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Mittman, Asa Simon, ed., with Peter J. Dendle, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous
by Maik Goth

Mittman, Asa Simon, ed., with Peter J. Dendle, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. xxxix + 558 pp. ISBN: 978-1409407546. $154.95 cloth. 

In the preface to her groundbreaking study on monsters in Early Irish texts, Jacqueline Borsje documents the bewildered reactions her teratological project incurred in the scholarly community in the late eighties and early nineties: “A few of the questions I have been asked include: ‘Are you studying the Loch Ness monster?’; ‘Do you believe in monsters?’; ‘Who is paying you for a subject like this?’; ‘And … you are studying theology?’ This is just a modest selection.”[1] Such inhibitions against monster studies have since become obsolete, thanks to the continuous work done in various academic areas from the classical to the postmodern age.[2]The Ashgate Research Companion is conceived as an introductory handbook to this vast field of studies, covering 4000 years of human history and most major cultural and geographical areas. That it is bookended by John Block Friedman’s foreword and J. J. Cohen’s essay “The Promise of Monsters,” which discusses the relation between posthumanist theory and monster studies, underscores its indebtedness to major monster specialists and their very different critical approaches.

The contributions are organized into two sections: the chapters in the first, “History of Monstrosity,” focus on historical aspects of individual monsters and traditions; those in the second, “Critical Approaches to Monstrosity,” assess monsters from a more theoretical perspective. The range of the eighteen articles and four paratexts as well as the different approaches and methodologies they provide thus testify to the thematic and critical range of monster studies, but also emphasize the difficulty of telescoping all of these in one, albeit gargantuan, volume. The book eschews a main definition of the monstrous and arranges the articles in the two rubrics (“History”; “Critical Approaches”) alphabetically by author. Whether this is seen as a strength or a weakness will depend on the individual reader. What this arrangement encourages is a look beyond the confines of one’s own field. My review, however, focuses mainly on the articles that address classical, medieval and early modern texts with occasional forays into other areas, and will then offer a brief survey of the other contributions.

D. Felton’s article “Rejecting and Embracing the Monstrous in Ancient Greece and Rome” (103-32) provides a perceptive, level-headed introduction to monsters from the classical age. Among others, the article covers the monsters in Hesiod’s theogony—Chaos, Gaia, Ouranos and their varied offspring—touches upon the relations between Hesiod’s gods and the often chthonic monsters (e.g., Zeus and Typhoeus), as well as between heroes and monsters (e.g., Heracles and Cerberus), and additionally deals with the Plinian races and unnatural animals. The article stresses the key role that monsters and monstrous beings played in ancient Greek and Roman literature, particularly in their challenging the binaries between male and female, and between order and chaos. Felton’s portrait gallery of the monsters founding Western Culture is required reading for any budding teratologist. Karl Steel’s article “Centaurs, Satyrs, and Cynocephali: Medieval Scholarly Teratology and the Question of the Human” (257-74) focuses on the three most enduring monstrous races, and examines the way they were conceptualized in medieval literature. Citing a plethora of sources, among them Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, Albertus Magnus, Ratramnus of Corbie, the Hereford map, and Chrétien de Troyes, Steel treats these monsters as exotic tokens, explains their relevance as symbols, and surveys their placement in the human/animal divide. His essay ends with the reminder that human-animal composites defying classification (e.g., of gender, race and species) should first and foremost inspire curiosity, and thus generate thinking that goes beyond mere binaries and the condemnation of the monstrous. 

Renaissance scholars will find Surekha Davies’s contribution “The Unlucky, the Bad and the Ugly: Categories of Monstrosity from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” (49-75) a highly useful starting point for their own scholarly research on monsters. Harking back to classical traditions and contextualising them in post-medieval thought, Davies explains that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment referred monsters to occasional errors in nature, to omens and prodigies symbolic of divine displeasure, and to wonders of nature. This reviewer particularly liked her elaborations on behavioral deformity (71), because it underscores the malleability and fluidity of the early modern notion of the monstrous.

Debra Higgs Strickland’s “Monstrosity and Race in the Late Middle Ages” (365-86) focuses on the depiction of Jews and Saracens in England, 1000-1500 A.D. Strickland explains how the classical discourse on the monstrous races became a highly important influence on the Christian concept of race, determined in no small part by Augustine’s, Isidore’s and Bede’s interpreting them as descendants of Noah’s sons. Such merging of the Plinian races with the Christian tradition resulted in a discourse that readily turned non-Christians like Jews and Saracens into monstrous, corrupt and condemnable peoples. The notions of monstrosity, race and religion are hence critically intertwined in medieval culture. Strickland’s article is an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the concept of racism in the Middle Ages, combining insightful theoretical argumentation with concise and savvy readings of both visual and verbal representations of races and monstrosities, such as mappaemundi, The Wonders of the East, Mandeville’s Travels, the Rutland Psalter and many more.

Sarah Alison Miller’s article “Monstrous Sexuality: Variations on the Vagina Dentata” (311-28) surveys the cultural history of the vagina dentata, the ubiquitous embodiment of the dangers of desire, sex and femininity. Miller offers readings of Homer’s and Ovid’s depictions of Scylla and of Milton’s portrayal of Sin, and works out the different permutations of the motif from disgusting devourer (Homer) to female victim (Ovid) and infernal monster loose in the world (Milton). Miller glosses Milton’s infernal monster in particular with reference to the well-known Renaissance notion of the human body as a composite made up of a rational, angelic upper part of the human body and a bestial, infernal lower part. While these cases form a coherent history of the motif from classical antiquity to the late Renaissance, the brief reading of the horror film Teeth (2007) tagged on at the end of the article reads more as an afterthought or the beginning of a different article. Francesca Leoni, “On the Monstrous in the Islamic Visual Tradition” (151-72) puts the spotlight on two monsters figuring in Islamic culture from the tenth to the sixteenth century: Iblis, a jinn who refused God’s command to bow to Adam and was transformed into an ugly monstrosity for his pride, and div-i safid, a gigantic white demon embodying cruelty, avarice and evil. Leoni discusses both scriptural (Iblis) and epic (div-i safid) traditions, arguing that the monsters are used didactically as representations of corruption in order to foster proper modes of conduct. Leoni’s conceptual reading of Islamic monsters at the intersection of the textual and the visual is a particularly strong asset of the Companion, because it points both to similarities and differences between medieval and early modern Western notions of the monstrous, which also exploited monsters to educate the reader in proper moral behaviour.

Chet Van Duzer’s “Hic sunt dracones: The Geography and Cartography of Monsters” (387-436) testifies to the current interest in maps and charts, and discusses the depiction of monsters in the cartographic traditions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This magisterial chapter, covering 50 pages, with over 200 footnotes and numerous maps, is a particularly helpful contribution to a compendium of this kind. After elaborating how the climate, especially the heat in the Torrid Zone, supposedly spawned monsters, van Duzer surveys the monsters according to geographical regions, from Africa, Asia and the Antipodes to the ocean (sea monsters; islands), and the New World. Towards the end of his article, he adds two valuable sections in which he first deals with instances where monsters dwell closer to home, i.e. near where the cartographer or teller of monstrous tales lived (e.g., the Hereford mappamundi depicts sea monsters in the Mediterranean and two Scyllae near the British Isles); and then elaborates on the transportation of monsters and exotic animals from the edges of the world to Europe. Such instances are particularly salient because the end of time was thought to bring monsters from far-away regions to the center of the known world. Van Duzer’s article is a high-water mark in the present volume: clear in structure, encyclopaedic in scope, astute in its commentary, it will hopefully send many other scholars on their own journeys through monstrous territories.

Dana Oswald’s fine article “Monstrous Gender: Geographies of Ambiguity” (343-64) examines four types of “gendered” monstrosities, focusing mainly on their medieval specimens but also offering additional transhistorical examples: hypermasculinity (exaggerated male bodies such as giants, werewolves and vampires), hypersexuality (alluring creatures exceeding the boundaries of binary gender, such as sirens and centaurs), transgender (beings taking on the properties and qualities of the opposite sex, such as the Amazons), and hermaphroditism (beings without a primary gender, but with a dual body containing both sexual organs). The chapter expertly introduces readers to major monsters and the texts they feature in, and provides a measured discussion of the interrelation between sex, gender, and sexuality. The article connects well with other sections and monsters of the handbook, and is a recommended starting point for readers interested in gender criticism.

The sheer scope of the Ashgate Research Companion is impressive. Scholars interested in Asian culture can turn to Karin Myhre’s contribution “Monsters Lift the Veil: Chinese Animal Hybrids and Processes of Transformation,” which covers monsters from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1000 B.C.) to the present age; Michelle Osterfeld Li’s “Human of the Heart: Pitiful Oni in Medieval Japan,” which offers a historically contextualized case study; or to Michael Dylan Foster’s “Early Modern Past to Postmodern Future,” which traces how the discourse of monsters in Japan has changed over the past 400 years and works out the differences between European and Asian approximations of the monstrous. For Latin America, readers should consult Matthew Looper’s “The Maya ‘Cosmic Monster’ As a Political and Religious Symbol,” which focuses on the monster as cipher, and Persephone Braham’s history of “The Monstrous Caribbean,” which links the way colonizers like Columbus played to European ideas of monstrosity by describing the natives of South America as cannibals, with the way modern Latin American writers and philosophers embrace this monstrosity, forced on them by their colonizers, to support their own identity.

The vast area of African monster culture is represented by Henry John Drewal’s chapter “Beauteous Beast: The Water Deity Mami Wata in Africa,” which provides a detailed diachronic account of how this particular water spirit was appropriated by various local and global cultures in the visual arts. Other articles have a more historical approach. In their contribution “From Hideous to Hedonist,” Abigail Lee-Six and Hannah Thompson trace the paradigm shift in the monstrous discourse of the nineteenth century, as traceable in major exponents of the English and French novel, from the monstrous as the aberration of nature to monstrosity as a quality residing in apparently normal and respectable persons. Unfortunately, the authors take into consideration only examples of elite literature (Shelley’s Frankenstein; Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and L’Homme qui rit; Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray); it would have been interesting to see how popular literary genres, such as the penny dreadful, relate to this paradigm shift. On the postmodern front, Andrew Weinstock, in his article “Invisible Monsters,” claims that monsters in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are defined by being essentially invisible: psychokillers, corporations, viruses and nature in chaos; and Patricia MacCormack, in “Posthuman Teratology,” provides a veritable who’s who of literary and cultural theory, citing thinkers such as Spinoza, Donna Haraway and Robert Pepperell, as well as Foucault, Lyotard, Guattari, Kristeva and Serres. The article offers important insight into posthumanism, and connects well with the other contributions in this volume. Unfortunately, the author appears to cater for an advanced readership already initiated into the theories and terminologies she rehearses.[3]

The Companion is a handsomely produced and well-edited tome, graced with illustrations that underscore the visual tradition of monsters and the monstrous interplaying with the literary. That the individual articles are authored by specialists in their respective fields makes Mittman’s volume a standard reference work for beginners as well as for advanced scholars. However, it is inevitable that with a volume of this scale, not every aspect will be equally strong. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the range of topics can be seen as a strength but also as a weakness. On the positive side, such diversity will hopefully encourage readers and scholars to look beyond the confines of their field in order to find new inspiration for their own work; thus Oswald’s article on monstrous gender will provide a useful new vantage point for scholars working on gender and sexuality. On the negative side, the book’s attempt at covering a little bit of everything (but a lot of the Middle Ages) does not make it a sufficient or balanced compendium for any one tradition (such as the epic, the bestiary, or the dream vision) or historical period (e.g., the Renaissance), and inevitably results in gaps. There are no references to major monster poems such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

More critically, a research companion should offer guidance to students and scholars intending to work in the field, but the alphabetical arrangement of the chapters by author and the vast variety of topics they cover might bewilder rather than help the reader. This reviewer would also have expected quotations from the original Greek and Latin throughout the volume; these languages are indispensable for a thorough understanding of texts, contexts, and their reception in a handbook of this kind. Such quibbles aside, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous is recommended reading for advanced students, teachers, and researchers in the various disciplines.

Maik Goth
Ruhr-Universität Bochum

[1] Jacqueline Borsje, From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. An Investigation Related to the Process of Christianization and the Concept of Evil, Instrumenta Patristica 29 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), 331. 

[2] For the Middle Ages alone, see David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (Exeter: U of Exeter P, 1996), Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Cambridge: Brewer, 1995), Mary Campbell, The Witness and the Other World: Exotic Travel Writing 400-1600 (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1988), Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001), J. J. Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, Medieval Cultures 17 (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1999). 

[3] This is evident in her heavy use of critical jargon. Cf., e.g., “While connections involve opening futures as becomings to come, no single body comes from nowhere and the memories of suffering and oppression are part of the specificity of each despositif to which each connector will have its own relation, such as shared oppression and accountability,” 309.



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Cite as:

Maik Goth, "Mittman, Asa Simon, ed., with Peter J. Dendle, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous," Spenser Review 45.2.44 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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