Humanity and the Periphery in Middle Ages Literature

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.

Works Cited

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.


Women Mystics and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

When reading the spiritual visions of Julian Norwich and Margery Kempe’s experiences in The Book of Margery Kempe, I found them intriguing in comparison to Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath. Although Julian and Margery’s writings are autobiographical and Chaucer is writing fiction, the three share one major commonality, which is the emphasis on experience. Julian of Norwich pens her extensive meditations on sixteen revelations, and the illiterate Margery Kempe dictates her story and visions to scribes. Obviously, then, their writings are based on their personal experience, which they clearly feel has been significant enough so as to give them the authority to communicate what they’ve learned or seen.  Similarly, Chaucer opens “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” with her claim to authority, the following assertion: “My experience gives me sufficient right to speak of the trouble there is in marriage, even if there were no other authority in the world” (Lumiansky 166).  Furthermore, the Wife immediately makes her claims spiritual, defending her stance on marriage with personal exegesis of scripture, for “Men can interpret and gloss the text up and down, but I know surely without doubt that God expressly told us to increase and multiply . . . But He made no mention of number, of bigamy, or of octogamy. Why then should men call it wicked?” (Lumiansky 166).  The Wife continues her defense with ample support from scripture, again ringing with similarity to the writings of Julian and Margery.  Thanks to Chaucer’s brilliant humor, the Wife’s Prologue is exponentially funnier and intentionally ridiculous than the two autobiographical accounts, but their emphasis on experience as a means to authority is the same. However, while the Wife of Bath’s authority is based primarily in her understanding of scripture, both Julian and Margery base their authority on emotion, specifically their emotive responses to their encounters with Christ. So while their perceptions of experience and authority are the same, their support of that authority is different.

The Wife of Bath also differs in her treatment of sexuality. With her many husbands and especially her fifth husband, Jankyn, she is a very sexual character, and offers a defense of her lack of chastity with the claim that “our Lord Jesus refreshed many a man with barley bread . . . I don’t hold any grudge against chastity. Let those who want to be pure white bread, and let us wives be called barley bread . . . I will continue in that way of living for which God intended us” (Lumiansky 169). The Wife refuses to apologize for her sexuality, but instead embraces it as God ordained.  For Margery Kempe, however, chastity is the ideal, and relationship with God redeems lost chastity for an individual. This is apparent when Margery nurses her husband back to health and delights in this burden because “she bethought herself of how she in her young age had full many delectable thoughts, fleshly lusts, and inordinate loves for his body” (Greenblatt 436). Though very difficult, her care for her husband is recompense for her previous sexual desires, and an encounter with God confirms that she should care for her husband for these reasons. God instructs Margery, “‘Yes daughter, . . . you shall have as much reward for keeping him and helping him in his need at home as if you were in church to make your prayers . . . He has made your body free to me so that you should serve me and live chaste and clean.” Margery’s relationship with God seems strangely sexual, marked by the view that she must be chaste before God so that her body is free to Him only. And accordingly, unlike the Wife of Bath, Margery cannot embrace her human sexuality, seeking instead restored purity.  Similarly, Julian of Norwich writes that “God almighty . . . is our very true spouse and we his loved wife and his fair maiden” (Greenblatt 419).  She also casts him as our mother, father, brother and lover, communicating that he fulfills all roles, and God as lover requires chastity since embracing human sexuality would mean unfaithfulness to God. Summarily, Julian and Margery seem to share a negative view of human sexuality, or at least the view that sexuality is a part of the divine realm; relationship with God, therefore, should fulfill any kind of human sexual desires. The Wife of Bath, however, openly embraces her sexuality and even backs her stance with her own [humorous] interpretations of scripture.

In conclusion, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the writings of Julian of Norwich, and The Book of Margery Kempe are similarly structured but very different. All three see their experiences as given them the authority to speak on issues steeped in spirituality, but the three seem to represent opposite ends of the spectrum of spirituality. The Wife of Bath stretches scripture to defend her absurd number of husbands, and Julian and Margery completely abstain from human pleasures in pursuit of Kingdom pleasures. Accordingly, the Wife of Bath’s human existence is very sexualized, and for Julian and Margery their suppressed sexuality spills into their experiences with God.

The Medieval Romance: A Relevant Structure

According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, a medieval romance is marked by structure, rather than style, because “romances classically have a tripartite structure: integration (or implied integration); disintegration; and reintegration” (Greenblatt 141). This structure is obvious in Sir Orfeo, the three elements apparent in Kind Orfeo’s transition from kingly status to ruin when he leaves his throne to recapture his wife, wandering the wilderness and becoming old, poor, and ragged, to final redemption when his wife and throne are returned to him. Though slightly less recognizable, this tripartite structure is also present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a member of King Arthur’s court, at the poem’s beginning Gawain is fully integrated into his surrounding society, and this becomes especially evident when he steps up to play the Knight’s game in Arthur’s place. He fulfills the role of chivalrous hero, but when the Green Knight walks away from his beheading, Gawain becomes disintegrated because he is tasked to return to the Green Knight to receive a presumably lethal blow. But keeping in the conventions of a romance, the poem ends well with Gawain successfully completing all of the trials and returning to Arthur’s court.  Instead of the typical defeat, like Sir Orfeo defeating his wife’s captor, Gawain is successful because the Green Knight, who is also the lord of the castle, is impressed by Gawain’s true character.  Furthermore, Gawain does not necessarily feel like a hero, for when the Green Knight reveals his identity and his testing of Gawain, Gawain replies with, “And now I am found to be flawed and false, thought treachery and untruth I have totally failed . . . Such terrible mistakes, and I shall bear the blame. But tell me what it takes to clear my clouded name” (235). Gawain feels like a coward because he was afraid of death and therefore kept the green sash from the castle’s lord; however, the very traits that Gawain is ashamed of pleased the lord because Gawain’s only downfall is love of his life. These ironic twists of the knight code show variations in this romance, but despite these variations in content, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ultimately aligns with the criteria of a medieval romance because Gawain is reintegrated into the Arthurian society.

These three elements of romance are elements that many would say are integral for formation and maturity in people still today. Gawain returns to King Arthur as a more mature and well-rounded reintegrated member of society with an understanding of his own fears and weaknesses.  Sir Orpheo has experienced great loss and can return to rule his kingdom with great perspective.  Essentially, disintegration creates a better individual for re-integration. The Norton Anthology agrees, for the romance’s “deepest wisdom is this: civilization is not a unitary concept. To enter and remain in the world of civilized order, we must, say romances, have commerce with all that threatens it. To regain Rome at the center, we must first be tested in the marginal wilds of romance. To be recognized and found, we must first be lost” (141).  While I shy away from the concept of universals, I wonder if perhaps this is a truth that is still often true in today’s context. The romance uses the structure that frames many of our lives. We are born into our society, given a place because of our existence, but we face trials, questions of identity, faith crises, tragedy, loss, myriad challenging circumstances and we are disintegrated from our initial society. We wander through figurative wilderness seeking answers, we lose ourselves in our own circumstances, and we become estranged from what was once so familiar. But then we return, with fresh perspective, with experience, with victory, and we find our places once again.

Beowulf, Arrogance, and Christianity.

According to M.H. Abrams, an epic poem “is a long verse narrative on a serious subject, told in a formal and elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race” (107). Beowulf fits these criteria and can therefore be labeled an epic poem. It can be further classified as a “traditional epic” because it is a “written version of what had originally been [an] oral poem about a tribal or national hero during a warlike age” (107).  As both definitions relay, a single hero is fundamental to the formation of an epic, and a certain heroic code accompanies this hero. And while Beowulf is written within a pagan frameset, its hero still reflects traditional Christian values. An initial reading my lead the reader to suspect that Beowulf contradicts Christianity, but the poem alludes to God and wyrd and does not reference pagan deities (Greenblatt 37). Also, the many references to God hint to a monotheistic religion instead of a pagan pantheon. For example, before the first fight with Grendel, Beowulf asked, “may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit” (Greenblatt 55). This is only one of many times when allusions are made to God or Lord.  Additionally, there are many similarities between Beowulf and Christ. Beowulf’s speech before the fight, and especially the above line, is similar to Jesus praying in Gethsemane and asking for the Lord’s will to be done. While he often displays much hubris, ultimately his strength, cunning, and bravery, all elements of the heroic code, save Hrothgar’s kingdom. In other words, Beowulf is the only person capable of acting as a savior to these people.  Beowulf himself realizes this, saying “This fight is not yours,” again much like Christ realizing the role he had to play in redeeming humanity (95). And ultimately Beowulf sacrifices his life for his people’s safety, further support that Beowulf can be identified as a Christ-figure.
It seems, though, that the author creates many parallels between Christ and Beowulf, he or she also makes Beowulf’s humanity obvious, perhaps setting him up as an example of the dangers of arrogance.  Christ’s perfection is contrasted by Beowulf’s humanity, which leads him to make several unwise decisions because he is overconfident in his strength. Wiglaf speaks to this when he says, “Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. This happened to us. Nothing we advised could ever convince the prince we loved, our land’s guardian, not to vex the custodian of the gold” (106). Even if the dragon was defeated, Beowulf’s actions did not, at least in Wiglaf’s opinion, better the people because they lost their beloved leader.  While these characteristics of pride and a refusal to listen do not align with Christian values, the author is obviously denouncing them, not espousing them, so it seems that ultimately the author is communicating Christian values.
In conclusion, the elements that make Beowulf an epic poem might seem to contradict Christianity. The idea that a single hero can save people through violence and revenge initially seems contrary to Jesus’ ministry of peace and love. However, when one realizes the overarching story pattern, the similarities between the hero archetype and Jesus, and the ways in which the author highlights Beowulf’s mistakes, it becomes clear that there is not, in fact, tension between Christianity and the values championed in Beowulf.  

Ideals of Heroism and Anglo-Saxon Battle Poetry

Anglo-Saxon battle poetry is characterized by several specific traits, all of which point to values idealized by the surrounding culture. One of these is strength, both mental and physical. “Judith” provides an excellent example of mental strength, as the titular protagonist defeats the wicked Holofernes by outsmarting him and his men. In Judith’s example, her mental strength defeats the physical strength of Holofernes’ army, but in other battle poetry, physical strength is key.  For example, the speaker of “The Battle of Brunanburh” says “We the West-Saxons/Long as the daylight/Lasted, in companies/Troubled the track of/The host that we hated; Grimly with swords that were sharp/from the grindstone/Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.” The speaker and his company needed physical strength to pursue and kill their enemies. Another characteristic to these battle poems is the role of a single, heroic leader. For example, Beowulf’s heroism and leadership becomes the solution when Hrothgar cannot keep his people safe.  And when Judith steps up as a leader for her people, her heroic actions are contrasted by Holofernes’ poor leadership ability, his drunkenness that ultimately leads to his downfall and the net surrounding his bed that delays his army. Not only are these characteristics common to all battle poetry, but they’re also set up as the ideal, and their opposites are ridiculed.  In “The Battle of Maldon,” “three who did not wish to be there” fled the battle, and the author shames them for leaving “more men than was in any way right, if they remembered all the favors he had done for their benefit” (5).  They are not just being shamed for their flight, however, but also for their disloyalty and for breaking the Anglo-Saxon code of avenging fallen comrades. In “Beowulf,” this code also contributes to the reader’s perception of Hrothgar as an inept leader, since he cannot avenge the deaths of his people by killing Grendel.

Ultimately, Anglo-Saxon sets up mental and physical strength, leadership abilities, loyalty and the ability to avenge as characteristics of a hero, and these ideals of heroism seem to stand side by side with the Anglo-Saxon understanding of Christianity.  With pagan religions of Vikings being in such close context, Christianity becomes part of the battle, and Christian heroism plays an important role as a defense mechanism against Viking paganism.  For this reason, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon battle poetry is often tied to the poem’s hero and the hero’s success, infused in a prayer before a battle or a victory speech afterwards. Furthermore, fighting in battle was portrayed as an act of  God,  vengeance a responsibility as a Christian. This is seen in “The Battle of Maldon,” when “the retainers began to fight hardily, fierce spear-bearers, and prayed God that they might avenge their patron and bring destruction to their enemies” (5). When these battles are given spiritual significance, martyrdom becomes an appealing aspect of Christianity because dying in battle, especially when avenging a comrade, is elevated to a defense of Christianity and straight passage to heaven.

Anglo-Saxon poetry was not only appealing because of the values it espoused but also because of its construction, marked by stressed syllables, alliteration, and half-lines separated by caesuras. These characteristics align with the oral nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as it was composed for recitation rather than for a written book of poetry. If poetry was only preserved in memory, these characteristics made it easier to remember. Another poetic characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is kennings, or when two descriptive words are used instead of an actual name. Sometimes these kennings are simply used to paint a picture for the audience, like in “Judith” with the lines “but behind them flew/the eagle eager for food, dewy-winged/with dark plumage; the horn-beaked bird/sang a battle-song” (Greenblatt 114). “dewy-winged” and “horn-beaked” create a more elaborate image for a listening audience. Kennings also helped along the heroic ideals because of the substitution of descriptive, powerful, awe-inspiring words for single word nouns. All of these characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry worked together to make the poetry story-like and appealing to a listening, as opposed to a reading, audience. Moreover, ultimately the emphasis was placed on characteristics of the hero, like strength, courage, and loyalty, and these ideals were so emphasized that they were also rooted in Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

Metaphysical versus Cavalier


M.H. Abrams defines metaphysical poets as “a group of seventeenth-century poets who, whether or not directly influenced by Donne, employ . . . the terminology and abstruse arguments of the medieval Scholastic philosophers” (215). First labeled by Dryden in Discourse Concerning Satire (1693), Donne was the forerunner in the metaphysical movement because his poetry opposed the traditions of Elizabethan poetry, especially verse like Spenser’s.  Whereas previous poetry was characterized by a “rich mellifluousness and [an] idealized view of human nature,” Donne’s poems are instead marked by an appreciation of truth seeking, “epitomizing that point brilliantly in the image of Truth on a craggy hill, very difficult to climb” (Abrams 216, Greenblatt 1371).


Donne also differs sharply from the cavalier poets and their “fluid, regular versification” (Abrams 216).  Perhaps the best example of this is in Ben Jonson’s “Song: To Celia,” composed of sixteen lines, with a rhyme scheme of ABCBDBEBFBGBFBGB. The repetition of the second line’s ending rhyme, along with the consistent meter—the first line consisting of eight syllables and the second line with six—which repeats until the poem’s end communicates a certain regularity that is not to be found in metaphysical poetry.  For example, Donne’s “Song” consists of three stanzas with nine lines each and a rhyme scheme of ABABCCDDD; while all three stanzas have the same rhyme and structure, their appearance on the page looks much less uniform than Jonson’s single sixteen-line stanza and repetition of lines.


Even more telling of Donne and Jonson’s differences is poetic content. Donne’s “Song” starts with the lines, “Go and catch a falling star,/Get with child a mandrake root,” (Greenblatt 1374).  Jonson’s “Song: To Celia” opens, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,/And I will pledge with mine;” (Greenblatt 1548).  Donne’s poem is much more abstract, with striking metaphors, and Jonson’s is much more direct.  Furthermore, the speaker in Donne’s poem is on a spiritual or emotional quest, a truth seeking of sorts, and it is difficult to separate Donne from the speaker in his poem; Donne’s emotion is almost inseparable from the emotion that leads the speaker to implore, “Tell me where all past years are,/Or who cleft the Devil’s foot,/Teach me to hear mermaids singing,/Or to keep off envy’s stinging,/And find/What wind/Serves to advance an honest mind” (Greenblatt 1374). In contrast, Jonson seems much more interested in making the poem appear and sound formal and structured, dealing less with nuanced emotion; while Celia’s lover is distressed that he “sent thee a late rosy wreath . . . But thou thereon didst only breathe,/And sent’st it back to me,” his emotion is much less complex than that of Donne’s speaker (Greenblatt 1548). In these differences, along with aforementioned structural differences, we can see the characteristic differences between metaphysical poets and cavalier poets.




Works Cited:
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Wadsworth: Boston. 2012.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2012.