At its most basic level, Monster im Mittelalter traces the characteristics and significance of the monstrous in medieval European literature. Yet Professor Simek goes beyond such a seemingly simplistic structure. In this single book he combines an eighty-page lexicon of medieval monstrous beings with a broad interpretation of monsters, wonders, and the fabulous encompassing material ranging from ancient Greek mythology to modern media. Clear yet reflecting profound learning, Monster im Mittelalter can be read profitably by both specialists and those new to the subject. One of the most complex parts of Simek’s argument comes at the beginning: his definition of the medieval concept of the ‘monstrous’. In choosing to use the term ‘monster’ instead of more explicitly German terms, Simek highlights the createdness of the medieval monster, the subject of chapter 1. In medieval writing, a monster was something more than a human born with abnormalities; in fact, disabilities and birth defects did not innately make a being into a monster or wonder. As Simek stresses, a monster was something both human and beyond the human. It was, by definition, physiologically distinct from ordinary humanity, yet it was not necessarily inhuman. As a wonder, the monstrous both represented the scope and possibilities of God’s creation, while it also demonstrated the constraints of the medieval imagination. Monsters were warnings to humanity of the consequences of the fall, as Simek demonstrates through the etymology of monster, but unlike demons, they testified to the possibility of redemption in all forms. Although Simek only implicitly makes this connection, the variety and volume of wondrous beings and mythic figures made them good to think with for medieval scholars, authors, and for Simek, people in general. After these broad claims, the following five chapters (2–6) concentrate more on detailed descriptions of certain monsters (such as sea creatures), the location of monsters (the four continents), the role of corporality in the monstrous, the social structures of wondrous beings, the types of sources that tell about monsters, and some especially exotic forms of monsters. Although the themes found in chapter 1 do recur, in these later chapters Simek’s focus is on describing a plethora of monstrous/wondrous types found in over a millennium of texts. Not surprisingly, certain materials are emphasized, such as the works of Augustine, Isidore of Seville, and Thomas of Cantimpré as well as the fictional histories of Alexander the Great and travel literature. Yet one of this book’s many impressive qualities is the scope of sources that Simek uses so readily: his analysis encompasses many genres of medieval art and literature, in medieval manuscripts and modern editions, from Greece to the Nordic countries and all of western and central Europe. Particularly intriguing are his descriptions of the ‘special forms’ of the monstrous and his analysis of how they arose and why medieval illustrators could find them both humorous and insightful. Such interpretation is particularly complicated because, as Simek notes, there is no single, medieval guide to the symbolism of wondrous beings; each author and illustrator developed their own idiosyncratic perspective, something Simek illustrates well through detailed examples and charts. Chapters 7 and 8 are more interpretive, asking questions such as what are the medieval explanations for monsters; why do medieval people believe in them; and what is the significance of monsters to medieval people. Specialists in medieval wonders and the monstrous will not find anything revolutionary here; instead, Simek clearly and forcefully presents the polyvalent nature of medieval monstrosity. He does, however, convincingly challenge modern interpretations of medieval depictions of monstrosity as aspects of play, either as a form of slapstick or intellectual posturing and posing of probabilities. Instead, Simek argues that monsters were so widely treated and displayed because they were real and significant, not just games. Wondrous beings were truly believed to exist and be fully human; mythic races revealed the ways medieval people conceived of humanity, its history, and its relationship to God. As Simek stresses, monsters were in the heart of Christian history’s most significant narratives and not always as antagonists. Moreover, when medieval Europeans began exploring other parts of the world they encountered people who had at least some of the characteristics of such ‘wondrous folk’, a circumstance that seemingly corroborated the reality of earlier accounts. Monster im Mittelalter is, by definition, a wide-ranging book, yet Simek pushes his analysis beyond the medieval. One of his last chapters considers the changes in the meaning of monstrosity that arise out of European voyages to the Americas and the debates over the humanity of the peoples encountered there. In addition, Simek finds the modern fascination with the monstrous, albeit in the form of extra-terrestrials, as a way to explain medieval ideas about wonders and monsters to modern sensibilities. While I appreciate the thought and learning behind these sections, they are his least successful. Compared to his treatment of the European Middle Ages, such discussions end up being impressionistic, relying on broad assumptions about the modern western world. The early modern section offers intriguing ideas, considering early debates about Native American humanity and sources about wondrous beings that are less commonly analysed in standard works on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but in moving into that period he has gone beyond what can be as convincingly treated in a book this size. Despite these minor misgivings, I would strongly recommend Monster im Mittelalter to many types of readers. The book is beautifully produced and copiously illustrated—given modern publishing constraints, I was amazed and pleased to see all the images—and Simek both convincingly summarizes existing literature on medieval monstrosities and challenges some of its more enduring truisms. That he does so while also providing a lexicon of monsters and wonders and a valuable bibliography for further reading makes his accomplishment all the more impressive. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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