shared blood between their kings.



selves must be gone for good, minimized to zero. Gowther even achieves finding for himself a new human father to replace the fiend who engendered him and the man who was duped into fostering him, while the pope bestows upon Gowther a new divine father by declaring him to be a child of God.

Resolving Hybridity: Thomas Becket and His Saracen Mother in the Early South-English Legendary The idea that hybridity must resolve itself to extinguish difference brings the discussion back to a second Saracen princess to be found in Middle English literature: the mother of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and the “pris-martyr of engelonde” (27.142 on p. 110), as told in the tale included in the late thirteenth-century Early South-English Legendary.94 The historical Thomas Becket’s parents were the very ordinary Gilbert Becket and his wife Matilda, both of Norman extraction. In the Early South-English Legendary, however, Becket’s parents are transformed into Gilbert and a beautiful, nameless Saracen princess who falls in love with Gilbert, a pilgrim to the Holy Land taken prisoner and enslaved by the Emir for two and a half years. The Emir’s daughter vows to convert to Christianity and to come to England, provided that Gilbert marries her. Afraid of betrayal, Gilbert and other Christian prisoners break out of prison and escape back to England. The princess does not escape with the man she loves. Instead, she makes the dangerous journey to England on her own in search of her beloved Gilbert and then she wanders the streets of London until, marvelously, she finds her way to Gilbert’s house. Gilbert thereupon arranges for the princess to meet the Bishop of London and five other bishops, “þe beste of Engelonde” (27.95 on p. 109), to whom she confirms her intent to convert to Christianity, but only on the condition that Gilbert marries her. On the advice of the bishops, Gilbert agrees to the marriage, the two are united in happy wedlock, and Thomas is begat upon the princess his parents’ very first night together (27.144 on p. 110). Gilbert then immediately returns to the Holy Land where he completes his interrupted pilgrimage and then, three and a half years later, he returns home to be reunited with England, wife, and son.

94  Some manuscripts of The Gilte Legende also include a somewhat truncated version of this story. See Supplemental Lives, 28.1–87, on pp. 285–87.



The immediate question is why someone thought to add such a fanciful account to Becket’s already complex life, making the English saint a Christian/Saracen hybrid.95 There is no evidence that the addition of a “Moder … of heþenesse” (27.5 on p.  106) was intended to diminish Becket’s reputation by demeaning him as less than ‘pure’ (whether English or Christian), as Bernard of Clairvaux had striven to do to Pope Anacletus when Bernard pointed to the pope’s Jewish grandfather. So, what indeed might have been the agenda, other than to spice up Becket’s already adventuresome life by adding to the saint’s life elements from romance and the chanson de geste? The key to the answer is located in the Bishop of Winchester’s pronouncement that the will of God is behind the princess’s marvelous journey (27.111 on p. 109) and that “sum blede of hire schal come/Þat schal holie churche holde to riȝte : and serui godes sone” (27.117–18 on p. 110). The princess is very firm with the bishops on her condition that if Gilbert will not marry her, then she will not convert to Christianity but return home to Saracen lands. That is, if there is no marriage, there will be no future St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury, archbishop and foremost martyr of the realm. It is thus England’s very future, its soul as embodied by the saint, that is at stake. It is also an expression of an English problem which only an ethnically mixed Thomas Becket can resolve. Yet, the exact hybrid polarities at work in the narrative are not immediately clear. The text does not advocate a role for Becket in the conversion of Muslims to Christianity, and even by the late thirteenth century all realistic expectation of Christian crusaders retaking the Holy Land by force had dissipated. So, the hybrid polarities at issue are not about eliminating through conversion the Muslim side of the equation, because Becket is a pointedly English saint, and the message of the story is meant for England and the English. A far more likely possibility than bridging Islamic and Christian points of view, therefore, is that the story is about overcoming a continued Norman/Saxon divide within England. A significant clue as to the exact nature of the issue can be found in the text’s description of the Saracen princess upon her arrival in London: And þo heo was þudere i-come: þare ne knev heo no man, Ne heo ne couþe speke ne hire bi-seo: bote ase a best þat a-strayed were. 95  The history of Becket’s Saracen mother story has been briefly outlined by John Jenkins in “St Thomas Becket and Medieval London” at pp. 668–670.



Þare-fore on hire gapede alday: swyþe muche fol[c] þere, boþe Men and wommen: and children suyþe fale— for hire continaunce was wonderful: and hire speche no Man ne couþe þare. (27.64–68 on p. 108)

Here is the foreign other on public display in all her exotic foreignness, all that which stands out as being so obviously not English, but which must be made and recognized as English for England’s provisional future to unfold properly according to God’s divine plan. In that conundrum is found the critical rub: the princess cannot speak English, a detail noted for instance at lines 65 and 68 and repeatedly emphasized throughout the remainder of the story.96 There seems no sameness towards which hybridity can point. Becket is presented in the Early South-English Legendary as a decisively English saint. He is the “pris-martyr” of England (27.142 on p.  110) whose narrative is introduced to the reader as an English tale, whose father defines his identity to the princess as “Of engelonde ich am, and cristine Man” (27.34 on p. 107), whose future existence is ensured by the advice of six bishops who are “þe beste of Engelonde” (27.95 on p. 109), and whose father after his final pilgrimage is “swiþe wel-come: In-to engelonde” (27.194 on p. 112) by his wife who remained behind on English soil as her husband journeyed and then returned to England. Becket, that is, sums up in his one ethnically mixed person everything that it means to be English.97 While his native father holds an authentic connection to English soil by birth, leaving twice for foreign adventures but always returning home, his newcomer mother gains that connection through conversion and through marriage, the point at which, as Robert Mills argues, the nameless princess’s “hazy non-identity” solidifies into a name and substance: “Becket’s mother inhabits the role of convert so effectively that her foreign status is ultimately displaced”.98 Language, however, 96  27.57, 60–61, 108, 113, 131, 135, 152–54, 176–78. Textual references are found on pp. 108–111. 97  Following the lead of Jill Frederick in “Anglo-Saxon saints”, Battles in Cultural Difference on p. 122 argues that English identity is “at the heart of the entire collection” of The Early South-English Legendary. Neither Frederick nor Battles discusses the Becket story. 98  Robert Mills, “Invisible Translation”, p. 127, p. 131. Mills, in contrast to my argument, does not regard the French incipit rubrics as necessarily bearing any significance. At p. 135 he posits, “We should not necessarily attribute too much significance to the apparent incongruity of French headings”. Given that Mills’s argument in the chapter centres on language as a means to express translating across religious identities, his point of view is understandable.



continues to divide and the gap is bridged only by the ability of Gilbert and his manservant to speak two languages. Hence, Becket’s invented hybridity centres on language’s role in the formation of English identity because the presence of Becket resolves linguistic hybridity in appealing for a definition of English identity which is more expansive than a dependence upon only the one language, but a definition which has room for at least two languages, if not more. Similarity can be found in difference. ¶ Ici poez oyer coment seint Thomas de Kaunterbures nasqui. e de quev manere gent de pere e de Mere. WOlle ȝe nouþe i-heore þis englische tale: þat is here i-write Of seint Thomas of Caunterburi: al-hou he was bi-ȝite? (27.1–2 on p. 106)99

Becket, the hybrid English saint born of parents from separate linguistic communities, thus mirrors and resolves the linguistic divide within the kingdom of England itself: both those who speak English and those who speak French, both those who have been here for a long time and those who are newcomers. Both have a right to claim an English identity because there is one English nation, though it has two languages co-existent, given unity not only by its geography but by its Church (and its third language, Latin), exemplified by its English saint, an abstract conception into which all outsiders who wish to join are welcome to enter, a unifying mixture of disparate, even contradictory elements not unlike the hybrid nature of England itself.

Conclusion Unlike Gilbert Becket, the average English knight of the Middle Ages had as great a likelihood of being seduced by a faery queen as he had of winning the heart of a Saracen princess. That is, in spite of the often hyperbolic and demeaning language employed on all sides against the others, the opportunity for reproductive matches which grossly crossed extreme cultural and religious boundaries simply did not exist in the British Isles in the way that such opportunity, if not the inclination, was found on the island of Sicily, which at least for a time under the reign of Frederick II was a cross world of European, African, and Asian geographies, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish cultures all co-existing more or less harmoniously, 99  In Horstmann’s edition of The Early South-English Legendary, Becket’s life is given unusual treatment in being headed with a chapter title written in French, one of medieval England’s other languages.



albeit uneasily together.100 Britain could offer its inhabitants nothing similar to Sicily’s medieval experience with the allurements and the dangers of multicultural otherness. Though the British did have significant differences based on social stratification, cultural practice, law, language, and political allegiance, after the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I in 1290 English knights would have to travel far beyond British shores before they were likely to encounter persons whose difference from themselves extended grossly to the colour of their skin or the way they worshipped. Worries about half Christian/half Saracen children, never mind human/supernatural hybrids, were the stuff of imaginary literature. Nonetheless, the romances of medieval England seem to express considerable anxiety over the presence of mixed identity and sometimes they take strong measures to negate its possible existence. The romance genre’s persistent employment of silence and minimization to deny the possibility of hybrid identity could be seen as part of an increasing xenophobia. After all, hybrids are a challenge to the already highly charged question of identity, and their existence could therefore be a challenge to the status quo. But other medieval English texts appear to welcome and embrace many types of hybridity, so long as difference in religion is not involved. The popular vernacular discourse thus posits either that hybridity is so socially dangerous that it cannot be allowed to exist even within the imaginary confines of literature, or that hybridity rarely matters and usually can be readily dealt with within the group. Were then the children of mixed relationships at a social disadvantage for being less than ‘pure’ English in the Middle Ages? Without a doubt, violent, albeit sporadic, episodes such as the massacre of Jews in Clifford’s Tower in York in 1190, the murder of Flemings during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and attacks upon the property of foreigners during the Evil May Day riots in London in 1517 attest to the difficulty of living as an outsider in medieval England throughout the period. But did such hostile expressions of rejection and of resentment over jobs supposedly lost to immigrants extend to those whose origins by birth were only partially English?

100  For relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in early thirteenth-century Sicily during the reign of Frederick II, see such studies as Abulafia’s Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, Metcalfe’s Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily (especially pp.  55–70, pp. 99–113), and Birk’s Norman Kings of Sicily (especially pp. 1–6).



In the end, the romances suggest that the hostility did not extend to the children of mixed marriages.101 However, it did not extend for perhaps a surprising reason. The romances support the argument that the very existence of a mixed identity in the English medieval period is a red herring: the concept of mixed identity simply did not exist because the mindset of the time did not allow for the construct of identity which we today might label metissage or mestizaje, depending upon which cultural traditions we are drawing upon, in which the child of mixed origin has a third option: the choice to be a hybrid. Even as it invents his mixed background, the Early South-English Legendary goes to great lengths to identify Thomas Becket as a solely English saint. So, provided that each group would at least some of the time acknowledge him as one of their own, Gerald of Wales could be Welsh when he (or his enemies) wanted (him) to be, or he could be Norman when he wanted to be, or he could be English when he wanted to be, or he could be a Welsh Marcher when he wanted to be. Readers similarly could ignore Bevis’s Scottish ancestry and split his bifurcated identity through his twin sons to be the father of both the king of England and the king of Armenia. However, Gerald could never be, in his or in anyone’s eyes, Welsh-Norman, Norman-English, or English-Welsh. As Gerald himself argued, being a Welsh Marcher was a separate identity, not a hyphenated one, so Gerald could be any one of these identities but only one of them at any one time. As Bevis could not be English-Scottish, the sons of Bevis likewise could neither be English-Armenian nor Armenian-English. They had to be either English or they had to be Armenian, one or the other. Yet, on the other hand, Miles and Guy significantly also possess the ability to switch ethnicities and become the other when the time or the need required. Guy finally settles down to be Armenian and Miles, English, because those are the locations in which they choose to live and the land by which they choose to identify as its king. They exhibit a codeswitching concept of ethnic identity which is determined as much by locational circumstance and convenience as it is by

101  The historical record lends credence to this supposition. Mark Omrod, Bart Lambert, and Jonathan Mackman in Immigrant England observe that while first-generation immigrants in medieval England faced chronic problems with acceptance (see especially pp. 207–209), in contrast “there is comparatively little evidence, even in those places that had relatively high numbers of immigrants from particular countries or linguistic groupings, that the children and grandchildren of incomers to England in the later Middle Ages preserved a coherent sense of foreignness—or indeed had one imposed upon them” (pp. 9–10).



inheritance and ancestry.102 Hybridity, grounded in difference yet pointing to sameness, can only point to one kind of sameness at a time, but it can change the sameness to which it points. Sirs Guinglain, Degaré, and Gowther similarly could never be giant-human, faery-human, or demon-­ human. Each had to decide between being one or the other, and each made the best choice within the contextual frames of their stories. In all these cases, hybridity extinguishes itself to the degree where it no longer matters, except perhaps at the most residual level as seen in the fact that no children are said explicitly to result from any of these three marriages.103 The medieval English notion of ethnic identity is therefore revealed through the romances to be surprisingly elastic and significantly a matter of choice, even if it did not recognize the existence of mixed identity. Even total outsiders like the Saracen Josian, the giant-born mother of Guinglain, and the faery father of Degaré are able to cross not only a colour or a cultural line, but sometimes, with the aid of another who acts as a translator, a troubadour of knowledge, to bring the outsider into the group, they can even cross what looks like a species line to join the new group of their child’s identity and become a new identity entirely removed from what they were born. Once accepted by the group, which is much easier done in literature than in historical practice it would seem, and then legitimated by a recognized connection to the soil of their adopted land, their new status becomes uncontroverted and stable. Those persons, however, are a different matter who are not willing to make the effort to cross over to a new English identity, such as Jews, Lombards, Welshmen, and women from Flanders who may live in England but who want to hold onto their own traditions and ways of doing things and remain being identified as Jews, Lombards, Welsh, and Flemish. No matter how long they or their descendants might continue to live on 102  For another historical example of mixed parentage resulting in a full, but locational, identity, Omrod, Lambert, and Mackman observe in Immigrant England on p.  17, that in  1512 Henry VIII’s government ordained “that the children of English-born men and women who were married to native Calesians would be considered fully English. This, however, held only as long as they continued to reside under the king’s allegiance: leaving Calais for other parts of France would result in automatic loss of rights and property”. 103  In Sir Gowther, the absence of children is explicitly mentioned by the narrator. In Sir Degare and Lybeaus Desconus, the strategy of textual silence is employed and so it is left uncertain whether any children resulted from either marriage. Richard the Lionhearted, of course, also had no children. Perhaps tellingly, no children result from the marriage of Orfeo and Heurodis in Sir Orfeo, either before or after their sojourn in the Faery otherworld.



English soil, they can never be regarded as English because they only partially fulfil the contract to be considered one. That is, one can be English living in England, or one can be Jewish living in England, but the idea of being an English Jew (or an English Lombard or an English Welshman or an English Fleming) was an absurd, hyphenated, logical impossibility in the Middle Ages. Yet, such exclusion from the English group is an act of the outsider’s own volition and made so that she or he can belong to the community of their own identification. The exclusion is not through forced expulsion, though it may well lead to discriminatory acts of violence against them. Thus, the optimistic message of the romance literature of medieval England seems to be that it is possible for anyone from any biological background to become English, provided that she wants it enough to change fundamental patterns in her life and provided that she can establish a genuine, authenticated connection to its soil.


Fathers and Mothers: The Case for Hybrid Identity in Medieval Merlin and Melusine Romances

And whan the emperour herde the tidinges, he com hem ageins, and mette with hem comynge upon the graces. And than com Grisandolus before the emperour and seide, “Sir, have here the man that is savage that I to yow here yelde; and kepe ye hym fro hensforth, for moche peyne have I hadde with hym.” And the emperour seide he wolde hem well guerdon, and the man sholde be well kepte. And than he sente to seche a smyth to bynde hym in chaynes and feteres. And the savage man bade hym therof not to entermeted; “for wite it right well,” quod he, “I will not go withoute youre leve.” And the emperour hym asked how he therof sholde be sure; and he seide he wolde hym asure by his Cristyndome. Quod the emperour, “Art thow than Cristin?” And he seide, “Ye, withoute faile.” “How were thow than baptized,” seide the emperour, “whan thow art so wilde?” “That shall I well telle you,” quod he. “This is the trouthe, that my moder on a day com from the market of a town. And it was late whan she entred into the Foreste of Brocheland, and wente oute her wey so fer that the same nyght behoved hir to lye in the foreste. And whan she saugh she was so alone be hirself, she was afeerde, and lay down under an oke and fil aslepe. And than com a savage man oute of the foreste and by hir lay because she was sool by hirself. Durste she not hym diffende, for a woman aloone is feerfull. And that nyght was I begeten on my moder. And whan she was repeired hom, she was full pensif longe tyme till that she knewe verily that she was with childe. And [she] bar me so till I was born into this worlde, and was baptized in a fonte, and dide me norishe

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0_3




till I was grete. And as soone as I cowde lyve withouten hir, I wente into the grete forestes, for by the nature of my fader behoveth me thider to repeire; and for that he was savage, I am thus wilde. Now have ye herde what I am.” (Prose Merlin, “Merlin and Grisandolus”, pp. 231–232, at ll. 213–238)

In the above episode, a mysterious talking hart appears and advises the Roman emperor that the emperor must find an equally mysterious “savage man” to explain to him his troubling dream of a sow and twelve lionesses. When the squire, Grisandolus, finds and presents the savage man at court to the emperor, the mysterious stranger recounts his origins, his town mother’s rape in the forest by a savage forest man. Both the mysterious hart and the mysterious savage man are the wizard Merlin in disguise. As John Conlee notes, the origin story provided by the savage man is “a rough analogue to—or perhaps a kind of allegorical version of—his actual birth as it was told in the initial section of the P[rose] M[erlin]”.1 The story emphasizes Merlin’s divided nature, a figure caught between town and forest, human and demon. Merlin cannot escape the negative influence of his ‘other than human’ father. His father’s unhuman nature is what makes it possible for Merlin to know the truth of hidden things—that Grisandolus the squire, for instance, is a young woman in disguise—and to adopt animal forms, and it is his father’s nature which accounts for Merlin’s penchant for disguises and his delight in playing games and pranks, often very cruel and pointless pranks, upon hapless victims. If Merlin wanted to inform the Roman emperor that his sow of a wife was an adulteress with twelve lovers, there were far more direct, and no doubt less publicly humiliating ways to do so than this elaborate game. Yet, while the nature of Merlin’s father exerts influence upon him, it does not control him. His mother’s care in nourishing him and ensuring his Christian baptism exerts equal influence. Merlin is a powerful wild man, but the emperor does not need heavy chains to keep his monstrous wild captive under human control because Merlin is more than capable of restraining himself and he will abide by civilized customs. Merlin’s own nature exists, therefore, somewhere between the liminalities of cultured town and savage forest, human and other than human. He is the monster who is not a monster but something else. This chapter considers in detail the cases of two characters of mixed human/supernatural ancestry, one male and one female, who both appear to contradict the notion argued in the first chapter that characters of mixed background in Middle English literature had to decide between being one 1

 John Conlee, Commentary to Prose Merlin, pp. 370–371.



thing or the other whereby hybridity could extinguish itself and resolve their identity as one thing. These two biological hybrids, Merlin, the son of a human mother and a demon father, and Melusine, the daughter of a human father and a faery mother, appear to maintain elements of both a human and a supernatural identity throughout their narratives. They both, for instance, possess preternatural, prophetic knowledge of future events and they both possess magical powers which they make free use of throughout their narrative while choosing to live in the company of humans. They also both illustrate the worst elements of the Prose Merlin anecdote quoted earlier: Melusine and Merlin come to unhappy ends due in no small measure to the continued negative influence of their supernatural parent. Merlin is either killed or entrapped forever by the Lady of the Lake2 while Melusine is transformed into a dragon for as long as the world shall last. Both Melusine and Merlin are supernatural hybrids who are affected deleteriously by their supernatural parent. This chapter considers to what degree the resolution of their hybrid identity depends upon the supernatural parent being the father or the mother, or whether the hybrid character is male or female. It also examines what affect gender might have on the experience of hybridity, at least as treated in these works of literature. In both cases hybridity, grounded in difference yet pointing towards sameness, successfully extinguishes itself, though in strikingly different manners.

Merlin: The Demon’s Son Merlin, magician and prophet, reputed son of a demon and counsellor to four British kings, has long fascinated readers and critics alike.3 Unlike other characters of mixed origin in the romance literature of the Middle Ages such as Sir Degaré, Guinglain in Lybeaus Desconus, and Sir Gowther whose supernatural origins are represented as a problem which these heroes must narratively resolve by the end of their story through ridding 2  Across the expanse of Arthurian literature, the name of the Lady of the Lake appears in a wide range of spellings. Mimenne, Mymenche, Nenyve, Nimenche, Nimiane, Nimue, Nina, Nineue, Ninian, Niniane, Nivian, Nivienne, Nymiane, Nynyve, Vilien, Vivian, Viviane, Viviann, Vivien, and Vivienne are all variations of her name that appear in the literature. Paul Zumthor in “Merlin: Prophet and Magician” points out that her name “may be derived from that of Diana … or it may be the feminine form of Vivian, a man’s name” (p. 161 n.131). For the sake of simplicity, outside of quotations I have adopted the one consistent spelling, Nimiane, in this chapter. 3  The literature on Merlin is vast. Three fairly recent publications which focus exclusively on him are the seventeen articles in Merlin: A Casebook edited by Goodrich and Thompson (2003), Merlin: Knowledge and Power Through the Ages by Stephen Knight (2009), and Griffith’s chapter “Merlin” in Heroes and Anti-heroes edited by Cartlidge (2012).



themselves of an unwanted paranormal ethnic inheritance, Merlin maintains contact with his human and his supernatural selves. Once converted to the potential for good, Merlin loses access neither to the preternatural knowledge possessed by demons (which is much more extensive as conceived in literary works than it is allowed to be in official theological or historical writings) nor to their range of deceptive stratagems, such as their ability to shapeshift. Merlin’s demonic-inherited abilities are so powerful in fact that it is easy to understand why he needs to be eliminated early in the larger Arthurian story, either by silently dropping out of the narrative or by being forcibly removed from it. There can be no credible narrative where one character is more powerful than all the rest to the point where he (or she) can individually sort out any problem without the need for allies. The demigod Heracles, another human/supernatural hybrid, in the classical Jason and the Argonauts story affords a parallel case to the narrative problem of Merlin: in most versions of the Golden Fleece narrative, Heracles joins the troupe of heroes on their quest, but long before they have reached the land of Colchis, for one reason or another he has left their ranks so that there can be a story.4 Heracles’s incredible brute strength is attributable to his descent from Zeus, the most powerful of the Olympian gods. Merlin’s comparable mixture of human and supernatural origins is similarly important to who he is as a character. The only question is to what degree Merlin’s demonic father is significant to an understanding of his son’s identity and of his son’s ability to serve the greater good of Camelot. The first section of this chapter also compares the influence of 4  In Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica, in Theocritus’s pastoral poem “Hylas” (Idyll XIII), and in Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautica, Heracles goes off in search of his lost squire, Hylas, who was abducted by a water nymph at Mysia. In Apollonius, he is inadvertently left behind by the Argonauts who do not realize Heracles is missing until they have sailed off. Heracles holds a grudge for being abandoned and later kills Zetes and Calais who prevent the Argonauts from going back for him. In Theocritus, Heracles himself abandons the quest so he can continue his search for Hylas though he later makes his own way there on foot, while in Valerius Flaccus the Argonauts wait for some time and hold council before reluctantly deciding they have no choice but to journey on to Colchis without him. In some surviving fragments written by Herodotus (FgrHist 31 F41) and another Greek historian, Pherecydes (FgrHist 3 F111), Heracles is deliberately left behind at the instruction of the Argo herself which declares she cannot support his enormous weight. There are, however, fragmentary versions (Dionysius of Mytilene [FgrHist 32 F 6b] and Demaratus [FgrHist 42 F 2b]) in which he makes the journey with the Argonauts all the way to Colchis. Clauss offers a good overview of Heracles and the Golden Fleece story in The Best of the Argonauts. See especially pp. 176–77.



the demonic father relative to that of Merlin’s maternal and human ancestry in the creation of their son’s hybrid identity. Although his origins are always hybridic, any discussion of Merlin must first consider upon which Arthurian tradition any medieval text is drawing. The literature is vast. On the one hand, there are the historical chronicles such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s seminal Historia Regum Britanniae and those works which derive from it such as Layamon’s Brut, Wace’s Anglo-­ Norman Roman de Brut, and John Hardyng’s Chronicle. On the other hand, there are the far more fanciful literary accounts such as, in English, Arthour and Merlin, the Prose Merlin, and Malory’s Le Morte DArthur which derive largely from the French literary tradition of Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron. For understanding Merlin’s character, the distinction between these two main traditions is significant because the nature of the paternal supernatural entity is so very different. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin’s father is suggested by one of Vortigern’s learned advisors, Maugantius, to be an incubus, which is further defined by Maugantius as being a neutral spirit that lives between the Earth and the moon: “They are part human, part angel, and take on human form at will and sleep with women. Perhaps it was one of them who appeared to this woman and fathered this youth”.5 In Hardyng, Merlin’s mother describes her supernatural lover as “A spyrite fayre, as white as any swan”,6 though he is invisible to all the other nuns in the abbey. That is, at worst, even if theologians of the time might quibble that there is no difference between the two labels, in the historical chronicle tradition Merlin’s origins are arguably better understood as daemonic than demonic. At best, as Stephen Knight has posited, Merlin’s father conceivably could be even “an angel, or at least the child is like the major Welsh saints, David and Dyfrig (Dubricius), both of whom were born to a nun and no known father”.7 Geoffrey remains carefully noncommittal on the subject of Merlin’s supernatural paternity, for it is Maugantius after all, an “incompetent adviser” who is unable to solve Vortigern’s problem with his unstable tower (as characterized by Knight) and who is (as noted by Michael Curley) considerably out of step with twelfth-century conventional views of the malevolent incubus, that tentatively suggests the incubus theory of Merlin’s 5  Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain, edited by Reeve and translated by Wright, Book VI, chapter 107, ll. 547–50, on p.  139. Reference is to the original Latin text. 6  Hardyng Chronicle, 3.1674, p. 167. 7  Knight, Merlin: Knowledge and Power, p. 25.



conception.8 Maugantius’s supposition is neither endorsed nor contradicted by the wonder child Merlin himself. Although it seems doubtful that his daemonic origins generally were regarded as entirely free of blemish, as evident in Hardyng in whose text the lecherous incubi are said by Maugantius to pollute women (3.1699, p. 168)) and to lie with nuns with the explicit intention of their “holynesse to dystayne and appalle” (3.1705, p.  168), nonetheless in this historical chronicle tradition Merlin is never tainted by a necessarily evil inheritance on his father’s side. The result mirrors the treatment of Richard the Lionhearted as the son of Cassodorien rather than that of Gowther. Without an evil inheritance to encumber him, Merlin remains free to act as a powerful aid to British kings and, as Hardying for one describes him, the “prophete of Cambre” (3.1709a, p.  168). However, he is not regarded a holy prophet, as Ranulph Higden demurs.9 Starting with Robert de Boron in the literary tradition, however, the story takes a very different and darker turn: Merlin becomes the direct result of the devils’ attempt to spawn the Antichrist.10 The unwitting part 8  For Knight’s reference, see Merlin: Knowledge and Power, p. 25. In “Conjuring History”, Curley points out that Maugantius’s portrayal of the incubus is extraordinary for Geoffrey’s time. From citing a pagan rather than a Christian authority on the subject of incubi to omitting any moral censure of the woman involved, Maugantius, according to Curley, “appears particularly defiant. He never characterizes the handsome, sweet-talking lover as a deceiver, an oppressor, an abuser, a seducer, or a lewd and lascivious creature as such a learned discourse would seem to demand. His silence in this regard leaves intact the mother’s sensitive remembrance of her supernatural paramour” (p. 236). See especially Curley’s argument on pp. 231–36. 9  Higden, Speculum Curatorum, edited by Crook and Jennings, p. 135. 10  Dives and Pauper, edited by Barnum, Vol. 1, Part 2, p. 118, ll. 13–33, provides a short explanation for how demons impregnate women (and animals) and the range of possible results. A short survey of theological views on the likelihood and the mechanics of demonic impregnation of women can be found in Cartlidge’s “Slander and Rape in Sir Gowther”, pp.  138–43. See also Dyan Elliott in Fallen Bodies, pp. 56–58, Saunders in Magic and the Supernatural, pp. 114–16, and Green in Elf Queens, pp. 76–109. Les Évangiles de Quenouilles (The Distaff Gospels) offers at pp. 249–55 some fifteenth-century folkloric advice to women on how to deal with the unwanted advances of incubi, goblins, and werewolves. Ranulph Higden in the fourteenth-century Speculum Curatorum speculates that “the generation of Merlin” occurred by an evil spirit taking “human semen from some copious supply, foster[ing] it with due care, and ultimately unit[ing] it to a woman’s seed” with the result that “the son thus generated ought not to be called a son of the devil, but of the man whose semen it was” (p.  135). For a fifteenth-century theological argument that demons cannot impregnate women, see Ulrich Molitoris’s On Witches and Pythonesses in Kieckhefer’s Hazards of the Dark Arts, pp. 118–23, 145–49. Molitoris refers to both Merlin and Melusine. Things, of course, are always possible in literature which are not allowable according to either the strict dictates of history or theology. If Merlin and Gowther had biological human fathers, then they would not have had to deal with a demonic inheritance in the way that they did.



of Merlin’s human mother in their scheme is to be the maid whose virgin womb will undo the great work of redemption made possible through Mary’s. In the Auchinleck version of Arthour and Merlin, for example, Ac þe deuelen of whom y said Seiȝe hou Ihesu of a maid Þurth his milce was ybore And bouȝt al þat was forlore, Þerto þai hadden gret ond And sayd þat þai wolden fond To ligge bi a maidenkin And biȝeten a child her in Swiche schuld acomber also fele So þat oþer had brouȝt to well.11

The devils are only thwarted in their attempt to undo the good work of salvation by the combination of the extreme piety of Merlin’s human mother and the timely intervention of the holy hermit Blaise who arranges for Merlin to be baptized in the Christian faith as soon as possible after birth. The devils are therefore stymied by their own evil efforts: all they have done is create a powerful force with the free will to do good who knows all their tricks and deceptions.

Like Father, Like Son: Merlin and His Father After the point of baptism in the narrative of his life it might seem that Merlin’s paternal inheritance no longer continues to matter, that his hybridity has already been resolved in favour of pointing towards the human. Perhaps his mother’s piety and the intervention of baptism have thoroughly cast off the evil influence of his father’s kind. However, the experience of his half-brother Gowther suggests the contrary will be true. In a cultural context where one’s paternal lineage seems a significant, if not an exclusive determinant of character and identity, such influence of the father is to be expected. In the wake of the Arthurian story, for instance, the two sons of Mordred in Layamon’s Brut act like their father and conspire to murder and overthrow King Constantine.12 Similarly, in the prelude to Arthurian events, Pascent, son of Vortigern, rebels against King Aurelius and pays to have him murdered by poison (Caligula MS, ll. 8795 and following).  Arthour and Merlin, edited by Macrae-Gibson, ll. 665–74.  Layamon’s Brut, edited by Barron and Weinberg, Caligula MS, ll. 14305 and following.

11 12



Such a fatalistic view, however, of paternal influence in the case of Merlin usually meets stiff resistance from scholars. Corinne Saunders, for instance, in Magic and the Supernatural argues that once baptized, Merlin “comes to be an instrument of good, reflecting and defending his mother’s innocence” and that he is “the instrument of higher forces”.13 For Saunders discussing Malory’s version of the Arthurian legend, Merlin’s maternal (and very British) line proves to be far more influential in the shaping of his identity than his demonic paternity. Commenting upon the French Merlin tradition, Miranda Griffin argues that Merlin “has the gift of knowing everything that has happened, inherited from his diabolical father, whereas his gift of prophecy is a gift from God in recognition of his mother’s virtue” and that “between his demonic body and his divine mind … Merlin’s paternity does not condemn him to a sinful existence”.14 John Conlee in his introduction to The Prose Merlin does not go quite so far as either Saunders or Griffin, but he reduces the aftereffects of Merlin’s demonic background largely to his “impish sense of humour and his childish delight in playing pranks”.15 Knight meanwhile regards the Merlin who is found in Robert de Boron in wholly positive terms as “deeply Christian” and possessing “the cunning of a true trickster….a super-cleric who deploys his knowledge on behalf of the powerful”,16 while Donald L. Hoffman sees Merlin in Malory as playful and uncanny, with the “gift of ‘omnilocality,’ his apparent ability to be everywhere and nowhere simultaneously”.17 In a dissenting voice, Gareth Griffith prefers to regard Merlin as always tinged with darkness and as more distanced from royal power: “Merlin’s relation to the king and kingdom he so often helps is somewhat anomalous. Indeed, just as his nature is poised between the divine and the demonic, so he is also positioned on the periphery of the court, neither opposed to it nor fully a part of it. His is an independent power, reliant not on political or military might, but on his prophetic and magical knowledge”.18 Certainly, one can argue that Merlin fights for the side of right as represented by the values of Camelot and by the Round Table which he advises Uther Pendragon to establish (Arthour and Merlin, Auchinleck, ll.  Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural, p. 230, p. 239.  Griffin, “Space of Transformation”, p. 92. 15  Conlee, Introduction to Prose Merlin, p. 3. 16  Knight, p. 57. 17  Hoffman, “Malory’s Tragic Merlin”, p. 335. 18  Griffith, pp. 110–11. 13 14



2195–97). Certainly also, he repeatedly adopts disguises, leaving the other person to puzzle over who he is or where he has gone. Closer investigation, however, suggests a far darker story than the harmless pro-­British trickster who likes to play childish pranks. Comparison to his half-­brother Gowther19 reveals what to expect from a half-demon child—one who is not killed immediately at birth by its mother, as in The Trental of St. Gregory the mother of Pope Gregory the Great is said twice to have done; or one who is not redeemed at birth by timely holy intervention and by exceptional maternal piety, as in the case of Merlin. Gowther is a product of the carelessly made wish: childless for many years, the Duke and Duchess of Estryke are desperate for an heir. Merlin’s father is more than happy to oblige, impregnating the duchess by laying with her in the shape of her husband. The duchess compounds the problem by lying to her husband, allowing him to believe that Gowther is his long-desired heir, representing the future stability of his realm. Yet, from the moment of his birth, Gowther acts according to his demonic paternity, killing nine of his wet nurses and biting off his mother’s nipple. Gowther likes to play pranks too, but they are far from impish. The older he grows, the more violent and unrestrained his actions become. There is violence towards husbands and towards men in religious life. And sley hor husbandus too, And make frerus to leype at kraggus And parsons for to heng on knaggus, And odur prestys sloo; To bren armettys was is dyssyre. (ll. 198–202)

The violence directed towards women seen even in his infancy only worsens as he grows: no maiden, wife, or widow is safe from Gowther’s brutal, often sexual, assaults. Meydyns maryage wolde he spyll And take wyffus ageyn hor wyll, … A powre wedow to seyt on fyre, And werke hom mykyll woo. (ll. 196–97; ll. 203–04)

19  The author of Sir Gowther makes the claim that Merlin and Gowther have the same father at lines 97–99 of the poem: “This chyld within hur was no nodur,/Bot eyvon Marlyon halfe brodur,/For won fynd gate hom bothe”.



Merlin in contrast is never seen in any text to engage directly in such bad actions as these. The Prose Merlin, for instance, is insistent that Merlin never acts upon his physical attraction to Nimiane. In Malory, he is persistent and sexually aggressive towards the Lady of the Lake, but he is also unsuccessful. In Book IV, before he manages to “have Niviene’s maidenhood”,20 she, fed up and no doubt fearful of his continued sexual harassment, takes the initiative and traps him forever in a cave under a great rock. Nonetheless, a pattern of deception and sexual violence against women is as much a fundamental aspect of Merlin’s story as it is of Gowther’s. If hybridity points towards sameness, in Merlin’s case it points definitively towards what the son holds in common with his father. Merlin himself is the product of rape. In the Lincoln’s Inn manuscript of Arthour and Merlin, having let down her guard by going to bed the one time without first saying her prayers, Merlin’s mother for that one night lies defenseless against the sexual violation of her body. The devils see their chance to put their plan to conceive the Antichrist into action and a demon takes advantage of Merlin’s mother while she is sleeping. She awakens the next day to the horrified realization that some wicked thing has lain with her. A streone of a child he putte in hire þo And passed awey þer he com fro. And whan þat womman was awaked Heo fond hire body ly al naked And heo gropede wiþ hire honde And in a stude þer heo fonde Wherby heo wende witerly Þat som mon hadde leyȝen hire by, Þanne heo ros vp in hast And fond hire dore sperred fast And whan heo fond þat hit was so In hire heorte heo was ful wo And þouȝte hit was sum wikkid þyng Þat wolde hire to schame brynge. (Arthour and Merlin, Lincoln’s Inn, ll. 849–62)

 Malory, edited by Vinaver, p. 77.




While Merlin is protective of his mother and intervenes to save her from being buried alive—said to be the punishment of the time reserved for women who engage, even against their will, in sexual intercourse outside of marriage—his attitude towards other women too often seems callous. For example, he does not hesitate to inflict upon the good and loyal wife Ygerne the same trauma as that suffered by his mother. In the aftermath of her rape by Uther disguised as her husband, Ygerne realizes that she has been tricked. Þo þe leuedi herd þis Wo was hir liif ywis For hir lord Tintagel, Sche was bigiled sche wist wel In hir þouȝt wele it ran On hir was biȝeten a barn— What for sorwe wat for schame Wers was neuer gentil dame. (Arthour and Merlin, Auchinleck, ll. 2573–80)

The distraught women’s realization that something terrible has happened to their bodies without their consent and the language used to describe their reactions—woe and shame—are strikingly similar between the two incidents. Other women as well, perhaps significantly, are said to become pregnant under the cryptic circumstances of Merlin’s involvement. Of Lyonors, Arthur needs Merlin’s help to bed her. Þo Arthour hir hadde yseiȝe Bi hir he wald haue yleiȝe So he dede þurth Merlin A child he biȝat hir in. (Arthour and Merlin, Auchinleck, ll. 4187–90)

Similarly in the Prose Merlin, King Ban impregnates a woman with the future Sir Ector (Launcelot’s half-brother) through Merlin’s enchantment. The text can be silent on the details, but given what happened to Ygerne, it would seem probable that Merlin had something to do with these pregnancies beyond acting as a royal matchmaker. In Merlin: Knowledge and Power, Knight offers a kinder reading than is given here of Merlin’s involvement in the romantic affairs of his companions by placing this aspect of Merlin within the context of courtly love, but even Knight



acknowledges that “the great sage can become something like a pander for his friends”.21 The demonic propensity for violence against men is also prominent in Merlin’s character, although the reader may not immediately realize its degree because the violence is directed largely towards the villains of the Arthurian world—the heathen Saxons, the giant-king Rion, and the five rebellious kings—rather than against ordinary husbands and the Christian clergy as found in Sir Gowther. The violence is there. In Arthour and Merlin and the Prose Merlin, for instance, in his impatience to start the battle against Rion, rather than act according to protocol and wait for King Leodegraunce to give permission for the army to advance, Merlin rips the gate barrier off its hinges so he and his forces can move forward. He is active in battle both as a master tactician and as a fighter. Yet, while these actions certainly exhibit a taste for extreme violence, they are forgivable within the context of the text in that they are framed within an acceptable paradigm (the Round Table) and channelled towards an acceptable target (the enemies of Britain). Moreover, Merlin is certainly no more violent than any of the other knights on either side of the many battles. Gowther is too straightforward in his brute demonic nature to be much of a prankster, except perhaps in the cruelty of his tricks and the methodology of his anti-fraternalism which entails killing friars by forcing them to leap off cliffs. Merlin in contrast is certainly a trickster, an illustration of the demonic propensity to deceive. His habit of appearing in disguise seems harmless enough, if perhaps unnecessary to those who need vital information delivered directly. Yet some of Merlin’s tricks are unmistakably cruel and pointless. The rape of Ygerne again is prominent in this respect—a private trauma—although one might possibly feel inclined to argue that she is quickly compensated for the harm done by being made Uther’s queen. The ultimate prank, however, is one that is not included in the far more logical tradition of the historical chroniclers in which Arthur is raised in the royal household and smoothly succeeds without opposition to the throne at age fifteen in the normal course of events upon the death of Uther. Indeed, the ultimate prank is Merlin’s turn at playing 21  Knight, p. 66. In “Merlin: Prophet and Magician” Paul Zumthor recounts at p. 138, “In L’Estoire de Merlin, Merlin, seeing that King Ban is in love with Agravadain’s daughter but is too timid to approach her, enchants them both so that they lie together without realizing it”. Once again, Merlin seems oblivious to any need to gain the woman’s consent to sexual activity.



Rumpelstiltskin. The lust-driven Uther rashly promises and swears to Merlin to give him whatever he wants in exchange for enabling that one night of disguised passion with Ygerne. Merlin, of course, demands Uther’s first born and, as it turns out, his only son. The game is elaborate and without purpose, and it is questionable whether the change results in a more wondrous narrative than that found in the historical chronicles. One fact is clear: being taken away from his birth parents obscures Arthur’s place in the royal succession. This break in connection to his family undermines Arthur’s position and contributes little to either his destiny or to the greater glory of Camelot and the safety of Britain. In comparison, on the level of the private and personal, the harm done by Merlin’s trick is enormous: Ygerne, who is allowed no voice in the decision to take her son away from her, again is left to suffer the consequences of Merlin’s heartless choices. The hurt is much, while the compensation, if any, is little. In the Prose Merlin, Ygerne dies before Uther and therefore never has opportunity to see her lost child again. Years later, one of her daughters reveals what we should already expect was true: out of Uther’s earshot, Ygerne used to complain bitterly of her child being taken from her. When asked by her son about Arthur, a daughter of Ygerne confirms the story of Arthur’s birth and in so doing gives voice to the traumatized mother: “[her] yen begonne to water that the teers wette her cheeks and hir chyn; and [she] seide, sighynge and wepinge as she that was hevy and tender for her brother that hir sone remembred …. I have herd my moder sey many tymes whan she here complayned prively in her chamber for her sone” (Prose Merlin, “Young Squires”, p. 115, at ll.39–45). The daughter’s present tears speak loudly for the constant emotional suffering endured for so many years by her dead mother. The scene in Arthour and Merlin is even crueler. On instructions from Merlin to never reveal himself to be the father of the child, the rapist Uther convinces Ygerne to dispose of the newborn infant herself at the gate, saying that he “forgives” her for all the guilt of becoming pregnant under such strange circumstances (ll. 2661–82)! Ygerne’s trauma is private as a violated woman and as a bereaved mother. The harm, however, is significantly public, and the consequences of Merlin’s prank affect many thousands, including the Arthur that Merlin claims to serve and love. Merlin’s game makes possible the five rebel kings’ denial of Arthur as Uther’s legitimate heir because the rebels quite rightly have reason to doubt Arthur’s credentials: a sword in the stone, however mythic, is a poor substitute for a clear line of succession founded on acknowledged



royal parentage, as any Royal Pretender would know. The rebel kings’ rejection leads to a civil war that costs thousands of men their lives (and women, their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons). This civil war squanders resources which could have been better employed in preparing to fight Britain’s many enemies. Being taken away from his family at birth also deprives Arthur of knowledge of his family connections and relationships, with dire consequences. That Arthur is willing to commit adultery with Lot’s wife is bad, although the Arthurian tradition is decidedly ambivalent about how heinous an act adultery really is, if it is at all, which seems to depend in large measure on who is committing the adultery and with whom.22 Incest, however, since before the time of Oedipus has been an entirely different matter, even when committed in ignorance. Without knowledge of his family genealogy, in his ignorance Arthur commits incest with his half-sister, Lot’s wife, and the end of Camelot is set in motion at its very start—Mordred is conceived—in a chain of actions which draw back precisely to Merlin’s elaborate game of concealment and revelation which serves little purpose other than to showcase himself as the puppet master, the special person whose magic and unique knowledge are necessary to authenticate the true heir in the eyes of the whole realm in the absence of those other more definitive and ordinary proofs of identity usually available to royalty in the Middle Ages. Merlin’s game would be entirely unnecessary had Arthur not been taken away at birth from his parents. Malory in his version of the story points to this unnecessity in a bleakly comic way. In Book I, Ulfinus, himself hardly an innocent in that he was involved in Merlin’s scheme to deceive Ygerne into engaging in rape masked as wifely duty with Uther, points the finger at Ygerne as being the ultimate bad woman and traitress to her king because she is “the causer of [Arthur’s] grete damage and of the grete warre” with the rebel kings, on the grounds that she never told anyone during Uther’s lifetime of what happened to Arthur at his birth. Ygerne retorts that Uther knew he was the father and yet he commanded the child be handed over to Merlin, with the result that she “saw the child never aftir, nothir wote nat what ys hys name”. Then Ulfinus turns to point the finger of blame at Merlin for being “more to blame than the queen” (p. 30). There is definite truth in 22  In Malory, Book XI, Chap. 2, for instance, the saintly Galahad is the procreative result of Launcelot’s sexual intercourse with Elaine. Launcelot, however, “wente that mayden Elayne had bene quene Gwenyver” (p. 480, at ll. 20–21) because, to trick Launcelot into engaging in sex with her, Elaine had been magically transformed to look like Guenevere. If intent matters, the conception of Galahad therefore is an adulterous act. Worse, it happens again in Book XI, Chap. 8!



this accusation: Ulfinus may know how Ygerne became pregnant, but he cannot know for certain that Arthur is the child that resulted. Ygerne knows that her son was taken from her alive at birth, but she has been deprived of any further knowledge of him, not even knowing his name. The foster-father Ector knows that Arthur is Uther’s son, but he cannot know for certain that Ygerne is the child’s mother because the child he was asked to care for could easily be a royal bastard. Uther is dead and unable to reveal the truth to anyone. Of the living, only Merlin knows all the moving parts of the game. Malory’s Ygerne at least receives something of a happy ending, being briefly reunited at long last with the son stolen from her at birth before she disappears from the narrative. Clearly then, Merlin’s demonic inheritance does continue to matter because its influence resurfaces throughout his narrative, just as being half demon matters for Gowther and for most other romance characters whose origins are partially supernatural. Yet, unlike Gowther who struggles and rids himself entirely of the taint of demonic inheritance through a lengthy process of penance and purification in which he symbolically kills the bad half of himself, dies, and then rises again to be baptized once more and proclaimed a child of God by the pope, Merlin remains fixed with his sameness pointing towards the demonic. While Merlin, even in his worst excesses shown in the literary Arthurian tradition, is never quite as bad as Gowther can be, he never becomes quite as good either, hinting that a hybrid identity—not being one thing or the other—is a problematic state in which to exist in medieval literature. Merlin indeed within himself models the entire culture of Camelot. In Merlin we can see Camelot’s idealism as represented by the knighthood of the Round Table which he is instrumental in founding, but also its propensity for violence as seen in Gawain, its lechery as represented by Launcelot, and its unhappy predilection for playing elaborate games of love and honour which set in motion Camelot’s downfall.23 For Merlin, the last three would seem to be attributes which, in part at least, derive from his father.  In Malory, Merlin is absent for most of the story, but Whetter points out in Understanding Genre, p. 111, that the opening book looks forward and anticipates the concluding tragedy of the end. Merlin’s prediction of his own unavoidable fate “is but an early indication of the intermingling of free will and destiny in the narrative. Here, too, there is that accompanying sense of fated loss and tragedy which permeates the Morte as a whole”. Likewise, Hoffman argues at p. 344 that “a far more important function of Merlin’s prophecies is not simply to announce themes but to position them. Reversing the famous motto of Mary, Queen of Scots, ‘In my end is my beginning,’ Malory’s Merlin inserts the end in the beginning. His prophecies shadow the initiation of the Arthurian project with the tragedy of its end”. 23



Like father, like son. However, Merlin’s relationship with his father is more complex than the simple inheritance of bad paternal tendencies and his sameness to his father shapes how he interacts with others far beyond his easy willingness to be complicit in rape and to set disaster in motion. Merlin knows from the beginning that his father is a demon, but he does not know his father in any meaningful personal way. The two are distanced. The chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth includes the famous detail that Vortigern seeks out Merlin as a child because his advisors tell him that to stabilize the tower which he is trying to build Vortigern needs to sprinkle its foundations with the blood of a boy born without a father (p. 137, at 6.106.507–09). This curious detail is picked up in the more imaginative literary tradition to offer an explicit explanation as to why Vortigern’s magicians would have offered their king such peculiar advice. As it turns out, according to the literary sources, when Vortigern’s magicians consulted the stars to learn what needed to be done to stabilize the tower’s foundations, they were instructed by what they saw in the sky to kill immediately the child born without a father when they found it before the child could speak to them. Merlin’s incubus sky-demon father, that is, is behind the blood offering advice. Because the devils’ plot to spawn the Antichrist has failed and because apparently Merlin’s father, for some unknown reason, is unable to commit the murderous deed directly himself, the father has conspired to have his son killed to prevent Merlin from using his demonic skills and knowledge for good. As Merlin explains to Vortigern, ‘Now ȝe sen ȝe ben biswike Þe sky þat ȝou schewed þat It was þe fader þat me biȝat, For he me hadde nouȝt to his wille Þurth ȝou he wald do me spille’. (Arthour and Merlin, Auchinleck, ll. 1582–86)

To say the least, Merlin and his father have a very conflicted father/son relationship. It is a conflicted father/son relationship which also is then mirrored throughout the Merlin sections of the narrative. First, there are several variations on the unknown father motif in the Arthurian tradition. For example, in Arthour and Merlin it is a ‘who’s your daddy’ taunt that brings the five-year-old Merlin to the attention of Vortigern’s agents (Auchinleck, ll. 1204–08), but even before this point in the narrative, a two-year-old Merlin has proven that the fathers of many children are



unknown to them: Merlin reveals to the justice who sits in judgment over his mother for fornication that the judge’s own father is not the high-born baron from whom the justice has always believed he descended, but is in fact the local parson (Auchinleck, ll. 1099–1166). On the road to Vortigern’s castle, Merlin laughs shrilly at the sight of a funeral cortege: the foolish old man who weeps for the corpse lying on the bier ought to trade places with the priest who sings at the head of the procession because it is the priest’s son who has died (Auchinleck, ll. 1296–1332). And towards the end of Arthour and Merlin, the refrain becomes ‘who’s your son-in-law’ when Merlin refuses to reveal to Leodegraunce the identity of the man to whom his daughter Gonnore (Guenevere) is betrothed until after Leodegraunce has agreed to the marriage. ‘Now’ quaþ Merlin to Leodegan ‘Wostow now wite to what man Þou hast yȝouen douhter þin?’ (Auchinleck, ll. 8627–29)

Even in Malory, who greatly downplays the importance of Merlin to the action of the story in comparison to Arthour and Merlin and the Prose Merlin, this pattern of unknown fathers and sons unfolds. In Book I, Mordred and all the other noble male children “that were borne in May-­ day” are ordered cast adrift by Arthur in an attempt to kill at birth the one unknown child fated to destroy the kingdom. Of all the many innocent babes on board the vessel, only Mordred survives the shipwreck and is rescued and fostered by a good man.24 This is another murder attempt of a father upon his son, and a king upon the most innocent and vulnerable of all his subjects. It is also an act for which Merlin is much blamed, although as K. S. Whetter points out, the episode must be read in balance as a futile attempt to thwart the even greater “slaughter of a kingdom” which Mordred’s birth portends.25 Finally, towards the end of his story in Malory, Merlin reveals that Sir Torre is not the son of the cowherd who has raised him, but the illegitimate son of King Pellinor—much to Sir Torre’s worship in spite of the circumstances of rape and adultery that surround his conception (p. 62 at ll. 4–34). The central figure in this repetition of fathers and sons is, of course, Arthur, the boy taken by Merlin from his parents at birth for reasons 24  Malory, edited by Vinaver, p.  37. Unfortunately, Merlin could not (would not?) pinpoint precisely the child that needed to die to avert the greater catastrophe. The episode, of course, recalls Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents in the Gospel of Matthew, Chap. 2. 25  Whetter, p. 111.



known only to himself. Merlin’s involvement in Arthur’s early life seems to be a deliberate orchestration to mimic as closely as possible Merlin’s own childhood experience: both are the result of rape, and both are the result, to use the phrase found in Arthour and Merlin, of “witching” (l. 3155). Indeed, one of the reasons given by the five rebel kings for denying Arthur as their overlord is that he is tainted by black magic due to the circumstances of his conception. Both Merlin and Arthur face paternal rejection. Merlin’s father attempts to have him killed, while Uther apparently finds it not too difficult to abandon his son to another man’s loving care, although it is suggested in Arthour and Merlin that he (and pointedly only he) sometimes visits the foster household in which Arthur is being raised: His fader he miȝt oft ysen Ac him no knewe neuer þe quen NArtour no miȝt neuer wite Þat þe king him hadde biȝete While þe king was libbeing So ich in þe brout yfinde Ac his fader wele he wende Were Antour þe kniȝt hende. (Auchinleck, ll. 2725–32)

Both Merlin and Arthur, of course, are children of promise with a special destiny. Yet, if Arthur repeats Merlin’s experience as the boy without a father, there are also pointed and significant differences. Merlin knows all along the identity of his father and how his human/demonic hybridity affects him; Arthur is deprived of such knowledge and, in the Prose Merlin, is said to “weep with great dole” when told by his foster father Antor that he did not engender him (Prose Merlin, ‘The Sword in the Stone’, p. 78, at ll. 182–85). Arthur, moreover, is multiply deprived. Merlin knew and had a positive relationship with his mother. Arthur does not. He is the boy who in Arthour and Merlin and in the Prose Merlin does not know either his father or his mother until it is far too late to be able to do so. He is also deprived of knowledge about other close family relationships until it is far too late to undo the damage done by an act of incest. His foster brother Kay is similarly deprived by Merlin’s game. Displaced from his mother’s breast to make room for Arthur, Kay is given to a wet nurse to suckle, a



loss of maternal bonding which in Arthour and Merlin is said to leave Kay with a stammer in later life. Kay was swiþe noble kniȝt, Ac he stamered a litel wiȝt Þat he it hadde in nortoure Þurth þe norices coure. (Auchinleck, ll. 2853–56)

Indeed, Merlin seems intent on reliving his own past experiences through Arthur, often at the expense of Arthur or of those close to him, and Merlin even can be seen to recreate the pattern of rejection by his father in that, once he leaves the infant Arthur at the foster household, Merlin plays no role in Arthur’s upbringing but disappears from view for many a year until he resurfaces towards the end of Uther’s reign. With Arthur’s ascendancy to the throne, Merlin steps into another role which also echoes his own earlier experience. As a fatherless boy, Merlin stood before the adult Vortigern as a wise councillor. Now the adult Merlin stands before the fatherless 15-year-old Arthur as a mentor and an advisor so that the fatherless man can now act as a father to the boy he made fatherless, engineering Arthur’s sexual encounters, arranging Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere, strategizing Arthur’s military campaigns against his enemies, and leading Arthur’s armies to victory in battle. If somewhat disturbing, especially in arranging Arthur’s sexual experiences for him, this is the Merlin we know and like, the one who looks at long last to have successfully overcome his demonic inheritance—or who at least has channelled his dark side’s propensity for violence towards a target of which we can approve—the enemies of Arthur. The violence and predilection for sexual interference nonetheless point emphatically towards what Merlin holds in common with his demonic incubus father.

Merlin and His Mother However, Merlin’s hybridity grounded in difference points with equal emphasis to sameness with his mother. If the patterns of Merlin’s paternal lineage repeat themselves in his story, his human matrilineal line’s identity also reiterates itself on multiple occasions in his life. Not only does Merlin arrange the supernaturally aided rape of a good woman as happened to his own mother, but Merlin himself also suffers the same end as that endured by two women in his family. According to the narrative, the time’s



punishment for women who commit sexual crimes is to be buried alive (Auchinleck, ll. 727–31). This mode of execution is a death which is suffered by one of his aunts (Auchinleck, l. 765) and which is threatened numerous times upon his mother. While his mother never endures this literal punishment because Merlin intervenes to save her by exposing the fornication of the judge’s own mother, thereby making any further legal procedure against his mother difficult if not impossible, Merlin’s mother is nonetheless buried alive. First, even before her pregnancy is due, Merlin’s mother is locked up in a strong tower with only an old midwife to attend upon her. Þat no man miȝt hir com to But an eld midwiif Þat schuld ȝemen hir liif Þerin sche was don on hast And þerin bischet ful fast, Þilke tour was swiþe heiȝe No man miȝt comen hem neiȝe (Arthour and Merlin, Auchinleck, ll. 966–72)

Shut away from the world, she abides inside the tower for two years after the birth of her son, all the while awaiting her trial for pregnancy outside of lawful wedlock and her seemingly inevitable execution by live burial. But if Merlin rescues her from one such confinement and the threat of literal death by inhumation, he himself goes on to enclose her in a different sort of live burial when he insists upon her becoming a cloistered nun (l. 1192). The living deaths of both his aunt and his mother, of course, anticipate Merlin’s own final performance of identity. There are two main traditions describing Merlin’s fate.26 There is the harsh version as seen in Book IV of Malory’s Le Morte DArthur in which Merlin is trapped by the Lady of the Lake in a cave beneath a great stone and left to die. Zoë Enstone in “Melusine and Purgatorial Punishment” suggests that Nimiane’s imprisonment of Merlin in Malory shows her acting as a divine agent of punishment who supports “the ideals and structure to which Arthur has bound 26  Griffin points out, p. 88, that the French Didot Perceval offers a third option for Merlin’s fate: he goes into a type of voluntary exile. One way or the other, however, Merlin disappears from the action, although his influence continues to be felt throughout the story through the fulfilment of his prophecies and through Morgan and Nimiane, to both of whom he taught his magic.



his subjects” by imprisoning “a lecherous stalker who deserves his punishment”.27 While Enstone also suggests that Nimiane does not harm Merlin when she imprisons him “for an indefinite amount of time”, it must be noted that there is neither mention in the text of her returning with food and water to the cave nor of any intention on her part to return. Notable also is that Nimiane does not release Merlin to aid her king when Arthur’s kingdom is collapsing around him. That is, implicitly Nimiane in Malory leaves Merlin under the rock to die, assuming that half-demons and incubi can die. On the other hand, there is a more pleasant version of Merlin’s ultimate fate, one in which he is trapped within a magical tower and reduced by Nimiane to being her captive courtly lover whom she promises to care for and visit often, as found in The Prose Merlin. In all versions of the Arthurian story, Nimiane subsumes Merlin’s role as Arthur’s supernatural advisor and patron, although in a much reduced capacity.28 Even after Merlin is removed from the action, the repeated performance of his script continues in the narrative with a feminine twist. In Malory, in Book IV, Nimiane, who felt no compunction in rejecting Merlin’s unwanted sexual advances and leaving him to die trapped underneath a great stone, reverses roles when another woman, Ettard, faces the same problem of a persistent if courtly sexual harasser. Pelleas refuses to be put off his desire for Ettard despite ample evidence that Ettard is not interested in his attentions. Yet, instead of helping a fellow sufferer of sexual harassment, Nimiane punishes Ettard for the very same shameful and seemingly sinful offence against men that Nimiane herself committed in refusing Merlin’s sexual overtures. As Merlin helplessly loves Nimiane to  “Melusine and Purgatorial Punishment”, p. 277.  For example, in Malory, in Book XVIII, “The Poisoned Apple”, the Lady of the Lake appears at court to reveal the truth of who murdered Sir Patrise, thus exonerating Guenevere absolutely from the accusation levelled against her. Yet, there is a marked difference in Nimiane’s performance as supernatural patroness compared to Merlin in the same role. Hoffman has argued, p. 340, that after Merlin, “magic, feminized and divided, is simpler; good magic is appropriated by the damsel Nynyve, evil magic by Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay. While Nynyve attempts to take Merlin’s place, her beneficence is never as complex as Merlin’s tragic vision, and she is useful mainly as a nymph ex machina to tidy up loose ends”. In support of Hoffman’s claim, the Lady of the Lake’s exoneration of Guenevere is a case in point: she does not arrive to announce the Queen’s lack of guilt until after Sir Launcelot already has proven her innocence in battle against Sir Mador de la Porte (although such proof as evidence is, in its own way, problematic, to say the least!). Neither Merlin nor Nimiane have any role to play in Malory’s source text for the poisoned apple scene, The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, which omits these two supernatural characters entirely from its narrative. 27 28



his great detriment, so now Ettard under Nimiane’s enchantment falls madly in love with Pelleas. Yet Pelleas, also under Nimiane’s enchantment, now harshly rejects Ettard, causing her to pine away and die as righteous punishment for attempting to “murder” a knight by denying him what he wanted from her. Nimiane and Pelleas conclude the act by walking off in love together, he firmly under her spell. The contradictions in Nimiane’s actions abound, but one thing is clear: the Lady of the Lake has stage-­ managed the happy ending for herself that Merlin had desired. Indeed, as his unfortunate ending suggests, there are significant gendered issues concerning Merlin. Four characters in Arthour and Merlin (three of whom appear in the Prose Merlin) are deliberately set up as counterparts to Merlin, of whom only one is male: Guinbart, King Ban’s brother, a noble clerk and divine whose knowledge of astronomical matters is second only to Merlin’s own. The other three are women: Morgan le Fay, Cramile the witch, and Nimiane. Despite his own infatuation with Nimiane and his complicity in the rape of Ygerne (and perhaps two other women), Merlin acts to correct sexually transgressive female behaviour and is strongly identified with the male.29 In the Prose Merlin and Arthour and Merlin, of all the many disguises which Merlin adopts, including once as an animal, he never appears in the shape of a woman. Even the animal form is a hart with an impressive rack of antlers, not a doe. On the other hand, he exposes women who are masquerading as men. At Vortigern’s court he outs the queen’s chamberlain in Arthour and Merlin; in the Prose Merlin at the court of ‘Julius Caesar’ Merlin reveals to the Roman emperor that ‘Grisandoll’, whom he calls a “Creature formed of Nature changed into other forme” is actually a young woman (Prose Merlin, ‘Merlin and Grisandolus’, p. 229, at ll. 147–48). In exposing Grisandoll’s true nature as a woman, Merlin also exposes gender deception in the empress’s twelve ladies in waiting who are the empress’s male lovers. In both episodes, Merlin brings to light transgressive feminine sexual behaviour. In Arthour 29  In Crafting the Witch, Heidi Breuer, at p. 38, attempts to argue, unsuccessfully in my opinion, that Merlin is an example of gender mutability: “his ability to participate in the most extreme of gendered behaviors at will, fluidly using the conventions of both masculinity and femininity to his advantage. In the chronicles, Merlin possesses a wondrous ability to adopt with equal facility behaviors conventionally associated with femininity and masculinity, strategically employing both poles of gendered binary systems such as active/passive, public/ private, body/spirit, and presence/absence. This gender-blending contributes to the power and efficacy of Merlin’s magic”.



and Merlin, Merlin exposes the queen’s lust for her chamberlain, who properly rebuffs her advances and who then is falsely accused by the queen of attempted rape (Arthour and Merlin, Auchinleck, ll. 1347–68). In the Prose Merlin, Merlin reveals the Roman empress’s adulterous goings on with her twelve male attendants right under the nose of her husband (Prose Merlin, ‘Merlin and Grisandolus’, pp. 233–234, at ll. 285–329). Moreover, Merlin exposes transgressive behaviour which outwardly appears tinged with the subversively homoerotic (Vortigern’s queen lusts after a woman, Caesar’s queen seems sexually involved with women) but the bad activity is both times firmly reestablished as heterosexual. Notable also is that the two cross-dressing women are not punished for assuming a male identity. After she is stripped naked in front of him, Vortigern in Arthour and Merline only wonders at the revelation of his chamberlain’s true sex which exonerates her from the queen’s false accusation of rape (ll. 1401–05), while the cross-dressing Grisandoll at the Roman emperor’s court in the Prose Merlin is triply rewarded for her loyalty to the crown by her family being restored to its lands, by herself being restored to her true gender and proper name Avenable, and by her marriage to the emperor as soon as his unfaithful wife has been dispatched to the fire. Despite being the son of an incubus and actively involved in the sex lives of others, Merlin himself seems asexual. While he engineers the reproductive encounters of others, Merlin produces no children of his own. Outside of the one text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s obscure Vita Merlini in which Merlin is married to Guendoloena,30 Merlin does not marry, unlike his male counterpart Guinbart, King Ban’s brother. In the Prose Merlin, even his relationship with the femme fatale Nimiane is sexless due to her enchantments against any sexual aggression on his part. While he is involved as mentor and teacher with two women, Morgan le Fay and Nimiane, to whom he passes on his secret knowledge to one degree or another,31 in both cases the loving relationship is not necessarily a sexual one. There is Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, who the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight implies “dalt drwry ful dere sumtyme/With 30  For discussion of the Vita Merlini, see Knight, pp.  31–42; Jarman, “The Merlin Legend”, pp. 119–22. 31  As Griffin for one has noted, p. 95, “Merlin also crosses the gender divide, recurrently echoed and commemorated in a series of women, héritières to his powers of magic and omniscience. Many critics have commented on the complementarity and contrasts between Niviene/Niniane and Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, as successors to Merlin’s authority”.



þat conable klerk”.32 But one must remember that the Gawain text itself proves that such dealings of secret love need not entail physical intimacy beyond a kiss. Indeed, one must also remember that Morgan, like Merlin’s mother, is sometimes associated with a nunnery and her character appears differently in different texts. Nonetheless, Morgan can consistently be read as a shadow reflection of Merlin, his demonic side, judging from scholarly opinion which overwhelmingly regards her as malevolent in contrast to the positive figures of Nimiane and Guenevere.33 In the Arthurian story as told by Malory in Book XI, Morgan repeats Merlin’s actions in helping to engineer, gender-reversed, the transformation prank which leads to pregnancy by bringing Launcelot to the castle at Case where Ban’s daughter Elaine is turned into Guenevere for the night. Launcelot’s son Galahad, another child of destiny and product of magic, results. While a mysterious Dame Brusen, handmaiden to Elaine and another generalized female counterpart to Merlin in the narrative, is said to be the actual shapeshifting enchanter, Morgan sets the plot in motion with the lure of another beautiful naked woman in distress for Launcelot to rescue whereby he arrives at the castle where Elaine awaits, and the deception (and the conception) occurs. In Arthour and Merlin, the wizard also has another female counterpart, the heathen witch Cramile (also called Carmile). Of wichecraft and vilaine And eke of nigramace Of þis warld sche couþe mast. (Auchinleck, ll. 4441–43)

Though she barely figures as a character in the surviving parts of Arthour and Merlin, being referred to briefly only twice in the entire narrative and once confused with Morgan le Fay, Cramile as an ally of her heathen brother King Hardogabran, is established as Merlin’s Saxon equivalent. With her sorcerous abilities she threatens the balance of power between 32  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by Tolkien and Gordon, revised by Davis, ll. 2449–50. 33  This blanket assumption is curious, given that Guenevere’s adultery leads directly to Arthur’s end, an element in the Arthurian tradition from its very inception as seen in Geoffrey of Monmouth, while Nimiane deprives Arthur of his strongest asset when she entraps Merlin. Morgan’s role in bringing Arthur to healing in Avalon is also a factor to consider in assessment. In the end, none of these three women ought to be reduced to simplistic ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ figures.



the Christian Britons and the heathen Saxons and only Merlin’s power is said to be able to hold her witch’s influence in check. (Ac Carmile par ma fay Bi Merlines liif-day No miȝt do wiþ hir wicheing In Inglond non anoiing). (Auchinleck, ll. 4457–60)

The split is as much gendered in pitting masculine wizardry against feminine witchcraft, as it is an opposition of Christian and pre-Christian belief and practice, as well as Celtic versus Saxon ethnicity, though all strangely imagined as happening within “Inglond”. What happens to Cramile after Merlin’s life day is done is not part of the surviving text. Arthour and Merlin ends abruptly, and it includes only a brief and quite garbled allusion to Merlin’s ending in which, in anticipation of several modern treatments of the story, it is Morgan le Fay who is said to eliminate from the narrative Arthur’s most powerful ally (ll. 4447–48). But the role of Merlin’s nemesis, as found in most medieval accounts of the Arthurian story, properly belongs to Merlin’s third feminine counterpart, Nimiane, the Lady of the Lake, and her role as the nemesis of Arthur’s most powerful ally should warn us that she is not to be understood simply as the ‘good’ to Morgan’s ‘bad’. Morgan and Cramile pale in comparison to Nimiane to whom Merlin reveals everything that he knows and who is the one who traps him beneath or within stone, with either malevolent or selfishly loving intent, clearly showing herself to be his superior in getting what she wants if nothing else.34 In the Prose Merlin, Morgan and Cramile are both wholly human in origin, contrary to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s approach to her character in that Morgan is called a “goddess” at line 2452, and which she may well have been in the earliest manifestations of this character.35 Nimiane, however, is supernaturally hybridic, just as Merlin: she is said to possess a paranormal origin through the goddess Diana who gives her godson Dionas the gift of knowing his first born daughter will be so desired of the wisest man in the kingdom “that he shall hir teche the moste parte of his witte and connynge by force of  See Berthelot’s outline of the various iterations in different texts of the Merlin/Nimiane relationship in “Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake”, especially at pp. 170–79. 35  See, for instance, the recent discussion of the “potential resonances between Morgan and goddess figures of various sorts” in Jill Hebert’s second chapter in Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter. 34



nygremauncye in soche manere that he shall be so desirouse after the tyme that he hath hir seyn that he shall have no power to do nothinge agein hir volunté. And alle thinges that she enquereth, he shall hir teche” (Prose Merlin, ‘Merlin and Nimiane’, pp.  182–183, at ll. 68–71). Nimiane is therefore Merlin’s full counterpart and equal, potentially even to the point of a shared demonic lineage. Regino of Prüm, Burchard of Worms, Bartholomew of Iscanus, and Ulrich Molitoris all, for example, identify as the Devil in disguise the “Diana” with whom wicked women “ride on certain beasts and traverse many areas of the earth in the stillness of the night, obey her commands as if she were their mistress, and are called on special nights to her service”.36 In the Merlin/Nimiane relationship, the powerful magician at the mercy of his unfulfillable love has no power to resist her will even though he knows it will end in his destruction. Just as Merlin’s shadow, Arthur, creates his son Mordred, the extension of himself that will destroy him and all he holds dear, so too Merlin creates Nimiane. Thus, the trickster son of a sex demon who causes such distress to several women in his life is undone by the feminine shadow of himself that he fostered and created. Hybridity in Merlin’s case points equally to sameness on both sides of his difference, so equally so that they cancel each other out and destroy him.

Melusine: The Faery’s Daughter and Her Sons The story of Merlin is an old one. References to Myrddin in Welsh literature predate his appearance as Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in the later 1130s, while a thriving early Welsh oral tradition virtually guarantees that the figure was well established in that part of the world perhaps as early as 600 C.E.37 Merlin, of course, has 36  A very common connection. See the selections from Regino, Burchard and Bartholomew translated in McNeill and Garner’s Medieval Handbooks of Penance, p. 332 (the above text quoted from Burchard of Worms), p. 333 n34, and p. 349. For Ulrich Molitoris, see Richard Kieckhefer’s translation of On Witches and Pythonesses in Hazards of the Dark Arts, p. 117. See likewise Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural, pp.  80–82 and p.  114 at which she observes that Vincent of Beauvais makes the same Diana/Devil connection. The connection appears also in Dives and Pauper, edited by Barnum, at Vol. 1, Part 1, p. 158, ll. 28–37. 37  On the historical Myrddin, see Knight, pp. 4–6. Regarding Geoffrey of Monmouth’s switch of Myrddin to Merlin, Knight points out, pp. 21–22, that “In early Welsh spelling Myrddin is represented as ‘Merdin,’ and to Latinize this as ‘Merdinus’ would produce a name redolent of the French word merde, ‘excrement’ …. So Geoffrey neatly revised the name as ‘Merlinus’”.



continued to fascinate many authors and readers to the present day. In comparison, Melusine’s story may seem recent: although it has many antecedents, especially in France,38 her complete narrative appears to be the invention of Jean D’Arras in his French prose romance Histoire de Mélusine written towards the end of the fourteenth century, which was quickly followed by a shorter, less detailed verse adaptation, Le Roman de Mélusine; ou, L’histoire de Lusignan prepared by someone named Coudrette (sometimes spelled Couldrette).39 Melusine’s story as told by Jean D’Arras seems to have survived in Middle English prose in one unpublished early sixteenth-­century manuscript today housed in the British Library (MS Royal 18.b.II) and in six printed fragments usually attributed to Wynkyn de Worde and dated to about 1510. These pieces are today stored in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Vet. A1 d. 18.40 Coudrette’s verse adaptation fared better in Middle English: a nearly complete 6615-line Middle English verse translation of Coudrette’s work was edited by W. W. Skeat for the Early English Text Society in 1866. However, this Middle English text, today generally available only on-line in Skeat’s nineteenth-century edition, appears late in the medieval period and it, too, is usually dated in composition to the early 1500s. Yet, although the composition of Melusine’s own story and its arrival in English are relatively newcomers compared to the earliest tales of Merlin, nonetheless, her reptilian type is 38  A quick survey of earlier versions of Melusine’s story can be found in Prud’Homme’s “Mermaid, Mother, Monster, and More” at pp. 52–53. 39  As briefly described by Maddox and Sturm-Maddox at p. 13 in the introduction to their modern English translation of Jean D’Arras’s work, the two French versions differ “primarily in the omission of several parts of Geoffroy Big-Tooth’s story, among them his adventures in the Holy Land and in Austria, his pilgrimage, and the story of the ‘Knight in the Tower’ in the epilogue”. Coudrette also includes a lengthy panegyric on Melusine’s youngest son, Thierry, from whom Guillaume Larcheveque, the Lord of Parthenay in Coudrette’s time, claimed descent. Coudrette (or his Middle English adaptor) also rearranges the narrative sequence, recounting the story of Melusine’s origins only after Geoffroy Big-Tooth discovers its narration written on the tomb of King Elynas in a cave. Ostensibly, of course, this plot arrangement enables the discovery of Melusine’s secret hybridity to be held back as a surprise for the reader at the conclusion of the story. Although the Middle English version of Coudrette’s verse is available on-line in Skeat’s nineteenth-century edition, my discussion is based on the fuller prose version of Jean D’Arras as translated by Maddox and Sturm-­ Maddox and page references are to their edition unless otherwise noted. 40  Some of the print fragments, mostly centred on Melusine’s son Geoffroy, are accessible through the Early English Books On-Line Database at http://name.umdl.umich.edu/ A04522.0001.001. For discussion of Melusine’s textual tradition in English, see Colwell’s “The Middle English Melusine”.



a common enough feminine character throughout literature, whether it is she who can inflict the curse of unwanted change upon another (like snaky-haired Medusa), or she who changes for the better when a curse is broken (like the Dragon Lady of Synadoun in Lybeaus Desconus or, more ambivalently, the Dragon Lady of Cos in Mandeville’s Travels),41 or she who changes for the worse when her true nature is revealed (like Cassodorien in Richard Coer de Lyon or the temptress in John Keats’s Lamia). Melusine’s is thus an old and recurring story, too.42 Melusine is the daughter of the human King Elynas of Scotland and the faery Pressine. Melusine’s story is a series of mistakes and broken, forgotten promises. Her widowed father became besotted by the beautiful Pressine whom he encountered singing in a forest beside a fountain. Her mother, Pressine, agreed to marry Elynas, provided that he swore that “if we have children together, you will never in any way undertake to see me in childbed”.43 They marry, and of course at the birth of his triplet daughters, Elynas forgets his promise, Pressine disappears with the three newborns, and fifteen years later the daughters take vengeance upon their father’s betrayal by locking him away under a mountain, an act which earns them not the gratitude of their mother, but her wrath. Pressine curses each of her daughters,44 Melusine, the ringleader, perhaps most cruelly of all. Pressine places Melusine under a transformation curse so that every Saturday Melusine shall “become a serpent from the navel 41  The story of Hippocrates’s daughter, the Dragon Lady of Cos, is found at pp. 15–16, ll. 11–21, in The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels. She will die shortly after the curse upon her is lifted. For discussion, see Dana Oswald, pp. 131–38. 42  For a survey of Melusine’s “female archetypal divine heritage” (p. 23) see Gillian Alban’s ‘The Serpent Goddess’. 43  The text provides no explanation for this prohibition, but it is typical of such stories in folklore and Celtic myth. See Alban, p. 25 and p. 31. 44  The second daughter, Melior, is dispatched to the Castle of the Sparrow Hawk in Greater Armenia where she shall keep a sparrow hawk until doomsday. She can grant a wish to any valiant knight who visits her castle and who is able to stay awake for three days and nights from June 23 through the 25th, but this wish excludes access to herself, her body, or her love, thus ensuring that she will forever exist alone. A terrible curse is visited upon any knight who dares ask for her as his reward, and those who fail to remain awake for the three days and nights are lost forever. A version of this story (perhaps the earliest) is found also in Mandeville’s Travels at p. 65, l. 26—p. 66, l.17, in The Defective Version. The third daughter, Palestine, is confined within a mountain to guard her father’s treasure until a knight of her own lineage comes and kills the sequence of monstrous guardians protecting it. When this day of liberation happens is the day that, using the vast wealth stored inside the mountain, Christian Crusaders will regain the Holy Land. That is, never.



down” (p.  25).45 Moreover, the curse has a sting in its snaky tail: if Melusine can find a man who will marry her and keep his promises never to see her on a Saturday and not to talk about her mysterious Saturday absences with anyone, then Melusine will happily live out her days as a human and receive a Christian burial. The tantalizing possibility of her hybridity extinguishing itself by emphasizing her humanity is thus present. If, however, her husband betrays her, then she is doomed to exist as a snake until the end of the world and her hybridity will extinguish itself by emphasizing what she holds in common with the faery world instead. It will be one or the other fate. In time, Melusine finds her own beloved, Raymondin, who dutifully makes the two promises. They live happily together for many years, Melusine bearing ten sons and building castles and churches practically overnight throughout the land of Lusignan. She liberally bestows magical protective rings and generously funds the martial exploits of her sons from a seemingly inexhaustible source of wealth and with a healthy dose of sound moral wisdom rooted in a firm Christian understanding. Yet inevitably, Raymondin breaks both of his promises and, like Cassodorien in Richard Coer de Lyon, after her secret hybrid existence as a half-snake has been exposed, following a long lament and a tearful farewell Melusine turns into a fifteen-foot flying serpent and disappears out the window, although for a short while she returns each night to care for her two youngest sons and perpetually she must return in dragon form, banshee-­ like, three days each time before the fortress of Lusignan changes lords. What is immediately noticeable about Melusine’s story as a hybrid, one both ancestrally mixed and a cross between species on Saturdays, is the contrast to the circumstance of her ten sons. To avoid the dreadful fate her mother wished upon her, Melusine must keep her hybridity hidden from public view because her opportunity for holding onto human happiness will be lost when her secret Saturday hybridity is exposed. This situation is in remarkable contrast to her sons. After her exposure as a half-snake, Melusine 45  Not every critic regards it as a curse. Jan Shaw, in Space, Gender, and Memory, argues at p. 10 that “the punishments meted out by Pressine to her three daughters are ‘gyftes’ that allow them to reacquaint themselves with their family history. In other words, the taboos of Pressine enable her daughters to sustain their feminine subjecthood in a patriarchal world that insists on strategically forgetting the promises it makes to the feminine”. On the other hand, as will be discussed in Chap. 4 of this book, the Faery King’s gift of a small dog to Herla in Walter Map’s famous story in De nugis curialium, amply reveals that any gift can contain within itself a curse.



expresses the sad sentiment that she does not want her children to be “stigmatized as the sons of a bad mother, a serpent, or a faery” (p. 194). Yet the faery ancestry of the first eight of her sons is physically stamped onto their faces in broad public view for all to see from the very beginning of their lives: the eldest, Urian, has a short, broad face, with one red eye and one dark, and basket-sized ears; Udes has one ear much larger than the other; Guyon has one eye higher than the other; Antoine has a furry lion’s paw with sharp nails growing out of his left cheek; Renaud has only one eye (though with exceptionally acute vision); Geoffroy, nicknamed ‘Big Tooth’, has a large tooth that juts out more than an inch from his mouth; pious Fromont has a tuft of hair growing on his nose; and the large monstrosity known only as Horrible has three eyes with one in the middle of his forehead. Ordinarily, such abnormal physical traits would be disabilities and almost certainly lead quickly to the boys’ social stigmatization and exclusion as freaks. But the eight sons face no such exclusionary discrimination, and they are accepted as human without question. While others certainly notice the odd physical traits of Melusine’s sons, they express no revulsion at the sons’ appearance or concern at their presence within the community. Of Urian, for instance, Hermine describes her future husband as “tall, upright, long of limb, and exceedingly strong, though in fact he does have a short, rather wide face, with one red eye and one dark eye, and amazingly big ears. Rest assured, though, that in body and build he’s one of the fairest young champions I’ve ever laid eyes on!” (p. 82) Of lion-pawed Antoine, the narrative voice comments, “Everyone was amazed by Antoine’s cheek, which was indeed a strange thing to see, but the great beauty of the rest of his body made one forget it, and it really wasn’t all that unbecoming” (p. 126). Although their bodies advertise their alterity as something other than fully human, most of Melusine’s sons do not need to struggle to rid themselves of an unwanted supernatural inheritance, as Gowther, Degaré, and Guinglain can be seen to do in their respective romances. Nor does anyone until towards the end of Melusine’s story extrapolate directly from the odd bodies of her sons to the likely odd origins of their mother, Melusine herself. Nor is there any suggestion that the physical abnormalities seen in the sons extend into the next generation, because none of Melusine’s grandsons is said to be born with any physical abnormality.46 In repeated narrative acts which today would make any disability studies theorist 46  This is unlike the hereditary curse, for example, found at the end of Marie de France’s Bisclavret in which many of the unfaithful wife’s female descendants are born without noses after Bisclavret in wolf form bites his wife’s nose off in revenge for her betrayal.



proud, despite their obvious difference, the sons of Melusine are all accepted by the Christian communities they encounter as full members of the group. Simply put, while we might expect the mixed sons of Melusine and Raymond to be disabled and monstrous because of their partial faery ancestry and their marked faces, for some reason they are not. Instead, like the half-Scottish Bevis, his twin sons, and Richard the Lionhearted, the sons of Melusine and Raymond are not hybrids. In their cases, hybridity has extinguished itself in its insistent focus upon their human sameness. Two of Melusine’s sons, however, Geoffroy Big Tooth and Horrible, might seem to be exceptions to this pattern of unwavering acceptance. In the cases of these two sons, it may seem that hybridity points to their inhumanness. Three-eyed Horrible is reminiscent of the half-demons Gowther and Merlin, although not nearly as interesting a character except insofar as his great potential for evil provides a natural counterbalance in the narrative to the exceptional piety of his monkish brother, Fromont. Raymond exclaims, “And what of Horrible, who is not yet seven years old and has slain two of my squires? Even before he was three, he killed two of his wet nurses by biting their breasts!” (p. 189) In this rare glimpse of Horrible, we can clearly see a faery/demon concordance in straightforward terms. However, unlike the complex treatments of Gowther and Merlin, Horrible is presented in flat, one-dimensional terms as violent and destructive. Before her departure out the window, Melusine instructs that Horrible must be “secretly put to death. Otherwise he would do such damage that the loss of twenty thousand men would be as nothing compared to it, for he would surely destroy everything I have built, and warfare would never cease in the lands of Poitou and Guyenne” (p. 193). Yet, even as destructive and evil as the reader must be told that Horrible is in the very few instances that Horrible is mentioned in the text, nonetheless hybridity points to his sameness with humans. He is accorded a full human place in his community in death in a way that is forever denied to his generous, moral, church-endowing mother. Although Raymond follows his wife’s instructions and has Horrible slyly suffocated to death in a smoke-filled cave, Horrible’s body is treated with respect and, strangely enough for an implicit demon child, he is given a Christian burial: “He was taken for burial to Newminster Abbey in Poitiers, and the funeral was very impressive, as befit his rank” (p. 195). Even Horrible’s manner of death points to similarity with his human grandfather, Elynas, who also met his end enclosed in a cave. Therefore, despite his extreme acts of antisocial violence against women and squires, Horrible is still regarded as human, a full and welcome member of the family, at least in the manner of his burial.



The only unanswered question in Horrible’s story is why Melusine would have waited until the late point of her departure before giving the order that her eighth son must die, given what she knows of his future if Horrible should be allowed to reach adulthood. No explanation is provided as to why she did not have him put to death at birth unless we speculate that Melusine believed her continued presence in Horrible’s life in his adolescent years would have been enough to avert the bad outcome. Melusine’s sixth son, Geoffroy Big Tooth, the focal point of much of Jean D’Arras’s narrative, is a far more complicated instance of the bad seed. If devout Fromont and demonic Horrible act to balance each other out as extremes, Geoffroy demonstrates within himself the conflicting impulses of good and evil. Violence and brute strength are his dominant features, and the tooth which juts forth from his mouth may well remind us of a serpent’s or a boar’s or a wolf’s fang, all creatures often associated with evil in Western tradition and which would seem to inflame his difference. On the one hand, Geoffroy sets in motion the disastrous sequence of events which lead to Melusine’s exile: one violent act of Geoffroy’s angers his father so deeply that Raymond in argument with his wife publicly blurts out Melusine’s secret. ‘Ah! you deceitful serpent, by God, you and your deeds are nothing but phantoms, nor will any heir you have borne ever come to a good end! How can those who perished in agony have their lives restored to them, including your own son who had found solace in religion? Fromont was the only good being to issue from you. Now he has been destroyed through the malice of the devil, for anyone who is overcome by wrath acts at the behest of the princes of hell. That’s obviously why Geoffroy committed such a dastardly, colossal, hideous crime, immolating his own brother and all those monks, none of whom deserved to die!’ (p. 191)

Like Gowther before his conversion to good, Geoffroy seems to have an innate hatred for men in religious life. Thus, when he discovers that his pious brother Fromont has become a monk, he becomes so outraged that he seals up the Abbey of Maillezais and burns it down with all the monks, his brother included, trapped inside (pp. 187–88). Not only is Geoffroy a fratricide whose own men declare openly that they do not condone his actions and for a time even abandon him, in effect pushing him temporarily out of the human community, but Geoffroy is also responsible for the



accidental death of his uncle who dies attempting to escape from him.47 Indeed, Geoffroy, who blames his uncle for the loss of his mother, would have killed his uncle with the sword had his uncle not lost his balance and fallen to his death from off the top of the high tower on his own (p. 200). On the other hand, Geoffroy is immediately remorseful for his act of violence against the monks and for his brother’s death (p.  188) and he begs forgiveness from his father for the deed, swearing to rebuild the abbey at Maillezais “‘more beautiful and better endowed than it was before, with twenty more monks than there were before!’” (p.  201), a promise which of course in the fullness of time he keeps (p.  217). He becomes a humble penitent and, like Gowther, makes the journey to Rome to confess his sins to the pope. Moreover, lest one judge Geoffroy solely by two acts of cruel violence against close members of his family, more typically his great strength and violence are aimed at the appropriate targets for any knight in a romance: arrogant giants, enemies who attack the lands of his family members or who refuse to pay their lawful tribute, and Saracens in battle, identifying Geoffroy as a pious Crusader48 who chooses “to meditate at the Holy Sepulcher for three days” (p. 179) and whose martial role against fellow Christians is never as the aggressor in the conflict. In this regard, Geoffroy is like his valiant brothers Urian, Guyon, Antoine, and Renaud of whom, as Stacey Hahn observes of their actions, “the text is very careful to indicate that the Lusignans’ quest for adventure is not based on a thirst for material wealth, but rather for justice and

47  In this act Geoffroy shows himself to be his father’s son because Raymondin is responsible for the violent death of his beloved uncle, Count Aimery, in a hunting accident towards the beginning of the story (p. 31). Raymondin’s violence against his uncle, however, was unintentional and, although he does not admit to his guilt publicly, he expresses great remorse immediately for his uncle’s passing (which was fated and seen beforehand by Aimery in the stars); Geoffroy, in contrast, acts intentionally in full public view and he takes some time before, finally conscience-stricken, he “began to ruminate upon his sins” which include among them his responsibility for the death of his uncle (p. 204). Note that Horrible’s death by suffocation in a cave likewise reenacts paternal family history in repeating the fate of his grandfather King Elynas. 48  Emmanuèle Baumgartner in “Fiction and History” at p.  190 notes the parallel of Geoffroy with Richard the Lionhearted: “the truce of 100 years and a day that [Geoffroy] negotiates with his adversaries reopens access to Jerusalem and pilgrimage; his return voyage, from Jerusalem to La Rochelle via Jaffa, Armenia, Rhodes, and Cyprus, triumphally reverses the itinerary of the hero of the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionhearted, whose way was blocked at Acre”. See also pp. 193–194.



right”.49 Thus, unlike her attitude towards Horrible, for whom she feels no pity in giving instruction for his death, Melusine advises Raymond before her departure, “Do not send Geoffroy away, for he will become a very worthy man” (p.  193). While the reader sees little in Geoffroy of Gowther’s coded inner turmoil to rid himself of a negative supernatural inheritance, Geoffroy’s actions throughout most of the narrative speak loudly in favour of his mother’s positive assessment of him as someone who will become good. His two horrific acts of violence, one against his beloved brother and one against his hated uncle, are exceptions to the man Geoffroy truly is, and so he is embraced as a member of his community and not pushed out of it forever as a fang-toothed monster. He is human after all. Melusine the hybrid, however, is pushed out of the human community forever, for all her benevolence and strong Christian presence in the story. She is under a curse, of course, and what would a good curse be if its negative effects never were to come into effect? Examining how and why this exclusion happens, however, is critical to understanding the roles both of hybridity and of gender in this narrative. The examination needs to be in two parts: first, the circumstances which lead up to Pressine’s cursing of her daughters and, second, the circumstances under which years later Pressine’s curse comes into effect to extinguish Melusine’s hybridity by forcing her out of the human community which she has worked so hard to join.

Unhappy Beginnings: Melusine and Pressine Immediately noteworthy are the several gaps and illogicalities at the beginning of Melusine’s story. Elynas’s promise is to not see his wife in childbed. When he comes in joyfully to see his three new daughters for the first time, Pressine is bathing her daughters who are already named. Pressine is not in bed and her actions attest that she has physically recovered from the travails of childbirth. Yet the reader is expected to believe that this scenario means Elynas is breaking his promise. Pressine blames Elynas’s son Mataquas for his father’s infraction and she vows revenge upon him. Mataquas does seem to have been present at the births of his half-sisters because he duly informs his father of their arrival, but even if Mataquas is generally known to have despised his stepmother, as the text informs us,  Stacey Hahn, “Constructive and Destructive Violence”. See also Baumgartner, p. 191.




there is no narrative evidence that Mataquas knew of the specific prohibition against his father seeing his wife in childbed. Pressine goads her daughters daily from the top of Avalon’s Mount Eleneos with the sight of Scotland across the water and with the repeated story of their loss of inheritance, their father’s treachery, and their own great and endless misery in Avalon, although Pressine herself could have avoided this sad fate for her children simply by leaving them behind when she departed and there is no evidence at all that their lives in Avalon are miserable. Moreover, after goading her daughters every morning for years with tales of their father’s perfidy, Pressine then condemns her children for acting against their father to avenge her when they imprison him inside Mount Brumblerio in Northumberland. In addition, Elynas lives shut up inside that mountain for a long period of time before he dies (p. 26). If Pressine objected so strongly to his imprisonment, she could have simply acted to release him from his confinement, but she did not. The key to understanding what is going on at this point in the narrative is found in Pressine’s explanation to Melusine after the mother believes she has righteous cause to punish her daughters: “The power of your father’s seed would eventually have drawn you and your sisters toward his human nature, and you soon would have left behind the ways of nymphs and fairies forever. But I proclaim that henceforth every Saturday you shall become a serpent from the navel down” (p. 25).50 This statement is telling: what is at stake is whether Melusine’s hybridity is extinguished by the power of her father’s line or by the influence of her mother’s line. That is, whether Melusine is human or faery, as determined through whether she is identified with her father or with her mother. Her father, Melusine is never given the opportunity to know, except in the abstract through the harsh words of her mother. Her mother seems to disappear from Melusine’s 50  Pressine’s explanation appears to be drawing on classic Aristotelian conception theory. As described by Gilbert in “Unnatural Mothers and Monstrous Children” at p. 334, in Aristotelian conception theory “the mother’s contribution is only the basic matter: the material, fleshly substance from which the child will be made. (Mater, as we are often reminded, was thought in the Middle Ages to be derived etymologically from materia.) The father, through his seed, supplies the ‘life or spirit or form’, the vital principle which transforms the matter into a human child and animates it”. Gilbert is describing what she regards as the problematic paternity of the lump baby in King of Tars, but her point certainly clarifies the normal biological process of identity for Melusine and her sisters. Nonetheless, through her direct intervention in the outcome of her daughters’ lives, Pressine also demonstrates a medieval belief that nurture can trump nature.



life as soon as she curses her. Nonetheless, to which of these two absent figures Melusine belongs is the significant driver of the story’s action. Both possibilities are open to her, but Melusine cannot belong to them both. As Gowther who must choose between being demon or being human and whose choices will determine towards which sameness his hybridity will ultimately point, so also Melusine. Despite his being kept physically at a distance from his daughter, the text insists that the natural progression of things would have seen Elynas’s line win out and Melusine live a human life. This result certainly would have happened had Pressine left her children in their father’s care, and even in Avalon, the land of the faeries, it looks to have been inevitable. But Pressine intervenes, and her interference—the power of a mother’s curse— ensures that her maternal faery line will triumph over the natural draw of sameness towards the paternal human seed. Indeed, Pressine’s curse, for Melusine, makes the identification with the maternal quite literal as it forces her to reenact her mother’s situation: to live a full human life, she must find a human lover who will promise not to see her under a particular circumstance.51 Noting the juxtaposition of Pressine and her daughter in their marriages, Caroline Prud’Homme remarks that the mother “imposes conditions on her daughter’s union with a mortal that are even more restrictive than the ones that ruled her own marriage, restrictions that make transgression all the more likely: the taboo recurs every week, and Melusine’s fairy nature is made clearly visible in her physical appearance on Saturdays”.52 For a long time, however, Melusine successfully evades the consequences of the curse. That Melusine’s last two sons, Remonnet and Thierry, are not facially marked as are her first eight children suggests to Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox that Melusine’s “progress from an original fairy nature to the fully human state she so desires to attain”53 continues ongoing, as the power of her father’s human seed slowly works to draw Melusine ever closer to his side of the equation in spite of her mother’s curse and in spite of Melusine’s own extensive employment of

51  Melusine, of course, could have avoided the curse’s effect by remaining unmarried, but perhaps such is not regarded as a full or natural life, in much the same way that Geoffroy disapproves of Fromont’s monastic celibacy. 52  Prud’Homme, “Mermaid, Mother, Monster, and More”, p. 64. 53  Maddox and Sturm-Maddox, Introduction, p. 7. Likewise see the arguments of Hahn, “Crime, Punishment and the Hybrid”, p.  105; and Cole, “Passing as a ‘Humayn Woman’,” p. 249.



faery magic both to build castles and churches virtually overnight and to supply an endless source of elemental wealth from out of the earth. However, when, like Elynas, Raymond fails to keep his promises, Melusine loses the love of her life, as Pressine did Elynas, and she loses everything else too, including her human shape and voice. As Melusine laments to her husband after his betrayal: “Now you have cast me back into the dark abyss of penance that had held me hostage for so long on account of one misdeed. And now I must endure and suffer it until Judgement Day” (p. 192) in dragon form every day of the week from now on, no less. That is, in the wake of her mother’s curse, from nearly the start of her story the only good human outcome for Melusine in marriage would have been to die before her secret is discovered because that is the only circumstance under which she could “have been redeemed, exempted from pain and torment, and [could] have lived out the full course of a mortal woman’s lifetime and died naturally. [She could] have received all the sacraments, and been buried in the Church of Our Lady in Lusignan, and every year mass [could] have been celebrated in [her] memory” (pp. 191–92). Under the natural progression of things, Melusine would have enjoyed a full human life and a human death as her hybridity is resolved by becoming fully human, but with her mother’s interference in this process, this outcome changes to the slim possibility only of a human death, one which is granted without qualification to Melusine’s threatening son, the evil Horrible, yet denied to her. The pious Christian, part-­ time reptile Melusine must become forever a full-time dragon instead, the opposite extinguishment of her hybrid status. Whether Pressine is malevolent in her intent or simply reluctant to see her faery inheritance fade in her daughter remains unknowable.

Sad Endings: Melusine and Raymond The circumstances under which Melusine’s secret becomes public knowledge, resulting in her forced exclusion from human society, are equally telling, especially in terms of gender. This sequence begins with Raymond’s brother, the Count of Forez, who out of a sense of male family honour draws Raymond’s attention to the unsavoury rumours circulating about his wife’s mysterious Saturday absences: “I must not conceal your disgrace from you. Fair brother, it is rumored hither and yon that every Saturday your wife dishonors you by lying in carnal sin with another man. Nor are you bold enough, so blinded are you by her, to find out where she goes!



Some say she’s an enchanted spirit who does penance on Saturdays. Personally, I don’t know what to believe, but as your brother I must not conceal your dishonor from you or tolerate it” (p. 181). Raymond immediately acts upon his brother’s information and spies upon his wife, thus seeing Melusine in her bath as “a woman who from the navel down took the form of a massive serpent’s tail” (p. 181). Raymond is so overcome with remorse at breaking the first of his two promises to his wife that he violently falls out with his brother, ordering him out of his sight forever. For a short time, all is well, but when Geoffroy murders his brother Fromont and the other monks at Maillezais Abbey, Raymond remembers what he glimpsed of Melusine’s body in her Saturday bath, he equates her half-serpentine form with Geoffroy’s savage cruelty, and he speaks the fatal words. In front of the whole court, he breaks the second of his promises by calling his wife a deceitful serpent. Melusine is doomed. Once again there are what seem oddities and disjunctions in the narrative. After years of happy marriage, Raymond pays heed to his brother’s sudden insinuations. Raymond puts little weight upon the exceptional piety of Fromont and he overlooks entirely the successes and the valiant Christian deeds of four of his other sons—Urian, Guyon, Antoine, and Renaud—when he claims that “no fruit born of [Melusine’s] womb can reach the perfection of goodness” (p. 189). His claim that every one of Melusine’s children was born afflicted with some physical abnormality is manifestly untrue of their two youngest sons, Remonnet and Thierry. Raymond’s claim also willfully ignores the possibility that something he himself might have done (such as being responsible for the death of his uncle at the start of the narrative) is the source of his children’s affliction. There are puzzles as well in Melusine’s response to her husband’s accusations. Melusine blame the monks of Maillezais Abbey for their own demise because of their sinful, lax dissoluteness (p.  190). Yet surely if she had known or believed such a claim about these monks, she would have objected to Fromont’s choice of monastery to join when he asked for his parents’ consent. Finally, instead of acknowledging the enacted force of her mother’s curse, Melusine claims she can no longer stay with Raymond because it does not please God. Key to answering these odd puzzles is recognizing how much a man’s world Lusignan is. The land may be named by Melusine (p. 48) and it may be a close anagram of her name. She may also be the bountiful mother who founds Lusignan’s castles and cathedrals from her endless stores of wealth. Melusine may also be the wise parent who provides Christian



moral instruction to her sons, but the milieu of the text is decidedly male. While it may be true, as Angela Florschuetz argues, that “patrilineal dynasty is valued and espoused repeatedly by key characters in the romance”, and yet “Melusine consistently reveals this model to be fragile and vulnerable to a gamut of potential threats, including parental whim or madness, political machinations and usurpations, reproductive failures including sterility or unsuitable heirs (such as daughters and physical and moral monsters), battle, and even accident. At the same time, the romance repeatedly associates genealogical identification, biological inheritance, and property acquisition and transmission with women in general and Melusine in particular”.54 Nonetheless, the lens through which the action of the text is viewed remains solidly male. The characterization of Melusine herself, as Dorothy Yamamoto has argued, is “fundamentally the product of male ambivalence over women’s role in society”.55 Men and inheritance through the male line are what matter. Hence, Raymondin is encouraged by his wife to regain his father’s ancestral heritage in Brittany which was unfairly stolen from him by the treacherous acts and words of one Josselin de Pont de Léon. Melusine bears only sons, and her sons father only sons. There seems to be no end to the supply of available princess heiresses for the Lusignan men to marry through whom the Lusignan dynasty can gain territory and power without the need for military conquest of Christian lands. Moreover, as Stacey Hahn points out, “The text expresses strong anxieties regarding landholding by women and there is a continual movement of land from daughters to husbands”.56 Finally, much of the action of the narrative concerns battles and crusading, the stuff of male knightly adventure in the Middle Ages. Being female, of course, removes Melusine immediately from this world except on its periphery as the supplier of needed provisions, including bearing those sons necessary to establish a great dynasty and to continue the wars. Monks, too, are arguably excluded from this man-centred world, the monastic definition of masculine

 Florschuetz, Marking Maternity, p. 156.  Yamamoto, The Boundaries of the Human, p. 224. 56  Hahn, “Constructive and Destructive Violence”. 54 55



behaviour being out of step with the prevailing knightly norm which the text admires in young men.57 Yet, for all her good qualities and benevolence, Melusine can also be seen as an evident threat to her husband’s worth and masculinity. While she dutifully defers to the authority of her husband when it comes to such matters as formally agreeing to the request of her sons Urian and Guyon to crusade in Cyprus (pp.  72–73) and to Fromont’s wish to become a monk (p. 186), in most respects she is the dominant force in the family. She certainly is the provider. It is her trick of the stag’s hide by which Raymond receives such a large parcel of land for himself from Count Bertrand of Poitiers. She not only organizes and funds the construction of the fortress of Lusignan, but she is granted the privilege of naming it and she does so in a manner which closely resembles her own name. Urian and Guyon approach their mother first for permission to go on crusade and Melusine speaks before her husband does when Antoine and Renaud ask likewise (p. 113). Even after her secret is exposed, Melusine asserts control over the situation by giving instruction for Horrible’s murder and for the future disposition of her two youngest sons, Remonnet and Thierry, as respectively the Count of Forez and the Lord of Parthenay. If Melusine is dominant within her family, her husband Raymond is the opposite. Even the form of his name which is used for almost half of the narrative, the diminutive Raymondin,58 suggests Raymond is not quite fully a man, but something of a kept boy who remains dependent on his smarter, wealthier wife for everything. As Angela Jane Weisl coyly phrases it, Melusine’s “snake-like tail provides a phallic image that equals or surpasses Raimondin’s sword”.59 Viewed in this light, what happens between husband and wife is understandable and, indeed, inevitable. When challenged by his brother’s implicit questioning of his masculinity through the  Notably, while Raymond and Melusine do not try to dissuade Fromont from becoming a monk at Maillezais or at any abbey otherwise, Geoffroy is more direct. “‘What! Did not my father and mother have the wherewithal to make Fromont rich—to give him good lands and good fortresses, and marry him well—instead of making a monk of him? By God’s molars, those lecherous monks of Maillezais have cast a spell on him, and lured him in there to advance their own interests! When he used to spend whole days and nights there, I never liked it, by God! But by the faith I owe Jesus Christ and everyone else to whom I’m beholden, I’ll pay them so well for this, they’ll never again try to make a monk of a brother of mine!’” (p. 187). Monks represent a type of deviant masculinity which Geoffroy neither understands nor tolerates of young noblemen until later in his life. 58  As noted by Maddox and Sturm-Maddox, p. 239 n.56 (with reference to p. 113). 59  Weisl, “Half Lady, Half Serpent”, p. 235. 57



suspect fidelity of his wife and his own uxorious character, male suspicion of female sexual behaviour combines with male fear of female dominance and Raymond snaps, acting irrationally and against his own best interests. He breaks his promises, and it is Melusine who pays the greatest price. Her chance at humanity is lost when she is forced out of the group to which she has spent so much effort and resource to belong. A final curiosity in the story is that Melusine’s expulsion is an action credited not to the power of her mother’s female curse, but to the disapproval of the all-powerful Christian God, emphatically regarded as male in concept. Pressine’s curse is not even mentioned at this point in the narrative. Instead, Melusine says to Raymond, “may He who is the true, omnipotent pardoner and fount of all pity and mercy pardon you; as for myself, I forgive you with all my heart. But as for my remaining here, there can be no question of it, for it does not please the Supreme Judge” (p.  192). Of course, this claim is yet another oddity on the face of it because the name of God was not invoked in the original curse inflicted on Melusine, but His mention now certainly orients the text at this point even more firmly towards male authority and male dominance and the male right to determine who does and who does not belong to the group. Melusine may begin as the victim of her mother’s faery curse, but she ends as the victim of being a woman, a biologic outsider, in the human world of men. However, Melusine is perhaps not pushed entirely outside of the group to which she expressed the desire to belong because she maintains at least one role which her human community judges appropriate for her. She keeps her status as mother, returning to comfort her two youngest sons each night when they are young and years later, from the top of the Poitevin Tower, to lean towards and cry out to her weeping sons Geoffroy and Thierry “such a piteous and sorrowful cry that all who heard it thought the fortress must be falling into an abyss” (p. 215). This last action, nonetheless, again stresses her utter loss of humanity. Melusine can lament and sigh, she can reach out towards her sons as a mother, but she cannot speak to them because she has lost her human voice to communicate. It is someone else who was present that fateful day when Raymond betrayed Melusine who must explain to their two sons that the appearance of the dragon means the death of their father is imminent: “she said that as long as the world should last, she would appear three days before this fortress was to change lords, or when one of the heirs was about to die, both here and in the place where his life was to end” (p. 215). Melusine is allowed



to remain the mother of her nation through her connection to the castle she founded, the eternal fortress of Lusignan.

Conclusion It is easy to draw up two lists: the aspects in which the supernatural hybrids Merlin and Melusine are closely in common and the aspects in which they are opposites to each other. Both are human/supernatural hybrids who maintain their magical abilities throughout their lives, with the supernatural parent being the same biological sex as the child. In both cases, their relationship with the father is a distanced one and relatively early in life they each function independently of the mother. The supernatural parent poses a threat to the child’s future, and yet the child is a reflection of this parent. In the case of Merlin, his propensity for involvement in sexual violence against women reflects his father’s incubus nature, and his own efforts at crafting Arthur’s experience to mimic his own life as the boy without a father similarly attests to his father’s manipulative deceitfulness. In the case of Melusine, she is the daughter whose experience in life is crafted by her mother to mimic her mother’s own experience of human love and betrayal. Both Melusine and Merlin are shapeshifters, though Merlin can alter his form at will and Melusine’s Saturday transformations are involuntary. Melusine does not pass on her arcane knowledge and powers to anyone and, before she departs, she perhaps arranges to have dealt with the one potential holdover of natural faery ability, three-eyed Horrible who alone of the sons has the potential to undo all the good which Melusine has wrought.60 Melusine, however, is prolific in the ­number of children she produces in marriage; Merlin in contrast (and to his detriment) does teach his magical arts to others, but he remains

60  That Horrible possesses a third eye may signify he possesses arcane knowledge and power. In Contra Celsum, for example, Origen notes the legends about Plato’s third eye and his supposed paternity by Apollo through which means Plato could see divine things. If a third eye enables one to peer into the level of the divine, surely it can be used to look into the demonic as well. For the textual references to Origen, see Chadwick’s translation Origen: Contra Celsum at pp. 321–22 (VI.8). For information on the possible meaning of Plato’s third eye, see Allen’s “Marsilio Ficino on Plato’s Pythagorean Eye”.



childless and, in most texts, unmarried.61 Merlin’s relationship with women is, to say the least, complicated and conflicted, while in comparison, outside of her relationship with her mother and two sisters at the very start of her narrative, Melusine is scarcely shown in interaction with other women although she has many ladies in waiting and servants and the mother of Count Bertrand is said to be fond of her. Both Melusine and Merlin function in benevolent, protective roles over their lands, although the circumstances of the two realms are in marked contrast. A peaceful Camelot does not exist until after Merlin’s time, and Vortigern’s, Uther’s and Arthur’s kingdoms are beset on many sides by multiple enemies who are very close and fiercely determined; Lusignan, on the other hand, is surrounded by only friendly and accommodating neighbours. Count Bertrand and his mother are not offended by Melusine’s trick of the stag hide by which Lusignan gains more valuable land and resources than it would otherwise have been granted, while enemies like arrogant giants and marauding Saracens exist far away. Both Melusine and Merlin are prescient of future events, but nonetheless they are helpless to prevent personal disaster from befalling themselves or their loved ones.62 Betrayed by the one person they desire most in the world, Melusine and Merlin are both locked out of further congress with the human world. There is one final difference: whether Merlin is trapped in a magical tower or buried alive in a cave, after his last conversation with either Gawain (in the Prose Merlin) or King Bagdemagus (in Malory) Merlin disappears entirely from all contact with the human world; Melusine in comparison periodically reappears to human view shortly before each time the fortress of Lusignan changes lords, but she cannot speak. For the rest of the time, her

61  On the other hand, it is important to notice the limitations upon what Merlin passes on to others. In “Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake” at pp.  181–82, Berthelot points out: “while Merlin eventually transmits his magic to his women students, and first of all to the Lady of the Lake, he never passes on his prophetic gift or his scriptural abilities …. no disciple of Merlin, neither Morgue (anywhere), nor Niniane (in the Suite-Vulgate), nor Niviene (in the Suite-Post-Vulgate), nor the Lady of the Lake (in the Lancelot or the Prophesies), acquires anything like her master’s ability in foretelling future events. They are able to interpret dreams and visions, at least in some versions, but they are not granted any prophetic trances”. 62  When she learns of Fromont’s death Melusine travels to Lusignan and spends two tearful days there before continuing on to Mervent for the confrontation with Raymond during which he reveals her secret. The narrative voice comments, “The chronicle, which I deem reliable, says she already knew what sorrow was in store for her, and I am fully convinced that she did” (p. 190).



mysterious whereabouts are as unknown to men and to women as are those of Merlin. The comparative list of differences and similarities is easy to draw up. Indeed, it might seem that the stories of the hybrids Merlin and Melusine demonstrate the validity of the argument that only a handful of basic narrative plots exist, even if there is disagreement as to the exact number. It is also easy to see how gender influences the equation. Being male gives Merlin a freedom of movement and action which is far more circumscribed for Melusine whose chance for humanity depends upon her mortal husband as much as her legacy depends upon the exploits of her sons and their male descendants. Nimiane may take over Merlin’s role as the supernatural patron of Arthur’s kingdom, but she does so in a greatly reduced capacity and only after the major battles have been fought and Arthur sits secure on his throne. Leading kingdoms and fighting in battles is, in the milieu of the time and the text, men’s work. Exceptions to the rule, such as Avenable/Grisandoll in The Prose Merlin, are carefully contained. In her male disguise as Grisandoll, Avenable is a squire and fights no battles. She adopts the male disguise not because she wants to pass in the world as a man or to perform wicked sexual acts, but because, like Shakespeare’s Viola in Twelfth Night, she is alone and vulnerable in the world, not knowing what has become of her parents and brother who have been driven into exile. She returns to her identity as a lady, fit marriage partner for a man, as soon as the unfit empress is dispatched to the fire for adultery, a sexual crime against her husband and the state. Marriage and motherhood are the roles allowed to women. The situation is even more circumscribed for the women in Melusine’s world where it is a rumour of suspect feminine sexual infidelity that begins the sequence of catastrophic events for Melusine. Plentiful sole heiresses exist for the Lusignan men to marry and thereby to acquire lands and wealth and to establish their own dynastic line. Urian’s wife, Hermine, for example is addressed by her dying father, the King of Cyprus, thus: “‘Welcome, beloved daughter,’ he said. ‘I rejoice that God has let me live long enough to see you so well settled. I shall die in peace knowing that you and my kingdom are safe from the Saracens, for you have a strong protector, a valiant, youthful prince who will defend you against them’” (pp. 98–99). There is no suggestion that Hermine might be able or even want to rule on her own in succession to her father and it is Urian who is crowned king and receives homage from the barons. Hermine’s dynastic role in the scheme of things is to become pregnant as soon as possible and



to produce a healthy son and heir, which she dutifully does in short order. Motherhood and marriage are the roles allowed to women. Such is not to say that parenthood and establishment of dynastic line are presented as unproblematic in either narrative. In the Arthurian story, fathers are routinely kept narratively distant from their sons and have little or nothing to do with their sons as children. Uther, Arthur, Gawain, and Launcelot all have sons—Arthur, Mordred, Guinglain, and Galahad—in whose young lives they are absent. Merlin, too, is an example of this pattern of absent, but influential fathers. Except for Guinglain, Merlin is like the other sons also in representing the end of the dynastic line, sons who do not become fathers themselves.63 Women, meanwhile, are often reduced to their wombs and the ability to become pregnant, to bear the impregnator’s offspring. Guenevere’s barren womb puts both realm and dynasty at risk, but the fertile womb poses an equally serious, if more ambivalent threat. Not only does the fertile womb risk the consequences of adultery or rape in contamination of a nobleman’s lineage as happens in Sir Gowther, but it also brings into the world Merlin, the demon’s son and a potential Antichrist, as well as Mordred, the destroyer of Camelot. Unlike the Arthurian story which builds up to the collapse of the realm and the end of great dynastic lines, Melusine’s narrative centres on the beginnings of a great house. Melusine may be allowed by her community to maintain only her role as mother, but she is indeed a bountiful and fertile mother of her nation. Her status as a hybrid, supernatural figure, however, has caused some scholars to question the health of this role. Margaret Lamont suggests, “Melusine’s monstrous body problematises her role as the founder of the house of Lusignan”.64 Lamont, however, weakens her argument when she provides no supportive evidence to back up her accusation against Melusine, as she does produce for the other more obviously problematic national founders on her list: Aeneas and Antenor (both traitors to Troy in the medieval legend) and Felix Brutus (a patricide). The English gained their legendary tails without the aid of a supernatural founder and King Richard the Lionhearted parlayed his ­supposed supernatural origins into an advantage which enhanced his reputation. Melusine’s monstrous hybrid body, therefore, does not necessarily pose an anxious dilemma for Lusignan either. Nevertheless, Ana Pairet 63  Arthur, of course, has sons, of whom Mordred is one, but he has no legitimate children within his marriage to Guenevere. 64  Lamont, “Hengist”, p. 53.



goes even further to try and find such anxiety when she claims that Melusine’s “hidden, mixed body is subject to a visual prohibition that ultimately brings about the ruin of the lineage”.65 Yet, one wonders how this ultimate ruin of the family line might be true, given that the story is a genealogical romance intended to inscribe the glory of the Lusignan line and the descendants of Melusine. It is worth remembering that Coudrette’s version of Melusine’s story was written by the author at the request of Guillaume VII Larchevêque, the Lord of Parthenay and reputed descendant of Thierry, Melusine and Raymond’s youngest son, whom Coudrette spends much time praising: a curious touch indeed if the author’s point was to tell of Larcheveque’s ruined dynastic lineage! While it is accurate to say that after Melusine’s departure, Raymond’s life takes a personal turn towards misery, the religiously minded reader might well approve of his turn towards an anchoritic life. It is similarly accurate to note that the violent-tempered Geoffroy, like Merlin and Gowther, dies without legitimate issue, and that a distant descendant of Guyon will have a disastrous encounter with Melusine’s sister Melior at the Castle of the Sparrowhawk which does indeed lead to the decline of his branch of the family line over nine generations. Even so, none of these statements equates to evidence that the lineage established by Melusine and Raymond is ruined or that the family fortunes of the line in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries would somehow have turned out differently if the secret of Melusine’s partially serpentine body had remained hidden. Indeed, the very terms of Pressine’s curse contradict the notion of a ruined family dynasty because Pressine is emphatic that her curse affects only her daughter’s future. Regardless of what becomes of her, Melusine is reassured by her mother, “In any case, a very great and noble lineage 65  Ana Pairet, “Polycorporality”, p. 36. Pairet restates her claim on p. 44 again without explanation: she refers to Melusine’s “failed trajectory towards humanity, which is brought about by her husband’s shortcomings and announces the ruin of the Lusignan line”. Angela Jane Weisl in “Half Lady, Half Serpent” at p. 231 makes a similar claim about the effect upon the Lusignan dynasty, but with significantly greater justification to its argument. Weisl’s discussion is based upon the Middle English translation of Coudrette’s verse narrative in which Raymondin, before he knows what the mysterious lady wants, makes a rash promise that he “shal do/With all my hole hert, without withsaing,/Al that which ye will be me commanding” (ll. 481–83). After Melusine has explained that she wants marriage, that he must not attempt to see her on Saturdays or talk about her Saturday absences with anyone, and that failure to keep his promises will have severe consequences for his descendants, then in full knowledge of the consequences, Raymondin swears a second time to be true to Melusine forever. This version of Raymondin has no excuse for his betrayal.



shall descend from you and accomplish many great acts of prowess” (p.  25). Count Aimery’s vision shortly before his accidental death confirms that Pressine’s curse does not affect the Lusignan dynasty as a whole: “For this is the adventure: if, at this very hour, a subject were to kill his lord, he would become the richest, most powerful, and most honored man of all his line, and from him would issue such a noble lineage that it would be spoken of and remembered until the end of time. Know that this is true!” (p. 30). The evidence that, in Jean D’Arras’s version of the story, a curse exists upon the entire Lusignan line due to Raymond’s betrayal of his wife is centred in two statements made by Melusine. The second statement is public and made to her husband shortly before her departure out of the window: “Know that after you no man will ever hold all the land you now hold, and your heirs will face many difficulties; some of them, through their folly, will decline greatly in honor and estate” (p. 193). This prediction corresponds neatly with Aimery’s vision in which the progenitor of the dynasty will be “the richest, most powerful, and most honored man of all his line”. Only some of Raymond’s descendants, through their own foolish choices, face great decline. Otherwise, the notion that a great family, with many branches descending from many sons, would experience many difficulties over the course of several generations seems beyond the obvious rather than the cosmic result of Raymond’s poor choices made at the start of the dynasty. The Capetian and Valois dynasties experienced similar catastrophic ends without the aid of family curses, as did the Plantagenets in England. The first statement is private and occurs on Melusine and Raymond’s wedding night. She warns him, “Know for certain that if you always keep your word in this way, you will be the most powerful and the most highly honored man of all your lineage. If you do the opposite, you and your heirs will slowly decline, and the land you hold when you commit that fault—and may God forbid that you ever should!—will never again belong in its entirety to any of your heirs” (pp. 44–45). But these are terms and conditions stipulated after Raymond has agreed to the bargain with Melusine, a one-sided, arbitrary change to the contract which would cancel his obligation to uphold his end of the agreement. Plus, these terms and conditions do not draw back to the visual prohibition which Pressine inflicts upon her daughter. Thus, either Melusine is attempting to ensure her husband’s faithfulness by threatening him with disaster if he fails her, or the reader must believe that the loving, beneficent Melusine is as capable of enacting a terrible curse upon her children as her own mother was.



That is, in sum, the damage done by Pressine’s visual prohibition centred on Melusine’s body is personal and private rather than dynastic and public. Even if it is one of the two roles allowed to women, motherhood need not always be gentle and nurturing. If it is easy to see how gender influences the cases of Merlin and Melusine, it is far more difficult to discern how hybridity affects their identities. Their supernatural abilities, after all, are due to having at least one supernatural parent and not to being human/supernatural hybrids per se. They would have possessed supernatural abilities if both their parents were either faeries or demons. Moreover, if we are expecting to find characters who are anxious and conflicted about who they are and how they might mimic behaviour to fit into the human world, we do not seem to find them in either Melusine or Merlin. There is no evidence that Melusine is reluctant or conflicted when she acts in the role allowed to women of bountiful mother. Instead, she revels in it, giving birth to ten sons and drawing upon countless wealth out of the ground to fund the glory of Lusignan. Unlike the conflictual attitudes present in the other romances which demand in coded form the partially supernatural hero rid himself of an unwanted heritage before he will be allowed to join in full, with the approbation of a powerful male authority, the community of his choice, Melusine and Merlin are valued members of the groups to which they belong in no small measure because they are supernatural hybrids who can freely interact with human beings as well as bring special non-human abilities to the service of a social superior. Merlin is openly different in his arcane power. Even at two years old not only can he speak with confident eloquence in the presence of powerful adults, but he can also reveal secret knowledge beyond the ken of ordinary humans. Merlin makes little effort to mimic appropriate human behaviour in order to fit in, laughing and proclaiming that he sees a “merveile”, for instance, at the sight of a dead child’s funeral cortege because he knows the scandalous secret of the dead child’s true paternity (Prose Merlin, ‘Vortiger’s Tower’, p.  39, at ll. 119–122). That Melusine is not entirely human is an open secret. Not only is her alterity visibly projected onto the faces of eight of her sons for all to see, but even before she first gives birth many people already know she is something other. The Count of Poitiers and his mother, for instance, recognize that the marvelous is behind the trick of the stag hide and the sudden, wondrous appearance of an abundant spring of water on the land they have given away, but they do not pursue the matter with Raymondin



because of their love for him (pp. 39–40). Castles, towns, and churches are built far too quickly: it takes less than nine months to complete the construction of the fortress of Lusignan (p. 47) and, later, after a similar short period of time away, upon his return from Brittany there has been so much new building that Raymondin does not recognize Lusignan. In response to the news that the town and a second tower had all been built in his absence, “Raymondin was astounded but kept his thoughts to himself: then, as he recalled how she had built the fortress and castle in such a short time, his sense of amazement decreased” (p. 69). Even at their very first encounter in the woods Raymondin wonders how Melusine could know his name and his dark secret of having killed his uncle by accident (p. 33). That Melusine is either all or part faery should be, therefore, not a surprise to anyone, and to Raymond least of all. That she is an enchanted spirit is even one of the rumours about Melusine which the Count of Forez repeats to his brother in the lead up to the disaster (p. 181). The dangerous secret that must be kept hidden is thus a very narrow and specific one: the exact physical form that Melusine’s alterity takes on Saturdays when below the navel she is a serpent. Barring the possibilities of talkative servants spreading the gossip or Melusine herself telling anyone, which are both narrative scenarios that the text does not recognize as valid options, Melusine’s secret is one which only Raymond can reveal, if and when he breaks his second promise to his beloved wife. Yet gender, not hybridity, is behind the two broken promises. Raymond is not repulsed by his sight of Melusine in her bath splashing about her “massive serpent’s tail, extremely long and as thick as a herring keg” (p. 181). Her hybrid body does not immediately disturb him, and so he keeps her body’s secret for a time yet. Raymond marvels at, he does not fear domination by, faery magic. His fear is gendered: being gossiped about as a cuckold, being thought of as a weak husband dominated by his wife. Indeed, Merlin and Melusine are not hybrids at all, except in the most literal and narrow biological sense of the word. Hybridity, grounded in difference yet pointing towards sameness, extinguishes itself by revealing the truth of what they are. Unlike Degaré, Gowther, and Guinglain who rejected the inheritance of their partially supernatural origins to embrace the human world in full, Merlin and Melusine are wholly supernatural figures who, at most, mimic some human behaviour, Melusine more so than Merlin. While Melusine upon her exit out the window, literally moving away from the last vestiges of any claim to humanity, may lament her lost titles and her chance for a human burial and for masses said each year



in her memory, nonetheless, from the very beginning of her relationship with Raymond when she demonstrates preternatural knowledge of his circumstances upon first encountering him in the forest of Coulombiers right up to the copious magical protective rings which she is bestowing upon loved ones almost up to the final moment that she flies out the window as a dragon at the end, Melusine in her actions throughout the story always acts as a faery because a faery is what she really always is. Such is the sameness towards which her hybridity emphatically points. Simply put, if she had truly wished to be human Melusine would not have used her mother’s faery magic, a choice which is antithetical to being human, a choice which makes her a faery. Thus, Melusine is no more human than is Tryamour in Sir Launfal who also takes a human lover. Pressine’s curse functions as a narrative convenience to ensure that Melusine’s alterity becomes widely recognized to serve the end that Lusignan, like ancient Rome descended from Mars and Venus before it, might have its own special myth of supernatural origin blending non-human and human genealogies. Melusine’s sons, however, exist as fully human because, like Richard Coer de Lyon in the romance by his name or like Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid, they need to be human to function unimpeded in the world as heroes. In the logic of the Melusine text, the sons’ wholly human nature is determined by the biologic power of their father’s seed to draw them fully to the side of the human. Unlike Pressine, Melusine makes no attempt to interfere in the process, except to ensure that the dangerous Horrible does not long outlive her departure out the window. While technically on a biological scale all ten sons are, to use the dated and offensive term, quadroons (3/4 human and 1/4 faery hybrids), their biological hybridity, marked by facial disabilities which ordinarily would set them apart from the group, does not matter. Despite their odd bodies and the even odder body of their inhuman mother, they themselves are accepted as fully human by the group. Their hybridity has extinguished itself by pointing firmly towards their humanity. The case of Merlin is more complex. His hybridity points to sameness in both directions: Merlin is very much like his sexually predacious demonic father, but he is equally like his pious human mother. The influence of his mother’s piety and his immediate baptism at birth into Christianity negate the devils’ power to control him and he gains human free will, so to speak, over all his choices except his doomed infatuation with Nimiane. Yet that gain does not, cannot make him human because he



does not lose or cease to use the special abilities bestowed upon him by his demonic lineage. His hybridity cannot extinguish itself, it would seem, except by extinguishing him. Indeed, Nimiane’s descent from Diana in the Prose Merlin is suggestive that Merlin’s demonic side of the family conspired a second time to have him taken out of the action, and on this attempt succeeded, as both his feminine shadow and his paternal line combine to act against him. Yet, for the Merlin who appears in the English literary tradition, hybridity does in fact extinguish itself by pointing to sameness, but not a sameness represented by either of his parents. Merlin lacks both the malevolence of his demon father and the empathy of his human mother. In effect, the merger of these two forces, human and demon, into one form somehow brings the literary Merlin back to his origins in the chronicle tradition where Merlin is said to be neither a demon nor a human, but a member of a third category of entity altogether: a lecherous incubus, which according to Vortigern’s advisor Maugantius is a neutral daemonic spirit that lives between the Earth and the moon and is ‘part human, part angel’. Neither entirely good like his pious human mother nor evil like his demonic father, capable of choosing which side he acts for in any conflict and able to do as much harm as he can do good, the hybridic Merlin is a true independent force at work in Camelot. He thus remains free to act as a powerful aid, sometimes even a pander, to British kings until his presence in the story becomes not an asset to its telling but a narrative hindrance.


Monsters and Shapeshifters: The Hybrid Body in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis

John Gower’s Confessio Amantis has long been recognized for its interest in the overlapping concepts of form, matter, and material. As Matthew Irvin for one points out, Gower accounts for some of the earliest uses of forme to be cited in the Middle English Dictionary and his usage is “extremely inventive”.1 While forme is inherently unstable in meaning because it covers a wide range of possible meanings with at least eleven variants in its definition, words such as matter and material only appear to have more stability by the nature of their sense. However, even these words cannot be uniform in definition in a text which at times can be so heavily derivative of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and yet so unabashedly unafraid to change in multiple ways into the vernacular the textual matter which Gower found in his classical Latin source. As Bruce Harbert avers of Gower’s relationship to Ovid, in Confessio Amantis Gower “set out not so much to translate as to remould, and this he does boldly”.2 Beyond significant issues centred on translation and adaptation of material written by Ovid and by other writers, Gower’s hybridic text is also infused with 1  Irvin, “Genius and Sensual Reading”, p. 197. For more on the subject of matter and form in Gower, see Parkin’s recent article, “Hidden Matter”. 2  Harbert, “Ovid and John Gower”, p. 87. For two case studies (Polyphemus and Tereus) of how Gower dramatically changes Ovid’s telling of a story, see Zarins’s “Sympathetic Villains”. For another recent study of Gower’s relation to Ovid, see the fifth chapter in Gerber’s Medieval Ovid.

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0_4




notions of alchemy. The text itself foregrounds, in terms meant to be taken seriously, the fundamental premise that all form, all matter, and all material can change into something else, given the right circumstances and agency. While we readers in the twenty-first century might be accustomed to think of alchemy in generically negative terms as fraud or deception of the sort evidenced in Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, we must also remember that alchemy remained a staple of medieval medical and philosophical practice in the formulation of quintessential remedies and that it long endured as a subject of serious intellectual inquiry.3 This chapter considers Gower’s discourse on the malleability of form, matter, and material as it relates to the human body as the locus of shapeshifting. The physical body commingles its various elements into one shape, but that material form is not stable, and the body is constantly subject to flux. No living thing can lay claim to organic purity because every living thing, the human body included, in medieval terms is a hybridic mixture of the elemental forces of earth, air, fire, and water expressed in humoral form. When one accepts that fundamental premise as a principle applicable to all matter, then the physical elements that assemble to form any object or body must also be able to recombine through processes natural and unnatural which will create different forms, different versions of that same body to manifest a different expression of the original object. Such a process is, after all, how a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, a very natural mechanism. Yet the very premise that the physical body can change its essential appearance is significant in more than merely incidental ways because it invites the prospect that such alterity can also be true on the metaphysical level, creating not just a new version of the original bodily object but a newly formed identity. That is, shapeshifting, whether the act occurs by natural or by unnatural means, reveals the human body’s unstable hybridic nature even as this hybridity is grounded in anxiety regarding the differences of monstrosity and disability. Few bodies in Confessio Amantis indeed escape the paradigm that revealing too openly the alternative possibilities that lurk within as a hybrid potentiality is a deviant and dangerous thing to do, both from the perspective of the individual and that of the community. Nonetheless, just as caterpillar and butterfly are two forms of the same insect, so the hybridity of  For some recent studies of alchemy in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, see Batkie’s and Taylor’s chapters in Trilingual Gower as well as Matthew Irvin’s The Poetic Voices of John Gower at pp. 192–203. Robert Mathiesen in “Thirteenth-Century Ritual” provides at p. 162 n47 an informative footnote on Gower’s sources for Confessio Amantis 6.1311–32. For alchemy in early fifteenth-century medicine, see Jones’s “Mediating Collective Experience”, especially at pp. 295–302. 3



the human body likewise extinguishes itself by pointing towards what is held in common between the two forms.

Transforming the Human Body: Wonder and Disgust One notable exception to this paradigm of disastrous revelation is The Tale of Florent in Book 1, for there is nothing deviant in any party preferring the female body to be young and beautiful, especially in a text like Confessio which purports to be about love. Nonetheless, the preference is no doubt illuminative of cultural anxieties around age and disability. Florent is Gower’s version of the ‘Loathly Lady’ story, and the lady in question is very loathly indeed: “this vecke wher sche sat,/whiche was the lothlieste what/That evere man caste on his yhe”.4 Her loathsomeness is not restricted to her body but manifests also in aggressive behaviour, the two of which combined, Tara Williams has argued, makes Florent “unable to tell whether she is an example of womanhood or a monstrous figure”.5 Yet the loathly old hag caught in-between womanhood and monstrosity in due course transforms into the young and beautiful princess of Sicily “Of eyhtetiene wynter age,/Which was the faireste of visage/That evere in al this worlde he syh” (1.1803–05). Magic is involved in two bodily transformations mentioned in the narrative: the suddenly young princess reveals to the startled Florent that she has been under a wicked stepmother’s curse which made her look old and act monstrous (the first) and which is now broken by her having won the love and sovereignty of Florent (the second).6 The story then concludes with the happy note that the married couple “live longe and wel thei ferde” (1.1855). Gower’s The Tale of Florent may strike us as lacking in interest because Chaucer arguably did a better job of telling this same basic story in The  Gower, Confessio Amantis, edited by Peck, 1.1675–77.  Tara Williams, p. 53. 6  The male equivalent in Confessio of Florent’s bride is Aeson, father of Jason, whom Medea makes young and vital again in Book 5. There are significant differences between the two, however. Aeson was genuinely old; the aged appearance of Florent’s bride under her stepmother’s curse is illusion. To rejuvenate Aeson Medea must first kill him by stabbing Aeson in the side into which wound she can pour her magical elixir. There is no detail of the process by which the wicked stepmother enacts her curse and there is certainly no suggestion that its reversal involves the girl’s death and dying at the hands of a third party. Finally, Florent and his bride are said to go on and live happy lives together. What happens to Aeson after his return to youth, for better or for worse, is not mentioned. Whether Aeson must endure endless grief for outliving his male line or whether he starts afresh with a new wife and a new family is left to the reader’s imagination in Gower. For further on Aeson, see the discussion about him in chapter five of this book. 4 5



Wife of Bath’s Tale or because the storyline of the cursed princess itself is too common. Those assumptions are arguable, but not necessarily true. As a narrative of shapeshifting and hybridic disability, however, Gower’s tale poses the reader with fundamental issues to ponder. Indeed, although it is wondrous when the illusorily old becomes young again, in telling the reader at the end that the happy couple go on to live a long and comfortable life together, the tale narratively reminds us of a third, and even a fourth, bodily transformation to come: Florent and his new wrinkle-free bride are going to age over the span of those happy long years together, and her newly transformed young and supple body inevitably will shift back into wrinkled loathsomeness for a second and irreversible time before an even more dreadful physical alteration occurs at death. The same transformative process, indeed, will happen to Florent also, because every young and vital body contains within itself the natural potentiality for its old and dead opposites. Similarly, who one is in youth is not necessarily the same as who one will be in old age. That is, in essence, we are all shapeshifters who have within ourselves the potential of the disabled, the aged, or the deceased other, our hybrid bodies and identities transforming slowly and inevitably over time as our component parts reassemble themselves. The potentiality seen in Florent of the human body to be reshaped into something else is a topic of intense interest to Gower throughout the Confessio, and this reshaping often can dramatically underscore the hybridity of the human form, its potentiality to contain within itself more than one identity. Sometimes the reshaping is gross and literal, hybridity evident in the reduction of the living human body to an inanimate material object in a physical process that is more than capable of illustrating what Gabrielle Parkin has termed, “an anxiety about the ways in which such goods are produced and used”.7 One tale that expresses exactly that is Cambises in Book 7 in which the eponymous king flays a corrupt judge alive and then has the man’s skin prepared as a seat cover for the chair upon which the next judge, who is the flayed man’s own son, must sit to perform his office. The flayed judge, however, has not been stripped, as we


 Parkin, “Hidden Matter”, p. 295.



might expect,8 entirely of his human identity because, although Gower renders the judge and his son both nameless and mute, the man’s human form is still evident in the manufactured product derived from the outer covering of his body: “his skyn was shape al meete” (7.2899). The skin is shaped to conform to the contours of the chair. If not necessarily visually identifiable as the corrupt judge himself, the leather seat cover is still recognizably human in its shape and outline with arms and legs, a torso, and a head. Moreover, this seat cover maintains the corrupt judge’s continued physical proximity to his son and heir who is forced to sit upon it. Indeed, the human identity of the leathered skin is evinced in its own participative performance of fatherly action. “[N]ayled on the same seate/Where that his son scholde sitte” (7.2900–01) as any covering is studded into position on a chair, the skin has been arranged in a posture that denotes human gesture: it sits as a man does, as a father does whose child sits on his lap. Undoubtedly, Gower’s story would lose much of its horrific force if the identity of the flayed man were entirely gone: it is significant that we know that the son knows he must sit on his father. So opposite in many ways to what the seat cover used to be, hybridity nonetheless points emphatically towards what the two hold in common: man and seat cover are one and the same. Meant as a firm, even an admirable admonition against corruption in law, Cambises’s leather seat cover nonetheless provokes horror and revulsion both at the thought of a son being forced to endure such trauma and at the realization of the father’s potential to be reduced by state power to a thing. It is a monstrous object but still a father. Much earlier in Confessio Amantis is the tale of Albinus and Rosemund in Book 1 in which Albinus kills Rosemund’s father Gurmond in battle and then has fashioned for himself a beautiful goblet made from Gurmond’s skull as a private token to display his victory. Years later, at a great feast in Rosemund’s honour, Albinus sees the cup on display and then invites his 8  The assumption that flaying means erasure of the victim’s identity is a common one. See, for example, Tracy’s opening words on p. 1 of her Introduction to Flaying in the Premodern World, “Skin is the parchment upon which identity is written. Class, race, ethnicity and gender are read upon the human surface. Removing skin tears away identity and leaves a blank slate upon which law, punishment, sanctity or monstrosity can be inscribed. Flaying strips away the means by which people see themselves or are viewed by others”. See also Mills’s comment at p. 62 in “Havelok’s Bare Life”: “flaying elicits horror, conjuring up the processes by which bodies are exorcized of meaning; removing the outer surface of a human being deprives that being of its humanity, exposing the potential for an animalized, identity-­ less existence beneath the surface”.



wife Rosemund to “Drink with thi father, Dame” (1.2551) from this prized possession which he has kept openly displayed and yet hidden in its true material identity from everyone but himself. Only after his wife drinks from the goblet does Albinus grandly reveal in front of the whole assembled court that Rosemund has just drunk from her own father’s skull. In this story, the human materiality of the object is not readily evident, although any skull positioned upside down has a vague resemblance to a bowl or a goblet. Gurmond’s skull, however, has been polished, studded with precious gems, and adorned with rich gold (1.2537) to the point where the traditional memento mori beneath the glitter seems to have disappeared entirely. “[N]o sign of the skulle is sene” we are told (1.2544) and it is indeed a rare object of great beauty. But Albinus knows his old enemy is there, as do we as readers and as Rosemund comes to find out so publicly after she drinks. Rosemund must have known that Albinus killed her father in battle, but she married him nonetheless and apparently lived with him happily for many years. Yet, once revealed for who he is, the monstrous presence of Gurmond cannot be hidden again. The adorned skull, instead of existing as an object of admirable aesthetic beauty which attests to one man’s admiration for a fallen foe or to that same man’s belief in the power of marital love to overcome even extreme obstacles— Albinus’s otherwise inexplicable motives in asking his beloved wife to drink from the skull of her father and then to announce her deed so publicly without any regard or empathy for her feelings9—reveals its full human agency when it becomes an ugly object of horror and disgust to Rosemund. An object both ugly and beautiful, Gurmond’s skull rouses in Rosemund a desire for revenge against her father’s killer. Convinced that her husband intended to spite her and her father both in his public invitation to drink from the skull, the loving and faithful wife transforms into the opposite, and she plots with her quickly acquired lover to murder her husband, as follows in short order. Perhaps fittingly, this perverse tale of transformation and manifold identities comes to an end with a second act of drinking when Rosemund and her lover are put to death by poison. 9  Burrow notes in “Sinning Against Love”, p. 220, that “It is left for a Latin sidenote here to explain that Albinus is boasting about his love as well as about his victory”. But, to paraphrase Peck, who used the following phrase in “The Materiality of Cognition” on p. 19 to describe Nectanabus’s callous attitude towards Olympias, “there seems to be a vacuum in the spaces of [Albinus’s] heart where love and empathy normally reside” at this unfortunate and pivotal moment in his marriage.



Yet likely the most disturbing alteration of the human form into an object narrated in Confessio Amantis occurs in Book 5 in the murder of Itys by his mother Procne who seeks vengeance against his father Tereus for the rape and mutilation of her sister Philomena. In the hidden privacy of her chamber, Procne secretly This child withouten noise or cry Sche slou, and hieu him al to pieces. And after with diverse spieces The fleissh, whan it was so toheewe, Sche takth, and makth therof a sewe, With which the fader at his mete Was served, til he hadde him ete. (5.5896–5902)

The story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomena is a horror story on multiple levels, and it plays on basic human fears around the sanctity of the family unit and belief in the special, inviolate nature of the human body. Innocent of all blame in the matter, Itys is the perfect vehicle of revenge for his mother not only because as a young child he is too weak and vulnerable to defend himself against her act of violence—Itys’s murder by his mother perversely echoing Tereus’s own mutilating acts of violence against Procne’s sister, the helpless Philomena—but also because Itys is Tereus’s beloved son, the future (and end) of his paternal lineage. The justification is weak, but present: the child’s body contains within itself the form of a potential adult male, and so Itys, his father’s son, could like his father switch on a moment’s notice from hero to villain, from noble man to rapacious monster.10 On the grounds that he might someday become an oppressor of women and a rapist of them like his father, so it seems Itys must die to expiate both past and future crimes. Yet, the exact means of Procne’s revenge grossly emphasizes the reduction of her son’s body into a manufactured product, a spicy stew upon which Tereus unwittingly dines. In this story, the visibility of Itys’s human form is utterly erased, all except for his head which is presented grandly by 10  In “Sympathetic Villains”, Zarins acutely observes that Tereus’s transformation into a villain is entirely unexpected in Gower’s treatment of the story. Unlike Ovid who identifies Tereus as hateful to the gods from the beginning of the story, Gower provides no narrative preparation to warn the reader of the impending horrific act of violence which Tereus will commit. See especially pp. 148–55 in Zarins’s article. Zarins does not consider the second half of Tereus’s story, in which Itys is murdered by his mother and consumed by his father.



the women before his father at the conclusion of the meal. The story reminds us that every human body can be regarded as food to eat: our human identity is not so special that as a species we are inedible and off limits to the consumptive appetites of those other creatures who gain power over us. Moreover, the scene in Gower’s text involves two gross physical transformations of Itys. First is the creation of the stew itself out of its raw ingredients which, unlike a leather seat cushion or a decorated skull goblet, is an object that is, by its very condition, ephemeral. Even if it were left uneaten by his father at dinner, Itys the stew by its organic nature will not exist for long and all that will remain of Itys afterwards will be his head and the abstraction of his name in the story.11 Once consumed, however, the stew’s ingredients become subject to a second process of transformation as it inevitably passes through the digestive tract of his father and turns into excrement.12 In Gower’s source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6.663–64, Tereus’s revulsion is described as “et modo, si posset, reserato 11  The erasure exists also at the narrative and the critical levels. For instance, Peter Nicholson in Love and Ethics observes on p.  290 that “where Ovid preserves [Procne, Philomena and Tereus] as they are at the moment of transformation—the women’s feathers still stained with blood and Tereus still eager for revenge, his long beak replacing his drawn sword—Gower takes them back to their state before their killing of Itys in order to preserve the memory of the original betrayal”. The murder of Itys is temporally overturned so that only Tereus’s betrayal of love matters. In Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality at p.  164, Victoria Blud similarly keeps the focus on the effect upon Tereus: “Having consumed his flesh and blood moments before, [Tereus’s] last remaining resort is unceremoniously cut off by the intervention of the gods, who transform him into a bird. Deprived of his bloodline – and in Lacanian terms his phallus – he is denied even his capacity to wield phallic weaponry, castrated twice over”. In Inventing Womanhood, Tara Williams firmly keeps the focus on Procne, not even once calling Itys by his name at p. 61: “she perverts the motherly and wifely actions of caring for a child and preparing a meal; her behavior is a mockery of true womanliness. In contrast to the loss of reason that led to Tereus’s beastliness, the loss of pity—particularly that pity that should be most natural for women, the pity for their own children—causes Procne to lose her womanhood and humanity. Much as Tereus ‘forgot’ that he was a married man, Procne ‘forgets’ pity”. Michael J. Warren, on the other hand, engages fully with the body of Itys in Birds, arguing at p. 205, “Tereus’s ‘oughne fleisshe and blod’ is made quite literally his oughne again. Looking forwards, the anthropophagic act is a sickening version of the combinings of flesh that occur in the final metamorphoses. Itys is torn to pieces, but then reassembled in a disturbing but strangely appropriate hybridity with his own father. The bodies in this episode are locked into a violent incorporation of plural bodies as eater and eaten”. 12  If it is possible to be degraded in Gower’s Confessio even more completely than the transformation of Itys into human (or bird?) excrement, it is the fate of Acteon who in Book 1, ll. 377–78 is torn apart and presumably eaten, digested, and excreted by his own dogs.



pectore diras/egerere inde dapes emersaque viscera gestit” [Now, if he could he would gladly lay open his breast and take thence the horrid feast and vomit forth the flesh of his son], but Gower in his text offers no such possible regurgitative release for Itys from the digestive indignities of his father’s stomach. Again, for its horrifying impact, it is important in the story that Itys the stew maintains connection to Itys the son: Procne cannot kill and Tereus cannot eat just any young male child; Philomena must present the head of her consumed nephew to his father to prove the deed (5.5909–13). That we as readers know that Itys suffers such utter physical degradation through the actions of his parents, the first process at the hands of his mother, and the second through the mouth and alimentary canal of his father, adds to the horror and the pity of the scene, just as the close family connections do in Cambises’s tale in Book 7 for the corrupt judge’s son, another innocent who finds himself in too uncomfortably close proximity to his father’s body.13 On the other hand, if the known human body refashioned as a material object can become a source of wondrous horror and disgust for readers, Gower also raises the speculative possibility in the story of Pygmalion in Book 3 of the inanimate material object becoming a living human presence. This time, at least, the two-natured body of a stone statue fashioned by Pygmalion, “lich to a womman in semblance/of feture and of countenance” (3.380) with an ivory-white surface and cheeks painted ruddy, does not invoke horror, though it may inspire some pathos and amusement at Pygmalion’s expense, especially perhaps in a contemporary readership which is likely accustomed to crude jokes about some men’s relationships with rubber-inflated dolls. Yet if ashes to ashes, dust to dust is true, perhaps it is not entirely contrary to nature to believe that stone might turn to flesh and then back again to stone in due course. The human body of Pygmalion’s beloved statue remains a curiosity instead of a dangerous monstrosity because the transformation from inorganic stone to organic flesh can be regarded as a positive alchemical step, an improvement in material and matter, but one which does not threaten the ‘natural’ superiority of the created human form in a way that the too-human robot 13  Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women offers a telling contrast to Gower’s handling of the Procne and Philomena story. Chaucer chooses to end the narrative with the reunion of the two sisters before they take their ghastly revenge, no doubt to preserve the two as entirely sympathetic characters. Horrific contact with the paternal body is equally important in the Albinus and Rosemund tale, of course.



or the cyborg of contemporary science fiction might within those genres. Indeed, the “eerie sensation” noted by Masahiro Mori in ‘The Uncanny Valley’ at the unexpected touch and texture of a modern prosthetic hand is absent in the case of Pygmalion’s wife after she wondrously comes to life.14 Her body feels to the touch no different from that of a living woman because a living woman is what she somehow has become. Nonetheless, the essential inanimate stoniness of Pygmalion’s beloved remains uncannily visible beneath the human form in that she continues to act as the perfect objectified woman he fashioned for himself. We neither learn the wife’s name nor hear her speak in Gower’s account of Ovid’s story from Book 10 of the Metamorphoses, and she acts in life as compliant and accommodating of Pygmalion’s wishes as when she lay inert in his bed as a stone statue. Hybridity points to the sameness of her two identities and thereby extinguishes the difference between her two material forms.

Human/Animal Hybrids from Classical Legend Other hybrid bodies in Confessio Amantis unequivocally suggest the negative monstrosity of those who too openly mix human and animal forms. For these, hybridity points away from humanity and towards the unhuman. The bull-headed Minotaur, briefly referenced in the Theseus and Ariadne story, is one, labelled without reservation as a monster (5.5275–76). Likewise regarded as monstrous are Medusa and her two sisters born in “the liknesse of serpent” (1.396). Also said outright to be monsters, albeit of a “wonder kynde”, are the Sirens (1.484–85). Described by Gower as beautiful young women above the waist but fish below,15 these complex hybrid human-animal forms cause men who hear them to degrade and become man-beasts themselves. Under the Sirens’s influence sailors forget how to steer and to set the right course, metaphors both for the ‘masculine’ powers of rationality and self-control. The Sirens’s dangerous monstrosity is centred in their several unnatural gestures and ­inversions,  Mori, “The Uncanny Valley”, p. 90.  The Sirens’ typical woman/fish combination dates from the Middle Ages and is very rarely encountered in the classical period. According to Dunstan Lowe in Monsters and Monstrosity at pp.  85–86, “the Sirens were usually imagined in antiquity as woman-bird hybrids. Among seventy-three ancient images surveyed by Leclerq-Marx, only one (from the third century BC) depicts them as women-fish; all others show them as bird-women on dry land”. For more on the depiction of Sirens, especially in the medieval period, see Bain’s “The Tail of Melusine” at pp. 24–26. 14 15



which are all reflected in their hybrid bodies: they are women who dominant men and humans who dwell in watery abodes instead of on land; they cause the sense of hearing to dominate over vision; and their melody of Heaven in actuality leads to the pit of Hell. The Sirens are put in their place and their threatening monstrosity is curtailed by the alpha male Ulysses who, in Confessio, plugs his ears and those of his men against their sound so that by relying on his human powers of governance he can kill them and thereby restore the purity of the human concept as well as a masculine-centred definition of humanity’s best form. The male counterpart to the hybrid female body of the Siren is the Centaur, human above the waist and horse beneath. Traditionally depicted since classical times as hypersexualized and always as male,16 a hypermasculine symbol of the human man stripped of all rational restraint and reduced to the lust-driven beast beneath,17 the Centaur indeed appears in this guise in the Wedding of Pirithous tale in Book 6 in which the drunken Centaurs, as per Ovid, attempt to abduct the bride. However, in Gower’s handling of the tale, there is neither discussion nor description of what Centaurs look like, and Gower simply refers to those unruly wedding guests as “they the which were named Centauri” (6.521–22) without elaboration of their hybrid masculine bodies. Outside the frame of classical knowledge, Gower’s emphasis upon the Centaurs’ drunkenness—that they had no rational insight into what they were doing and the likely dire consequences—must suffice to illustrate their monstrosity. A far more complicated instance of the monstrosity of the hybrid Centaur is found in the story of the Education of Achilles in Book 4. Achilles, of course, is himself technically a hybrid in the classical tradition because he has a mortal (and often absent) father, Peleus, and an immortal mother, Thetis, and it is a very old story that he was taught as a twelve-­ year-­old boy by the wise old Centaur, Chiron. As in the Wedding of Pirithous tale, Chiron’s exact bi-formed body as a Centaur is not explicitly detailed by Gower, but there are certainly elements in the story which 16  Depending on how one reads the details of what she looked like before her metamorphosis, there is one possible exception to the exclusive masculinity of the Centaur: Ocyrhoë, daughter of Chiron, who is turned into a mare for daring to prophesy the fates of Aesculapius and her father. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.633–75. 17  For information on Centaurs in the classical period, in which these human/horse hybrids generally “symbolize uncivilized and bestial behavior; their defeat, the triumph of enlightened, Hellenic social values over barbarism” (p. 167), see Lowe, Monsters and Monstrosity, especially pp. 164–79.



underscore that he exists outside the paradigm of the singularly human. Chiron, for instance, dwells in the wilderness instead of a site of human civilization, a location comparable to the watery abode of the Sirens as antithetical to human life. On the other hand, Chiron acts in a paternal role towards the boy Achilles in place of his mysteriously absent human father, teaching Achilles the manly skill of hunting with a spear as if Achilles had no father to instruct him otherwise. The instruction is done in such a manner that it also suggests, as Winthrop Wetherbee has twice pointed out, “the aura of a primitive sexual rite”.18 Chiron inspects Achilles’s spear for proof of penetration after each day’s hunt, as the animalistic Centaur ‘father’ teaches the way of hypersexual aggressive masculinity to his ‘son’. There seems to be something terrible going on here, but we may be uncertain as to what. Chiron instructs Achilles to hunt only powerful predators—lions and tigers, for example—so that he will learn the fearlessness against violence and aggression that will serve Achilles well in the Trojan War. Yet this is also hunting without any larger beneficial purpose to it. It is neither hunting for meat to eat nor hunting for the control of vermin or of predators upon livestock. It is hunting solely to learn to become comfortable with killing, while the sexual connotations of the spear suggest homosexual encounters through the penetration of the aggressive, masculine body. At best, we may be seeing the making of a noble knight who is being taught to reserve the violent potentiality of his weapon for only his fellow knights in battle. Yet, we may well suspect instead that what we are watching unfold is the making of a medieval Dexter—the serial killer who preys only on serial killers—as Chiron’s centauric monstrosity is displaced onto the form and the acts of his best pupil.19 The Minotaur, Sirens, and Centaurs, however, were born as monstrous human/animal hybrids and Medusa is said by Gower to have become one 18   Wetherbee, “Classical and Boethian Tradition”, p.  193; “Gower and the Epic Past”, p. 174. 19  It is also a presentation of Chiron which would be entirely unknown in the classical period. As Lowe observes in Monsters and Monstrosity on p. 180, “Chiron the culture-hero (musician, prophet, tutor of heroes, but especially master of herb-lore and celebrated healer) is always an elderly sage, unlike his wantonly virile relatives, and in Pindar he even became a consummate anti-Centaur, counselling Apollo against a public rape. Like Horace before him, Ovid exploits the irony of civilized Chiron supervising Achilles, who would prove so feral in subsequent life: in the Ars Amatoria, Chiron subdues Achilles’ wild nature with lyre lessons in which he caned the hands that would kill Hector”. For another recent study of Chiron in the classical period, one which focuses on Chiron’s hybridity as a means to allow “(apparent) contradictions to merge into one figure” (p. 320), see Manuel Förg’s “The Centaur’s Death”.



under the maleficent influence of a bad constellation at birth (1.392–97). Yet Gower’s Confessio also contains several narratives in which the human body is shapeshifted into animal form later in a person’s life. The ability of Circe (and Calypso apparently) to turn men into animals is twice referenced by Gower (6.1445, 8.2600), and Medusa’s power to turn into stone anyone who gazes upon her is briefly told (1.414–16). But as with the Sirens, these transgressive, transforming figures of feminine mastery are outwitted by their masculine superiors, Circe and Calypso by that problematic man of many turns and master of disguise, Ulysses, and Medusa by Perseus, to restore once more to dominance the human concept’s apparently preferred masculine design.

The Hybrid Masculine Body Gower does not reserve the hybrid body for tales taken only from classical legend. In one of the few narratives in Confessio Amantis derived from the Bible, Gower recounts in Book 1 the story found in the Book of Daniel (4. 22–34) that King Nebuchadnezzar spent seven years in the form of a beast. Gower keeps the narrative close to his biblical source: Nebuchadnezzar is reduced from a powerful king to a state in which he “lich an oxe under the fot” (1.2973) must eat grass outdoors in all weathers and down on all fours. The reduction in body and identity is a complete dehumanization and an utter emasculation of its adult male human subject as Nebuchadnezzar’s new body points towards animality instead. Not only does Nebuchadnezzar lose the bipedal human stance and the grace of manufactured clothing to cover his naked body, but he is not allowed the dignity of being reduced to a powerful animal, as great men reduced to animals by metaphor and simile usually are. Circe, for instance, reveals the beast inside by turning the comrades of Ulysses into swine, animals of no inconsiderable ferocity, and the multiple epic similes of Vergil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad routinely describe the heroes in battle as boars, lions, eagles, wolves, and the like. Instead, Nebuchadnezzar both in the Bible and in Gower becomes a grass-consuming herbivore and he is not able to keep even his testicles, because an ox, which Nebuchadnezzar is pointedly said to resemble in Gower’s account, is a castrated bullock.20 Nebuchadnezzar arouses feelings more of pity than of fear because he 20  For the historical implications of this detail to understanding Nebuchadnezzar’s predicament, see Kuefler, “Castration and Eunuchism”, pp. 279–306.



lacks the savage force necessary to be regarded as a dangerous monster, though a hybrid monster on public display he certainly has become. He is, however, too weak to prevent anyone who might want to gawk and laugh at the show.21 When Nebuchadnezzar the ox gazes reflectively upon himself, he sees “In stede of hands, large cles,/In stede of man a bestes lyke” (1.2994–95). The similes—like an ox, in the likeness of a beast, a beast’s like—make it clear that Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation of body is not to be understood literally as man physically altered into the shape of a domesticated animal, such as happens in the classical legends derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The original human form is still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s altered state, even if it has been degraded in posture onto all fours and other exterior details. If he has large claws and a shaggy hide it is only because Nebuchadnezzar’s fingernails, toenails, and hair have not been kept trimmed and well groomed.22 The disabling loss of his testicles, the inability to sexually function as a male, is body code for what actually has happened to Nebuchadnezzar, and the message is reinforced by the metaphorical loss of other body parts: his man’s heart (1.2841, l.2912) and functional eyes (1.2952). That is, it is the incapacitation of Nebuchad nezzar’s reason, the disability of his mind, which deprives the king of his speech, his food, his clothing, his ‘proper’ relationship as a human being and as a king to the natural world (which is seated on a throne inside a palace rather than outside down on all fours on the ground in the rain), and his manly human identity overall. Nebuchadnezzar, however, regains his “mannes forme” (1.3023) all his human capabilities, organs, and status after he repents and cries upon God’s mercy. His sameness to humanity, however, was always apparent beneath the monster. 21  The word monster, of course, derives ultimately from the Latin verb monstrare, to show or point out. That is, anything that a society regards as freakish or abnormal is apt to be labelled monstrous and have fingers pointed at it as being outside the standard. The traumatic effect on individuals who face such bullying treatment is incalculable. For other considerations of the Nebuchadnezzar episode, see Deanne Williams’s sympathetic postcolonial reading of Nebuchadnezzar as a figure whose metamorphosis “speaks to the process of literary and cultural translation” (“Gower’s monster”, p. 143), and T. Matthew McCabe’s argument in Gower’s Vulgar Tongue, pp. 158–61. 22  The physical state of Nebuchadnezzar can be compared to that of Orfeo in the romance by that name after the hero lives alone in the wilderness for ten years or more. Orfeo’s hair and beard are black and rough, having grown as far down as his waist (ll. 241–42). Upon Orfeo’s happy return to his kingdom, the first thing his subjects do is bathe, shave, and properly attire him (ll. 560–62).



In a different case of human identity crossing with the animal, Gower also includes the story of the Egyptian sorcerer Nectanabus who, in Book 6, adopts an elaborate scheme of illusion and shapeshifting to seduce the queen Olympias into believing that he is the god Ammon so that she will agree to engage in sexual relations with him. Nectanabus appears to Olympias in three powerful animal shapes—dragon, ram, and eagle—in the course of his deceptions. Such shapeshifting ability is clearly a threat: a good wife is seduced, a powerful king is duped, and the royal line of succession is put in doubt by one shapeshifter’s lust which matches the animalistic forms he adopts. When he is exposed by the young Alexander the Great for what he is—Alexander’s very mortal father who dies when Alexander pushes the “old dotard” Nectanabus to his death off the high tower for claiming that he knows he will die at his son’s hand (6.2299–2316)—the shapeshifter’s true identity is revealed by the grim, crushed results of his final metamorphosis when he hits the ground. Nectanabus is all at once a lying deceiver, an old dotard, and a truth teller. He was indeed Alexander’s true father achieved through deception and he did indeed know how he would die, though he was too much of an old dotard to put two and two together when bragging to his precocious son. A more complex instance of the shapeshifter who takes on animal form is found in the story of Achelons in Book 4. Achelons (Achelous) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a river god who contends as an equal rival with Hercules for the hand of the beautiful Deianira. In Gower’s text, Achelons appears as a giant who has a clear first claim upon Deianira as her betrothed. As if the romance tradition’s typical view of the hypersexualized giant as something other which is dangerously monstrous and especially threatening to women is not enough of a substitution for the numinous abilities of a classical river god, Gower also pointedly makes Achelons, “A soubtill man, a deceivant,/Which thru magic and sorcery/Couthe al the world of tricherie” (4.2076–78). The human form is visible in the enlarged size of the giant, while making him a sorcerer also maintains Achelons’s ability to change bodily shape, which is necessary for the basic storyline inherited from Metamorphoses.23 In both Ovid and Gower’s versions of the tale, Achelons first changes to an adder to escape Hercules’s grasp and then to a bull in an attempt to overpower him. It is a peculiar tactic to adopt in Ovid and even more so in Gower that a god or a giant would decide to 23  See George Shuffelton’s brief consideration of Gower’s considerable alterations to Ovid’s tale in terms of the romance genre in “Conflict or Evasion”, pp. 75–76.



trust in animal strength instead of his own power. As a sorcerer, Achelons seems even more of a dotard than the predatory Nectanabus who also resorts to taking on animal forms to gain sexual access to a woman. The point, as with other tales in Gower in which the human male becomes animal, is reduction: Achelons is one of several examples in Confessio of the bestial component of hybridic masculine human nature revealing itself too openly. Achelons loses his chance with Deianira not only because he pits himself against Hercules, the uber representative of the brute masculine human body, but also because, firstly, in making himself animal he relies upon an inferior form of fighting strength (the bull rarely wins against the matador!) and because, secondly, in failing to evaluate critically his opponent’s past record, he further reduces himself by undervaluing reason. Had Achelons exercised some strategic forethought in how to approach Hercules in a fight, he would have taken into consideration the fact that Hercules by this point in his career had already overcome with dominant force the two large snakes sent by Juno to kill him at birth and the great bull of Crete.24 Achelons had no chance of success against Hercules in the animal forms in which he chose to appear. Men always contain within themselves the hybrid potential for brute animal difference, but when hybridity points towards the beast, the result is loss. Part of the complexity of Achelons’s narrative in Confessio Amantis is centred in its parallels with another story in which Hercules vies with a rival male over Deianira. This is the story of Nessus who attempts to seize Deianira for himself after safely transporting her across a river. In Ovid, Nessus is the typically randy Centaur, but Gower in his medieval version, as with Achelons, chooses to transform Nessus into the more familiar, yet still hypersexualized and villainous giant, thus drawing very clearly the connections between the Nessus and Achelons episodes, one at the end and the other at the start of the Hercules and Deianira story. Unlike Ovid who tells the two stories in chronological order, Gower first recounts the end in Book 2 and then in Book 4 goes back to its beginning. Both times, of course, Hercules wins the day and keeps the girl, and he kills Nessus with an arrow tipped in the poison of the Hydra’s blood. Unfortunately, however, only Deianira seems capable of fixity, as Hercules years later proves to be two-hearted when he starts to cast his wandering eye upon another woman. This change in her husband causes the desperate Deianira

 The seventh of the Twelve Labours of Hercules.




to send Hercules as a love charm the fatal cloak tainted with Nessus’s poisoned blood which will lead to Hercules’s death when he puts it on.25 For thilke scherte unto the bon His body sette afyre anon, And cleveth so, it mai noght twinne, For the venym that was therinne. (2.2291–94)

To end his suffering, Hercules builds and then leaps into a massive funeral pyre. In Ovid, this act is transformative, and it underscores Hercules’s essential hybrid nature as a demigod: this second fire burns off, as described by Lowe, Hercules’s “violent, hairy, appetitive, overbearing, and hypermasculine” mortality,26 leaving behind only the refined godly form to be whisked off by divine chariot and set by Jove among the stars as an immortal (Metamorphoses 9.262–72). The act is equally transformative in Gower, but not nearly so grand in its result: Hercules, flesh and bone, is reduced to a pile of ashes, another case of an alternate human identity as material object.

The Hybrid Gendered Body Characters such as Hercules, Nessus, Achelons, and Nectanabus suggest the strengths and the limits of the sexualized and aggressive male body. Unlike the neutered Nebuchadnezzar the ox who is deprived of this aspect of his manhood, these four are all powerful men driven by animalistic heterosexual desire to compete with other males even to the point of violence over the right to mate with a female. In other stories in the Confessio, however, Gower presents cases in which gendered identity and gendered 25  Diane Watt in “Sins of Omission” on p. 537, suggests another case of gendered hybridity lurks here also in that Hercules is punished for “wearing a woman’s coat […] symbolic of his self-emasculation and loss of identity”, in which he dresses while infatuated with Eolen, the woman for whom he abandons Deianara. The affair, of course, is what causes Deianara to send Nessus’s poisoned cloak to Hercules in an attempt to win him back. 26  Lowe, Monsters and Monstrosity, p.  177. As Lowe’s description suggests, the culture hero Hercules was regarded with deep ambivalence throughout the classical and medieval periods. While he made the world a safer place for humans to live in by slaying such dangerous monsters as the Hydra and the Nemean Lion, he often behaved like a brutish monster himself. For more information on Hercules, in addition to Lowe’s study see also Rowland’s broad survey of literary works in Killing Hercules. Rowland covers the medieval period on pp. 71–102.



bodies seem far from being fixed and stable. In Book 4, the trickster god Mercury is said to be capable of literally switching back and forth between gendered forms as often as it suits him. When he alters form, Mercury amply illustrates the monstrous threat that gender hybridity can pose the norm. Of sorcerie he couthe ynowgh That whanne he would himself transform Ful ofte time he tok the forme Of womman and his own lefte So dede he well the more thefte. (4.940–44)

As with Nectanabus, deception and illusion are at the forefront: Mercury never leaves his true nature behind when he alters his outer form. Mercury is always he in gender identity, never she, regardless whether alterations to genitalia are involved. The gender deception enhances Mercury’s abilities as a trickster because taking the “form of woman” makes his thievery all the easier.27 A trickster god is one thing. The classical tale of Iphis and Ianthe in Book 4, in contrast, illustrates on the human level the shapeshifted gendered body as a permanent and genuine change from female to male identity. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Iphis is the girl given the gender-neutral name at birth who is raised as a boy by her mother because her father threatened to kill his child if his wife gave birth to a daughter. At age ten, according to Gower in Confessio Amantis, Iphis is married to Ianthe. Unlike the tale in Ovid where the transformation takes place on the night before the wedding as Iphis and her mother walk from the temple after

27  Mercury’s ability to switch genders is typical of trickster figures across cultures (Loki in Norse mythology is the most obvious example), but it could also suggest a strong alchemical context within Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Mercury is the White Queen to the Red King of sulphur and their union is foundational in alchemical theory and practice. According to Archer, describing alchemical theory in the early seventeenth century in “Alchemy” on p. 4, “‘mercury’ and ‘sulphur’ are idealized forms, denoting the two basic principles in all matter, and particularly strong in metals. Set in binary opposition, ‘mercury’ is identified with the feminine principle (and associated with the qualities of changeable, watery and cold), while ‘sulphur’ is identified with the masculine principle (fixed, dry and hot)”. Alchemy, of course, existed well before the early seventeenth century and lingered long after it. See also Norn, Permin, E. Kruse, and P. R. Kruse’s article “Mercury--a major agent in the history of medicine and alchemy” for more information.



having begged the goddess Isis to help them,28 Gower’s prepubescent pair spend some time in married life together and even begin, constrained by Nature, to use “thing which to hem was al unknowe” (4.487) before Cupid intervenes, unasked, out of pity to reshape Iphis the girl into Iphis the boy so that the married couple’s love can give no offence to Kynde. Also dissimilar to the circumstance of Ovid’s thirteen-year-old Iphis who knows all along that she is a girl and that her marriage to Ianthe is an impossibility,29 Gower’s much younger Iphis exhibits no inner recognition of a conflicted gendered identity or of the possibility of social deviance in the marriage. Unlike the gender bending Mercury whose pronoun is always the masculine, even the pronoun references in Iphis’s narrative are confused as to how Iphis’s body ought to be categorized. Whan it was of a ten year age, Him was betake in mariage A duckes dowhter for to wedde, Which Iante hihte … Abed they lie sche and sche. (4.475–78, 480)

The transformation of genitalia thus seems a god’s very modern correction of a biological oversight: Iphis and Ianthe have no idea that Iphis is anything but what Iphis is, and there is no surprise expressed by either married party when the process by which Iphis and Ianthe, under the constraint of Nature, show their love for each other suddenly takes an unexpected and very physical alteration of course. Gower is discretely silent as 28  “non secura quidem, fausto tamen omine laeta/mater a bit templo. sequitur comes Iphis euntem,/quam solita est, maiore gradu, nec candor in ore/permanet, et vires augentur, et acrior ipse est/vultus, et incompris brevior mensura capillis,/plusque vigoris adest, habuit quam femina. nam quae/femina puer eras, puer es!” (Metamorphoses, edited and translated by Frank Justus Miller, 9.785–791) [Not yet quite free from care and yet rejoicing in the good omen, the mother left the temple; and Iphis walked beside her as she went, but with a longer stride than was her wont. Her face seemed of a darker hue, her strength seemed greater, her very features sharper, and her locks, all unadorned, were shorter than before. She seemed more vigorous than was her girlish wont. In fact, you who but lately were a girl are now a boy!] 29  “at non vult natura, potentior omnibus istis,/quae mihi sola nocet. venit ecce optabile tempus,/luxque iugalis adest, et iam mea fiet Ianthe—/nec mihi continget: mediis sitiemus in undis.” (Metamorphorses 9.758–61) [But nature will not have it so, nature, more mighty than they all, who alone is working my distress. And lo, the longed-for time is come, my wedding-­ day is at hand, and soon Ianthe will be mine—and yet not mine. In the midst of water I shall thirst.]



to what actions are meant by the opaque phrase “thing which to hem was al unknowe” at 4.487, but this expression is commonly assumed by critics to mean sexual activity. Rosemary Woolf designates the relationship as homosexual,30 while Diane Watt asserts, “One of Genius’s main innovations in his rendering is to make it clear that a sexual relationship develops between the two young women before the conflict surrounding Iphis’s sex is resolved. If one were to follow Aquinas, who defined sodomy as intercourse ‘with a person of the same sex, male with male, female with female’, the relationship would be regarded as abhorrent. Genius does not appear to see it in such a light”.31 Nonetheless, in the absence of detail, perhaps the ‘thing unknown to them’ is essentially intended by Gower to remain unknowable also to us as readers. Tara Williams in Inventing Womanhood argues for Gower’s deliberate ambiguity in this regard, “the love may be unnatural because it is queer desire or because Iphis’s womanly nature has been so completely subsumed in his/her manhood. In other words, it is not clear whether the sexual encounter itself is unnatural or whether it merely brings to the forefront the problem of Iphis’s unusual nature”.32 The phrase, that is, could be interpreted to mean a wide variety of activities and its nuance is equally dependent on the unknowable age of the participants. It would seem, therefore, that the curious point of Gower’s story is that gender identity bifurcates between male and female only at the start of puberty, a biological stage which Iphis and Ianthe, married at age ten, may not yet have reached, or perhaps the point is that sexually functional genitalia do. Iphis’s hybrid gender identity could extinguish itself with finality in either direction until then. Regardless, unlike the thieving Mercury’s transformation into womanly shape or the animal illusions of Nectanabus, the hybridic transformation of the shape of Iphis’s genitalia from female to male is non-threatening to the status quo of the ideal human concept founded upon male superiority. The story is like that of Pygmalion’s wife, whose change from stone to flesh, as Iphis’s switch from girl to boy, involves no reduction of the human form when her inorganic stony body becomes human, even if it is only organic female flesh. Likewise, Iphis’s gain of a straightforward gendered and masculine identity is regarded as an improvement upon its earlier gendered hybridic ambivalence.  Rosemary Woolf, “Moral Chaucer and Kindly Gower”, p. 225.  Watt, “Gender and Sexuality”, p. 20. 32  Williams, Inventing Womanhood, p. 71. 30 31



A variation upon the gender hybridity of the Iphis and Ianthe story from Book 4 is another tale of shapeshifting gender and identity switch enacted by one party upon another: the change of Achilles into a girl by his mother in Book 5. As with Nebuchadnezzar’s reduction to an ox, the notion of form and identity this time is centred on the exteriority of clothing and the gesture of body because Achilles is not physically transformed into a girl by his mother, Thetis. She dresses him up and instructs him in how to perform as one, with, one presumes, a new name to match the new identity. As in the Iphis and Ianthe tale, the motivation to bring out an alternate gender in a child once again is a maternal effort to protect the life of that child: the cross-dressing disguise is Thetis’s best chance to save her son from certain early death at Troy. In some respects, as with Iphis, it is a remarkably complete change of gender because neither Ulysses nor Diomede, ladies’ men both, can spot the young Achilles openly hiding among the young ladies at Lichomedes’s court and Ulysses must resort to a trick to recognize his target.33 Like Iphis and Ianthe who lie in bed together as “she and she” until Cupid intervenes, so Achilles lies in bed together with Deidamia as “she and she”—the only circumstance under which Lichomedes, Deidamia’s father, would allow another person in his unmarried daughter’s bed. There are, of course, reverse transformations in this narrative which restore the concept of the human body’s masculine ideal. Achilles transforms back into a man publicly when he chooses over the feminine gear the spear and the other martial equipment laid out by Ulysses to catch the warrior’s eye. This, however, is a secondary narrative transformation to the switch which Achilles has already made by reasserting his masculine identity on a private scale. It was never she and she together in bed as Lichomedes assumed, but always the hetero-normative conclusion to Iphis and Ianthe’s tale. In their intimate time together, Achilles impregnates the Deidamia with his son. Though Gower is once again sparing on the details, critics generally absolve Achilles of rape in Gower’s treatment of the episode. Wetherbee, for instance, suggests, “The account of his sexual union with Deidamia conveys no suggestion of the rape frankly described by Statius, or the less forceful taking of a half-willing Deidamia in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. What Gower reports is rather the result of a 33  Speaking of malleable gender identity in this tale and Confessio as a whole, Tara Williams notes “Achilles’ famed masculine behaviour makes him a particularly interesting and convincing case; if he can practice womanhood, any man could” (p. 65).



mutual innocent ‘stirring’”.34 Andreea Boboc concurs, “Genius reports simply that nature takes its course: Gower changes his source so that the young lovers have consensual sex”.35 Regardless of the circumstances behind it, the transformation of Deidamia’s body in pregnancy offers irrefutable evidence of functional male and female genitalia, if not gender identity, on both parts. Yet, despite the compassion shown in the case of Iphis, Gower has limits on his hybridic gender tolerance. The gender in play matters. Achilles briefly exposing his alternate feminine identity is one thing, but a genuine switch of gendered identity from male to female is another. The sameness for men towards which hybridity is supposed to point is masculine, with limited allowance for difference grounded in the feminine or animal. A permanent change from male to female is therefore deviant, a matter of disability and a source of anxiety which must be resolved with the same harsh measures which are used against other overtly dangerous monsters like the Sirens and Medusa. The main case in point is Sardanapaulus, King of Assyria.36 Sardanapaulus “wax so ferforth wommanish” (7.4321) in so many respects that one presumes that his physical form and bodily shape change also, even if he keeps his testicles. Because he stays inside his palace with the women, Sardanapaulus’s skin will not be tanned by exposure to the sun. Because his physical activity seems limited to learning to braid, to weave a purse, and to string a pearl, while he may likely develop the fine motor skills and co-ordination necessary for such detailed tasks, Sardanapaulus will have lost the muscle mass and the physical tone of the typical noble masculine body in its prime, especially one that is supposed to be, according to the rules of chivalric conduct, outside in the sun, lifting and skilfully manoeuvring heavy pieces of martial equipment. Of all the cases cited to this point, the effeminized body of Sardanapaulus is the most threatening and monstrous hybrid to date. While the Sirens can take away a man’s rationality and while Medusa and Circe may have the infamous power to turn any man who encounters them into stone or swine, Sardanapaulus acts as his own shapeshifter because he wilfully chooses  Wetherbee, “Gower and the Epic Past”, p. 175.  Boboc, “Se-duction”, p. 130. 36  Another man in Confessio Amantis who attempts to release his interior woman is Narcissus. When Narcissus gazes upon his reflection in water, he believes “It were a womman that he syh” (1.2321). He falls in love, that is, with an alternative version of himself, identical to himself in all respects except gender. The flowers that sprang out of his grave act contrary to nature in their winter blooming (1.2355–57), clearly a warning example against excessive pride in oneself, but perhaps also an oblique comment on the reduction of the masculine form to the feminine. 34 35



self-­reduction in letting his female alternative identity expose itself too visibly in his male form. From the starting point of a powerful king, he disables himself, becoming possessive of a woman’s body and mindset within a man’s frame. So fallen away “in womanhood” (7.4337) from the physical norm and acts of the knightly masculine body, Sardanapaulus’s selftransformed body is regarded as a threat and its gender deviance is quickly dealt with by the force of the more traditionally masculine Barbarus, Prince of Mede.

The Hybrid Feminine Body Indeed, it is noticeable that Gower treats the hybrid potential of male and female bodies separately in Confessio Amantis. When it comes to the malleability of the female body, Gower draws a remarkably different message from those hybridic anxieties conveyed when it is the male form made subject to physical alterities. When the womanly body converts to male, as seen in the tale of Iphis and Ianthe in Book 4, the revealment of Iphis’s alternate identity is regarded as uniformly positive, an improvement in condition and one which, as Watt points out, medieval thinkers believed “was not in itself contrary to nature”.37 Belief in the naturalness of sex change from female to male was well established in the classical tradition and known to readers in the medieval period. There are, for instance, four cases of women who become men recorded in Book 7 of Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis. Pliny explains, Women changing into men is no fantasy. We find in the Annals that during the consulship of P. Licinius Crassus and C. Cassius Longinus a girl living with her parents in Casinum changed into a boy and was transported to a barren island at the command of the soothsayers. Licinius Mucianus has recorded that he actually saw at Argos a man called Arescon who had been given the name Arescusa at birth and had even married a husband, but then grew a beard, developed male attributes, and took a wife. He also records seeing a boy at Smyrna who had experienced the same sex change. I myself saw in Africa one L. Consitius, a citizen of Thysdrus who had turned into a man on his wedding day [and who was still alive at the time of writing].38

Pliny’s claim to have witnessed firsthand one of these four cases adds some lustre of credibility to his account, unlike the existence of those infamous but far distant monstrous races whom Pliny had never seen for himself and  Watt, “Sins of Omission”, p. 544.  Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, 7.36.

37 38



which must be taken on faith. Moreover, as Mary Beagon observes, the physiology of such sex change from female to male is based on an understanding of Galenic medical theory in which “the female genitalia are inverted and internalized male genitalia which might be extruded if the body’s heat was significantly increased”.39 Women becoming men, that is, may be an unusual and marvellous occurrence, but it is essentially as natural a physical progression as that of caterpillars becoming butterflies or children growing into their adult bodies when their component parts commingle into different configurations. Men becoming women, on the other hand, is as unnatural as the idea that a butterfly could turn back into a caterpillar or an adult revert to the body of its childhood. The natural process of gender change can go only in one direction towards the male. Gower otherwise in Confessio Amantis regards the malleability of the female body with a less anxious eye than he views the reduction of men to other, alternative forms—beast, child, woman, old man, material object— which lurk hidden within their bodies as hybrid potentials of the self. This lack of anxiety is evident in Gower’s handling of stories in which women are reshaped into animals or sometimes even into plants. Instead of concentrating on hybridic degradation and reduction from the ideal physical and moral male standard, in his narratives of altered female bodies Gower emphasizes continuity and the preservation of the woman’s original interior identity against her new exterior form. Female hybridity, if it cannot convert to masculinity, can only point emphatically towards the sameness of being female. In Book 5, for instance, Calistona is punished for being seduced, raped, and impregnated by Jupiter. Diana exiles Calistona from her cohort of friends and companions, and then Juno casts her out of the larger human community by turning her into a bear. Yet Calistona loses neither her humanity nor her desire to be a loving mother towards her child no matter how many times, starting with the theft of her maidenhead and pregnancy (5.6248), her body is physically altered by the actions of others. Instead, she attempts to embrace her hunter son in joyful reunion when she encounters him hunting bears in the forest years later, and Jupiter must intervene before matricidal disaster strikes (5.6317–33). Neither being made a male god’s sexual plaything nor being turned into an animal by an angry goddess can change who Calistona essentially is, though modern feminist scholars may begrudge Gower his stereotype of innate motherhood. Similarly, the virtuous Cornix in Book 5 celebrates the preservation of her virginity “which was to hire a more delit” (5.6207)  Beagon, The Elder Pliny, p. 173.




than her fair white body which turns into a black crow so that she can fly off and escape the grasp of Neptune’s sexual lust. Procne and Philomena, too, become birds “After th’astat that thei were inne” (5.5941) at the end of their sad narrative. Their different avian forms continue to recognize what they hold in common with their human roles in the tragedy of their story. Philomena, the victim of sexual violence, transforms into the reclusive nightingale still hiding from public view the shame she feels done to her body and lamenting love’s malady (5.5950–95), her switch to an avian bodily form anticipated much earlier in the text by the several bird similes which describe her helplessness against the raptor Tereus (5.5644–46, 5700); Procne, the verbal, avenging sister, in contrast appears as the chiding, chittering swallow who continues noisily to warn other married women of the perfidy of husbands (5.6017–22). In contrast to Procne and Philomena who maintain their estate, reduction is evident in the treatment of Tereus. In transforming into a lapwing, although the exteriority of his original knighthood remains visible in the bird’s crest, Tereus becomes estranged “from his oghne kinde” (5.6040). His hybrid form extinguishes his identity by emphasizing the loss of knightly honour and faithfulness represented in the bird which is the “falseste of alle” (5.6047).40 In Book 4, in contrast to Chaucer’s treatment in The Book of the Duchess in which Alcyone simply dies a passive, grieving widow within three days of hearing of her husband’s drowning (ll. 212–14), Gower’s Alcyone aggressively leaps into the sea to embrace her dead husband and the two of them are restored to life as birds. While Gower pays minimal attention to Ceyx transformed, he details Alcyone’s malleable form in terms specific to the maintenance of her identity as a loving, though perhaps an overly possessive wife to Ceyx. So as sche mihte do desport, Upon the joie which sche hadde Hire wynges bothe abord sche spradde, and him, so as sche mai suffise, Beclipte and keste in such a wise As sche was whilom wont to do. (4.3100–05) Sche fondeth in hire briddes forme, If that sche mihte hirself conforme 40  Sometimes in Gower the man on the inside is always the same as the outer form he becomes. An example of the beast inside revealing itself too openly would be that of the cannibalistic Lichaeon in Book 7 whose metamorphosis into a wolf, as noted by Karla Taylor in “Reading Faces” on p. 77, “manifests the hidden nature he had always had”.



To do the plesance of a wif, As sche ded in that other lif. For thogh sche hadde hir pouer lore, Hir will stod as it was tofore, And serveth him so as sche mai. (4.3109–15)

Even the more extreme metamorphosis of the female body down to the level of a plant seems not enough in Gower’s Confessio Amantis to break continuity with the woman’s integral identity. When Daphne is reshaped into an evergreen laurel tree, she maintains her precious virginity forever (3.1719). There is certainly a sense of reduction here in Daphne’s loss of animal movement and human emotional expression, but there is also triumph in Daphne’s maintenance of her essential identity. Notably, Gower chooses not to mention Ovid’s detail of Daphne’s subsequent transformation by Apollo’s hand into the laurel wreath, a symbol of male victory in competition. In the absence of the wreath, which is a thing made by men from Daphne’s still feminine body for the benefit largely of men, Gower foregrounds that, in his telling, the actual point of the story is Daphne’s own victory in preserving who she is by keeping her evergreen chastity safe from male touch and aggression: Apollo in Gower’s tale is allowed no claim at all upon her body, not even her leaves. The other case of arboreal transformation in Gower’s text does indeed involve reduction of identity, the story of Phyllis who turns into a filbert nut tree after she hangs herself from such a tree having waited too many long and fruitless years for her lover Demophon to keep his promise and return to her from Troy, but it is Demophon who is reduced from war hero to feckless cad: he is the one to face public reproof (4.862) and shame (4.871) for his slothful and inattentive actions in love (4.877). For Phyllis herself, her steadfast constancy in love is translated to the immobile rootedness of the tree into which she turns.41 Her outer form may have been shapeshifted by the gods’ interventions, but she remains in essence the faithful woman she had always been in life. 41  The story of Phyllis and Demophon was well known in medieval literature. Like all medieval tales, it could be subject to elaborate allegorization, such as that seen in the fourteenth-­ century preacher’s manual Fasciculus Morum, edited by Wenzel, in which “Queen Phyllis stands for the Christian soul, who desires Demophon as her husband, that is, Christ, when he rose from the battle of death” (p. 295). In an unusual twist upon the story, the author of Fasciculus Morum has Phyllis turn into a dead, dry tree upon her suicide and then back to life as a vibrant green tree when Demophon as Christ finally touches her again, and she “embraced by her spouse and in great joy comes back to life and sends forth the beautiful leaves of good virtues” (p. 295). For discussion, see Gasse, “Dry Tree”, especially at pp. 74–77, pp. 83–85.



It may seem puzzling that changes to the female body inspire little to no cultural anxiety, whereas Gower presents changes to the male body as threatening hybrids of form which bring to the fore disabling aspects such as bestial irrationality, feminizing weakness, and childish vulnerability. While these alternatives are always present in the male form, they are usually presented as attributes which are best kept hidden. Alterations to the female form, however, look to offer only variations on the theme of the feminine: chaste virgin, loyal wife, abused woman, vengeful harridan. If there is a comforting message from Gower for women in Confessio Amantis it is that even the vilest abuse and the worst physical violence cannot reduce their identity and dignity as women unless, like Rosemund after she drinks from her father’s skull, they allow it to change them. Hence, bringing out the hybrid possibilities of the womanly body as animal or as plant does not cause the same degree of stress as changes to the male body inherently do in Gower’s text. Likely this difference is ultimately because the female body, in this late fourteenth-century text, is itself already regarded as a threatening, disabled variant on the masculine form and the idea that an alternate hybrid can possess hybrid alterities of its own is meaningless. Though infinitely malleable and hybridic, the human body, grounded in difference and yet pointing towards sameness, has as its sole base and standard for ‘the same’ the noble, masculine, adult form, deviations from which can only be, to greater or lesser degrees, physically faulty and degenerate, though women and children and perhaps those of lower social orders are capable still of possessing their own admirable degrees of innocence, virtue, and constancy.

The Disabled Hybrid Body: Tiresias Finally, of all the stories of the unstable malleability of the human form and hybridic identity in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, by far the most complicated is that of Tiresias in Book 3. Even his brief story is bifurcated, the first part told at ll. 361–80 and then the end of his story at ll. 731–67, with the middle section of his narrative as told by Ovid in The Metamorphoses left empty by Gower. Tiresias’s tale, that is, is as narratively unstable in its form and its matter as is his gender-transforming, disabling body. As Sardanapaulus, Tiresias is also twice his own shapeshifter. Tiresias, however, turns into a woman because he chooses to strike with a heavy stick two copulating snakes, thereby making the gods wrathful with him for “disturbing kind” (3.350). The gods change Tiresias into a woman as “an angri jape” (3.380) so that “Angres angreliche he boghte”, an unnatural transformation to match an unnatural act. There is, nonetheless,



something curious going on because Tiresias’s action in striking the snakes is not in fact said to be motivated by anger or by disgust at the sight of serpentine sexual intercourse, though these causes are sometimes assumed by critics to be the case. McCabe, for instance, says that Tiresias “intervenes angrily by striking them with a stick”, interpreting Tiresias’s motivation through the addition of an adverb.42 There are, however, reasons possible beyond anger for striking a snake with a stick. Similarly, Watt claims, “Tiresias is punished by the gods for lashing out in anger and killing a pair of copulating snakes”.43 Yet, striking a snake is not necessarily equivalent to killing it and Gower’s text makes no actual reference to what happens to the snakes afterward. Indeed, if anything, Tiresias appears to act upon an instinct something akin to scientific curiosity: he wants to know if by hitting the entwined snakes he can cause them to stop their copulation: “And thought that he wolde fond/To letten hem, and smot hem bothe” (3.370–71). Why Tiresias might have thought this strange thought is left unarticulated, but the only evidence that it is an angry thought is that Tiresias’s tale is placed in the Book which deals with Wrath and because Genius and the gods angrily deem that it must have been an angry thought. When Tiresias appears again at line 749 after the interruption of the discussion on Contention and the story of the patience of Socrates, Tiresias is back to being male in form, evidenced by the appearance of the ­masculine pronouns he, his, and him found throughout the section. In Ovid, but not told by Gower, after seven years as a woman Tiresias again sees two snakes copulating and he strikes them a second time with a heavy stick on the presumed theory that if he turned into a woman the first time he did so, he would turn back into a man if he repeated the action.44 The process by which how, why, or when Tiresias turns back into male form in Gower’s treatment of the legend, however, is left unsaid as a gaping narrative absence in the story. Yet the course of altering Tiresias’s hybrid body is not yet complete as told by either Ovid or by Gower. Tiresias is asked by Jupiter and Juno to settle a dispute between them by pronouncing upon which sex is the more “amorous” (3.745). Although his credentials for judging such a matter  McCabe, Gower’s Vulgar Tongue, p. 152.  Watt, “Gender and Sexuality”, p. 202. 44  “est vestrae si tanta potentia plagae”/dixit, “ut auctoris sortme in contraria mutet,/nunc quoque vos feriam.” (Metamorphoses 3.328–30) [Since in striking you there is such magic power as to change the nature of the giver of the blow, now will I strike you once again.] 42 43



might seem obvious to us, in yet another textual absence in the story, Gower does not explain why the gods might believe Tiresias would be qualified to judge upon such a matter. Nevertheless, Tiresias agrees to adjudicate the matter and, “without advisement” (3.751) in Gower, Tiresias quickly gives answer: women are the more amorous sex. Avisement literally means ‘with a clear sight or consideration’ and it is derived ultimately from Latin videre, ‘to see’. It is also punningly appropriate in the circumstances: replying honestly to the gods without clear consideration of the possible consequences costs Tiresias his eyesight because the offended Juno strikes him blind for revealing the truth which she asked to know, whereas a dishonest or a more politic answer might have saved his vision. The gods, after all, are not always righteous in their anger and they have already once before acted with transforming animus against Tiresias’s body. Like the drunken Centaurs who attempt to abduct the bride of Pirithous without heed of what bloody retaliation they might face at the hands of Hercules or like the old dotard Nectanabus who speaks the truth far more than he realizes when he brags to Alexander about his knowledge of future events before he suffers the body-crushing response of being pushed off the top of a high tower, Tiresias lacks restraint and for his quick reply he suffers the wrath of the gods upon his body a second time. This time, however, Tiresias’s disabled body cannot be restored whole to its original condition and Jupiter in recompense can only make Tiresias’s interior condition match his propensity for discovering and revealing the truth without heed of the cost to his physical body. In a tale about unkindness in all senses of the word, the unkindest cut of all is that Tiresias is punished for acting according to his kind.45 Hybridity extinguishes itself by revealing the truth about the man. Struck blind for saying the truth so well but without foreseeing its probable consequences, Tiresias is given another new identity by Jupiter as forever a soothsayer, though we as 45  Although I disagree with McCabe’s interpretation in Gower’s Vulgar Tongue that Tiresias necessarily strikes the two snakes in anger, his larger point at p. 152 about the thematic significance of the scene is well-taken: “This punishment of an angry and ‘unkinde’ action angrily and ‘unkindeliche,’ with sex change, raises questions about the crimes against ‘kinde’ and about divine justice. What is ‘unkindenesse,’ and, if acting ‘unkindeliche’ means acting against one’s nature, how is this even possible? Further, if unnaturalness is so great a sin that the gods must intervene to punish it, what sense does it make for the gods to execute a sentence that is similarly ‘unkinde’? These two questions, the one about the meaning of ‘unkindenesse’ and the other about why it may justly be punished with a further violation of the natural order, resurface throughout the punitive metamorphoses of the Confessio”.



readers may not be told the truth as to which part of his body Tiresias will miss the more, his two eyes or his two balls. In the end, Tiresias’s disabled body, the final transformed product of his hybrid adventures, is reflected in Gower’s handling of the story by the fractured and incomplete nature of his tale.

Conclusion Much of Gower’s treatment of the malleable human form is to be expected for a late fourteenth-century English text. The human body seems infinitely malleable and hybrid in its possibilities, though it has only the one cultural form towards which hybridity points as showing the human form at its best: the noble man’s body at the height of his strength and heterosexual prowess. This is surely a concept grounded in the medieval equivalent of an anxious and toxic masculinity because the span of time that anyone, even a Hercules, might claim status as possessing the best of bodies is a brief one. All other variations on the human body—the aged body, the female body, the prepubescent body, the peasant body, the clerical body, the body missing some of its functioning parts, the body in which the animal is too prominent, the heterosexually impotent body, the body reduced to a small pile of ash and bone, the body made inanimate object, made food, made excrement—are all indicators of cultural anxiety and disability of one sort or another as hybrid examples of the reduced human form. Nonetheless they all are human bodies, as hybridity points emphatically to their sameness despite being reduced forms of the ideal masculine. We therefore do not appreciate reminders of the human body’s essential two-sided, malleable nature because change is rarely good, even though we know that ageing is a natural process which cannot be averted except by death, and that women cannot help being born women, and that those who suffer serious body-altering harm cannot always be blamed for causing their own accident. Ultimately, change is threatening because it shows we all have hybrid potentials lurking inside of us which might contradict who we like to think we are or how we fit into the world around us. We fear the ability of the powerful to reduce our dead bodies to seat cushions and drinking bowls even if our human presence still resides evident in the object. We fear those monsters, often imagined to be hybrids themselves, both the mythical ones and those also within our own minds, which exert their power to reduce us down to the less than human beast, or worse. We fear, especially



perhaps if we are male and socially elite, that our gender identity and high position within society may not be fixed and stable. Yet the anxiety behind such thoughts can be tempered by the wonder they are also able to arouse: belief in the absolute justice of an incorruptible king, the beauty that can be achieved through human craftsmanship, the infinite variability that the human form and the human experience can take, and the power of love to transform and to overcome all obstacles, however illogical the path. That hate, however, seems to have an equal power to release the threatening hybrid lurking in the depths inside, that anxious monster perhaps we do not wish to believe is real.


The Living, the Dead, and Those In-between: The Hybridity of Dying

In the morally didactic literature of the later English Middle Ages, it is common to find the doctrinal message that one must repent sins in a timely manner because it will be too late to ask for forgiveness after death. Chaucer’s Parson, for instance, advocates in his tale that confession be done hastily, without delay.1 In the Castle of Perseverance, the mankind figure Humanum Genus leaves it dangerously late, until the last possible moment of his life, to cry out for God’s mercy and he almost pays the ultimate price for his spiritual tardiness because Justicia argues that his plea was indeed too little, too late. Ovyr-late he callyd confescioun; Over-lyt was his contricioun; He made nevere satisfaccioun. Dampne him to helle belive!2

Everyman in the morality play by that name also leaves repentance until the last day of his life, which is a risky salvational strategy when the possibility of sudden death looms large. A theologian appears at the end of Everyman to drive home to the audience the play’s doctrinal point about 1 2

 Parson’s Tale, edited by Benson, 11. 997–1000, p. 324.  Castle of Perseverance, edited by David Bevington, ll. 3427–30.

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0_5




the need for confessional timeliness: “For, after death, amendes may no man make” the viewer is sternly warned.3 In contrast, Everyman’s reward for an albeit late but thorough confession on the final day of his life appears to be an escort straight up into Heaven upon his death. Following a mere three lines after Everyman’s descent into the grave, Knowledge says that she thinks she hears angels singing and the audience members can hear the Angel’s voice calling Everyman to come to Jesus, even if the audience does not necessarily see this scene enacted visually on the stage. There is supposed to be, that is, a clear and tidy division between being alive and active upon this Earth and being dead with one’s corpse buried in the ground until the Day of Judgement and one’s soul resident (hopefully) up in Heaven, and even the most earnest prayers of the living for the dead are not supposed to be able to roust out of Hell the soul damned there eternally for mortal sin. Nulla redemptio in inferno, as the Bad Angel for one says in The Castle of Perseverance at l. 3097. Yet, in the absence of modern technology to track blood pressure, heart beats, and brain wave activity, the exact location of that thin line which neatly separates the living from the dead, the line after which for those who deserve it there is nulla redemptio, was difficult to discern in the medieval period. Even today with the advantages of modern science and technology, the point at which one ceases to live and thus becomes dead remains a tricky and all too often fraught question to answer. It is also commonplace both in the past and in contemporary times to visualize the process of dying as a journey and the dead as ‘departed’, those who have set forth on their travels into death towards whatever awaits them in the afterlife. This basic travel metaphor, for instance, appears multiple times in Everyman. On thee thou must take a longe journey (l. 103) But haste thee lightly that thou were gone that journaye (l. 141) Now have I no maner of company To help me in my journey (ll. 185–86) Shorte our ende, and minisshe our paine; Let us go and never come againe. (ll. 878–79)

In another text, one written sometime between 1350 and 1450, the author of an anonymous Latin funeral sermon found in Worcester Cathedral MS F.10 fols. 143ra-145rb takes as his theme, “Where has 3

 Everyman, edited by David Bevington, l. 912.



Simon gone?”.4 The sermonist takes care to deliver the hopeful message for those who mourn the passing of Simon that he has gone in a positive direction, from pain to rest, from exile and pilgrimage to homeland, from wretched grief on Earth to eternal life in Heaven. Nonetheless, the sermonist’s journey metaphor underscores the uncertainty as to when the moment of Simon’s death occurred. It may be true that “the more [one] leaves the beginning behind, the more [one] approaches the end”,5 as Simon’s funeral sermonist assures his congregation, but there must also be a point in the transition where one is located neither at the beginning nor at the end but somewhere in the middle of the journey. Indeed, in the view of at least one fifteenth-century Middle English translator of the popular late eleventh-century encyclopaedia of medieval theology and folk belief, The Elucidarium of Honorius Augustodunensis (also known as Honorius of Autun), the journey which begins when life ends is incomplete until the soul has reached its ultimate destination, whether that be Heaven or Hell. For the damned, this journey is supposed to be swift, a straight path to Hell. The journey to Heaven, however, is more complicated. The death road to Heaven is slower and more painstaking for almost all souls to travel because the path is not direct but takes what can be called a lengthy detour through a third space, Purgatory. In the argument of this version of the Elucidarium, for all this time en route to Heaven the soul remains “noþer savid nor dampned but in wey of saluacion” as the soul detached from the dying body transitions in this third space between life and death, Earth and Heaven.6 Not only that, but according to the Elucidarium, until the journey is complete, the soul can reverse course and return to the dying body and even wholly reintegrate itself within. One is not dead until one is dead, that is. Moreover, the dying process occurs at different rates for body and soul. For example, in an anecdote from The Alphabet of Tales, a sinner at point of death is given by an angel his choice of where he will suffer for his sins: two days languishing in Purgatory or two years of suffering on Earth. And he chose þe furste, and decesid, and his saule went vnto purgatorie. So with-in ane houre after it was þer, þe angell̵ ̵ apperid̛ vnto hym̛ , and he axkyd; “What ert þou?” þe angell̵ ̵ ansswerd̛ hym̛ agayn̛ & sayd̛ ; “I am̛ þe aungell̵ ̵ þat apperid vnto the when̛ þou was olyfe.” And he said; “Nay, þou erte none 4  The full text of this Latin sermon can be found translated in Siegfried Wenzel’s Preaching in the Age of Chaucer, pp. 230–40. 5  Wenzel, p. 239. 6  “An Abbreviated Middle English Prose translation of the Elucidarius”, edited by C. W. Marx, p. 37.



aungell̵ ,̵ ffor aungells wyll̵ ̵ not lye; and þou erte bod a lyer, for þou tolde me þat I sulde be bod ij dayes in purgtorie, and I hafe stand þerin many yeris.” The aungell̵ ̵ ansswerd hym̛ agayn̛ & sayd̛ ; “þou sall̵ ̵ vnderstand at þou haste not bene here nott fullie ane howr̛ .”7

The catch is that the sinner was alive on Earth when he agreed to serve two days of torment in Purgatory, hence it is two Earth days which he must serve in that state, which will be a very long span of time by the speeding clock of Purgatory where time moves at a much faster rate.8 Strangely, the sinner, pointedly said to be deceased, is then for some unstated reason given a second chance for a less tortuous purgation of his sins by being resuscitated so that he may suffer instead for his sins while alive on Earth. Logically, of course, such a plot solution depends on a line of thought like the claim in the Middle English Elucidarium that the dying exist in hybridic transit until their soul reaches either Heaven or Hell where they become either redeemed or damned. This sinner’s soul, although it languished in Purgatory for “many yeris”, nonetheless manages to go all the way back to Earth and reenter its body which, at less than an hour deceased by Earth time, is not dead yet. Such is the hybridity of the dying, the subject of this chapter. In his poetic masterpiece on hybridity The Troubadour of Knowledge, the French philosopher Michel Serres applies the metaphor of swimming across a river: “The real passage occurs in the middle. Whatever direction determined by the swim, the ground lies dozens or hundreds of yards below the belly or miles behind and ahead. The voyager is alone. One must cross in order to know solitude, which is signaled by the disappearance of all reference points. At first, the body relativizes direction: Neither left nor right is important as long as I can hold my ground, it says. But in the middle of the crossing, even the ground is missing, any sense of belonging, of support is gone”.9 This blank space in the middle en route between the two points of departure and arrival is the third space where profound new discoveries are made. In the case of dying, this third space in the middle is a liminal position in which the person is unalive and yet  Alphabet of Tales, DCLXI.  There is uniform agreement in the medieval period that time moves at a different pace in Purgatory than on Earth. One year in Purgatory can be but a moment on Earth. See Jacques Le Goff’s discussion of “the problem of establishing proportionality between Earth time and time in Purgatory” (p. 294) in his classic historical study The Birth of Purgatory. 9  Serres, Troubadour of Knowledge, p. 5. 7 8



simultaneously undead.10 It is essentially a temporary hybrid state in which the person possesses features of both the living and the dead but is neither one. In vernacular theological terms, such as advanced in the Middle English Elucidarium and evident in The Alphabet of Tales anecdote, this third space must be either Purgatory or Limbo, even if not formally identified as such, and for the few who do reverse course and swim back to the life side of the river’s two banks, profound new discoveries are most certainly made. The third space of dying, however, was not always imagined in terms readily consistent with theological constructs. The medieval imagination rushed to fill in details to describe those caught in the third space between life and death, especially those for whom this hybrid state of existence was not a very short one by Earth time. In the romance Sir Orfeo, for instance, inside the Faery King’s castle the eponymous hero sees placed along the wall, Of folk that were thider y-brought And thought dede and nare nought. Sum stode withouten hade And sum non armes nade, And sum thurth the body hadde wounde, And sum lay wode, y-bounde, And sum armed on hors sete, And sum astrangled as they ete, And sum were in water adreint, And sum with fire all forshreint.11

These decapitated, amputated, pierced, strangled, drowned, and badly burned bodies cannot possibly be alive, and yet the text insists emphatically, with the double negative “nare nought” at line 366, that they are not dead, though others might regard them so. Unlike the lucky ones in whole condition, such as Herodis, who can occasionally be released from 10  Serres, of course, is not applying the river metaphor to dying, but to the intersection of the humanities and the natural sciences. Nonetheless, many cultures, including Ancient Egyptian, Classical Greco-Roman, Norse, Hindu and Japanese, associate crossing a river with death. Note also the river separating the Dreamer and the Pearl Maiden in the Middle English Pearl at lines 107–110. 11  Sir Orfeo, edited by Sands, ll. 365–74. For an extended consideration of the significance of these lines, see Fletcher, The Presence of Medieval English Literature, pp. 51–65. See also Green, Elf Queens, pp. 163–68.



the wall to enjoy sojourns hunting and dancing outside in the forest, these mangled unfortunates exhibited on the wall were taken by faery magic between the point in time when the life functions of their bodies were fatally compromised but before actual death occurred. For them to be released from the wall at this juncture could only result in the completion of their deaths, and until so released, they exist forever on display in the faery kingdom in some strange and endless state, embedded in or along a wall which demarcates the bounds of life and death, but which blocks their souls’ final recourse to either Heaven or Hell. This wall is also a third space holding its victims forever hybrid both alive and dead at the same time.12 Walter Map’s famous story in De nugis curialium of King Herla, a victim of a faery king’s cursed blessing, plays on the journey metaphor associated with dying.13 At first, things go well. Herla invites the faery king to his wedding and finds himself lavished with gifts. When Herla travels to the other land for the faery king’s wedding to bestow his own lavish gifts upon the happy occasion, he and his men are well received and feasted. When after three days Herla is ready to depart, the faery king presents him 12  Constance Davies, for one, argued in “Classical Threads” that this wall is Purgatory (p. 165). However, as Curtis Jirsa has pointed out in “Arboreal Folklore in Sir Orfeo”, “none of the unfortunates assembled within the walls of the fairy castle is being actively punished in this otherworld” and “Another difficulty with the alignment of the fairy realm with the Christian otherworld is that the fairy king does not fit the iconography or behaviour normally befitting the devil in medieval romance, for he keeps his word and holds to his promise to Orfeo to release Heurodis as a reward for his harping”. See also Elizabeth Allen’s discussion in “Death and Romance in Sir Orfeo” and particularly that of Tara Williams in “Fairy Magic”, pp.  541–547. Paralleling Faery with Hell in this text is even more theologically challenging, given nulla redemptio in inferno, though an allegorical/exegetical reading equating Orfeo as a type of Christ rescuing Herodis in a symbolic re-enactment of the Harrowing of Hell can solve the problem. Although such is not to current critical taste, this line has been argued, as for example, by Penelope Doob in Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: “Heurodis is also Eve and the soul lost through sin; Orfeo in the wilderness is also Christ grieving over the sinful human race; Orfeo in the underworld is also Christ harrowing hell and rescuing each soul” (p. 203). 13  Herla’s story is found at Dist. 1, c.11 in Map’s De nugis curialium. For discussion of the Herla legend (also known as Herlequin or Hellequin), see Schmitt’s Medieval Ghosts, pp. 93–121; Green, Elf Queens, pp. 172–77. The story bears some resemblance to the Old Irish Voyage of Bran in which, according to Hebert in Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter on p. 32, “the eponymous hero is allowed to return to the mortal world but finds that a hundred years have passed; he is cautioned not to touch the land. One of the men who accompanies him on the voyage cannot restrain himself, and he leaps from the boat to the shore. He instantly turns to dust”. Bran, too, chooses to avoid transitioning fully into death and accepts a half-­ life with the faery who holds him in her world instead.



with a small dog to carry in his lap, with the strict instruction that Herla and his men are not to dismount until “the dog leapt down from the arms of its bearer”. But time moves much more slowly within the faery king’s domain, as Herla discovers when he attempts to return to his own kingdom only to learn that others, the Anglo-Saxons, now rule the land and that he is barely remembered as an ancient king of the Britons who is said to have long ago disappeared into the side of the mountain. When some of his men dismount against the faery king’s warning, they at once turn to dust. The little dog, of course, never does get down off Herla’s lap, and Herla and his remaining men are doomed to ride forever until the day that it finally does, or they choose to dismount. They too are caught in a type of stasis, one of continuous movement. To stop and dismount means an instantaneous and unmistakable transition into death. But Herla and his men, endlessly riding and riding, cannot be understood as alive because they cannot enjoy the warmth and joy of life at home with family and friends, a warm meal, a hot bath, and a good night’s sleep. They can only continue to ride—an activity of the living, to be sure—but they can never manage of their own volition to transition fully back to life. They are blocked from doing so because it is beyond Herla’s power to force the small dog to get down. On the other hand, Herla and his men remain unwilling to transition completely to death by dismounting and thereby disintegrating into the dust from which they came. By his own choice, Herla is hence forever in transition as a hybrid of life and death, neither the one nor the other, but something caught in the third space between. Nor did this thin but important line separating the living from the dead always require the mediation of the supernatural for the person who desired to achieve such hybrid status in the Middle Ages. In late medieval England, the ceremonies for enclosure of those who chose to enter the anchoritic life mimicked death rituals: the giving of extreme unction (last rites), the recitation of prayers for the dead, and symbolic burial in a coffin as the entrance into the anchorhold was blocked from the outside. What was locked inside that enclosed space separated from the living world was now figuratively dead, a fate which sometimes became literal, too, since as Alexandra Barratt has pointed out, “excavations in several reclusories have uncovered the remains of those who were presumably its former occupants”.14 Nonetheless, of course, even the recluse who never again ventured outside her anchorhold continued to eat, to drink, to breathe,  Barratt, “Wombs and Tombs”, p. 33.




and to perform other biological functions until the last day of her life. Moreover, as feminist research has demonstrated, the anchorite’s cell was figuratively regarded as much a womb and a place of birth as it was a tomb, a place of death. For example, Liz Herbert McAvoy and Mari Hughes-­ Edwards observe in their Introduction to Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs, “The anchorite, like Christ in the stone tomb and as child in Mary’s womb, served as a bridge between life and death, between Fall and redemption, between material and metaphysical, and ultimately as agent of reparation between humanity and its God”.15 Like Herla then, the anchorite too exists by choice as a hybrid of life and death, neither fully one nor wholly the other, but something caught in between. The remainder of this chapter, however, will focus on those medieval English texts in which the supernatural needs to be involved to greater or lesser degrees to create a hybrid caught in the awful third space between life and death. While Latin texts of the period in Britain such as the famous Byland Abbey chronicle written circa 1400 (12 ghost stories), William of Newburgh’s twelfth-century Historia Rerum Anglicarum (4 ghost stories), and of course Walter Map’s well-known De nugis include strange tales of corpses emerging from their graves at night to terrorize, and sometimes even to kill, the living, Middle English literature, although it is heavily derivative of the Latin and French textual traditions, rarely offers its readers anything so exotic as the Norse draugr or the blood-hungry demon knights found in the Middle French text Perlesvaus. Middle English literature, however, does have its revenants, reanimated corpses, headless knights, and perhaps even a corpse bride or two, all of which attest to a persistent belief in figures who exist on the borders between the living and the dead. This chapter discusses how such ‘in-between’ figures were viewed and to what purposes medieval English authors employed them to understand the hybrid nature of being human. Hybridity recognizes the difference of the dead, and yet through the mediation of those caught in between, extinguishes itself through emphasis upon what is held in common.

15  McAvoy and Hughes-Edwards, Anchorites, Wombs, and Tombs, p.  22. See also Sarah Miller, Medieval Monstrosity, p. 130.



The Reanimated Dead Other than the resurrected Christ himself, the most famous case of someone who returned from the dead in Western literature16 is Lazarus, by early tradition thought be to the brother of Martha and Mary Magdalene.17 According to the Gospel of John, chapter 11, Lazarus lay dead in his tomb for four days. To erase any doubt as to Lazarus’s actual physical condition, he is pointedly said to have started to stink: the onset of decomposition proves that Lazarus is in no state of mere unconsciousness and his raising is, therefore, an undoubted miracle. In the Digby Mary Magdalene play, the scene of Lazarus’s return to life is imagined thus: Jesus. Lazer, Lazer, com hethyr to me! Here shall Lazar arise, trussed with towelles, in a shete. Lazar. A, my Makar, my Saviowr, blissyd mott thou be! Here men may know thy werkes of wondyre. Lord, nothing is onpossibill to thee, For my body and my sowle was departyd asonder! I shuld a rottytt, as doth the tondyre, Fleysch from the bonys a consumyd away. Now is aloft that late was ondyr! The goodnesse of God hath don for me here, For he is bote of all balys to onbind, That blissyd Lord that here ded apere.18

16  While there are several cases of living heroes like Aeneas, Hercules, and Theseus who descend to the underworld and then return up to the light of day, the most famous case in the classical literary tradition of someone who died and successfully was returned to life is Alcestis, the faithful wife of Admetus who agreed to exchange her life for her dying husband’s. She was rescued from the underworld by Hercules who wrestled Death for her and brought her back to her husband. Alcestis was highly praised by medieval authors as the epitome of the good wife and her story was well known in the period. Chaucer, for example, recounts the rescue of “goode Alceste” in The Legend of Good Women, F ll. 510–16; G ll. 498–504, but strangely turns her into a daisy afterwards. In Confessio Amantis, Gower twice tells her story, first in Book 7 at ll. 1917–43 and then again in Book 8 at ll. 2640–45, but ends the narrative both times with her death, thereby omitting her resurrection. 17  Lazarus is the third person in the Gospel accounts whom Jesus raises from the dead. The first is the widower’s son (Luke 7. 11–16) and the second is the young daughter of Jarius (Luke 8. 41–56). The account of the raising of Lazarus, however, is by far the most dramatic and he is the only one of the three to be identified by his name. 18  Digby Mary Magdalene, edited by Bevington, ll. 910–20. It should be noted that the raising of Lazarus is included in all four English Cycle plays.



Lazarus himself is not that interesting a character: he is a simple vehicle to deliver the message of Christ’s divinity, His mastery over the powers of Heaven and Hell, of all creation, of life and death. Only one other miracle, the Resurrection of Christ himself, even more emphatically underscores the point of dogma. Indeed, the most intriguing element of Lazarus’s story, as told in some medieval English accounts, is what is not said about him. Although widely honoured by the early Christian church, Lazarus never attained the status of his far more famous sister Mary Magdalene and the story of his dying and coming back to life seems to be the single highlight of his existence. Although the Gilte Legende (the fifteenth-century Middle English version of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea) and the Early South-English Legendary both include details that Lazarus, too, was aboard the ship that brought Mary Magdalene to Marseilles and that he later became a bishop,19 Lazarus does not merit his own chapter in either text and his raising in the Gilte Legende is told as part of his sister’s story.20 We, however, may feel that there ought to be many questions asked of his narrative and of Lazarus’s status within it.21 Because raising the dead calls attention to the body, Lazarus upon his return could be considered as alive, or as a reanimated corpse, or as something else that remains caught in-between the states of life and death, differences manifested in the degree to which the living welcome or shun his renewed physical presence among them. Does Lazarus, in sum, spawn hybridic anxiety in the living around him by being too dead? Lazarus acts as a convenient narrative mechanism to preach upon doctrine, as happens in the conclusion to the Towneley Raising of Lazarus pageant in which Lazarus, after his raising, directly addresses the audience for over a hundred lines, more than half of the pageant, to sermonize about the horrors of death upon the body, the abandonment of the dead by the living, the continuous need to perform good deeds to be prepared for death, and the very real possibility of damnation for those who fail to 19  Gilte Legende, edited by Hamer, 90.61, Vol. I, on p. 471; Early South-English Legendary, edited by Horstmann, 66.167–76 on p. 467, 66.537 on p. 477. 20  The confused account of Mary Magdalene in the Early South-English Legendary omits the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. 21  Mary Hayes, in “The Lazarus Effect”, intriguingly notes, without elaboration, Lazarus’s “cultural association with cyborgs” (p.  445) but she also likens him to an extra on The Walking Dead (p. 446)—necessary to play a role, but not nearly as important or interesting as the main characters around him.



amend their lives. From the edge of his opened tomb just a few steps beyond death, Lazarus preaches at length to the audience, but there is no return response from the crowd, and their silence suggests a division between Lazarus and the rest of his community. Lazarus is, and is not, a part of the community to whom he speaks. Chester is the only Cycle play to include Lazarus as a character again after his raising. In it, Lazarus is shown as an accepted member of his community. In the fourteenth pageant, Christ’s Visit to Simon the Leper, Lazarus briefly speaks at Simon’s house. First, Lazarus greets Jesus upon his arrival at Bethany, and then he recalls his debt of gratitude to Jesus for raising him from the dead.22 On the other hand, as much as the scene is welcoming and inclusive of Lazarus as part of this small group which includes his two sisters thereby pointing to his sameness, it simultaneously grounds him in difference by separating and distancing all those gathered to meet Jesus in Bethany. At the start of the pageant, Simon the host is quickly identified three times as a leper (ll. 5, 14, 18), underscoring the point that this entire sanctified little community, Lazarus included, is distinct and different from the worldly society that exists threateningly around it. The presence of disabled, polluted, dangerous bodies within the holy community—a leper, a whore, a reanimated corpse—underscores the animosity and anxiety of the secular world which fears the contrary difference of the redeemed. In comparison, in John Mirk’s sermon for Palm Sunday in the Festial, the hybrid body of Lazarus is caught somewhere between acceptance and shunning. According to Mirk, Jesus takes the raised Lazarus with him on the road to Jerusalem and “whanne þe pepul herdun þat, alle ȝode aȝenus him, boþe for wondur of þe man þat was reysyd from deth to lyue, and also for to done Cryste worchep”.23 Lazarus seems regarded by the larger populace as a curious spectacle, something to gaze upon when the opportunity affords itself. He has become, in effect, a monster. Yet beyond being pushed to the narrative sidelines by more exciting events and characters, Lazarus also remains a liminal figure because he never transitions back to the life which he once enjoyed but he remains a death/life hybrid. One of the few medieval English texts to expand further upon what happened to Lazarus after his experience with death is the early fourteenth-century Prick of Conscience, which offers the curious tidbit that  The Chester Play: Christ’s Visit to Simon the Leper, edited by Matthews, ll. 25–32.  Mirk, edited by Powell, 25.10–13, Vol. I, on pp. 100–01.

22 23



Lazarus lived for fifteen years after his resuscitation, but that he never so much as cracked a smile in all that time. Yhit lyfed he aftir fiften yhere, Bot he lughe never ne made blythe chere For drede of dede þat he efte most dryghe And of þe paynes þat he saw with eghe.24

Lazarus’s dour behaviour imitates Jesus’s own. As Holly Johnson observes in The Grammar of Good Friday, it is a “medieval commonplace that Christ was never reported to have laughed, but he did weep three times”.25 For Lazarus, the Prick of Conscience account shows Lazarus as deferential to Christ: he could say more about the horrors of hell to the assembled party at Martha’s table, but he chooses not to out of respect for Christ who is present. On the other hand, as we might expect, Lazarus’s death experience is profoundly transformative. Having died before the Redemption, Lazarus is not saddened by what he had and lost in returning to life—the joys of Heaven—but by what he saw firsthand—the tortures of Hell. The inability to laugh or even to smile again after having witnessed the horrors of Hell suggests that some part of Lazarus either remains there, or that he fears to return there, or that perhaps he feels enormous sorrow for all those he knows (will) someday languish there. While the raised Lazarus may not be shunned as a freak by his close community, he clearly shuns the monstrous secular world around him in fundamental aspects of social engagement. His story narratively embodies the figurative life/death hybridity of the recluse enclosed in her cell, both remaining ensconced in a third space. 24  Prick of Conscience, edited by Ralph Hanna and Sarah Wood, ll. 6517–20. The claim that Lazarus lived for a further fifteen years is unusual. According to the literary note prepared by Hanna and Wood in their edition of the text, “We have not located a source for PC’s statement that Lazarus lived for fifteen years after being raised from the dead; according to the life of Mary and Martha by Hrabanus Maurus, Lazarus lived for twenty-four more years (PL 112: 1490)” (p. 343 n6503–24). 25  Johnson, The Grammar of Good Friday, p. 123. The number of times Jesus wept varies according to text and author. For instance, in Middle English Sermons, edited by Ross, Jesus is said to weep four times (l. 33 on p. 271), while in A Late Fifteenth-Century Dominical Sermon Cycle, edited by Morrison, the number is said to be five (“Trinity 10”, 51.8–103, Vol. II, on pp.  300–03). Neither text, however, mentions Jesus ever laughing. In The Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, edited by Robert Easting, Chapter 31, ll. 1763–73, on p. 103, religious folk who indulge in “inmoderate lawghyng” are punished in Purgatory with severe beatings.



The Prick of Conscience follows up its short account of the afterlife of Lazarus with an unusual twist on the apocryphal story from the Gospel of Nicodemus of the sons of Simeon, Lenthius, and Carius (Leucius and Karinus), who come out of their graves after the Harrowing of Hell in order to bear witness to Christ’s triumph over death and Hell.26 Dead for an even longer period of time, the treatment of this pair in The Prick of Conscience is similar to that of Lazarus. In this text, Lenthius and Carius are said to live for an indefinite period afterward, but like Lazarus “þai lyfed here ay in penaunce,/And never aftir made blithe continance” (ll. 6537–38). Theirs, too, is a restored life that never breaks its link with having been dead. A similar pattern can be observed in the influential story of the family man who dies and then comes back to life, as first told by Bede in Book 5, Chapter 12 of the Historia Ecclesiastica in one of the earliest ‘vision of Purgatory’ accounts of the Middle Ages.27 Drychthelm is a good man who lives a secular life with his wife and children and who dies during the night but then revives at daybreak. Yet having seen a vision of what awaits beyond, in his post-Redemption case neither Heaven nor Hell but a purgatorial place of cleansing fire for those saved who had left repentance to the last minute and a pleasant flowery limbo-like zone for those who had lived a good life but yet did not merit immediate entry into Heaven, Drychthelm has no intention of returning to his old secular life even with a loving wife by his side. Much more explicitly detailed than Lazarus’s story as found in The Prick of Conscience, Drychthelm’s life after his return from death is utterly transformed and he never goes back to the comfortable worldly life he once enjoyed. Profound new discoveries about the inadequacy of a secular life have resulted from his entering the third space of the dying and Drychthelm immediately seeks out a church to pray, he does good works by dividing his estate into three equal parts to give away to his wife, his children, and the poor, and eventually he becomes a reclusive monk who lives under the severest physical discipline and who avoids all contact with those of an uncommitted religious life. He shuns the world, enclosing himself in a third space separate from the life and community he once knew. 26  As with Lazarus, the treatment in Prick of Conscience is again unusual. The standard account appears in Cursor Mundi, edited by Mous, for example. Upon finishing their written accounts of the Harrowing of Hell Lentheus and Carius are immediately transfigured into figures of brilliant white and disappear forever from the sight of men (ll. 18,497–500). 27  Bede’s story, for instance, is briefly recounted in The Alphabet of Tales, edited by Macleod Banks, CCCLXXXIV, as well as by John Mirk in Festial, 1.121–45, Vol. I, on pp. 6–7.



The fifteenth-century Middle English adaptation of the Vision of Tundale, a text originally written in Latin in 1149 and set in Ireland in the mid twelfth century, offers a storyline similar to Bede’s narrative, but with the stakes raised considerably higher for its eponymous hero. Unlike the good man Drychthelm, Tundale is known for his great wickedness. He dies suddenly but then mysteriously reanimates after three days. As expected, Tundale’s death experience is transformative, although the poet deals with the aftereffects of what happened to him in a perfunctory manner: Tundale promises to amend his life, he receives the sacraments of penance and the eucharist, he counsels others to change their lives for the better, and he gives away to the poor all his worldly belongings to live a holy existence apart from the secular world for the rest of his allotted span of years, all in the last 90 lines or so of a 2380-line poem. The Tundale poet’s main interest lies instead in detailing the horrors and the wonders of what comes after death, of which there are about 2000 lines worth of information. Yet the poet also provides an interesting account as to what happened when Tundale died. After eighty lines of Tundale’s bad character and sinful life being described in detail by the narrator, Tundale drops suddenly dead to the floor at dinner, but not before he manages to call upon God for mercy. Six times the text explicitly refers to Tundale as dead.28 Indeed, Wen Tundale fell don sodenly, The gost departyd sone from the body. As sone as the body was dedde, Tho sowle was sone in a dark stede. (ll. 117–20)

Tundale’s body is treated by the living as a corpse: it is laid out, the bells are rung, the Placebo and dirge are sung. And yet, for all his evident deadness, Tundale’s friends are in no hurry to have him buried because, in spite of his emphatic deadness, at least some of his companions regard him as “not all dead” (l. 109) due to the evidence of the median vein on his left side which is still somewhat warm.29 Tundale, that is, does not feel quite dead to the touch, though he may look and act the part. The difference is not absolute. According to the logic of this story therefore, there must be  Vision of Tundale, edited by Foster, l. 98, l. 102, l. 106, l. 111, l. 115, and l. 119.  Tundale, that is, has a lucky escape from a premature burial. An even luckier escape can be found in the poem The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls found in Codex Ashmole 61 in which a holy monk dies and is given a vision of Heaven and Purgatory. He revives just as his body is about to be lowered into the grave, ll. 455–460. 28 29



gradations of death, from not dead at all, to a little bit dead, to half dead, to mostly dead, to all dead. Even on the Elucidarium’s fast track to Hell, until one is all dead, one must be a hybrid in transition between life and death and a little bit alive, leaving the way open for Tundale to come back fully to life and by the mercy of God receive a second chance at salvation. Tundale had not yet apparently crossed past wherever the mysterious line or wall is located after which nulla redemptio in inferno would apply to his damned soul. For Lazarus, the sons of Simeon, Drychthelm, and Tundale, their first, short time being dead leaves them all changed men because their death is a conversion experience. The message, moreover, is clear that only those of strict religious life will have a chance at passage towards the rest, the homeland, and the eternal life which are held out as the consoling thoughts for the grieving audience of Simon’s anonymous funeral sermon. Though brought back fully to life, these men all remain by their choice life/death hybrids, dead to the dead secular world around them but alive in a newly found commitment to religious life in a new community which shuns all secular experience. Their stories all emphasize the same message of exclusivity as the small group of the faithful gathered at Simon the leper’s house in Bethany and as the anchorite enclosed in her cell. Their hybridity points to sameness with religious life.

The Reanimated Secular Dead While tales of those resuscitated dead converted to religious life focus upon the continued life/death hybridity of their subjects, the far less common secular tales do not. The Gilte Legende offers a variation on the story of the dead man who comes back to life, but one that delivers a doctrinal message designed for those of a secular estate. A knight devoted to Mary Magdalene is slain in battle: “and as his frendes wepte for hym atte his bere they sayden in suete compleyninge wise to Mari Mauudelein: ‘A, good lady, whi hast thou suffered thi devouute seruaunt to deye witheoute shrifte and penaunce?’ And thanne he that was dede arose sodeynly before hem alle and lete call a preest to hym and shroue hym with gret deuocion and receiued the sacrement, and thane anone he rest in pees” (90.341–47, Vol. I, on p. 479). Presented as a miracle of Mary Magdalene, this brief narrative delivers three doctrinal messages. The first is the necessity and power of the church’s sacraments. Despite his pious devotion to the saint, the knight who experienced sudden death in battle is not in a fit state to rest in peace until he receives the sacrament of penance. The knight has died, as Alan Fletcher terms it in The Presence of Medieval English Literature,



an “uncomfortable death … at which the technocrats of death, the clerics, were not in ministering attendance … dying outside of a secure context”.30 The saint’s intervention provides the missing secure context and thereby the absent priest is made present. Afterwards, the knight does not have to live out another fifteen years and guard against his falling back into sin, as does the saintly Lazarus in The Prick of Conscience, but he immediately dies a second time to find his eternal rest. The story is something of a cheat in that the revived knight was devout. His brief raising only makes it possible for the knight to pass lightly through Purgatory and go on into Heaven because there is no suggestion that this knight might be damned. Thus, the knight’s reanimation is not a controversial case of the saint yanking some undeserving soul out of Hell to give him or her a second chance at salvation, as comes close to happening in Tundale and is prevented only by the narrative point of view being espoused that Tundale was not in fact all dead and that, therefore, his soul had yet to arrive in Hell.31 Questionable vernacular theology or not, the Middle English Tundale adheres to the belief that Hell is not a third space through which one transits on to somewhere else, but it sticks to its narrative claim that Tundale’s soul had not reached this destination from which there is no escape. The Gilte Legende’s knight, in contrast, was never in danger of such an end. The story’s second and third doctrinal messages concern the help available to souls languishing in the third space of Purgatory. Although dead herself, Mary Magdalene can still intervene on behalf of her knight to help 30  Fletcher, The Presence of Medieval English Literature, p.  59. Fletcher is discussing Sir Orfeo in this reference. 31  The most famous instance of a saint pulling a damned soul out of Hell is Gregory the Great’s rescue of the pagan emperor Trajan. There are many retellings of this event in medieval literature and these stories account variously for how Trajan could be rescued by the saint. In English, for example, it is briefly told in the Alphabet of Tales (DXCII) and more fully in Piers Plowman at B.11.140–56. The episode is controversial in Piers Plowman because it speaks to the salvation of the non-Christian on the grounds of good works alone. However, Piers Plowman remains opaque regarding Trajan’s salvation in no small part because it narrates the event only from the not necessarily reliable point of view of Trajan. Speaking of the Trajan scene in Piers Plowman, Gillian Rudd points out on p.  183  in Managing Language that, according to some versions of the Legenda Aurea, Gregory was severely reprimanded by God for presuming to pray for the otherwise damned Trajan and that Gregory was even punished with ill-health for the remainder of his life for his intervention. Trajan’s escape from Hell, that is, does not establish a precedent for the salvation of the heathen because it “is made very clear that this is to be a unique event”.



him, such is the accepted power of saints. Equally important is the ability of the living to help the life/death hybrid through prayer. The knight dies too suddenly in battle to pray for himself at the last moment as Tundale and Humanum Genus manage to do in their stories. Indeed, the possibility of sudden death is precisely the reason why the moralists warn in plays like Everyman, The Castle of Perseverance, and the Towneley Raising of Lazarus not to leave confession to the last moment. It is the knight’s grieving friends in the Gilte Legende through their challenging words who invite Mary Magdalene to correct a cosmic wrong. The knight is granted the opportunity to enter Heaven quickly only because his friends ask the favour for him. Their words are answered by the intercession of the Magdalene and the action of Christ. Continued social bonds between the living and the dead are thus shown to matter as hybridity demonstrates its power to point towards sameness. If the living friends had not asked, the miracle would not have happened and the dead knight, while he would have eventually reached Heaven on his own, would have spent a much longer time as a life/death hybrid in the third space enduring the cleansing trials of Purgatory. Another example of the efficacy of prayer to help the life/death hybrid is found in Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s early fourteenth-century penitential handbook Handlyng Synne in the case of the man who dies suddenly while working and swearing on a Saturday, a half holy day devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary during which time secular labour is forbidden. After swearing he will work on Saturday nevertheless, Dowun he smote hys mattok, And fyl hym self ded as a stoke. … Þe caytefe lay, and myȝt nat speke; Furþ, for ded, men gan hym streke; Men cryde fast ‘a prest, a prest.’ But no wrde come out of hys brest. As þey stode, & made grete þrong, A gode man stode hem a-mong, And seyd ‘þys man ys at þe ded; wyl ȝe do alle at my rede?’32

 Robert Mannyng of Brunne, Handlyng Synne, edited by Furnivall, ll. 939–40, ll. 943–50.




The phrasing and the simile are significant because they make it doubtful that this man was close to being all dead, as the language of Tundale would term it. At line 949, the man “ys at þe ded”, the point of death, not dead per se. Beyond the inadvertent humour of a curiously homicidal Virgin Mary angrily throttling the sinner with her hand for the disrespect shown to her, noticeably it is the quick intervention of his workmates’ prayers that restores the man to life. Social bonds are again highlighted. The divisive difference within the community opened up by the man’s swearing and working on a holy day is closed by his neighbours’ quick choice to help the disruptor as he is dying.33 Choked by the mysterious hand firmly gripping his throat, the man is incapable of pleading for mercy: like the knight in the Magdalene story, his body seems to have crossed the line past life wherein he would be able to help himself. However, he is not yet dead to the point where his workmates cannot intervene on his behalf and save him, body and soul. Moreover, he is not yet dead to the point where only the intervention of a clergyman will help him, another detail which suggests that unlike the knight, this life/death hybrid is not very dead at all. The mysterious hand choking him possesses its own notable hybridity in that, while it is clearly the hand of the offended Virgin, only a demon would have the motivation to prevent a dying sinner from praying for mercy. The hand acts in both holy and profane capacities.

Tales of the Resurrected Christ Despite Lazarus’s refusal to smile or laugh after his return, one should not discount the possibility of some humour in the telling of these otherwise grim and serious tales of the raised dead. The angry Virgin Mary throttling the man who offended her affords one likely example of humour. Another case in point is Peter Damian’s anecdote of the resurrected chicken as told in its English fifteenth-century translation in The Alphabet of Tales: ij frendis at wer gossops satt to-gedur samen at meate at a feste; and þai war servid̛ of a boylid̛ cokk̘. & þe tone tuke his knyfe & kutt it in sonder in pecis; & he putt þeron peper & musterd̛. And when̛ he had done, þe toder sayd vnto hym̛; ‘Gossop̛, þou hase broken̛ þis cokk̘ so þat, & Saynt Petur wolde 33  See Leanne Groenevold’s brief discussion of swearing as a sin against community in this exemplum at pp. 87–88.



nevur so, it myght nevur com̛ samen agayn̛.’ And the toder ansswerd̛ hym̛ agayn̛ & sayd̛; ‘Not now, & Saynt Petir, bod also & Criste hym̛ selfe wold̛ commawnd̛, þis Cokk̘ sulde nevur ryse.’ And onone as he had sayd̛, þis cokk̘ starte vpp̛ with his fedurs on̛, & clappid̛ samen hys wengis & krew; & þai mot se clefe in his fedurs all̵ ̵ þe liquor̛ at was putt on̛ hym̛. & with þe sprenclyng of his wengis, þe peper & þe sauce light vppon̛ bathe thies gosseps, & with þat þai wer streken̛ with a lepre whilk held̛ þaim vnto þer lyvis end̛, & made ane end̛ of þaim.34

Verbally and visually, the story of the resurrected chicken’s vengeance upon its would be diners is humorous, although the consequences of the actions described are dire and the tale is spoken as a serious warning against blasphemy. The narrative details have considerable allegorical resonance: against divine might, the two revellers pit their power to inflict death upon the dead, a chicken already plucked, gutted, and boiled. Their foolish banter can be read as an inadvertent dare, one to which, unfortunately for them, the Divine responds: the Cock does indeed rise again, and the condiments meant to add tasty relish to its flesh inflict disfiguring disease instead upon the bespattered bodies of the two revellers. The impure, leprous, disabled body this time around is that of the sinner now divided from the community. That the sanctified corpse is a cock specifically, its body broken into pieces by the foolish diner and readied with pepper and mustard to be feasted upon, recalls first and foremost that one of the rooster’s allegorical significances, as F. J. E. Raby reminds us in his explanatory note to a famous hymn by Prudentius, is as “a symbol of Christ, waking our souls to life .… So sleep is an image of death, and the cock whose crowing puts to flight demons which haunt us in the darkness is a type of Christ. It was at cock-crow that the Lord returned from the

34  Alphabet of Tales CXVII. The original source of this anecdote is Peter Damian, De divina omnipotentia 13. PL145.615D-616A. A less grisly version of chickens returning to life is the famous story of the rooster and the hen in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a stop on the pilgrimage route to Compostela. A young man, falsely accused of theft, is hanged but brought back to life through the intervention of St. Dominic of Calzada (or St. James). His parents joyfully go to inform the magistrate that their son lives, miraculous proof of his innocence. However, the magistrate quips that he would sooner believe that the roast chicken he was about to enjoy for dinner would rise up and crow. At that, the rooster and hen jump up from his plate and begin to sing. For some historical context to the Santo Domingo de la Calzada rooster and hen miracle, see Lena Cowen Orlin’s “A Case for Anecdotalism”, pp. 65–67.



dead”.35 Thus, in their words and actions, the two gossips, just like the foul-mouthed denizens of the tavern in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, have reenacted the Crucifixion, tearing and violating the divine body even as their anticipation of a delicious feast suggests the eucharistic sacrament. Ultimately, this chicken which rises from the dead should remind us not of the stories of Lazarus, Drychthelm, and their like, but the risen Cock is a mirror of Christ Himself. The hybrid nature of this tale is centred neither in the chicken nor in the sinful diners, but in the bifurcated narrative text itself. There are two narratives present in the anecdote, with the sacred story of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection layered over the horror story of two diners having their dinner turn upon them. The layering adds thematic resonance to the hybrid narrative without demanding formal or consistent exegesis to draw it out. Indeed, the association that any story may have with the Resurrection of Christ can be far more oblique than the anecdote of the resurrected chicken taken from Peter Damian. In the late thirteenth-­ century romance Amis and Amiloun, for example, Amis cuts the throats of his two infant children to heal his friend Amiloun from leprosy because their life blood is needed to anoint Amiloun to cure him. The impure, leprous body once again is foregrounded by the action. After killing his 35  Raby, explanatory note to Prudentius’s “Hymn at Cock-crow” in Medieval Latin Verse, p. 452 n16, reference to p. 19. See also Ambrose’s hymn by the same name in this volume (#9). A similar application of the rooster as a symbol for the crucified Christ, though taken from medicine rather than cookery, is found on p. 216 in Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster’s Le livre de seyntz medicines, edited by Batt, in which as a cure for frenzy a physician “takes a red cockerel and splits it open and dismembers it completely and draws it apart fully, and this must be placed, still hot, with all the blood, feathers and all, on the delirious patient’s head”. As a remedy for spiritual delirium, the rooster, killed “in such great torment”, cures the disease because the “cockerel that must be placed on one’s head, all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot, and with all its feathers, is the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn, when we were in darkness and in shadows …. One could call this cockerel the victor of three battles, won in a single day. The first was against sin, the second against the devil, the third against death, which was the hardest, for this was death for death” (p. 217). Henry uses a chicken culinary metaphor later in his text, again in reference to Christ: after putting a capon in a tightly-sealed little earthenware pot, “then you hang it over the fire, in another container full of water, and cook it until it is more than well done; and you take the broth that comes from it and give it to the invalid, and it makes a very nourishing dish” (p.  240). Henry explains that the chicken represents the humanity of Christ, which at Gethsemane the night before the Crucifixion sweated drops of blood equivalent to the drops of moisture which trickle from the capon as it cooks sealed in the pot to create the medicinal broth.



children, who are too young to offer any resistance to their father’s act of violence, Amis puts them carefully back to bed and then goes off with their blood collected in a basin to help his friend, Amiloun. There is considerable lead up to the murder and its aftermath: Amis and Amiloun are visited three times by an angel who instructs Amis to kill his children and then anoint his friend with their blood to cure him. The lifeblood of the dying innocents is the necessary ingredient for the leper’s cure. Amis expresses great woe at the thought of the grisly deed, but he does eventually follow through on the killings and he even takes pains to stage the scene so that he might not be later identified as the murderer. After the killings, both Amis and Amiloun express grief and regret, and the next morning the dutiful wife, Belisaunt, agrees with Amis’s choice of his friend’s health over their children’s lives. Sche comfort him ful yare, ‘O lef liif’, sche seyd tho, ‘God may sende ous childer mo, Of hem have thou no care.’36

The parents even visit Amiloun to check on his health first before going in together to discover what they expect will be the grisly sight of their dead children. In contrast to their dying, there is very little made of the children’s surprise raising from the dead: Amis and Belisaunt simply rejoice and thank God to find their two children playing together in their crib, none the worse for wear for having violently died the night before. For such a profound moment in any parent’s life, the poet’s treatment of the dead children and their return to life is certainly offhand. Indeed, in his edition of the romance, Edward E. Firth argues “the children are, miraculously, found alive and well. In other circumstances, this could be accepted as hagiographic, a ‘miracle of the Virgin’ or the intervention of some patron saint. But the world is already too messy for easy acceptance of this resolution …. Rather, the preservation (resurrection?) of the children simply provides an assertively happy ending”.37 Yet not all critics have taken such a dim view of the poet’s thematic capabilities. Corinne Saunders, for one, argues that this romance expresses  Amis and Amiloun, edited by Firth, ll. 2391–94.  Firth, “Introduction to Amis and Amiloun”, pp. 5–6.

36 37



a fundamentally Christian vision of existence as both Crucifixion and Resurrection are layered over the story. Saunders claims, “The story plays on the legendary power of blood, the central symbol of Christianity …. The physical sacrifice of the children even more completely echoes that of Christ, and their innocent blood, like Christ’s, restores the sufferer. Their passive innocence renders the scene profoundly disturbing, yet in their death and resurrection and in Amylion’s leprosy and healing, God’s absolute power over the body is manifest”.38 Lending some support to Saunders’s often forced argument regarding Amis and Amiloun is the Alphabet of Tales version of this same story.39 In this account, just like the bells which ring out at the moment of consecration during the mass, church bells mysteriously ring out when Amiloun is cured of his leprosy. Leprosy, too, is a disease which has its own allegorical link to Christ. In Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins, Virginia Langum points to at least one homilist who “correlates the symptoms of leprosy with the humiliations suffered by Christ. People flee from lepers and observe them with horror; the wicked despise lepers”.40 In The Grammar of Good Friday, Johnson references the work of this same homilist as well as several other sermons in which Christ is said to have been spat upon or abused like a leper as part of the Crucifixion narrative.41 Whether or not one accepts the premise that such a deeply eucharistic and christological message is in play, or appropriate, at the end of Amis and Amiloun, there is at least something loosely satisfying in the structural parallelism evident between the two close friends who will shortly in the text die together on the same day and be buried together in the same grave, and the two innocent children who are mysteriously found alive together in one bed. Social bonds are again emphasized, as the willingness of the parents to sacrifice their children to save a friend seems to have been enough to break the curse of leprosy on Amiloun. Another case of a narrative hybridic binary around resurrection and the death of children is found in Gower’s treatment of the conclusion to Medea’s story in Confessio Amantis, a tale which being taken from pagan mythology likely removes it from any easily explicit Christian influence  Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural, p. 222.  Alphabet of Tales, LV. 40  Langum, Medicine and the Seven Deadly Sins, p. 87. 41  Johnson, The Grammar of Good Friday, p.  51, pp.  77–78, p.  125, p.  202, p.  360, and p. 394. 38 39



upon its message. Even more clearly than the loose logic of the conclusion of Amis and Amiloun, Medea’s story at its finish as told by Gower is a matter of life and death in a dreadful balance. On the one hand, Medea rejuvenates Aeson, Jason’s aged father, by stabbing him in the side with a sword to let out his old, feeble, and cold blood. Although it is not explicitly said to be such, the stroke could be regarded a killing blow. And tho sche tok unto his us Of herbes al the beste jus, And poured it into his wounde; That made his veynes fulle and sounde, And tho sche made his wounde clos, And tok his hand, and up he ros.42

Into the wound Medea pours her specially prepared witches’ brew and then afterward she gives Aeson a magical draught to drink. Aeson rises again a strong and youthful man. The efficacy of this potion is witnessed not only by the old man’s revitalization, but also by the restoration of the dry olive branch which Medea used to stir her concoction: The which anon gan floure and bere And waxe al freissh and grene agein. (5.4144–45)

If Jason’s father cannot be confirmed as dead when the potion is administered to the wound in his side, the dry state of the stick before it is used to stir the ingredients certainly attests to its lifelessness. Yet, Medea, of course, is as capable of taking life as she is of giving it back again. Evident in grim counterpoint to her rejuvenation of Jason’s aged father done out of love, less than one hundred lines later in the narrative she will kill out of hate Jason’s two young sons after he betrays her with another woman (5.4215–16). Hybridity extinguishes itself as the young die while the old live on. The fates of the two exist in hybridic narrative parallel to each other.

 Gower, Confessio Amantis, edited by Peck, 5.4161–66.




Corpse Brides and Things That Will Not Die Among the miracles associated with Mary Magdalene in the Gilte Legende is the well-known story of the husband and wife who undertake a journey by sea from Marseilles to Jerusalem.43 The wife is pregnant with their long-desired first child, but when the wife dies in childbirth on the difficult journey, both mother and child are lost. There being no one on board to nurse the newborn, the infant is abandoned to perish naturally with its dead mother, both left on shore under the husband’s mantel. Two years later, on his homeward journey, the husband happens to stop and visit the rocky site where in his grief he had left his wife and infant son. and whanne they come thedir they founde the childe playenge upon the see syde as it was wonte, and he mervailed gretly what it might be and come thedir. And whanne the childe seigh hym whiche hadde neuer see no suche thinge before he was aferde and fledde priuely vnto the brestes of his moder and hidde hym vnder the mantell. And thanne the pilgrim went tor to see more clerely this thinge and seigh the childe that was right faire sukkinge the breste of his moder. (90.194–201, Vol. I, on p. 475)

When the husband prays to Mary Magdalene in gratitude for his son’s life, the dead wife miraculously “respires” and then she recounts to her husband all the wondrous sights and people she has witnessed in Jerusalem with Mary Magdalene as her guide for the past two years. These are all the same places and people as visited by her husband with St. Peter as his companion. The family unit restored, husband, wife, and child return home to Marseilles and convert to Christianity, promptly disappearing from the narrative to presumably live ordinary lives happily ever after. There is no logic here, only miracle. The dead mother’s corpse neither decomposes nor ceases to lactate for want of nourishment, and the abandoned infant is neither eaten by wild birds and animals nor exposed to the negative effects of the elements, all due to the diligent care of Mary Magdalene who somehow can project her presence all the way from Marseilles to be in three locations at the same time (Marseilles, the grave site, and Jerusalem). 43  See also anecdote CCCCLVIII in The Alphabet of Tales, ll. 1566–1989 of the Digby Mary Magdalene Play, 66.303–538 on p.  471  in the Early South-English Legendary, and John Mirk’s sermon in his Festial for Mary Magdalene’s feast day (49.75–150, Vol. I, on pp. 186–88) for four other Middle English renditions of this famous story. Theresa Coletti discusses the Digby version of this narrative at pp. 151–152 and pp. 161–163.



Certain aspects of this miracle recall some stories in Map’s collection of strange tales, De nugis curialium, namely, the motif of the corpse bride whom a man brings back with him from the otherworld. In one of Map’s stories, the wife even bears children after her return from the dead.44 Unlike the facially marked sons of Melusine, the children in Map’s story bear no signs of their mother’s hybrid life/death ‘other’ origins. Herodis in Sir Orfeo can also be read as a corpse bride reclaimed for the living by her husband from the faery other/underworld. Elizabeth Allen, for example, argues that Herodis is dead and unable to return to her old life.45 Tara Williams agrees, stating “Heurodis never recovers after the fairies abduct her – never returns to being fully human”.46 Though Orfeo gets his wife’s physical form back, some essential element of her remains behind in Faery, signified by her silence. However, not all corpse brides and their mates are so fortunate as this pair even if Orfeo and Herodis remain childless within their marriage. Map also tells the tale of the Haunted Shoemaker of Constantinople who copulates with a dead woman’s corpse which nine months later gives birth to a monstrous head which kills anyone who looks upon it.47 The head, seemingly derived from the story of Medusa, is a literal life/death hybrid which transits biologically the borders of life and death, an obvious warning against necrophilia as a repugnant, monstrous act. A similar story is found in Mandeville’s Travels: the dead woman of Satalia who under similar circumstances gives birth to a “hede riȝt hidous to se” that flies about the countryside and soon destroys the entire city, causing it to sink into the sea.48 In both cases, the hybrid result of such a repulsive miscegenation is dire. Notably, the otherworld as described in Map and in the Gilte Legende’s miracle of the Magdalene is markedly different from the grim morality tale constructs of Hell and Purgatory. The third space into which these life/ death hybrids venture must be some other place outside of theology. In Map, mourning his dead wife, the knight of Lesser Brittany finds her dancing among the faeries before he seizes her and brings her back to the human world to continue their happy married life as before. In the Magdalene miracle, the in-between life and death hybrid state seems more  Walter Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. IV, c.8.  Elizabeth Allen, “Death and Romance”. 46  Williams, “Fairy Magic”, p. 557. 47  Map, De nugis curialium, Dist. IV, c.12. 48  The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels, edited by Seymour, p. 17, ll. 6–16. 44 45



of an alternative dream world reality in which the semi-deceased might continue to function as normal—visit, sleep, converse—albeit not being seen or heard by the living as they do so, and the Gilte Legende makes use of the sleep metaphor to describe both mother and child: St. Peter advises the husband, “Be not sori ne hevy thoughe that thi wyff slepe and thi litell sone restithe withe her” (90.178–79, Vol. I, on p. 474), words of comfort suggestive that the wife and child, both impossibly not dead, exist alive but slumbering under the covers in some dream otherworld between life and death. Out of sight until rediscovered on a liminal rocky shore between land and sea, the living child and the dead mother exist in a peculiar hybrid state between life and death. The Mary Magdalene miracle also bears some similarity to another familiar type of character who exists between the living and the dead—‘the thing that will not die’. In the case of the Magdalene story, however, the dead woman is more that type’s inverted opposite—the thing that will not live. Comparable to Tundale’s body but for a much longer period, her corpse is handled by the living not as a thing that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible to prevent disease or contamination, but as a body still potentially alive and worth caring for. First, in fear that his wife might be only in a swoon after childbirth from which she will awaken, her husband begs that her body be not thrown overboard, as an unlucky corpse would soon be from a ship. Yet, she does not live. Her body also avoids the normal treatment of a corpse in the medieval period by escaping burial in the ground. The rock is conveniently too hard to dig a grave and so her body, with her newborn son at her breast, is simply left covered by her husband’s mantel in the most secret place of the mountain as if it were asleep. Yet, she does not live. If her body in death escapes being subject to the treatment of a corpse, it similarly continues to show signs of functioning as if it were alive. For the two years that she is dead, she continues to act as a comforting, caring mother, summed up by her wondrously milk-­providing breasts upon which her son relies for nourishment and to which he runs for protection when approached by strangers. For all that stretch of time, however, she herself does not require the food and drink that the living would need to survive. She does not live, and yet she does not die. The tales that best fit the category of ‘the thing that will not die’ exhibit bodies which have suffered some significant physical trauma and yet continue to function as if alive. For the mother in the Mary Magdalene miracle, the trauma is childbirth. In Orfeo, this pattern is reduced to the list of maimed and mutilated bodies seen by the hero upon his entry into Faery.



Yet, those figures merely lie inert where they are positioned on or in the wall, existent in some apparent sort of temporal suspension between life and death. Only the breasts of the mother in the Gilte Legende function as if alive and the remainder of her body lies in stasis until it respires. However, the best known and truest examples of the ‘thing that will not die’ type in Middle English literature are no doubt those found, first of all, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the Green Knight is decapitated but still capable of movement and conversation as if losing his head were a mere flesh wound,49 and secondly in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, in which the little clergeon has his throat cut to the neck bone and yet continues not only to live, but to speak and sing, though he has strangely lost the ability to walk in spite of suffering no injury to his feet or legs.50 Indeed, the cases of the little clergeon and of the Green Knight both illustrate the larger meaningfulness which the life/death hybrid can bear in the literature, because their status, both alive and dead at the same time, reflects their other duality within their text. The little clergeon is both victim and victimizer. His body is subject to a most horrific act of violence and a callous disregard for human dignity in being cast into a privy. Yet the little clergeon, despite his individual innocence, also displays a dominant culture’s fundamental disrespect for the sensibilities of a marginalized community in his triumphal walk twice a day through the Jewish quarter singing the Christian hymn Alma Redemptoris Mater.51 The child’s throat is instrumental in both respects. His throat is the conduit through which  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by Tolkien, Gordon and Davis, ll. 424–58.  Prioress’s Tale ll. 649–55. 51  Perhaps, as Anthony Bale has argued in The Jew in the Medieval Book, p. 70, the story’s choice of Alma Redemptoris Mater over far more provocative Marian hymns such as Erubescat Judaeus infelix, combined with his young age, can spare the little clergeon from accusation of intentional insult and confrontation. As Brian Lee has noted in “Seen and Sometimes Heard”, on p. 40, about children in the context of this tale, “Then, as now, childhood innocence might imply an excusable irresponsibility equivalent to that of idiots”. Nonetheless, as years of controversy in the twentieth century during the Marching Season associated with July 12 in Northern Ireland attest, noisily displaying one’s dominant status in someone else’s territory can only be provocative and confrontational. The same was doubtless true in the medieval period, as Robert Stacey in “The Conversion of Jews to Christianity” has pointed out on p. 265: “Jews could not avoid the yearly round of Christian feast days and processions as these wound their way through Jewish neighborhoods in an aggressive assertion of Christian dominance and Jewish subjection. The tensions which such interactions promoted erupted occasionally into violence. On Ascension Day 1268 an Oxford Jew violently attacked an ecclesiastical procession marching down St. Aldates (the heart of Oxford’s Jewry), trampling on the processional cross and spitting on it”. 49 50



the song twice a day passes forth (VII 548) to offend the ears of his unwilling audience, and his throat is the part of his body physically violated by a knife. His throat cut to the bone, a physical state necessitating his death yet a throat miraculously still able to act as a passage for song, an act of the living, brings down upon the Jews the full force of the dominant culture’s collective punishment. The Green Knight’s death/life hybridity, a combination of life acts and necessitated death, similarly reflects questions within the text as to who, or what, the Green Knight is. Which form is truthful, the Green Knight or Bertilak or something else? Is Bertilak human or something else, a fairy or a demon? Neatly encapsulating the dilemma which has confounded the many scholars grappling with the text, Ethan Campbell observes of the Green Knight as the character disappears into the woods at the end of the story, “his origins and identity remain obscure, illuminated hardly at all by the revelations about Morgan’s scheme and the temptation game”.52 In retrospect, we can recognize that the life/death hybridity evident in the Magdalene story of the dead wife also points to something else meaningful within the tale, another process which causes hybridity for its duration and which, in this narrative, seems stalled with its subject stuck in between two states: conversion. In his consideration of the Early South-­ English Legendary version of this Magdalene tale, Steven F. Kruger notes its emphasis upon conversion and conversionary moments, both the Magdalene’s own conversions and those of whom she converts. Conversion, of course, is a process, and one might easily think it synonymous with the sea voyage undertaken by the husband and wife. Both conversion and voyage head towards a destination point other than from whence they began. Kruger, however, points out the peculiar application of that metaphor within the context of this narrative: the parents have already promised to convert before their journey over water begins, but instead of moving from pagan Marseilles towards conversion in either Rome or Jerusalem, the location is “repeatedly deferred, and ultimately set back to the point of departure” for it is “the return home, at which point only does the long-ago-completed conversion lead to the institutional marking of conversion, baptism. Already achieved, the conversion is—across long expanses of time and space—held in suspense, not yet

52  Ethan Campbell, The Gawain-Poet and the Fourteenth-Century English Anticlerical Tradition, p. 220.



susceptible to full achievement”.53 As the family unit restored returns home to Marseilles to find fulfilment in the act of baptism and full acceptance into the faith, so too the suspended physical process of dying for wife and child which left them caught in between the two states, reverses and they transit back to full life in the world, yet not quite the same world as husband and wife originally left behind, but a better, Christian, one. In the same way, the wife’s two-year ‘dead yet not dead’ existence, breasts lactating to support her child without her own body requiring nourishment, anticipates the Magdalene’s own thirty years in the desert. Not all such ‘thing that will not die’ stories, however, bear an additional hidden layer of hybridity. One of the cursed dancers of Colbek in the most well-known narrative found in Handlyng Synne is another example of the type, with a straightforward message about the consequences of foolish choices.54 Cursed to sing and dance for twelve months straight for disturbing the priest, her father, while he was saying mass, Aue has her arm pulled off by her brother, who attempts to wrest her free from the grip of the other carollers. But Aue does not bleed out from the gaping wound in her side, and she continues to dance and sing. Her amputated limb itself seems neither dead nor alive but something in-between. Even more so than the body of the dead woman in the Magdalene story, Aue’s arm refuses to be treated as a corpse: all attempts to bury it in the ground are futile since three times by morning the arm somehow makes its way back to the surface. The warning moral of its story will not be buried and conveniently forgotten, for the arm insists upon being remembered and known. Compared to a green branch removed from a living tree, the arm is neither cold and stiff as the limb of a corpse would be, nor yet warm and flexible like the arm of someone alive (l. 9106). Aue seems a true life/death hybrid. She dances and sings—activities of the living—but like the dead, she and the other carollers need neither food nor water, nor even sleep, to sustain themselves. There are several other absences of the living body as well: Frost ne snogh, hayle ne reyne, Of colde ne hete, felte þey no peyne;  Steven F. Kruger, “Times of Conversion”, p. 32.  For three discussions of this famous exemplum, see Kate Greenspan’s “Lessons for the Priest”, Mark Miller’s “Displaced Souls”, and Lynneth Miller Renberg’s “Priests, cursed carolers, and pastoral care”. 53 54



Heere ne nayles neuer grewe, Ne solowed cloþes, ne turned hewe; Þundyr ne lyȝtnyng dyd hem no dere. (ll. 9149–53)

And, of course, they do not bleed. For the twelve long months of the curse, Aue and the other dancers exist in a liminal state suspended in time as living corpses. Just as in the case of Herla, they exist in a stasis of continuous movement. When the curse at long last lifts, the carollers rush as one into the church and all fall down onto the pavement, “As þey hade be dede, or fal yn a swone” (l. 9182). For three days the carollers remain utterly motionless in another uncertain hybrid state, this time between unconsciousness and death, until they finally revive, all except for Aue, who “lay dede beside” (l. 9196), her position relative to life and death finally determined without ambiguity. There is no need for these narratives to explain how such badly maimed bodies can continue to function because the logic is obvious: a supernatural force (divine or otherwise) intervenes according to its own mysterious purpose to ensure that the thing cannot die. These stories dwell on the wondrous and the dreadful in their telling, sometimes on the horrific. The priest’s curse in Handlyng Synne makes certain that his daughter must endure the horror of continuing to dance and sing even after her arm is torn from her body. We understand that the curse will not let her die until its terms and conditions have been met; we do not need to know the theology, if there is any, behind the curse’s ability to get its way. The moral message that his malediction hurts the priest for his foolish cursing as much as it hurts his illegitimate daughter for her foolish carolling likewise is not lost on us: the priest not only enables the continued disruption of his own liturgical services for the duration of a year, but he dies soon after his daughter is finally, incontrovertibly dead. In the same way, in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, we know it is the Virgin Mary’s intervention that preserves the life of the murdered child for as long as the mysterious grain remains on his tongue. He dies peacefully and immediately upon its removal by the holy abbot. Morgan le Fay, of course, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is responsible for whatever strange mechanics are at work to preserve her headless knight after his decapitation. At the end of Malory’s Le Morte DArthur, something similar would seem to be the fate of the gravely wounded Arthur, who perhaps also deserves some recognition as another thing that will not die. When he is transported to the Isle of Avalon Malory’s Arthur exists neither alive in the world nor dead out of it, because



hope is held out that Arthur goes to Avalon to be healed of his grievous wounds and might return someday, while no body is identified to confirm that Arthur is dead.55 Life/death hybrids such as these fantastic sorts point to the sameness of the two states, almost as if they are interchangeable parts.

The Revenant Yet by far the largest category of those hybrids caught in between life and death to be found in Middle English literature is the revenant.56 Christian Livermore, for one, points to the dictionary definitions of revenant: “the term itself … is more broadly used to refer to all those who have returned from the dead, either in body or in spirit. The word ‘revenant’ is a loan word from French (revenant [the returned]; revenir [to return] which meant simply a person who returns after a long absence (1690) and, later, a spirit returned from the dead (1718). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘revenant’ as ‘a person who returns from the dead; a reanimated corpse; a ghost’”.57 Accounts of such creatures based primarily on Latin sources, medieval revenants are commonly assumed in the critical literature to be malign. Charles Hoge, for example, describes the revenant as someone who returns “as an animated, malicious human cadaver” and that “this supernatural monster almost always intends ill toward the living, specifically its immediate relatives, though the tendency to drink the blood of the living and to convert victims into the walking dead themselves does

55  See Green’s fascinating survey in Elf Queens, on pages 147–159, of medieval views, for and against, on the likelihood of Arthur’s return from Avalon. 56  The best historical introduction to the study of ghosts in the classical and medieval periods remains that of Jean-Claude Schmitt in Ghosts in the Middle Ages. In contrast to the many medieval stories about ghosts and revenants, outside of purely literary accounts such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, ghost stories are rarer in the classical period, but they do exist. For example, Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Sura (LXXXIII) recounts three weird stories, most famously that of the ghost with rattling chains who haunted a house in Athens and who revealed the location of his corpse to the philosopher Athenodorus when he rented the premises. The hauntings end once the body receives its proper funeral rites. For other cases, see the primary sources compiled in Ogden’s Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts, pp. 146–75. 57  Christian Livermore, When the Dead Rise, p. 8. As Livermore also notes, “The accounts themselves do not share a universal term for the risen dead, even within time periods”.



not emerge until early-eighteenth-century narratives, at which point it becomes a dominant motif”.58 The typical vernacular English revenant, however, proves to be much tamer: they generally do not rampage through the countryside wreaking havoc and very few of them function as unwelcome reminders of a past which the living would prefer remained dead and buried. Of the 801 anecdotes included in The Alphabet of Tales, forty-four concern the dead, about 6% of the total. Thirteen of these anecdotes are reanimated dead tales (including Peter Damian’s rooster). Of the thirty-one ghost stories, there is only one, DXXIII, derived from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s early thirteenth-­century Dialogus Miraculorum (2.5) which has a malevolent revenant who, in life, “vsid robborie, avowtrie, inceste, & to be mane-­ sworn̛” and who now must be forced away with holy water from lying with his bastard daughter. While he can be struck by material objects like swords, such weapons cannot wound him but only weirdly make “come fro hym̛ swilk a sownd̛ like as þe bed had bene dongen̛ on̛ with mellis”. His uncanny corporeality underscores his life/death hybridity. Like the living, he can move his limbs. Like many of the living, he is driven by sexual lust and most horrific of all, he can engage in sexual intercourse.59 Yet his body, its physical presence insisted upon by the simile’s sound of heavy hammers hitting a mattress, is dead. Unlike the living, being struck by a sword does not stop the revenant from seeking the sexual satisfaction he craves. But DXXIII is the only such malevolent revenant included in The Alphabet of Tales. Another tale, DCCIV, tells of the corpse of a usurer who “went oute of his grafe on̛ þe nyght & cryed & mayd̛ grete noyce, & threw of þe thakk of þer dortur, & fure fule with þe monkis & flayed̛ þaim & did̛ mekull̵ ̵ skathe. & on̛ þe morn̛ his bodie was fon̛ with-oute þe cetie, and it was broght agayn̛ & putt into þe grafe”. Yet this revenant, though violent, kills or sickens no one: he wants to be forgotten, and he, possessive of speech, willingly informs the monks that he leaves his grave each night because it is inappropriate for him to lie buried in sacred ground and that the monks need to move him. The usurer seemingly believes he has 58  Charles Hoge, “Crawling out of the Middle Ages”, p. 7. Hoge cites and gives examples from some of the typical Latin sources: Thomas de Cantimpre, William of Newburgh, Walter Map, and Guillaume d’Auvergne, p. 8. 59  The story is thus the gendered inverse of the Haunted Shoemaker of Constantinople and Dead Woman of Satalia stories in which a living man impregnates a dead woman.



lost the right to be human in his burial, his connection with Christian community has been severed. Once they move the usurer’s body to outside the monastery precincts as he instructs, the hauntings cease.60 One tale, DCVI, recounts the corpse of St. Paul reattaching his decapitated head when it is returned to him. Two other tales, DCLXXXVI and DCCXXXV, entail the dead intervening to assist the living. In DCLXXXVI, because a bishop removed from office the priest who prayed for them, dead parishioners wielding spades return to threaten that same bishop with a beating, while in DCCXXXV, the dead emerge from their graves with spades once again ready in hand to defend from his enemies a man who frequently prays in the graveyard for the repose of their souls. The short narratives in The Alphabet of Tales are so lacking in detail that it is uncertain whether these ghosts can inflict physical damage upon the living or whether the terror their presence creates suffices to cause bishops to faint and evildoers to flee. Where and how the dead might acquire spades is also a mystery left unsolved.61

60  Stories of corpses which refuse to stay buried are common in the medieval period. Usually the cause is that the dead person was inappropriately buried in holy ground. For example, in Mirk’s Festial, “os Iohn Belet telluth, þer was a cursud man byried in chyrch, and on morowon hys body was fondon nakud vtwyth þe chyrch-ȝorde bot þe cloþus þat he was byried in lafton in þe graue” (Additional 3.17–19, Vol. II, on p. 260). “Iohn Belet” is John Beleth, twelfth-century theologian and author of Rationale Divinorum Officiorum (also known as Summa de Ecclesiasticus Officiis). In Handlyng Synne, Robert Mannyng of Brunne adapts two anecdotes from Gregory the Great’s Dialogues: the pompous and proud Valentine whose corpse is dragged out of its grave inside a church and cast outside “as a foule careyne” by devils (ll. 8743–74) and, in a variant upon the trope, the bad man who has sexual intercourse with his goddaughter and whose corpse is so thoroughly incinerated in its grave “Þat of hys body myȝt noȝt be founde” (l. 9772). He too has been effectively removed from sacred ground after death. 61  Both tales are included in the Gilte Legende in the chapter on All Souls (156.176–92, Vol. II, on p. 818) and in John Mirk’s Festial, once again as part of the sermon for All Souls but in reverse order (65.22–33, 65.64–73, Vol. II, on p. 242, p. 243). The tale of the bishop threatened by the dead also appears in the Speculum Sacerdotale, edited by Weatherly, p. 226. In the enemies-in-the-graveyard anecdote, the Gilte Legende and Mirk’s Festial account for the presence of the spades as an extension of what the dead were in life: “eueri of hem holde an instrument whiche he hadde used and wrought with in his lyff” (156.190–91, Vol. II, on p. 818) [“an instrument in hys hond of hys crafte” according to Mirk in Festial (65.30, Vol. II, on p. 242)]. See also Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages, p. 138, pp. 214–15, and p. 256 n.41, for additional sources on these events. See especially illustration #29 in Schmitt for a visual representation of the graveyard scene in which the dead wield a variety of different weapons.



The physicality of the revenant invites speculation as to what causes it to manifest attributes of the living such as movement and speech, to reanimate but not to the degree of bodies raised from the dead. In the cases of the two Alphabet of Tales anecdotes just cited, the revenant is clearly a returned human. But otherwise, these anecdotes raise many questions about life/death revenant hybrids. At what point in the journey into death did they reverse direction and how far back into life can they return? Are their souls in transit in Purgatory or are they resident in Hell? Is redemption at this point in their dying process still possible? The incestuous adulterous robber would seem undeserving of redemption, but if his soul is in Hell, how has he escaped to haunt his daughter?62 Does the usurer gain redemption by putting community first and ensuring the monks deal correctly with his body or does the silence of his second grave mean he is now in the inescapable pit of Hell? Other reanimated bodies, however, are hybrids of a different kind, an amalgamation of human corpse and demonic spirit. It was a common belief that demons could inhabit certain corpses and use them for their evil purposes. In John Mirk’s late fourteenth-century Festial, for example, “Þan com a fend and toke þis cors þat was not anoylud and ȝode into itte and so forth into þe toun, and makud many cryes be þe whych men weron sore agaste, and dured þus a long tyme”. When confronted by a holy anchorite who conjures the fiend to reveal itself and its purpose, the demon explains that it has power over the corpse because the body did not receive last rites, nonetheless “þe soule is saffe”. The demon’s plan is to use the corpse to tempt others into mortal sin by deceiving them into falsely judging the dead man as damned. The anchorite then intervenes to prevent the demon from further abusing the corpse (Additional 2.46–65, Vol. II, on p. 258). A demon’s ability to take on the appearance of a dead person or to enter an unblessed corpse63 makes any encounter with the returned potentially dangerous because the demon-possessed corpse is the 62  Alphabet of Tales is a fifteenth-century translation of an early fourteenth-century Latin text, Alphabetum Narrationem, a collection compiled by the German theologian and friar Arnold of Liege. Both the English translator and the German compiler had opportunity to correct the theology of the exempla in their collections to account for the difference later construed between Hell and Purgatory. 63  Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, for instance, includes a demon who tells the summoner in the story that “Somtyme we feyne, and sometyme we aryse/With dede bodyes, in ful sondry wyse/And speke as renably and faire and wel/As to the Phitonissa dide Samuel” (ll. 1507–10).



sort of revenant which rampages through the countryside spreading disease and causing havoc. But this type of revenant is only half returned, a corpse without a soul, and largely beyond the scope of this chapter. The first type, however, emphasizes, for better or worse, the continued humanity of the revenant. The dead are different, but hybridity points to what they hold in common with the living. The revenant’s biological circumstances have changed, but it remembers, it feels, and it wants to interact with the living. Unlike the raised dead who shun interaction with the world and remain apart from it, the revenant life/death hybrid is a social being, and its body may not yet be fully dead despite its putrefaction. Despite its progress across the river into death, something has drawn the revenant back to the world of the living, usually to someone whom the life/death hybrid knows. Building upon personal connection and community, the revenant comes either looking for help from the living, usually to escape Purgatory, or, less commonly, the revenant comes to offer help to the living, whether the aid might be through the giving of advice or the wielding of spades.64 The fourteenth-century Gast of Gy, Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest Tale, and the early fifteenth-century Trental of St. Gregory are examples of the former motivation; the late fourteenth-century romance Sir Amadace and the ghost of Gawain appearing to Arthur in Book 21 of Malory’s Le Morte DArthur, of the latter. Most of the ghost stories found in The Alphabet of Tales fall into the first category, with only a few in the second.65 Either way, this type of life/death hybrid does not shun what it once had, but it embraces its sameness with living human society. It demands that its humanity be recognized and respected. Sometimes, the returned can both need and offer help. In the fifteenth-­ century Awntyrs off Arthure, for example, Guenevere’s mother appears to her daughter and Sir Gawain to inform her daughter that “masses are medicine”66 for those in Purgatory—and that she, Guenevere’s mother, needs a very large dose. She begs her daughter to have said for the repose of 64  Ghosts can also convey important news for the living from the other side. For example, in the Gilte Legende’s supplemental life of St. Thomas of Canterbury, 28.1195–1219 on pp. 316–17, an abbot in Jerusalem charges one of his dying holy monks to appear to him again. The monk, who happened to die at the same time as Thomas Becket returns to report on his own happy salvation as well as to describe the joyous reception of the martyred Becket in Heaven. 65  In five stories, the revenant offers advice to the living on how to avoid damnation. In another five tales, the ghosts report that prayers cannot help them because they are damned. 66  The Awntyrs off Arthure, edited by Shepherd, l. 321.



her soul thirty trentals (i.e., thirty sequences of thirty requiem masses each) to which plea Guenevere, dutifully reaffirming the mother-daughter bond, promises that a million will be said, as many as are needed. Yet, the mother also offers help. She provides Guenevere and Gawain sound moral advice on how to live well in the world, pointing to herself as a warning example of the necessity to care for the poor and to do good works while alive to avoid the dire spiritual condition which results in souls languishing in Purgatory and returning to beg for help. Sadly, while the living can help the life/death hybrid move on more quickly from Purgatory, the ability of the living dead to help the living seems limited. Guenevere’s mother sketches out for her daughter and Gawain the entire arc of the Arthurian project’s rise and fall. The life/death hybrid is uncanny, and its death side shows in the mother’s preternatural knowledge of the future. If acted upon by the living, this knowledge could prevent the collapse of Camelot by reshaping its future. But Gawain and Guenevere in The Awntyrs off Arthure are unable to act upon the ghost’s warning. Whetter points out that “the Arthurian Legend as a whole, including the alliterative Morte Arthure to which the Awntyrs alludes, offers a meta-textual backdrop which cancels out the possibility because we know, even if the characters do not, that Arthur’s court will be destroyed — in part due to the illicit love of Launcelot and the Queen”.67 Likewise, as Leah Haught observes of Guenevere and Gawain in their response to the ghost in The Awntyrs off Arthure, there is a difference between wanting to understand and being able to understand.68 In this case, Guenevere and Gawain are caught in the present moment and cannot fathom what the (dead) past can predict from experience and what the (yetto-be-born) future knows to be fact. Anthony Cirilla astutely recognizes the role of readerly memory of the past in this text: “We remember the victories and we are haunted by the failures, and in fraught political disunity such as would be found in England and Scotland in the fifteenth century (or in our own time), it is through the backward glance to a ‘tyme … this anter betide’ that we strive, through narrative, to make sense out of the tragedy and to live with charity toward others”.69 On occasion, the returned wants something from the living beyond their prayers before the revenant can reach the end point of dying and then rest in peace. In The Gast of Gy, Gy’s ghost says that he needs 300 masses from his wife to be said for the repose of his soul before he will be  Whetter, Understanding Genre, p. 88.  Haught, “Ghostly Mothers and Fated Fathers”, p. 7. 69  Cirilla, “Ghostly Consolation”, p. 93 67 68



able to move on, but he also asks for the more unusual promise that she will remain to him a clean widow and never remarry, a request to which she contentedly agrees.70 In at least one other Middle English text, the life/death hybrid has unfinished business to which he must first attend. In chapter 32 of the Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, which was translated into English in the late fifteenth century from the twelfth-century Latin Visio Monachi de Eynsham, a knight who vowed to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but who failed to keep his oath tells the dream visionary that each night he is transported back to the exact location where his journey broke off the previous dawn and that demons at first light drag him back to Purgatory. His torment is eased ever so slightly the closer he makes his slow way to Jerusalem. The living cannot complete this task for the knight stuck between life and death, and the living cannot pray him out of needing to finish it. As the foolish carollers in Handlyng Synne are held to the exact conditions of the priest’s curse, so too this knight must fulfil the oath that he made in life before he can be released from its obligation and then finally rest in peace in death. Until then, he is caught as a hybrid in the third space between life and death and he must finish the obligations of one journey before he is allowed to complete the next. There are, of course, many puzzles left to the reader’s imagination in this brief anecdote from the Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham. For example, it is not specified how exactly the knight travels at night. Perhaps he is a reanimated corpse who rides a dead horse. Or perhaps he must walk or crawl. Similarly unknown is whether the living can see the revenant knight, and supposing that they can, in what condition he appears to them. Another unanswerable question is whether the living can help (or impede) the knight on his way by offering him a faster mode of transportation or a reliable means of crossing bodies of water. The knight mentions that “febulness of strenthe and contraryusnes of the wedyr, and also sharpnes of the waye”71 slow his journey, but he offers no further explanation. Because the reader is not privileged to see the knight in his revenant form but only to hear secondhand his brief report made during the dreamer’s visit to Purgatory, details about what happens to the knight during the hours of  Gast of Gy, edited by Foster, ll. 1872–74.  Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, edited by Easting, Chapter 32, ll. 1803–04, on p. 105. Visions of Purgatory were common in the Middle Ages even before Purgatory itself officially existed as a theological construct. One such account aimed at a female readership, A Revelation of Purgatory written in 1422, has a nun named Margaret who, like the knight, failed in life to go on a pilgrimage she had vowed to undertake and so must now in death face the worst punishment in Purgatory, the dreaded worm of conscience. For discussion, see Risden, “A Revelation of Purgatory”, pp. 107–08. 70 71



night, about what the revenant looks or sounds or smells like while he is briefly back on Earth in corporeal form all remain unknowable. Yet, while without a doubt the dead knight and all the other revenants are dead, they also exhibit signs of life: the dead knight can speak and answer questions, he has memory, he feels pain and exhaustion, he can move. For the hours each night he is back on Earth the knight is a hybrid, dead and alive at the same time.

The Revenant: The Dream Apparition Middle English texts usually adopt one of three strategies for describing the appearance of the returned dead to the living. The first strategy, the dream apparition, is a compromise in that its use avoids needing to ask the question of the ghost’s real or imagined presence. In this variation, the living dead arguably come back to visit the living in their sleep. This strategy is interesting because it combines the revenant’s life/death hybridity with another hybridity, the dreamer’s own liminal state positioned between conscious awareness and unconscious sleep. Michael Raby has described the medieval understanding of sleep as “a state constituted by varying degrees of wakefulness. The kernel of wakefulness in the sleeper is not simply the capacity to be awakened, but a potential for perceiving things through the half-open doors of sense that would not otherwise be perceptible”.72 These ‘things’ include ghostly apparitions. In the Northern Homily Cycle, for instance, a dying monk known for his piety promises his friend that, if he can, he will come back and let his friend know his “stat” (condition).73 When the monk dies, his friend prays for the dead man to visit him, “other wakand or slapand” (p. 34, at l. 246), with news. The dead monk, bathed in brilliant rays of light, keeps his promise to his friend and returns at night, implicitly therefore in a dream, with the surprising news that he barely escaped being sentenced to Hell for his many transgressions against the Rule of St. Benedict. Only through the gracious intervention of the Virgin Mary was he instead allowed into Purgatory to cleanse his sin and folly. This is familiar terrain: the dead monk needs the prayers of the living to pass through Purgatory in quick time. Even the most pious need the help of the saints and the living to attain their final 72   Michael Raby, “Sleep and the Transformation of Sense in Late Medieval Literature”, p. 192. 73  Northern Homily Cycle, edited by Thompson, p. 34, at l. 241.



place in Heaven as quickly as possible. While the moral of the story is clear enough, what exactly a ghost is, whether it is anything more substantial than a figure in a dream, remains uncertain. Hybridity nonetheless continues to point towards sameness in the continuance of social bonds and spoken interaction. Another dream apparition that emphasizes the efficacy of prayer for the departed soul is found in another one of the stories in Handlyng Synne, although a second pointed message is also attached to the tale. A dead husband is granted permission to visit his wife at night so he can ask her to have a mass said for him. The wife happily complies, but she needs to perform this action a second time because the first mass, one said by a friar, is ineffectual. On his second nightly visit, the dead husband emphatically stresses that the priest who will say the mass must be a man “of clene lyfe” (l. 10,436). The wife again complies and, second time lucky, the dead husband reappears on a third night with the happy news that he is now able to move on into joy without end in Heaven. Clearly having masses sung for the dead is one thing, but having effective masses sung for the soul in Purgatory is another. According to Handlyng Synne in this antifraternal anecdote at least, only masses said by a good priest will have good effect, a message underscored for the living by the helpful testimony of the sociable returned dead. In the cases of these stories from the Northern Homily Cycle and Handlyng Synne the reader is left to ponder whether these apparitions are life/death revenants manifesting themselves physically in the presence of the living or whether they are insubstantial dream experiences which may or may not have some metaphysically independent existence. Either option is a possibility. In both cases, the visits occur at night, and while the wife in Handlyng Synne tells her husband on his third visit that she is not sleeping (l. 10,463), she easily could be in a liminal dream state between sleep and wakefulness. Other instances of dream apparitions are equally uncertain about what happens. In Malory, Gawain’s ghost famously appears to warn Arthur not to engage in battle with Mordred the following day. Like the wife in Handlyng Synne, Arthur is himself said to be in a hybridic state when this visitation occurs because he is said to be neither “slepynge nor thorowly wakynge” and the language is otherwise carefully vague. It “semed verryly” to Arthur that Gawain comes to him, and Arthur himself in the morning describes the experience to his followers as an “avision”



(p. 711 and p. 712 at l. 33 and l. 15).74 In Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the merchant who three times appeals to his sleeping companion for help seems clearly a dream apparition, yet only in the third instance, after the murder, is he dead. In the first two dream visitations, before the murder occurs, he must be some other kind of spectral projection. In the third visitation, there is specific physical detail as to what the revenant looks like in his companion’s dream: the dead merchant asks his fellow to witness his deep, wide, and bloody wounds and his “ful pitous face, pale of hewe”.75 He looks as he now does in death, that is, but whether or not the merchant is actually present in the room in any physical or metaphysical sense remains unclear. The concept of a dream apparition expresses uncertainty about what returns in the likeness of the deceased. This uncertainty extends to doubt in the very existence of the ghost, at least to some degree. A plausible explanation for the experiences of the second monk in the Northern Homily Cycle and the wife in Handlyng Synne is that they dream the salvational resolution they want to hear about the fate of their friend or loved one. The dream is an act of wish fulfilment without any need for supernatural intervention. Similarly, Arthur on the eve of battle could be having a bad dream due to anxieties about the obvious outcome that may happen the next day. Only the ghost in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale seems unable to be explained by a simple appeal to nature because this spirit reveals precise information about the location of its corpse that cannot logically be deduced by his friend otherwise. On the other hand, a purely sceptical attitude is unwarranted of these accounts because the uncertainty cuts both ways: evidence is also lacking that nothing happened, and the event is treated as real by the one who experienced it. Thus, whether the revenant appears in the dream as the body was in life or as it is now in death, the question remains as to what returns. Is the dream apparition in these texts physically or metaphysically present in some actual sense? This question is unanswerable and is at best contextualized to individual texts. One possibility is that the hybrid caught between life and death can only 74  Likewise in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, edited by Benson and revised by Foster, the dead Gawain appears with his warning for Arthur only after Arthur finally falls asleep for the second time the night before his final battle (l. 3194) and notably Arthur “thought Sir Gawain him did keep” (line 3196) [emphasis mine]. At l. 3226, Arthur in the morning recounts to his lords the “strong swevenes” [strange dreams] that he had during the night. 75  Chaucer, Nun’s Priest’s Tale, ll. 3015–23. This anecdote is taken from Cicero’s De divinatione, 1.57.



manifest itself to a living person when that person exists in a similar hybridic state, such as between sleep and wakefulness, which puts the two on an even level. Sleep, after all, is by long tradition a temporary death, where intersection between the living and the dead is possible. 76

76  Another possibility is that what appears might be an entity other than a human life/ death revenant. In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the dead Ceyx “stood ryght at hyr beddes fet” (l. 199) to deliver to the sleeping Alcyone the sad news of her husband’s drowning at sea and the precise location of his corpse so it could be retrieved for burial, but when his wife opens her eyes to look, nothing is standing there. The reader, moreover, is pointedly told that Ceyx was never there. Acting on the instruction of Juno, it was the god of sleep, Morpheus, who “crepe into the body” of Ceyx (l. 144) to speak to Alcyone in her dead husband’s voice. Comparison to Gower’s handling of the same scene in Confessio Amantis, 4.3038–65, is instructive. Gower portrays Alcyone’s dream as a stage spectacle, a courtly interlude replete with role playing and theatrical effects, thus foregrounding the illusory nature of Alcyone’s entire dream experience. Morpheus at least is a god whose intent is not malevolent towards Alcyone. Such lack of danger cannot be said for all such alternative possibilities to a ghostly visitor. Asking the dying to come back and visit the living is a common occurrence in medieval English literature, but such requests are also regarded as dangerous and problematic. Dives and Pauper, for example, warns against making such last requests of the dying due to the likelihood of being deceived by a demon: “þe fend myȝthe aperyn to hym þat were olyue in þe lyknesse of hym þat were ded and tellyn hym lesyngis and in cas makyn hym so afer þat he schulde lesyn his wyt and fallyn in wanbeleue” (Vol. 1, Part 1, edited by Barnum, p. 170, ll. 24–26). In The Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, a sceptical wife demonstrates prudent caution when she refuses to comply with what her husband’s revenant returns three times to plead with her to do. The wife justifies her actions to her son by saying, “he was full of ire and wrathe, and moche blamed her because that he was forgoten and putte owte of mynde fro her, whyche was warnyd by hym-selfe after hys dethe to doo a lytyll thyng for hym, and that sche wulde not do so moche for hym, but excused her that for the oncertente of vysyons sche dyfferde hyt, leste that hyt sculd haue bene supposyd that sche hadde be desceyued and begylde” (Chapter 23, ll. 1210–16, on p. 73). This angry ghost, therefore, must wait until he is rescued by St. Nicholas, who intervenes on his behalf. What the “lytyll thing” is that the ghost wanted so badly from his uncooperative wife is left undefined, but it was likely something other than the routine offering of masses for the repose of his soul, which the wife would have had no justification to refuse. In The Gast of Gy, Gy requires that his wife live in chaste widowhood and that she has 300 masses said “for us twa” (l. 1873). The Prior who helps Gy thereupon counsels the wife “That scho suld kepe hir clene and chaste,/Als scho was warned with the gaste” (ll. 1929–1930). The wording and the additional condition have led to speculation that the married couple committed some serious sin between them, possibly something as serious as infanticide or “simply the enjoyment of sex without the primary purpose of procreation” (Edward E. Foster, “Introduction”). The only defence against being deceived by a demon is proper conjuring of any spirit. For ghosts, the best recourse advised by the moralists and the theologians, however, is to avoid taking the chance of being deceived by a demon and to not invite the dead to return.



While the dream revenant’s physical existence is debatable, its life/ death hybridity is not. Dream revenants exhibit many qualities of the living: they speak, they build upon social relationships within their families and close communities, they demonstrate emotions, and they have bodies which can show what has happened to them. But their very apparitional nature, the fact that they return to interact with the living only in a dream state, underscores their difference from the living. They are too far gone into death to be able to return fully to life.

The Revenant: The Corporeal Ghost Such a fundamental ambiguity about presence, however, is not the case for the second strategy found in Middle English literature to describe the life/ death hybrid returned to the living. In another anecdote from Handlyng Synne, for example, a priest is attended to in his bath by a most accommodating servant: A man þat serued hym to fote and honde; he drogh hys hosen of, and hys shone, And efte was redy hem on to done; At every tyme þat he þedyr cam, hys shone and hys hosen, of he nam, And serued hym at euery a tyde, Yn þe water, and eke besyde. (ll. 10,326–32)77

This servant is physically present: he can handle the priest’s clothing, touch his body, and hold conversations with him. The servant, that is, evidently looks and smells alive, and he must feel alive to the priest’s physical touch, too. The servant also possesses the power of speech. Yet, the servant is also dead, a fact revealed not by how he looks or sounds or smells or feels to the touch, but by the simple fact that he cannot eat the bread which the priest kindly offers him in gratitude for his service.

 This anecdote is from a tale first told by Gregory the Great in his Dialogues, edited by Zimmerman, IV, 57, on pp. 266–67. The story is also found in Middle English in the Early South-English Legendary under All Soul’s Day, 62.97–117, on p. 423. 77



Y am a man, þat ys dede, Þat neuer more shal ete brede. (ll. 10,355–56)78

Consumption of food is necessary for life, hence the inability to eat is a definitive marker of the life/death revenant. In Ancrene Wisse, for example, after firmly discouraging his female anchoritic readers from hosting guests at their dinner tables because they are supposed to be figuratively “al dead to þe world” while enclosed alive within their anchorholds, the author drily quips, “Me haueth iherd ofte þet deade speken with cwike, ah þet ha eten with cwike ne fond Ich ȝet neauer”.79 The servant in the Handlyng Synne anecdote turns out to be a lord in disguise who is enduring purgatorial punishment for some unspecified sins, a revenant in need of help. Only after his true nature is brought to light by the priest’s spontaneous offer of bread does the lord seem capable of asking directly for the aid he requires: six masses sung for the repose of his soul. After the masses are sung by the priest, the lord is never seen again. From that detail, we understand he has moved on from Purgatory. What is noteworthy in the story is not the expected resolution to the dead lord’s predicament. He is the standard revenant in need of authoritative spiritual aid. What is intriguing is the emphatic lively corporeality of the returned departed. This life/death hybrid does not return as his rotting corpse reanimated out of its grave because the lord appears nothing at all what his corpse now looks like in death. He seems to have moved back almost entirely into a living existence; all save for the significant inability to eat. Yet, he also returns in a way that marks his difference from life. His clothes and demeanour have reversed outwardly from the high status and noble garments he once enjoyed in life, a change which this revenant humbly respects in his verbal and physical interactions with the priest. He returns the same, but different. 78  The bread offered to the ghost is eucharistic in its significance, if not literally the host itself in the Handlyng Synne version of the story. In the Early South-English Legendary account, the bread’s connection to the eucharist is made explicit: “A day he made halibred: and þe manne hit bi-tok/Ase for is mede for is swunch.: ake he it anon for-sok;/‘Sire,’ he seid “ne may hit nouȝht: for it i-halewed is,/And for i-nam nouȝht holi ȝuyt: i-ne may it nauȝt, i-wis’” (62.101–04, on p. 423). For Mannyng’s views on the Eucharist, see chapter one in Jennifer Garrison’s Challenging Communion. Garrison notes this exemplum on p. 35. 79  Ancrene Wisse, edited by Millett, 8.38–40. At Luke 24: 41–43 the resurrected Christ eats some fish and honey in front of his disciples to demonstrate to them that he is not a ghost. See also Acts 1:4.



The romance Sir Amadace applies a similar perspective upon the revenant. The mysterious White Knight who both helps the eponymous hero by directing him to where and how he may find the means to restore his lost fortune and who then challenges Amadace to keep his word and thereby lose everything a second time is a revenant, again hinted at first by the refusal of food and drink. Invited to stay with Amadace in his kingdom, the White Knight replies, “I will nauthir ete, drinke, no duelle,/Be God, that me dere boghte”.80 Even more clearly than in the Handlyng Synne example of the attendant dead lord, there is a clear distinction drawn between the rotting corpse which Amadace intervenes to have buried and the walking, talking, looks-and-feels-normal-to-the-touch White Knight. The corpse on its bier has been decomposing for sixteen weeks before Amadace charitably takes it upon himself to pay with the last of his own financial resources the dead merchant’s final debt so that the rotting body can at last be released for burial.81 The condition otherwise of the deceased at this point is left emphatically to the imagination of the reader’s sense of smell. Sent on ahead by his master first to investigate the light seen in a chapel, Amadace’s knave is overwhelmed by the stink (l. 71) and must “stopput his nase with his hude” (l. 73) before he is able to get close enough to see a woman sitting next to a bier surrounded by candles. Sent next, the squire sees the merchant’s corpse “Stingcand opon his bere” (l. 117) and the squire is likewise repulsed by the smell that “in his nace smote” (l. 103). Finally, Amadace himself rides to the chapel, “As his menne sayd, so con him thinke/That he never are hade such a stynke” (l. 124–25). The White Knight, in contrast, is the opposite of what the reader knows, and perhaps can smell through memory, must be a foul and rotting corpse: not only are his armour and horse white, but when he returns in the narrative to collect on what Amadace promised him, he is said to be “Ryghte as he an angell were” (l. 662). Like the attendant lord in Handlyng

 Sir Amadace, edited by Foster, ll. 703–04.  Dying in debt is the apparent explanation for the White Knight’s lack of burial. As Elliott observes in “Violence against the Dead” at p. 1042, “in some regions the denial of burial to public and unrepentant usurers was extended to debtors who died insolvent …. At the officiality of Cerisy, the overwhelming majority of excommunicates were debtors who were inscribed in the registry of excommunicates at the insistence of their creditors. An unrelenting creditor could even petition to have the body of the deceased creditor exhumed”. 80 81



Synne, the White Knight appears doubly in disguise: first, as one of the living and, second, as a man of a different estate from what he was in life.82 The White Knight is usually cited as an example of the ‘Grateful Dead’83 and that character type explains why he intervenes in the narrative to help Sir Amadace restore his lost fortune: because Amadace spent the last of his own fortune to settle the White Knight’s debts, to bury his body, and to hold the funeral feast in his honour, the White Knight in gratitude pays him back with the uncanny preternatural knowledge of where Amadace can find the means to improve his own financial state and to marry a princess. The dead help the living in a very literal sense in this text: the White Knight directs Amadace to travel by a place where Amadace encounters many knights who have drowned in a shipwreck and from whose bodies, equipment, and horse Amadace can outfit himself and replenish his purse as he pleases (ll. 518–34). Far less clear, however, is why the White Knight insists upon a “forward” between himself and Amadace to “part evenly” the goods won (ll. 502–04), as if a life/death hybrid can use such material items, and why the White Knight then takes such a narrow and literal view on what parting evenly means. He demands that Amadace’s beloved princess bride, and his young child too, be split in half with a sword so that the White Knight may take away his equal share of them, only at the very last moment, exclaiming that “Now is tyme of pees!” (l. 804), to intervene 82  Why should the dead merchant in Sir Amadace be able to return as a ghostly knight? Beyond the notion of needing to be in disguise, Wadiak in Savage Economy at p. 59 suggests two options for the White Knight’s social upgrade, though he rejects the second: “The composer evidently means for the merchant’s posthumous promotion into the armigerous classes to be read as a reward for his generosity in life …. Yet we might also conclude that the ghost of a merchant, as a member of the rising if not the newly dominant class in late medieval society, is impossible for this romance to imagine”. For a different point of view, see Hannah Christensen’s argument in “Affect and the Limits of Form” in which she argues the “story of a knight errant whose chivalric ideals stand directly at odds with the financial demands of a mercantile world, the poem sets up a clear contrast between two systems of obligation. It claims to resolve this conflict through a judicious application of a third model, the religious mode of Christic sacrifice. Readings of the poem that focus on these explicit systems, however, fail to account satisfactorily for the narrative’s excess, its gratuitousness, the bodily and sensory overflow that permeates the text” (p. 99). 83  For information on the trope of the Grateful Dead, see Elizabeth Williams’s article “Sir Amadace and the Undisenchanted Bride” and Foster’s notes to his edition of Sir Amadace, p.  122 n.260. Michael Johnston examines the peculiarities of the trope as found in Sir Amadace through a study of analogues and possible sources, noting that “no one has yet offered an analogue that accounts for this highly unusual social interaction between a bourgeois and an aristocrat” (p. 736).



one more time and prevent Amadace from killing his family. Moreover, only at this point does the White Knight reveal his identity as the dead merchant whom Amadace had earlier caused to be buried and, after a short discourse on marriage and a stern admonition to Amadace to love his wife, then glide “away as dew in towne” (l. 823) never to be seen again. The reader may well suspect that something purgatorial is going on, that possibly like the dead lord in Handlyng Synne waiting in lowly attendance upon the priest, perhaps some unknown condition first needs to be met before the revenant can reveal that it is, in fact, a ghost. Perhaps having received help, the White Knight first must help his benefactor before he can move on. Perhaps as in Amis and Amiloun, the willingness to sacrifice what Amadace loves best is all that Amadace needs to do to break the last bonds holding the White Knight to this physical world. Indeed, there are many such ‘perhaps’ in answer to the tale, but frustratingly the narrative never provides a logical or definitive explanation for much of what happens, except through the great amount of parallelism in which the text engages that suggests, comparable to the inseparable bond between Amis and Amiloun in the romance by that name, that the White Knight and Sir Amadace, the one dead and the other alive, though from two different estates somehow share a hybridic life/death identity. As Hannah Christensen has pointed out, “the nameless corpse closely mirrors Amadace’s own mistakes” and is his “double”.84 Indeed, the parallels are notable. Amadace and the White Knight are both financially profligate: in helping the widow bury her rotting husband, Amadace is thereby helping himself. The living and the dead both need the help of the other to escape debt. The White Knight imposes upon Amadace the same callously literal and passively aggressive understanding of indebtedness that the second merchant, the last man to whom the White Knight owed money, applied to him. Finally, in the end Amadace can fulfil his bargain to share equally with the White Knight simply by loving his wife, who somehow belongs to the White Knight as much as she belongs to Amadace—half—as if Amadace can live for them both the family life that the dead White Knight under better circumstances might have enjoyed with his own faithful, loyal wife. Not all corporeal revenants, however, need to especially reveal to the living that there is something different about them because quite often their spectral circumstance is self-evident. In another brief story from Handlyng Synne, for example, the ghost of a backbiting monk appears to one of his fellow monks.  Christensen, “Affect and the Limits of Form”, p. 107.




And say one sytte before þe benche, A foule þyng, and a grysly, he sagh neuer none so loþly; he shette hys tune before þe grecys And gnogh hyt ynwarde al to pecys. hys tunge was brennynge þat he so gnogh, yn-to hys mouþe aȝen he hyt drogh; And gnogh hit eft with peynes grete. Many tymes þan dede he so. (ll. 3574–83)

Often a monk, the ghost of the burning tongue is a popular medieval exemplum and variations upon the story and its details are found in a wide range of texts, including the Latin fourteenth-century preacher’s manual Fasciculus Morum85 and a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent found in a late fifteenth-century sermon cycle in which it is “a fals slawnderere of his neyȝbors and of his evencristen” who “dyed sodenly witheowte repentaunce and confescion” and who appears to his neighbours within three nights of his death with a burning tongue hanging out of his mouth down to the ground.86 Another variant of the story occurs in chapter 26 of the Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham in which a lawyer who “often-tymes … peruerted ryghtwesnes, as a man myghty in wordys takyng ȝeftys and mennys persons” is seen with a tongue of fire hanging out of his mouth (Chapter 26, ll. 1479–80, on p. 89). Richard Firth Green points out that in the earliest known version of this exemplum, that written by Odo of Cheriton, “the central figure is not a monk but a nun, her vice is litigiousness not backbiting, and it is not her tongue but her middle (perhaps because of the Latin term stomachosus) that burns. Odo gives no location, not even an approximate one, but he does add the authenticating detail that burn marks were found next day in the place where her ghost had appeared”.87 Sometimes the dead man is said to be damned; sometimes even he will eventually make his slow way out of Purgatory after a very long period of cleansing trial. Although his fiery tongue ensures he cannot be mistaken for a living man, nevertheless he exhibits the actions of one, such as speech, the ability to eat (though only his own spectral tongue), 85  In Fasciculus Morum, the man (not specifically identified as a monk) is a backbiter who “wanted to confess, but he did not do so and died”. Fasciculus Morum, edited by Wenzel, p. 165. 86  A Late Fifteenth-Century Dominical Sermon Cycle, edited by Morrison, 21.174–76, Vol. I, on p.  133. The sermonist attributes the exemplum to Fasciculus Morum but adds some detail. 87  Green, “Vanishing Leper”, p. 31. See generally Green’s discussion of this popular exemplum in its various iterations in “Vanishing Leper”, pp. 29–34.



and to feel pain. His rational awareness, the ability to understand and explain his situation to another monk, similarly attests that although dead, he is also in some respects alive. One can even argue that this life/death hybrid acts out of concern for the welfare of others. Why else would he appear, except to warn others in his monastic community to avoid the same fate as he now suffers? Unlike the romance Sir Amadace which stresses the difference between the stinking corpse of the dead merchant and the brilliant corporeality of the revenant White Knight or the example in Handlyng Synne of the dead lord in the guise of a servant who must wait upon the priest at his bath, the ghost of the burning tongue anecdote emphasizes similarity. The monk eating his burning tongue in his living death is exactly what this backbiting monk was in life. The obvious equation of the revenant’s appearance and a sinful nature in life is even more pronounced in The Trental of St. Gregory in which the deceased mother of Pope Gregory the Great appears to her son during mass. Thought to have been pious in her life, the awful truth about Gregory’s mother is revealed by her revenant form: Amidde the derknesse ther drough on ner A wonder grisli creature— Riht aftur a fend ferde hire feture— So ragget, so rent, so elyng, so uvel, As hidous to biholden as helle-devel; Mouth and neose, eres and eghes Flaumed al ful of furi lights.88

After calling upon the might of God, Gregory commands the ghost to explain its purpose for approaching him during the mass. The revenant is so hideously disfigured by her sins that she first must identify herself as his mother before she can tell him the terrible secret that she died with unconfessed sins on her soul. These are sins so serious that even in death she tries to keep their nature hidden from her son and she reveals them in full only

 Trental of St. Gregory, edited by Shepherd, ll. 60–66.




after Gregory demands to know why she is put to so much pain.89 The story illustrates yet again the efficacy of clergy saying prayers for the dead in Purgatory, yet the tale also foregrounds the revenant’s human attributes in its living death. Social bonds are prominent when, in a reversal of family roles, the parent reaches out to her child for help, but the mother experiences emotional pain, shame, and embarrassment as deeply as she feels physical torment. Only desperation pries from her lips the dreadful secret she has kept hidden for so long. The deceased mother then begs her son for a “true trental” of masses sung for her soul on major feast days. As Guenevere affirms her family bond with her mother in Awntyrs off Arthure thus recognizing the continuing humanity of her mother despite the altered state of the maternal body, so too Gregory. After the masses are sung, the mother reappears to her son gloriously transformed into a heavenly vision so beautiful that Gregory first mistakes her for the Virgin Mary. Her news, delivered with redundancy in words, is joyous: she is now in Heaven.90 89  The dreadful secret is that Gregory’s mother had murdered her two newborn children who were fathered by a demon. Though scholars often identify only the one murdered child, the text makes it very clear that it happened twice. The first is described in detail in ll. 10–20; the second, briefly glossed at ll. 27–28: “Eft-sones hir fel the same cas/Riht as bi-foren bi-tyd hire was!” The mother thus needs to be triply forgiven by Gregory: by the pope, by her son, and by the brother of the infants she murdered. 90  The Gesta Romanorum includes at least two exempla which similarly emphasize the correspondence between a ghost’s sin and the dreadful revenant form which appears to a living relative. One mother shows to her son, who is a priest, ‘a brennyng hande, in the which she was wonte to bere rynges. After this she shewed here herte brennyng, and a tode gnawyng thereon for pride that she had in here herte for here clothyng and here arraye. And anone who was brente, and turned into asks, and rose agayne—and saide that sevynty tymes on the day she suffred this payne’ (pp.  376–377). This woman is thereupon dutifully speeded through Purgatory by the loving prayers of her priestly son. Another woman in the Gesta Romanorum appears to her son who is also a priest and who likewise has prayed to know how his dead mother has fared in the afterlife, but this woman is in an even more dreadful state and she comes with far more dreadful news: “there aperid to hym a fourme of a woman, fro whose hede he sawe a derke flame rise up; and on here lipped and on here tongue he saws an horreble tode gnawe, and sesid not; and fro hire tetis he sawe hange .ij. serpentes sore soukynge hem; and the skyn on here back was drawen downe to here hammes, and trailed after here, all on fyre” (p. 375). To her son’s frantic question as to whether she still might be saved, the dead mother answers in the negative and then she disappears immediately from his sight. Assuming that what appeared to the son was indeed somehow actually his mother’s life/death revenant escaped from Hell for a moment rather than a demon attempting to trick him into despair by falsely claiming that his mother is damned, the message is passed on to the reader that having a priest in the family is no guarantee of salvation.



The Revenant: The Noisy Ghost Sometimes the graphic visual description of a ghost’s corporeality is superseded by an emphasis upon sound. In Awntyrs, for example, the ghost of Guenevere’s mother is presented in a manner comparable to the deformed physicality of the sinful mother in the Trental of St. Gregory. Guenevere’s mother is also so corrupted by her sins that in the revenant form which reflects her spiritual state she needs to identify who she is to her daughter to reestablish their family bond. Bare was the body and balk to the bone, Al biclagged in clay, uncomly cladde (ll. 105–06) On the chef of the cholle A pad pikes on hir polle, With eighen holked ful holle That gloed as the gledes. Al glowed as a glede the goste there ho glides, Umbeclipped in a cloude of clethyng unclere, Serkeled with serpentes that sate to the sides— To tell the tides theron my tongue were full tere. (ll. 114–21)

The principle for description of the revenant maternal body is the same as in the ghost of the burning tongue exemplum: the more hideous the unpurged sins, the more hideous the appearance of the ghost. The outer physical state of the life/death hybrid mirrors the inner metaphysical one. The gendered imbalance in the severity of punishments meted out to men in comparison to women may be more illusion than substance because the burning tongue exemplum is old while the Awntyrs and the Trental texts are from late in the medieval period. Over time, the physical descriptions of ghastly revenants become ever more elaborate, like the classical Hydra which sprouts an increased number of heads every time it appears in a new text. In the Alphabet of Tales anecdote CCCCLV, which derives from a Latin text written earlier in the fourteenth century, a woman who murdered her newborn child appears simply holding the burning infant at her breast. While the life/death revenant emphatically possesses qualities of the living as hybridity points towards sameness, narratively authors over time began to fixate more and more upon its uncanny attributes of death and difference. For Guenevere’s returned mother in the Awntyrs off Arthure, however, the emphasis of her description is not so much upon the horrific



physicality of the returned living dead, as it is upon the terrifying sound that the ghost makes. Extending well beyond her lengthy verbal discourse with her daughter and Gawain, Guenevere’s mother is decidedly a noisy ghost. Line after line emphasizes the horrifying sounds which issue from the ghost. Hit waried, hit wayment, as a woman— But on hide ne on huwe no heling hit hadde; Hit stemered, hit stonayde, hit stode as a stone; Hit marred, hit memered, hit mused for madde. (ll. 107–10)

Sound, both those made by the life/death hybrid and those uttered by the terrified living in response to it, defines this third type of revenant. Likely, however, the fullest example in Middle English literature of the noisy ghost is found in the mid fourteenth-century Gast of Gy, a text whose origins are based in a historical incident which occurred in 1324 or 1325. According to Jean-Claude Schmitt in Ghosts in the Middle Ages, “Johannes Gobi, prior of the Dominicans of Alès, presented to Pope John XXII, at court in Avignon the account of an affair …. He himself had just been implicated in the affair. Indeed, between December 27 (the feast of Saint John the Baptist) and the Epiphany of the same year, he himself led the questioning of the spirit of Gui de Corvo, a citizen of Alès who had died the preceding December 16. Since that time the invisible spirit had haunted the bedroom of his widow”.91 Within ten years, a longer, embellished version of Gobi’s account was written and soon translated widely. In the story, Gy is never seen, but he makes his presence known through sound. To ensure his continued presence in the home is recognized by his wife, he follows her around and causes a loud disturbance in his old bed chamber, Unto his wyfe he went ogayne And suede hir with mykell payne, And did hir dole both day and nyght Bot of him might scho have no sight; And in his chamber might scho here Mikell noys and hydous bere. (ll. 45–50)

 Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages, pp. 149–50.




However, even after his presence is acknowledged, Gy continues to manifest himself only through sound. While he comes to hold lengthy conversations with the Prior who conjures, interrogates, and then finally helps Gy to move on from Purgatory into heavenly bliss, Gy exists only as a disembodied voice. The emphasis upon sound, of course, moves Gy, and Guenevere’s mother, further along the way on the death journey. Gy, especially, has no corporeal body at all, not even a spectral one capable of returning him back into some semblance of physical life because he has no body, only voice, and even voice is something that returns only after the Prior begins to pray and Gy responds in a feeble, childlike voice with “Amen” (ll. 207–208). Until then, Gy can make only incoherent noise. Yet, despite his incorporeality, Gy as a life/death hybrid exhibits many signs of human life. He remembers and reaches out to the person closest to him in life, his partner in marriage. Although he cannot make himself understood in words to her, he loves his wife and wants the best for her, but, as Alexander Zawacki explains, “she is not Gy’s proper interpreter, lacking both the book-learning and ecclesiastical authority that the poem will work so hard to establish for official clerics. That role belongs to the prior”.92 Gy reacts emotionally to what he regards as being ignored and creates even louder disturbances, for he is sociable and wants to engage in social relationships, a desire met by the Prior. His voice most of all reveals rational thought and awareness in Gy’s lengthy conversations with the Prior. Another example of this sort of noisy, wordy ghost is found in that most hybrid of medieval English texts, William Langland’s Piers Plowman B, at the start of Passus 15. After wandering about the countryside for a long time as a fool, the Dreamer at last finds some relief in slumber. Til Reson hadde ruþe on me and rokked me aslepe, Til I seiȝ, as it sorcerie were, a sotil þyng wiþalle — Oon wiþouten tonge and teeþ, tolde me whider I sholde And wherof I cam and of what kynde. I coniured hym at þe laste, If he were Cristes creature for Cristes loue me to tellen.93

There is some vague semblance of corporeality in that the Dreamer can see this strange thing with the ability to speak clearly and at some length  Alexander Zawacki, “Spirit Readings”, p. 143.  Piers Plowman, edited by Schmidt, B.15.11–15.

92 93



without the need for either a tongue or teeth, but the thing is also markedly insubstantial, a subtle thing close to being a dream apparition. Indeed, Langland employs all three revenant strategies at once in this scene: the subtle thing appears to Will only after he has been rocked into the liminal state of sleep by Reason and the thing is comparable to a sorcerer’s illusion, questioning whether anything is physically present. Nevertheless, the subtle thing is possessive of the genuine preternatural knowledge which every revenant seems able to pass on to the living when asked. While this scene has led to some creative identifications of the exact form in which the subtle thing manifests itself, including a phantasmagoric vagina and an anus,94 there is not any particular mystery as to what it is that appears before the sleeping Will at this point: the verb conjure used so frequently in these ghost narratives gives it away, even if the sequence of acts is reversed so that the subtle, tongueless thing speaks before the Dreamer thinks to ascertain whether it comes from God by conjuring it in His name. Anima is exactly what Anima’s name says it is in Piers Plowman B—a spirit, a soul, what remains of the person after the body turns into a corpse, a medieval ghost. If any unresolved question lingers in this passage, it is only whose revenant has returned to speak with Will in his liminal state of slumber. Is it possible to haunt one’s own self with one’s own ghost? Perhaps William de la Rokele has appeared before the Dreamer!95

Conclusion What is immediately noticeable about the treatment of most life-death hybrids in Middle English literature is their marginality. Few are the centre of the story, and even a character such as Tundale, who experiences firsthand some of the purgatorial punishments inflicted by the demons instead of witnessing them at a distance as do Lazarus and Drychthelm, is relegated to the background by having his story repeated in someone else’s voice rather than speaking it directly himself firsthand. Of course, such narrative marginality is to be expected: the closer the reader is to the life/ death hybrid, the more perhaps the reader is likely to question the event as 94  James Paxson in “Gendered Personified” has argued for Anima appearing as a phantasmagoric vagina (p. 85), while Masha Raskolnikov in Body Against Soul has countered with an equally fantastic, and perhaps more probable, anus (p. 190). 95  For those out of the loop in Piers Plowman studies, William de la Rokele is now thought to be the actual name of the author of Piers Plowman. See the case made for the identity and the family background of the author in Robert Adams’s Langland and the Rokele Family.



contrary to actual every day and personal lived experience. For all the paranormal shows I have watched over the years on television, for instance, I have never encountered a ghost or a demon or an alien who wanted to abduct and probe me despite their abundance everywhere else, as attested by the endless parade of supernatural and paranormal stories viewable on my television screen. Funnelling the story through an eyewitness, often a sole eyewitness, provides a veneer of authenticating credibility to the story while safely keeping the reader distanced from its more logically questionable or doctrinally problematic elements. Another explanation for the marginality, of course, is a basic human understanding of the sheer transitory nature of the process of physical death, even if the very moment when death occurs remains elusive to define. Life/death hybrids are common because every living thing will die and thus for a time every living thing, whether human, plant, insect, or animal, will fit the parameters of someone or something neither fully alive nor all dead as they transition between the two states. Unless one begins to speculate that time may move at different speeds on Earth and in Purgatory and that even the rottenest corpse is not somehow ‘all dead’ until its soul has reached either Heaven or Hell (truly a gruesome thought for sinners facing lengthy incarceration in Purgatory!), for most humans that stretch of time between being alive and becoming dead will be too brief to matter on either side of the veil. Nonetheless, life/death hybrids persist in the literature and their existence on the borders of life and death underscores the essential fluidity of a hybrid identity. The mutability of mixed ethnic identity in the medieval romances and the malleability of the human body as seen in Gower’s Confessio Amantis can be seen to make the same argument that no identity is ever fixed but dying is emphatic upon the point and it applies to all living things, not only to members of the human species. Dying is a process of identity switch in which change is inevitable. Change creates the life/ death hybrid but change also resolves this transitory hybridity for humans and other animals in most circumstances quite quickly as it is neither natural, nor desirable for the most part, to stay in this in-between state for long. Plants in contrast can take much longer to die. For the person who believes in the Christian afterlife, dying and moving on through the trials of Purgatory into the grace of Heaven should be a less frightening prospect than being caught endlessly between life and death like the people on permanent display in the wall of Sir Orfeo’s faery kingdom or like Herla forever riding, forever in motion, forever without rest, forever denied



access to Heaven (or Hell) with time, flesh, and blood held forever in abeyance. Given the choice, some of us would likely prefer the third option of becoming a Drychthelm or a Tundale or, better yet, an Aeson brought back not only to life but also to youthful vitality and a fresh start, even if such would profoundly change us in ways we cannot imagine and even if it offered only a temporary respite from an inevitable second round of ageing and dying. Only those Christians or those of any other faith with a similar construct of an afterlife who are convinced that they will be damned for all eternity to a place like Hell for their sins could prefer the half-life of Herla, while the stern didactic literature of the English Middle Ages repeatedly offers the sinner the reassuring message that, even in extremis, many opportunities exist to reverse such a bad direction. Damnation is inevitable only for the wilfully obtuse and stubborn, according to the tenor of most, if not all, ghost stories from the Middle Ages. The authors of these Middle English revenant narratives, tales of the resurrected dead, and stories of those things that cannot die were not theologians writing for theologians, of course. How a medieval theologian might have approached the discussion of the hybridity of dying in a format intended to be read by one of his own fellows can be discerned perhaps through Ranulph Higden’s discussion in the fourteenth-century text, Speculum curatorum on the possibility of revenants coming back to haunt the living. Because the spirits of the dead are reputed to appear in arms, it is not to be thought from this that spirits are punished by such arms, since they cannot be affected by them. But they are signs of punishment which, because of specific actions at specific times, they have deserved and so, hearing or seeing such things may become more afraid to misuse such arms. Yet, it is not at all necessary that spirits, by virtue of their nature, appear in arms, just as it is not necessary that they appear in dreams as if they were things seen in person, nor is it evident that a spirit moves other bodies except by movement of its own body when it is in it. But although certain of the dead are said to kill the living, this is not really possible, since the dead are not able to rise again on earth or to return to bodies. Moreover, if the spirit is in heaven, it will not be able to descend to such bloody works; if, on the other hand, it is in hell or in purgatory, it is bound by the decree of God. From the above it is clear that souls do not fashion such things in our sight; demons do.96

 Higden, Speculum curatorum, edited by Crook and Jennings, p. 131.




For a storyteller, Higden’s point of view is disappointing news. Yet the authors of these tales, presumably many of them clergy themselves, knew how to adapt their material to their different audiences: monks received one message about the spiritual rigours required to attain salvation and lay readers, another. If the authors were theologians, they also understood the all-important necessity of either expressing abstract theological concepts in ways that the popular imagination could grasp them or just leaving things be. Thus, these narratives avoid Higden’s efforts, first, to account for all possible permutations in the matter of ghosts and, second, to allow no space at all for the existence of the restless hybrids on the edges caught between life and death. These popular texts instead skip over trying to account for how the revenant can know the future or why time moves at a different speed in Faery or in Purgatory (much slower in Faery, much faster in Purgatory)97 or why the badly injured thing cannot die or how a ghost can have a material presence beyond its corpse or come to hold a spade in its hands when a tool is needed. They just do. Out of these blank conceptual spaces around dying comes a lack of consistency in the loose popular theology espoused by even the most didactic of these vernacular texts. For example, more than one answer is given as to whether the decree of God allows for souls languishing in Purgatory to reach out directly to the living for help, the very foundation upon which many of the ghost stories exist. Mirk, for one, in Festial seems prepared to argue with Higden on this point: “þer beth many þat walkuth aftur þat ben beryet in holy place. Bot þat is not of vexing of þe fende but of grace of God for to geton ham holpon of some synne þat þei ben gylty inne and moue not haue no rest tyl þat synne be holpon” (68.110–25, Vol. II, on p. 252). Mirk, however, is also prepared to argue with himself, providing an anecdote in Festial at Additional 2.46–65 (Vol. II, on p. 258) which supports Higden’s thesis that such sights are the work of demons. 97  For the slow speed of time in Faery, in addition to the legend of Herla and the dying held in suspense on the wall in Sir Orfeo (but contradictorily, neither Orfeo nor Herodis who exit Faery without any disjunction in time between the two worlds), the case of Sir Launfal can suffice. Long after Arthur’s Camelot has ground to dust, once a year Launfal continues to emerge from Tryamour’s kingdom in search of someone to joust. As Green warns in Elf Queens, “we should be careful about seeing fairyland, whether in Avalon or elsewhere, as simply a land of the dead” (p.  160). Walter Wadiak’s contention in Savage Economy that Launfal returns as a ghost (p. 54) thus confuses the issue, because the otherworld of Faery is neither equivalent to the classical underworld of Hades nor to either the Norse or Christian Hell. Launfal is neither dead nor the living dead in Purgatory. He is simply ageing much more slowly in Faery than those living in the human realm, although he may indeed also function at the end of the romance as a relic of a past age’s concept of chivalry.



Other didactic texts, too, offer contradictory points of view on the subject. In Dives and Pauper, Pauper warns Dives that spirits and revenants which “walkyn so aboutyn whan men ben dede” are most apt to be fiends up to no good, like the demon in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale. When demons are able to enter into the body of a dead man or woman they cause much harm and spread disease.98 Nonetheless, the author of Dives and Pauper also quickly goes on to allow that “somtyme be þe leue of God þe soulys aperyn in what maner God wil to hem þat ben onlyue, somtyme for to han helpe, somtyme to schewyn þat soulys lyfn aftir þe body, to confermyn hem þat ben feble in þe feyth”.99 These good spirits will harm only those who do not believe their message or who refuse the dead the spiritual aid for which they ask. In Sidrak and Bokkus, a fifteenth-century Middle English verse adaptation of an Old French prose text, the wise Sidrak answers King Bokkus on the question by simply replying that the dead “Shal neuere aȝein to hem [the living] be sente;/But God may sende an aungel wel/In liknesse of hem euerydel/Forto graunte to hem her bede;/ But deed men comeþ noon in þat stede”.100 Sidrak makes no mention of the possibility of demons. The author of a Middle English translation of the Elucidarium, on the other hand, allows for the human soul in Purgatory to return to Earth because the soul is only in transit on the way towards Heaven and therefore the soul is able, under some circumstances, to backtrack to Earth. These returned souls in search of help always appear as ghosts to the living, but demons nonetheless can imitate their form to deceive people. The translator of the Elucidarium advises, But Y schall tell the how thou schalte know wheþer hit be the Deuyll that gothe to tempte pepill or wheþer hit byn soules in her purgatorye conducid by her gode angell to seke after som helpe and grace. And this thowe schalt knowe: yef hit be noþer savid nor dampned but in wey of saluacion, hit schall apere in likenesse of a ferefull goste goyng from his grave and in non oþer likenesse to manis sight. And yef hit apere in eny oþer lykenesse as men sey som dothe apere like a dogge & in dyuerse lykenesse of bestis, then beware, for that is no good spirite.101

No advice is provided by the Middle English translator, however, on how to be certain that any “ferefull goste goyng from his grave” which one  Dives and Pauper, edited by Barnum, Vol. 1, Part 1, p. 171, ll. 2–10.  Dives and Pauper, edited by Barnum, Vol. 1, Part 1, p. 171, ll. 10–14. 100  Sidrak and Bokkus, edited by Burton, Lansdowne MS, ll. 9110–14. 101  “An Abbreviated Middle English Prose translation of the Elucidarius”, edited by C. W. Marx, pp. 37–38. 98 99



might encounter is the spirit of a good soul in Purgatory rather than an evil demon masquerading as a soul of one of the saved, the damned, or the in-between in transit. As always, before engaging in conversation with that which has appeared, one is well advised to conjure it in the name of God. Another blank, conceptual space in the popular vernacular medieval theology of dying concerns where the line is located which separates life from death and after which neither salvation nor a return to any degree of life, even as a ghost, is possible. Most texts acknowledge the truth of nulla redemptio in inferno, though some sail close to the wind in its application. Some texts indeed find inventive explanations for lucky escapes from spending eternity in Hell. Tundale was a very wicked man whose escape hinges on a technicality: he was dead when he went to Hell, but not ‘all dead’, so he was able to return to a full living existence for a second chance at redemption. Sensibly, Tundale kept himself in a figurative life/death hybrid state upon his return, shutting himself off from the secular world in favour of religious life. Other texts leave characters like Herla trapped between life and death with their cosmic fates left still unknown, while yet other texts generously assign to Purgatory characters such as the mother of Guevenere and the mother of Pope Gregory for serious sins which by themselves, unconfessed, the moralists of the period ordinarily warned would imperil the salvation of one’s soul. Ultimately, the returned dead highlight God’s infinite mercy for the living in these medieval vernacular stories more so than they point to His stern justice, for as much as these texts act to warn through characters like Lazarus who sermonizes and lectures on death that the threat of damnation is very real, these stories spend far more time and energy demonstrating through their plot and action that all of us are eminently redeemable and that even the worst led life can be saved. By traditional Christian thinking we will all be either one thing or the other in the end—redeemed or damned. Choose redemption! We know indeed, therefore, that we are out of the Middle Ages when Christopher Marlowe has Doctor Faustus dragged off to Hell by demons at the conclusion of his play. In the end, the greyness of the popular medieval theology on what happens to the dying and the dead allows space for the life/death hybrid to exist. After all, we should no more expect sound, correct principles of theology from these popular medieval texts than we insist upon sound, scientific principles of physics and biology in movies and television shows like Star Trek and The Walking Dead.



These texts, of course, also demonstrate the limits of the living human ability to conceptualize death. Death is other. Never having been ‘all’ dead, those on this side of mortality, even the ones who have been brought back to life, lack the vocabulary and the knowledge to articulate anything for certain about what it is like to be dead, except to say either that nothing exists on the other side of death, or to compare it to being asleep, or to imagine the dead and their experience in hybridic terms as being similar to that of the living, except magnified either to be a condition much worse than life as experienced by the living (the tortures of Hell, the torments of Purgatory) or a much better condition (the flowery fields of Limbo, the joys of Heaven), or in certain cultural constructs, perhaps the experience will be much the same, whether the dead person returns as a revenant or by reincarnation. The living have no language to describe the state of being unalive except to note the otherness of the dead, those cold, still beings who look so familiar and yet so different, who cannot speak and who show no sign of rational thought, who do not acknowledge the presence of the living, who do not react to the effects of the elements or experience physical thirst, hunger, and pain, and whose touch and smell and sound are uncanny and monstrous. What do we the living have in common with the dead other than the fact that we will become one of them some day? The dead fail the essential tests of humanity. Hybridity points to sameness. The life/death hybrids who bridge narratively in the murky third space in the middle the experience both of the living and the dead do pass the essential tests of humanity in a way that Pliny’s fantastic Cynocephali in their absence never can. These hybrid figures restore the humanity of the corpse stripped away by strict Thomist theology in which, according to Eleonore Stump, “At death, the soul is replaced with a different, non-animating substantial form. The matter of the body is then configured in a substantially different way and so has a form different from the one it had before death”.102 The corpse in essence by this Thomist theory is substantially different from who the deceased was in life, its human connection lost. As if in protest, however, the reanimated and returned dead insist upon their humanity. They may choose like the raised dead to keep their distance from people and a way of life they no longer want to live, or they may, as revenants do, reach out to the 102  Eleonore Stump, “Non-Cartesian Substance Dualism”, p.  509. I am grateful to Gabrielle Parkin’s chapter “Hidden Matter” for her reference to Aquinas at page 301. Parkin cites Aquinas’s A Commentary on Aristotle’s De anima, Book II, Chapter 2, 412b10-413a10.



living and the life they once had. Through their bodily semblances of life—functions of speech, mobility, emotion, rational thought, memory, social interaction—they remind us that the dead whom they also resemble are human despite their potential ghastly appearance, their weird sounds, and their bad smell and that the living continue to owe the dead compassion and respect beyond suffrages for the soul. The human dead should not be reduced to spicy revenge stews, bejewelled goblets, or leather cushions, even if they can be. Nor should their bodies be forgotten and cast out of the human community without caution, since the living cannot know who is saved and who is damned. In the end, being dead is just another way of being human as hybridity extinguishes itself in sameness. Simultaneously living and dying, those hybrids in between remind us of what it means to be human.


Epilogue: Hybridity Extinguishes Itself

Every theory has its limits. Most theories of hybridity are designed to be applicable within a narrow set pertinent to a specific context, while it is impossible to limit the human imagination in its discovery of the ways in which things can be mixed. The narrow context the theory is designed to address is soon outstripped by changing circumstances which start to commingle different things in unanticipated manners because the human mind will find things to mix to continue to be able to distinguish one person, one group, from another. Race, ethnicity, class, alterity, and hybridity are not the only forces grounded in difference and it is a rare quality for things that are different to point towards sameness. The result is that there may be a definite imbalance of power in Gower’s stories of divine forces reshaping hybrid human bodies, but to look for postcolonial explanations of colonized and colonizer behind all such tales seems a fruitless quest. Even when it is a human agency that enacts the change, Gower’s tales speak largely to different binaries of power and powerlessness that exist outside of systems of colonialism, racial inequality, or social class because his stories have become too detached from their context to maintain such allusions. For instance, the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar no doubt originally expressed Israelite political and ethnic resistance to Babylonian domination, the Hebrew God demonstrating His Power to

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0_6




put the Babylonians and their puny king in their place.1 It would be a stretch, however, to argue that Gower’s late medieval story about Nebuchadnezzar contains the same politicized message updated to suit a British ethnic context—Edward III is not Nebuchadnezzar and the Welsh are not the Hebrews, especially not when it is an English author who is writing the story.2 Thus, Bhabha’s theory, wonderfully able in many circumstances, cannot cope with Gower’s Centaurs, or Nebuchadnezzar reduced to an ox, or Itys made into a spicy revenge stew because the theory would have to be stretched too far beyond the purpose of its postcolonial design, while Serres’s theory on hybridic pedagogy seems entirely out of place, except perhaps for what it has to say about Chiron’s education of Achilles and the cultural value of a liberal arts education to temper base and violent human impulses. Cohen’s monster theory as well as cyborg and disability theories, on the other hand, might have more to say, at least some of the time. That is not to say that these twentieth-century theories have nothing relevant to say in such situations. They do. Finding an intersection of educational pedagogies or a colonial imbalance of power in the interactions between the living and the dead might not always be possible, but how the living treat the dead, especially when it comes to the treatment of someone else’s dead, certainly can teach us a lot about power in a colonial or other political context, so long as we remember that leaving the enemy dead lying in the street or arguing over whose old remains can be put on display in a museum or whose ancient grave can be opened for the contents inside is actually about the living exercising dominance over the living. It is only in the imaginations and the cultural sensibilities of the living that the treatment of the dead matters, for there is no scientific evidence that how the dead are disposed of matters to the dead. For better or for worse, however, showing respect to one’s own dead, or disrespect to someone else’s dead, matters a great deal to the living. The life/death hybrids of medieval English literature remind readers of the humanity of the dead and the imperative to be humane towards them, both their bodies and their souls.

 See, for example, Philip Chia’s postcolonial argument in “Naming the Subject”.  Gower’s Tale of Florent and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale illustrate a similar case. As Helen Cooper points out, “there is a huge gap between the Irish analogues in which the hag is a symbol or metonym for the sovereignty of Ireland, and the tale as it is found in Gower and Chaucer, where sovereignty is a matter of women wanting their own way”. Cooper, “Gower and Mortality”, p. 95. 1 2



The four case studies in Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England demonstrate some of the divergent ways in which hybridity can manifest itself and be understood in the medieval period. The case studies also all demonstrate the artificial nature of hybridity. Hybridity is grounded in difference. It is invented out of a deliberate desire to create difference, whether between individuals or between groups. Grounded in difference, hybridity can function as a wedge, separating what is otherwise naturally blending without incident. Being different, of course, is far from necessarily being a bad thing. Forced homogeneity, the erasure of free individual and cultural expression, is far worse. Yet, when desire for difference is looped to anxiety—and it really is a circular argument as to which comes first, the anxiety about the existence of difference or the desire for alterity to exist so that we have something by which to distinguish ourselves as different from others—the results can be negatively divisive.3 In this sense, as much as hybridity as a theoretical construct has been useful for generating much critical debate, when the focus of discussion is set upon its grounding in difference, perhaps we ought to pause to question whether hybridity adds anything truly helpful to the discussion. If we were not so fixated on difference and degrees of difference, would we be so divided? The emphasis instead needs to be set upon hybridity’s unique capacity to extinguish itself by pointing to sameness, what the two (or more) divided parties hold in common. Hybridity does not matter. Additionally, like hybridity, anxiety itself is chameleon. Anxiety may be foundational to hybridity’s creation, but it can be anxiety over any topic and come out of any variety of agendas. The life/death hybrid, for instance, would seem to express a clear anxiety about death, the difference between being alive or being dead, but what lurks behind this anxiety is a complex matter. Not all cultures see a significant difference between the living and the dead, even to the point of having corpses remain in the home for some time and the living continuing to interact with them like anyone else in the family. Among the Toraja of Sulawesi in Indonesia, for example, it is 3  As Cohen describes, “The monstrous lurks somewhere in that ambiguous, primal space between fear and attraction, close to the heart of what Kristeva calls ‘abjection’: There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, fascinates desire, which, nonetheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects — But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an else-where as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself”. Cohen, “Seven Theses”, p. 19.



common practice to keep the corpse at home for several weeks or even years, depending on the social status of the family, before an elaborate funeral ceremony is held at which point the dead person becomes someone different from the living.4 Body parts of the human dead, both in the past and in our own time, are found kept among the living, from books bound in human skin, to preserved locks of hair twisted into Victorian jewellery, and memorial diamonds made from the carbon extracted from a loved one’s cremains. Leather seat cushions and decorated skull goblets are no less testimonials than are these objects that the dead once existed as individuals, that they continue to exist and exert influence, their altered bodies in death made subject either to the love or to the hate of those persons with the will and the resources to memorialize both the dead and their own power over the dead. There is a desire to keep the dead close to us, but an anxiety also in their being too close in the wrong way. The medieval tales of the resurrected dead and things which cannot die express worries about the uncertainty of knowing when death has occurred. We can thus identify the desire as the wish for a peaceful death, while the anxiety is centred on knowing when the bodies of the dead need to be treated differently from those of the living. No cases of premature burial were found in the material in Chap. 5, but there could have been such episodes, if not for the fact that in these narratives the ground was conveniently too hard, or friends and family members were not entirely convinced that all hope of recovery was lost, or the body (part) just would not stay down in the ground, or the dead person happily revived before the burial. Yet, worse than the anxious possibility that we might be responsible for the premature burial of a loved one is the fearful thought of what might happen to us if we should ever appear dead when we were not. No less of an uncomfortable thought to us while we are alive is what might happen to our bodies after we die if someone refuses us burial or if there is no one present who will act to ensure that we receive the proper, respectful funeral rites befitting our humanity and place within the human community. While the thought of being worn in future years as a diamond ring or pendant by a family member may sound comforting, few of us want to end up as a leather seat cushion or a beautiful skull goblet made to satisfy the purpose of our enemies, much less a spicy revenge stew or the several worse alternatives which could happen. 4  See, for example, the video available on the National Geographic website at https:// video.nationalgeographic.com/video/magazine/160311-ngm-indonesian-death-ritual



In the case of most medieval ghosts and revenants, however, there is no doubt in the stories as to the fact that these hybrids of life and death are uncanny. They have much in common with death. The anxiety which they reflect correspondingly re-centres itself to focus on worries about our human status within the community after death and in so doing reveals a fundamental difference between the medieval ghost and the modern one. The Christian medieval afterlife entails a belief not only in the desired promise of eternal joy in the glories of Heaven, but also a belief in the temporary suffering of those in Purgatory and in the endless torment of those damned to Hell. The anxiety once again appears in two aspects, Purgatory and Hell. The abstract doctrinal notion that suffering for one’s sins on Earth mitigates against time in Purgatory and that Purgatory is a temporary state relieves some anxiety from the first, despite the emphasis in so many of the ghost stories that even the most pious and holy will face time in the cleansing fires of Purgatory before proceeding on to the joys of Heaven. There is no relief, however, for the anxiety centred on Hell because Hell is an absolute in which the self is made extinct. The ghosts of verifiably damned souls in Hell are rarely seen in medieval texts unless the living visionary, like Dante, travels to visit them there. There is also an anxious reason behind so many of the ghosts and revenants being friends or family members of the person to whom they appear. The life/death hybrid holds much in common with the living, especially social relations. The dead who must rely on the kindness of strangers may need to languish for a very long time in Purgatory before help will come. Mirk offers the illustrative example of a thief who stole an ox from an abbot and was excommunicated for the crime. The thief died before the excommunication was lifted and yet by the mercy of God he was not damned to Hell. Instead, the thief wanders about the countryside during the night, and in so doing he frightens the inhabitants into staying inside their homes. Finally, he encounters a priest who has no choice but to be outside at night because he must bring communion to a sick man. Towards the priest, “þan cam þis sprythe and mette hym and tolde who he was and why he ȝode, and prayed hym to takon his wyf and gon to þe abbotte of Lylleshull and helpon þat he were asoylud, and or he myght haue no reste, and so wente to Lulleshull and haddon hym asoyled, and so hadde reste”.5 Because he is excommunicate, the dead thief needs more than the assumed cooperation of his wife in having masses said for the 5

 Mirk, Festial, edited by Powell, 68.110–25, Vol. II, on p. 252.



repose of his soul: he requires first the sentence of excommunication to be lifted, and for that he needs his wife to make after-the-fact restitution for his crime to the abbot. The process by which the thief at last finds his eternal rest depends entirely upon an improbable chance encounter at night with a priest who just happens to be able to intercede for the dead man with both the wife and the abbot. The anxiety illustrated by the revenant, and, in a different way, the raised dead, is thus about being alone, about either being cast out of a social community which cares for its members, both living and dead, or being a member of the right social community in the first place. Resolving desirous anxiety is likewise at the heart of the binary evident in the focus of Chap. 2 on mixed ethnic identity, and it is also an anxiety centred on group identity and a need to belong to a community by which one can define one’s place in the world, or at least in some of these medieval English texts, find one’s location on the diverse ethnic and regional map of medieval Britain. It, too, is an anxiety in a dual form. Hybridity’s grounding in difference reveals itself in the desire to keep out those dangerous strangers who we think for some reason do not belong in our group. Too much alterity, or alterity of the wrong sort, is threatening to the cohesion of the group. Yet hybridity points to sameness and thereby extinguishes itself: it enables us to gain our own accepted place within the group of our choice as unique individuals. Once again, we do not want to exist alone and cast out of community, but we hope, like the forlorn Melusine, that the group will accommodate whatever differences might be apparent within us. Hybridity need not be divisive: the effect of its wedge can be dealt with and accepted by the group to bring an individual inside in a way that alterity, straight difference, cannot. Regardless, hybridity extinguishes itself in counterbalance to the inflaming effects of race, ethnicity, class, and alterity which heighten and exaggerate the importance of difference. For the English, whose biological origins from the start were mixed and made even more mixed in the aftermath of the 1066 conquest, defining a so-called pure English identity in the medieval period seems to have been especially fraught, although that struggle to define who they were did not incapacitate their ability to separate themselves from those other groups on the island and from those groups beyond the shores of Britain which the English somehow knew with certainty were not a part of their own community. That is, the English knew who they were not, if not who they were and why they were so. Nor should we assume that other groups in



the medieval period necessarily had an easier time of knowing with clarity who they were or why they were so either. In the absence of sure and certain authoritative proofs of membership, if, as Robert Frost claimed in his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, home is where “they have to take you in”,6 gaining the group’s acceptance that any person deserved a place in the home is fraught with peril because the criteria by which membership is determined are so unclear. Nonetheless, the romances do much to reassure their readers that winning such public acceptance is possible, even for those whose birth origins are known to not fully be from within the group. The romances define processes and conditions that validate newcomers as full members of the group and resolve biological hybridity as unimportant so long as the newcomer or mixed breed is willing to give up a cultural past or a partial identity which is unwanted by the group. The difference still exists, but hybridity can extinguish itself so that only the sameness matters. Sameness, however, does not mean unconditional acceptance of alterity within the group. The group must be willing to allow some degree of difference to exist alongside sameness. If not, then hybridity cannot extinguish itself; its grounding in difference predominates instead. To differentiate itself from constructs of race and ethnicity, hybridity must be able to extinguish itself and that means that no one can belong only partly to the group. It is all or nothing, inside or outside the group. Individual cases of biological hybridity, in literature at least, can be resolved within the group because cultural identification, which can be very elastic, and authenticated connection to the land, which can be acquired in more than one way, are what mattered. Cultural hybrid identity is impossible except in the limited sense that those who travel or those who have outsider origins might have access to different groups to which they can belong in different places at different times. These can code switch identity and be as French as they wish to be while visiting their family members who live in Poitou, but back in England they need to switch back to an English identity if they want to belong and be accepted by the English community there. The alternative is for a third, whole, and separate identity to emerge when hybridity extinguishes itself by pointing to the sameness of an

6  The husband says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in”, to which his wife replies, “I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”. Robert Frost’s Poems, pp. 165–66.



entirely new group. Such has happened in the past, as seen in the emergence of Italian, Marcher, and Métis identities. More difficult for hybridity to extinguish are the anxieties which are evident around the alterities and mixtures of the hybrid body, as seen in the third chapter on Gower’s Confessio Amantis. This is because the primary binary in play is power and powerlessness and there is far less emphasis upon the group as an agent. Whereas the living possess the power to help both themselves and the living dead and whereas the romances argue for the power of individuals to craft their group identity to a significant extent, many of the stories in Gower’s text underscore our individual lack of power over our own bodies and therefore our own shifting identities. We are powerless to prevent our bodies’ change between a time before and a time after. Yet, if a body determines our function and place in the world, what does it mean that our infinitely malleable and hybridic body all too often is not ours to control? The problem this time around is that there is no wedge to keep things tidily separate and in stable condition, but change is all. The wedge instead acts as a bridge which joins different polarities of an individual together—old/young, female/male, child/ adult, object/person—as hybridity continuously points to sameness and extinguishes itself. This unstable threat to who we are, to our sense of self in the world, can come from outside powers which apprehend our living bodies and make them subject to their force without our permission, turning us to stone or to other material objects or disabling our bodies with physical alterations to our limbs and body parts. Or the threat to who we think we are can come from within our hybridic bodies, as we seem powerless to prevent reduction of ourselves to the level of lust-driven beasts in our actions or as we weaken in age or loss of social status or by other disabling circumstance. For every positive step the desire for bodily and identity transformation can suggest, there are at least equal measures of negative. Even when the change is not to our own physical form, Gower’s tales demonstrate that the possibility of threat to identity still lingers. If changeable bodies are an unreliable outer container of the inner identities hidden inside, deceit and deception at the hands of others seems inevitable. The anxiety is dual: anxiety about the threat of disabling change to our own body and worry about the mismatch of outer form and devious intent in the bodies of others. The second chapter, on Merlin and Melusine, however, might seem to contradict the thesis that hybridity is always invented out of anxiety over some perceived binary and that it functions as a wedge. Of course, the



hybridity of these two characters is extinguished differently. While from the human point of view it might appear that their hybridity points towards difference, it is in fact pointing towards affirmation that Melusine and Merlin are in fact outsiders to humankind. Their sameness is relative to an inhuman group, incubus or faery. Hybridity’s splitting wedge, in fact, functions as a means of bridging the gap between the human and the supernatural worlds as much as it keeps them apart by revealing Melusine and Merlin’s alterity. The anxiety here lurks in the human reaction to the challenge Merlin and Melusine pose to the belief in human superiority. Because they are revealed to be other than human, Merlin and Melusine must be made subordinate to human agency. Melusine must be made monstrous and problematic, and the human Raymond illogically allowed without contradiction to blame her alone for the affliction of their sons. Merlin, too, must be made problematic. Hence, as Donald L. Hoffman observes, Merlin “is the source of both the creation and the collapse of the kingdom. His ambiguous complicity is nowhere clearer than in the consequences of his role in Arthur’s conception and the satisfaction of his consequent desire, to take for himself the unbaptized child begotten on the night of lust, disguise, and death”.7 Indeed, the anxiety-inducing problem which Merlin and Melusine represent is not centred in her Saturday reptilian lower half or in his black and rough-as-a-swine skin at birth,8 as if they represent some fifth column of black lizard people in our midst plotting to take over the world. It is centred in the supernatural power that they possess, and we do not, except through them. We fear their autonomy because their power could be turned against us. Especially for any prince or powerful ruler, the thought that his enemies might possess a Merlin or a Melusine at their side to guide unerringly their military strategies or to fund inexhaustibly their endless wars against him no doubt could fuel some anxious nights. Substitute modern weapons technology for sorcery and how that message might be received by another prince becomes more than clear. The binary in play once again is power and powerlessness, summed up in the uncomfortable hybridic intersection between the human and the supernatural. Revealed as outside of the human paradigm because of their extraordinary abilities, Melusine and Merlin, and their type, must be made problematic for them to remain subordinate to our need to have power  Hoffman, “Malory’s Tragic Merlin”, p. 337.  Merlin when born in Arthour and Merlin has the form and shape of a human being but nonetheless “Blak he was wiþowte les / And rouȝh as a swyn he wes” (ll. 981–82). 7 8



over them. When their alterity outweighs the hybridity which enables them to live among us, we imprison them or cast them out of our midst, exhibiting our power. We, in effect, use their hybridity in our stories to extinguish them. It is also easy to see how a desire-and-anxiety paradigm fits other theoretical constructs of difference. Racial or religious miscegenation in some parts of the world continues to draw violent responses within many communities. Both the colonizer and the colonized continue to experience the all too evident difference between their two groups and negotiating that deep chasm between settler and Indigenous remains difficult and ridden with anxiety for individuals and communities alike on both sides of the divide today. It is a classic argument that functional societies need the humanities as much as they do STEM knowledge systems because healthy communities wither and collapse without the educational foundation of the liberal arts. Serres’s pedagogical argument for the benefits of intersecting the sciences and humanities has been made several times before him, as by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads who argued in the late eighteenth century for the continued relevance of poetry in the new scientific age.9 Serres’s desirous anxiety continues to be the same concern as to what happens to a culture which lacks access to the heart and knowledge expressed by poetry. Yet, when old differences at last begin to fade in the importance granted them through prejudice, hybridity indeed has the capacity to extinguish itself by pointing towards what is held in common and thus towards social change. Therefore, in answer to Stephen W. Silliman’s question quoted in the Introduction to this book, the Eastern Pequot living in the presence of Europeans and, just as much, the Europeans living in the presence of the Eastern Pequot, indeed just stopped being hybrid as soon as the cultural adjustments they made to each other were thought no longer to outweigh in importance their cultural survivances. Hybridity extinguished itself by pointing towards what the Eastern Pequot held in common, their sameness. Indeed, this emphasis upon sameness was also the case in medieval England when newcomers and natives encountered each other—they adapted—as argued by Mark Omrod, Bart Lambert, and Jonathan Mackman in Immigrant England, “Englishness was also the set of values and practices to which immigrants wishing to be fully accepted in the host society could aspire and adhere …. however, immigrants made their own  William Wordsworth, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, p. 145.




contribution to a culture that was open to influence and change. Acculturation and acceptance were therefore both gradual and incomplete: ‘becoming English’ was about degrees of adjustment on both sides, rather than a straightforward process of assimilation”.10 The medieval literary texts show the strategies by which hybridity can extinguish itself, by which the group can preserve its integrity and still bring individuals, even outsiders, within its ranks. The group itself must be willing to exist, within prescribed limits, as a third space in which hybridity does not matter, limits in the Middle Ages which largely centred on religion. Hybridity can extinguish itself because its component parts are invented, transitory things. Like the cultural constructs of race, class, and ethnicity, of gender also, the binaries that are deemed to make someone (or something) not fully within the group are never fixed and locked, and thus whatever was once thought to be mixed and fragmentary will become one whole singular again with time. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. Hybridity is, after all, grounded in difference and it takes little for the several forces of difference to combine in action together. Whatever was or is thought to be whole will inevitably be argued by someone, at some point, on some arbitrary grounds, for the purpose of some capricious agenda, to be fractured and mixed and the thing will become culturally, or ethnically, or racially, or religiously, or biologically, or psychologically, or by some other adverb hybridic if enough anxious people pay heed to the worried voice calling for a splitting wedge to keep the ‘bad’ part away from us that could make us mixed and lesser than ourselves. The four medieval case studies of hybridity in this volume reveal that the anxiety which results from and creates the desire for difference is itself always two-pronged. The one prong is outer and public, centred on how the difference might affect the health, the safety, or the integrity of the group. The other prong is inner and private, centred on the integrity of the self. These two aspects of anxiety work in unison to manufacture the binaries of hybridity, to make any type of alterity weigh more than it ought to matter in the everyday patterns of our lived experience. If hybridity is the natural state of things, do we really need it as a theoretical concept? Or does it cause more harm than good? Certainly, when hybridity’s grounding in difference predominates, the results can be damaging and harmful in inculcating hostile environments of racism, xenophobia, hierarchy, patriarchy, and bullying by emphasizing difference. Yet hybridity contains within itself critical  Immigrant England, p. 222.




reminders that sameness and commonality must also be present, that a focus upon hybridity’s importance has always been a mirage of our own arbitrary and capricious vision. The medieval experience as revealed throughout this book suggests that hybridity as a concept is only useful when it points towards sameness, whether it be to resolve difference or to enable mutual cooperation. The two prongs of anxiety reiterate repeatedly that we need to recombine the hybrid’s elements to discover our own Thomas Becket, our own troubadour of knowledge patiently waiting for us to find him (or her or it or them) hidden in the third space in the middle, all that which we must recognize we hold in common despite the outer differences of form, all that which can unite us in our shared humanity. The solution is not for one group to exist independent of and eliminate the others, but always for groups to join as one in mutual cooperation. Hybridity, grounded in difference and yet pointing towards sameness, extinguishes itself. We are all pure breeds if we choose to see ourselves that way. Or we are all mixed breeds if we would rather celebrate the diversity in which our common humanity can reveal itself over the centuries. In the end, each of us needs to recognize that none of us belongs to one group separate from all the rest, except in that we are all a small part of the larger human mix, both the living and the dead. In fact, it would be most helpful indeed if more of us were to recognize the wisdom of Indigenous ways of knowing and to accept that humans are but one small part of all our relations11 which combine to make this one big planet. Hybridity, grounded in difference and yet pointing towards sameness, still has much work to do before it can well and truly declare itself extinguished. 11  “All my relations” is a fundamental concept in Indigenous thought. It is succinctly described on the website firstnationspedagogy.com under Theory: Interconnectedness as “Interconnection is a central core of First Nations, Inuit and Metis worldviews and ways of knowing. Some First Nations sum this up with the phrase ‘All my relations’. This mindset reflects people who are aware that everything in the universe is connected. It also reinforces that everyone and everything has a purpose, is worthy of respect and caring, and has a place in the grand scheme of life. First Nations relationships fully embrace the notion that people and their families are strongly connected to the communities they live in, their ancestors and future descendants, the land they live on, and all of the plant, animal and other creatures that live upon it. They know they are stewards of the Earth and have traditionally lived in harmony with their environment for millennia. Their traditional practices boast amazing sustainability, ecological awareness and knowledge, and a strong scientific understanding of the earth, weather, cycles of the seasons, medicinal and food sources, marine foods and harvesting, and creating everything they need from nature’s bounty”. https://firstnationspedagogy. com/interconnection.html accessed June 22, 2022.


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A Aeson (father of Jason), 125n6, 177 Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, 56n84, 59n89 Alban, Gillian, 98n42 Alchemy, 124, 124n3, 131, 140n27 Allen, Elizabeth, 160n12, 179 All our relations fundamental concept in Indigenous thought, 226 Alphabet of Tales, 186, 188n62, 189 dead intervene to assist the living, 187 Drychthelm, 167n27 malevolent revenant, 186 man languishing in Purgatory for two days, 157 murdered children resurrected, 176 resurrected chicken, 172 resurrected mother, 178n43 Trajan, 170n31 usurer’s corpse, 186

Alterity, 4, 25 Amadace, 198 Ambrisco, Alan S., 23n7, 52, 53, 53n76 Amis and Amiloun, 174, 200 Anchorite as life/death hybrid, 162, 169, 197 Animal studies, 3 Aquinas, Thomas, 142, 213 Archer, Jayne, 140n27 Arthour and Merlin, 31, 33, 35, 43, 75, 77, 78, 80, 82, 83, 86, 88, 92, 94, 95 Augustine of Hippo, 10 Awntyrs off Arthure, 189, 203, 204 B Bale, Anthony, 181n51 Barratt, Alexandra, 161 Barth, Fredrick, 28 Bartlett, Robert, 9n5, 29n20

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.


© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 R. P. Gasse, Hybridity in the Literature of Medieval England, The New Middle Ages, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-31465-0




Battles, Dominique, 24n9, 64n97 Baumgartner, Emmanuèle, 103n48 Beagon, Mary, 146 Becket, Thomas (Archbishop of Canterbury), 63, 67, 189n64 hybridity a resolution of English identity, 63, 65 mother a Saracen princess, 62, 63, 63n95 Bede Historia Ecclesiastica, 167 Berthelot, Anne, 95n34, 113n61 Bevis (character), 21, 36, 67 Bevis of Hampton, 35–40, 36n36, 38n40, 42, 60 Bhabha, Homi K., 13, 19, 49, 50n69, 216 Bildhauer, Bettina, 36 Blamires, Alcuin, 51n73 Blud, Victoria, 130n11 Boboc, Andreea, 144 Body as a location of hybridity, 6 Bradstock, E. M., 53 Breuer, Heidi, 92n29 Broyles, Paul, 22 Burrow, J. A., 128n9 Byland Abbey chronicle, 162

Book of the Duchess, 147, 195n76 Friar’s Tale, 211 Legend of Good Women, 31, 55n81, 131n13, 163n16 Man of Law’s Tale, 31, 33, 44 Nun’s Priest’s Tale, 189, 194 Parson’s Tale, 155 Prioress’s Tale, 181, 184 Wife of Bath’s Tale, 125, 216n2 Christensen, Hannah, 199n82, 200 Christ’s Visit to Simon the Leper, 165, 169 Cirilla, Anthony, 190 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, 15, 17, 24n9, 25, 25n11, 29n21, 32, 216, 217n3 Coletti, Theresa, 178n43 Conlee, John, 72, 78 Cooper, Helen, 216n2 Corpse bride, 178–185 Coudrette (author of verse adaptation of Melusine), 97, 97n39, 116, 116n65 Critical race studies, 3 Critical race theory, 28 Curley, Michael, 75, 76n8 Cursor Mundi, 167n26 Cyborg studies, 3, 132, 164n21

C Caesarius of Heisterbach, 186 Calkin, Siobhain Bly, 23, 41 Camelot a hybrid space, 50 Campbell, Ethan, 182 Campbell, Kofi, 20, 38n40, 61n93 Cassodorien (character), 55, 60n92, 98 Castle of Perseverance, 155, 156, 171 Centaurs, 17, 133, 133n16, 133n17, 134, 151 Chiron, 133, 134n19 Chaucer, Geoffrey

D Damian, Peter rooster, 173n34 Daniel, Christopher, 24n8, 40n46 Davies, Constance, 160n12 Degaré (character), 44, 44n57, 45n58, 45n59, 46, 49, 51, 51n72, 58n87, 61, 68, 73, 100, 119 Delgado, Richard, 28 Demon, 57, 74, 76n10, 172, 188, 195n76, 203n90, 209, 211 Demon child, 22, 51, 54, 55, 61, 79, 101, 203n89


Demon vs. faery, 35n35, 101 Disability studies, 3 Disabled bodies, 18, 33, 34n34, 101, 126, 136, 144, 149, 151, 165, 173 Dives and Pauper, 33, 57, 57n85, 76n10, 96n36, 195n76, 211 DNA as sign of identity, 2 Dolmans, Emily, 26, 61n93 Dominical Sermon Cycle, 166n25, 201n86 Doob, Penelope, 160n12 Dragon Lady of Cos, 98, 98n41 Dragon Lady of Synadoun, 45, 98 Dying as a third space, 7 E Eckert, Kenneth, 45n59, 58n87 Elliott, Dyan, 35n35, 76n10, 198n81 Elucidarium, 157, 158, 211 Elynas (father of Melusine), 98, 101, 104, 106 England a trilingual society, 8, 37 English identity in the Middle Ages, 5, 25, 37, 40, 220, 224 Ens, Gerhard, 12 Enstone, Zoe, 90 Ethnicity, 4, 25 Everyman, 155, 171 F Faery, 45n58, 58, 107, 112, 120 Faery King, 99n45, 159, 160 Faeryland slow speed of time in, 210n97 Fasciculus Morum, 149n41, 201 Fathers, 7, 27, 35, 42, 44, 44n57, 45, 47, 50n71, 55, 58, 61, 73, 77, 84, 86, 87, 103, 105, 105n50, 109, 112, 115, 127, 128, 131, 133, 140 Fellows, Jennifer, 22


Femininity, 40, 92n29, 99n45, 144–149 Firth, Edward E., 175 FitzNigel, Richard Dialogus de Scarrario, 24 Fletcher, Alan J., 159n11, 169, 170n30 Floris and Blancheflour, 21, 22 Florschuetz, Angela, 43n54, 60n92, 109 Forest location, 45–47, 57, 72, 98, 120, 160 Förg, Manuel, 134n19 Frederick, Jill, 64n97 French identity in the Middle Ages, 38 Friedman, John Block, 11n9 Frost, Robert Death of the Hired Hand, 221 G Gallagher, Edward, 46n62 Gast of Gy, 189, 190, 195n76, 205 Gawain, 39, 45, 49, 50, 85, 189 Geary, Patrick J., 28 Gender, 34n34, 92n29, 93n31, 139n25, 140n27, 143n33, 225 Gender studies, 3 Geoffrey of Monmouth, 75, 86, 93, 96 Geoffroy Big Tooth (son of Melusine), 100–103, 110n57, 116 Gerald of Wales, 25, 25n11, 30, 67 Gesta Romanorum, 203n90 Gilbert, Jane, 34n34, 105n50 Gilte Legende Becket’s Saracen mother in, 62n94 elves described in, 57n86 Lazarus, 164 miracle of the Magdalene (dead knight revived), 169 miracle of the Magdalene (dead mother revived), 178, 179



Gower, John, Confessio Amantis, 6, 31, 123 Achelons, 137 Achilles and Deidamia, 143 Albinus and Rosemund, 127, 149 Alcestis, 163n16 Calistona, 146 Cambises, 126 Ceyx and Alcyone, 147, 195n76 Daphne, 148 Education of Achilles, 133 Florent, 125, 216n2 Iphis and Ianthe, 140, 145 Jason and Medea, 125n6 Narcissus, 144n36 Nebuchadnezzar, 135, 136n21, 136n22 Nectanabus, 137, 151 Nessus, 138 Phyllis and Demophon, 148 Pygmalion, 131 Sardanapaulus, 144 Tereus, 123n2, 129, 129n10, 147 Tiresias, 149 Wedding of Pirithous, 133, 151 Gowther (character), 51, 53n76, 56, 57, 61, 68, 73, 76, 76n10, 79, 82, 85, 100–103, 106, 119 Grateful Dead trope, 199 Green, Richard Firth, 76n10, 159n11, 160n13, 185n55, 201, 201n87, 210n97 Gregory the Great, 79, 170n31, 187n60, 196n77, 202 Griffin, Miranda, 78, 90n26, 93n31 Griffith, Gareth, 78 Guenevere, 39, 89, 94, 94n33, 115, 190, 203 Guinglain (character), 45, 51, 53, 61, 68, 73, 100, 119 Guy and Miles (twin sons of Bevis), 35, 41, 67

H Hahn, Stacey, 103, 109 Hahn, Thomas, 28n18, 41 Handlyng Synne, 31, 187n60 cursed dancers of Colbek, 183 dead husband visits wife at night, 193 ghost of the burning tongue, 200 man who dies working on a half holy-day, 171 priest attended at his bath by ghost, 196, 197n78, 198, 200, 202 Hanna, Ralph, 166n24 Harbert, Bruce, 123 Hardyng, John Chronicle, 75 Haught, Leah, 190 Havelok (character), 21, 44 Havelok the Dane, 9, 9n6, 24n9, 30n22, 34, 44 Hayes, Mary, 164n21 Hebert, Jill, 95n35 Heng, Geraldine, 8, 28n18, 31n26, 34n34, 42n51, 43n55, 60, 60n90 Hengest, 39, 39n43 Heracles/Hercules, 74, 74n4, 137–139, 139n26 Herla, 99n45, 160, 160n13, 162, 184, 208 Higden, Ranulph, 76, 76n10, 209 Hodges, Kenneth, 39n42 Hoffman, Donald, 78, 85n23, 91n28, 223 Hoge, Charles, 185 Holton, Amanda, 31 Horrible (son of Melusine), 100–102, 103n47, 104, 112, 112n60, 120 Huber, Emily Rebekah, 53 Hughes-Edwards, Mari, 162 Hybridity vs. appropriation, 14


different from alterity, ethnicity, race, and class, 4 extinguishes itself, 4 modern origins in biological discourse, 11 problems with definition, 3 I Identity politics, 2 Illegitimacy as sign of hybridity, 46, 49, 61 Indigenous comparison to medieval experience, 5, 11, 14, 224 Ipomadon, 32, 35, 40 fear of miscegenation in, 33, 48 Irvin, Matthew, 123 Itys (son of Tereus and Procne), 129, 130n11, 216 J Jean D’Arras (author of Melusine), 39, 97, 117 Jirsa, Curtis, 160n12 Johnson, Holly, 166, 176 Johnston, Michael, 199n83 Josian (character), 21, 22, 40, 68 K Keats, John Lamia, 98 Kieckhefer, Richard, 96n36 King Arthur, 39, 50, 81–84, 87, 88, 112, 115, 193, 194, 194n74 King Horn, 22, 35 King of Tars, 35, 41, 42, 54, 58 lump baby, 33 Kline, Daniel, 22 Knight, Gareth, 38


Knight, Rhonda, 25n11 Knight, Stephen, 75, 78, 81, 96n37 Kruger, Steven F., 23n7, 182 L Lambard (character), 48, 48n66 Lambert, Bart, 67n101, 224 Lamont, Margaret, 39n43, 115 Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, 40 Langland, William Piers Plowman B, 26, 170n31, 206 Language as marker of identity, 14, 14n15, 36–38, 60n91, 64 Langum, Virginia, 176 Larkin, Peter, 60, 60n91 Launcelot, 38, 84n22, 85, 94 Lavezzo, Kathy, 29n21 Layamon’s Brut, 39, 75, 77 Lazarus, 163–165, 163n17, 163n18, 164n21, 166n24, 169 Le Goff, Jacques, 158n8 Lee, Brian, 22, 181n51 Lenthius and Carius, 167 Leverett, Emily, 56n84 Lewis-Simpson, Shannon definition of ethnicity, 28 Livermore, Christian, 185 Lowe, Dunstan, 132n15, 134n19, 139 Lybeaus Desconus, 45, 46, 48n66 M Mackman, Jonathan, 67n101, 224 Maddox, Donald, 97n39, 106 Malory, Thomas Le Morte DArthur, 38, 39n45, 75, 80, 84, 85n23, 87, 90, 91, 94, 184, 189, 193 Mandeville’s Travels, 98n44 Dead woman of Satalia, 179 Dragon Lady of Cos, 98



Map, Walter De nugis curialium, 160, 162, 179 Marie de France Bisclavret, 100n46 Yonec, 34, 43 Mary, Blessed Virgin hand throttles sinner, 172 Mary Magdalene, 163, 170, 178, 182 Mary Magdalene (Digby), 163, 178n43 Masculinity, 56, 110, 110n57, 132–135, 133n16, 138, 139, 142, 144, 152 Maternal influence on identity, 43 Matthews, David, 25, 42, 60n91 Maugis (character), 48 McAvoy, Liz Herbert, 162 McCabe, T. Matthew, 150, 152n45 McCracken, Peggy, 43 McDonald, Nicola, 56 Medea, 21, 30, 176 Medusa, 98, 132, 134, 144 Melusine, 6, 97, 105n50, 106n51, 112, 113n62, 119, 220, 222 Merlin, 6, 33, 72, 73, 96, 101, 112, 119 half brother of Gowther, 76n10, 77, 79, 79n19, 85 Métis identity, 14n15, 222 Metissage not an identity option in medieval period, 67 Metzler, Irina, 34n34, 43 Mills, Robert, 64, 127n8 Minotaur, 17, 33, 132, 134 Mirk, John Festial, 165, 178n43, 187n60, 187n61, 188, 210, 219 Miscegenation fear of in medieval texts, 17, 23, 31, 179 Mitchell-Smith, Ilan, 52 Molitoris, Ulrich, 96 On Witches and Pythonesses, 76n10

Monogenism, 10, 17 Monster studies, 3 Monster theory, 17 Monstrosity, 131, 132 invented construct, 10, 124 Monstrous races, 10 Cynocephali, 17, 213 Mordred, 84, 87, 96, 115 Morgan le Fay, 92, 93, 95, 184 Mori, Masahiro, 132 Moss, Rachel E., 51n72 Mothers, 27, 34n34, 42, 43n54, 44, 46, 47, 49, 50n71, 59, 60, 62, 72, 73, 79, 88, 89, 105, 108, 111, 112, 114, 115, 118, 131, 140, 143, 146, 180, 190 N National Geographic’s Genographic Project, 2 Necrophilia, 179 Nicholson, Peter, 130n11 Nimiane (Lady of the Lake), 73n2, 80, 91, 91n28, 92, 94, 94n33, 95, 95n34, 114, 121 Northern Homily Cycle, 192 O Omrod, Mark, 67n101, 224 Origen, Contra Celsum, 112n60 Oswald, Dana, 55, 98n41 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 123 Achelous, 137 Chiron, 133n16 death of Hercules, 139 Iphis and Ianthe, 140 Pygmalion, 132 Tereus, 130 Tiresias, 149


P Pairet, Ana, 115–116 Parkin, Gabrielle, 123n1, 126 Partial supernatural ancestry, 18 Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis monstrous races, 10 women turning into men, 145 Pliny the Younger, 185n56 Postcolonial studies, 3 Pressine (mother of Melusine), 98, 104, 105, 105n50, 111, 116, 120 Prick of Conscience, 165 Prose Merlin, 33n33, 72, 75, 80–83, 88, 91, 92, 95, 114, 121 Prud’Homme, Caroline, 106 R Raby, F. J. E., 173 Raby, Michael, 192 Race, 4, 5, 8, 25 Raising of Lazarus (Towneley), 164, 171 Raymond/Raymondin (husband of Melusine), 99, 102, 103n47, 107–112, 116, 116n65, 119 Recognized connection to land as marker of identity, 27, 38, 39 Revelation of Purgatory, 191n71 Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, 166n25, 191, 195n76, 201 Revenant continued humanity of, 189, 213 example of demon-possessed corpse, 188 physicality of, 188 term defined, 185 Richard Coer de Lyon, 38, 55, 98, 120 Richard I of England (the Lionhearted), 38, 55, 56n83, 103n48


Robert de Boron, 76 Rouse, Robert, 9n6, 60 Rudd, Gillian, 170n31 S Salisbury, Eve, 22, 46, 46n61, 50 Saunders, Corinne, 78, 175 Sawchuk, Joe, 12, 14n15 Schmitt, Jean-Claude, 160n13, 185n56, 187n61, 205 Serres, Michel, 16, 19, 158, 216, 224 Shaw, Jan, 99n45 Shuffelton, George, 48n66, 138n23 Shutters, Lynn, 59n89 Sicily as hybrid space, 65 Sidrak and Bokkus, 211 Silliman, Stephen W., 15, 26n13, 224 Sir Amadace, 189, 198, 199n82 Sir Degaré, 44, 51 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 93, 95, 181 Sir Gowther, 51, 82, 115 Sir Launfal, 48n68, 120 Sir Launfal (character), 210n97 Sir Lyolyne (character), 32, 40 Sir Orfeo, 159, 179, 210n97 South English Legendary, 57, 57n86, 62–65, 65n99, 164, 164n20, 178n43, 182, 196n77, 197n78 Stacey, Robert, 29n21, 181n51 Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 91n28 Star Trek, 212 Stefancic, Jean, 28 Sturm-Maddox, Sara, 97n39, 106 Stump, Eleonore, 213 T Tasdelen, Pinar, 23n6 Taylor, Karla, 147n40 Thing that will not die, 180, 183, 184



Thomas, Hugh M., 24, 42 Tracy, Larissa, 9, 127n8 Translation studies, 3 Trental of St. Gregory, 79, 189, 202, 204 Tundale (character), 168, 207, 212 Turville-Petre, Thorlac, 9 U Ulysses, 133, 135, 143 Uther Pendragon, 82, 83, 85, 115 V Vergil, Aeneid, 30, 30n22, 120, 135 Vision of Tundale, 168, 170 W Wadiak, Walter, 199n82, 210n97 Walking Dead, 164n21, 212 Warren, Michael J., 130n11 Warren, Michelle, 26, 48n67 Watt, Diane, 139n25, 142, 145, 150 Weisl, Angela Jane, 110, 116n65 Weldon, James, 22, 46, 46n61 Welsh Marcher identity, 12, 25–27, 67, 222

Wetherbee, Winthrop, 134, 143 Where has Simon gone? sermon theme, 157 Whetter, K. S., 85n23, 87, 190 Whitaker, Cord J., 42, 58 William of Newburgh Historia Rerum Anglicarum, 162 Williams, Deanne, 136n21 Williams, Elizabeth, 199n83 Williams, Tara, 125, 130n11, 142, 143n33, 160n12, 179 Womanhood, 125, 130n11 Wood, Sarah, 166n24 Woolf, Rosemary, 142 Wordsworth, William, 224 Y Yamamoto, Dorothy, 109 Ygerne, 81, 82, 84 Yonec, 35, 36, 46n62 Yonec (character), 34, 43, 46, 49, 52, 58, 61 Z Zarins, Kim, 129n10 Zawacki, Alexander, 206 Zumthor, Paul, 73n2, 82n21