Humanity and the Periphery in Middle Ages Literature
Reflecting on the spread of Middle Ages literature read recently, and especially writings of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe so infused with both spirituality and [perhaps unconscious] sexuality, led me to wonder about the presence of the body in Middle Ages literature, the prevalence of humanity scurrying this way and that, a single figure’s struggle that so often serves as a conduit for cultural values. To put this more clearly, there seems to be a distinct difference between Beowulf and Robinson Crusoe, though one could claim they both relay the adventures of a single protagonist; they are very different, though, because they are using different methods and modes to communicate differently, and while one could hardly expect Beowulf to employ the same experimental sophistication of the 18th century, the use of the body—the ugly, the monstrous, the warrior, the monk, the ideal—is a recurring and significant feature of Middle Ages literature. It is my claim in this brief paper, then, that Middle Ages’ literature is more obviously polarized to express cultural values, and had to be because of the oral nature of its expression and because of the audience composed of those at the center.
Scholar Dorothy Yamamota agrees that “medieval culture abounds in bodies,” asserting that “from Gawain’s Green Knight to Malory’s Blatant Beast . . . the ‘body,’ in its exceedingly various manifestations, is one of our points of access to the medieval world” (1). Yamamota also concedes that the body on a journey is a significant part of Middle Ages literature, writing that “the body is not so much an imponderable, more exciting way of journeying,” one that “can give . . . access to a culture’s way of representing the world to itself and of handling its own composing elements” (2). Yamamota is essentially telling us that the journeys of Middle Age’s literature communicate cultural characteristics, both cultural ideals and realities, where the culture wishes it were and its actual place, and this claim is one that many have made about all literature. But the unique feature of medieval literature is the blatancy with which these are communicated, the raw story telling aimed at an affective audience. The heroic ideal makes cultural values especially obvious, and their opposites are made equally clear with the presence of monsters. This juxtaposing of the ideal with the eschewed evidences an exploring of the periphery: the culture is centered on certain values and anything other than is pushed to the periphery, deemed low and disdainful. In a way, then, Middle Ages literature is both reflecting and defining the center and the periphery, a cyclical process of cultural values being poured into these stories but also created from them. In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” J.R.R. Tolkien makes a similar claim, arguing that Beowulf is especially compelling precisely because Beowulf is so good but so human, his foes so evil, and his battle against the powers of darkness. Essentially, “the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low; so deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast” (260). The poem’s gravity is communicated effectively because the center and the periphery are so distinct, the center being light, the periphery being darkness, and any crossover carrying powerful and detrimental implications.
Beowulf is not the only example of the periphery being explored in Middle Ages literature. Be it Beowulf, Sir Gawain, or Judith, Middle Ages literature is marked, as I initially pointed out, by a character’s literal journey, and this journey evidences his or her honor with trials, physical and moral. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White explore this pushing of the periphery and conclude that Middle Ages literature is powerfully polarized, reinforcing my point that this era most effectively expresses itself (Yamamota 3). It is obviously better to be a strong knight than a hideous monster, a rich lord than a lord’s wife. Those existing at the periphery are clearly less than those existing at the center.
Yamamota explores the periphery specifically in regards to women, arguing that medieval literature obviously places men at the center, and “women, despite being humans, are not accorded either the symbolic or the practical dignity of centrality within medieval culture” (10). Just as women are not given centrality within culture, they are also not afforded centrality in stories. Yamamota’s qualifier in the above quote of “despite being humans” is interesting and telling, perhaps pointing to the fact that non-human creatures are given a more central role than women. Beowulf’s fiend is a monster, and women are so insignificant in stories that they are practically invisible. One might postulate that the exceptions to this claim are stories like Judith or the writings of Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe. However, I would argue that even women in these pieces are on the periphery, both because of their rarity and their reception. Judith is appropriately hailed as victor, appropriate because she is truly remarkable, and her elevated status makes her unattainable and unrelatable. For “indeed, at the end she did not doubt/in the reward which she had long yearned for. For that be glory/to the beloved Lord for ever and ever” (Greenblatt 117). Not only does Judith defeat Holofernes, but she also exhibits unfailingly moral motivation. Likewise, Julian and Margery, though biographical in nature, represent similar unattainable extremes, an all or nothing, albeit admirable, approach to spirituality. Therefore, women do exist only on the peripheral in Middle Ages literature, relaying a primary cultural value.
The existence of literary criticism evidences that stories across the ages communicated values—again, an idea that is generally acknowledged about all literature—but perhaps in a manner less distinct than in Middle Ages literature. The expenses of book printing and paper led to literature primarily oral in nature, meaning features helpful for recitation and memory were key (Greenblatt 6). Stories that could not be remembered were not, or, rather, certain stories were preserved orally because they were both compelling and able to be recited. Initially literature was limited to what could be memorized and retold, and when these stories began to be written down, audience was limited to aristocracy, clergy, or men, and Julian of Norwich represents one of only a few women willing to chart the dangerous waters of writing as a female (Greenblatt 15, 17). These limitations in part explain the existence of such a marked center and periphery, for those composing and receiving the literature were those in the center, and thus those wishing to preserve the status quo.
There is something particularly compelling in Middle Ages literature, and it is perhaps the role of the journey, which we all inevitably find ourselves on as we progress through life. Specifically, though, the journey represented in this literature very clearly communicates cultural values, both in the heroic ideal and in the exploring of the edges. As the hero is venerated, those on the periphery are abjured, and this polarized nature of Middle Ages literature both contributed to and was created by the oral traditions and central audience.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.
Yamamoto, Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.