Monsters of Medieval England

Term Final paper and Annotated Bibliography documenting my research over the semester and my response. Written for Anglo-Saxon Literature ENGL 3302 at Texash Tech University, December 2017.

Monsters of Medieval England: Origins, Relevance and Societal Fears

I found in my research that the monsters of Anglo-Saxon literature are more than just good fodder for mythology. They have a relevance to the events of the time period, the society that developed the stories and are influenced by pagan and Christian tradition. Anglo-Saxon monsters are still potent factors in modern day literature and culture. My findings on searches for medieval monsters lead me beyond what I expected. The influence of monsters, both on medieval literature and modern literature, surprised me, with a lot of monsters coming from a Christian origin that I was not expecting, namely Giants, while many others are of pagan origins.  The origin of medieval monsters, their relevance to the historical events of the time and their basis in societal fears all were straight forward, but I discovered a modern tie in both the mythology of the ‘wildman’ and in the field of phycology, with the human fascination with monstrosity contributing to group therapy. Modern monsters are based on similar reasoning as medieval monsters, modern forms driven by the fears and desires of modern culture just as their predecessors.

From my research, the origins of monsters are tied up in the convoluted history of England. When Christianity came to England, it had to deal with the pagan oral traditions that were there, as it did across Europe, and so developed some of the monsters that are seen in Anglo-Saxon literature. The monsters of the Bible were also very relevant, considering that the education system dictated that at the church was responsible for the majority of the writing in that time period. “The dominance of Christianity in the production of texts provides yet another motivation for the development and persistence of an Anglo-Saxon literature of the monstrous and exotic” (Mittman). Without the ecclesiastical writers of the era, we would not have the manuscripts that we have now. It must also be considered that the pagan tradition also had an influence:

The presence of so many monsters in the Bible, a text considered to be the word of God, lent veracity to accounts of such creatures found in other texts. Most notable among these were a series of classical texts containing accounts of the wondrous sites, plants, animals, and peoples of India and Ethiopia – two regions often viewed as somewhat analogous in classical and medieval sources and grouped together more generally as ‘the East’. These works would eventually serve as the models for the most noteworthy monster-compilations of the early Middle Ages, the Wonders or Marvels of the East… (Mittman)

Outside of the fanciful, there are the ‘giants’ who have ties back to Nephilim in the bible and to the Parthenon. On the human side, being unlike the Anglo-Saxon people made a character monstrous, giving the danger to places outside of known England as well as people outside of the societal standard for normal. However, as I studied in my review of Judith, behavior outside of the normal standard would be accepted when associated with faith in God and his blessing. This idea of success being tied to faith was vital to the turmoil of the time.

The monsters of Anglo-Saxon literature were relevant to the on-going war of the time period, and the society that had developed around that. A society that is afraid will build monsters to defeat in their fiction, monsters that symbolize their fears, desires, and enemies. The emphasis on victorious leaders who are strong in their faith, or strong in their leadership, is a powerful suggestion that monsters were presented just to be defeated.

As I will illustrate below in my discussion of the manuscript, certain aspects of Beowulf would have most likely been obscure or unintelligible to its extant manuscript’s audience. Mythological allusions, details of dark-age feuding, intricacies of Danish genealogy, among other things, all may have meant very little to this audience. What I believe would have been important to them, however, is the fact that this poem depicted life in geardagum, that it offered a window into an ancient world where loyalty was the glue that held society together, where social bonds were vigorously upheld, and where the rupture of those bonds was severely punished.


            Neidorf has a great point of view here on the relevance of the Beowulf manuscript to the events of the Anglo-Saxon and Dane battles, something that is seen in the Comitatus epic as well. Also, in my research, I came across the idea that monsters were also meant as warnings to the people, mean to be headed and avoided.  “According to monster theory, the monster is understandable also in relation to a cultural body which ‘contains’ monstrous fears, even desires, warnings, portents and category problems/limits” (Weedmann). This idea of using monsters in literature to educate the reader on what to avoid ties right into much of what we studied this semester. A lot of the text was built with the intent of educating the people and bringing them closer together, as one people against a common enemy. This makes the monster theory very convincing to me.

Tying medieval monsters to modern times seemed a little far fetched to me, but once I appraised the evidence it seemed factual. Humanity has not stopped having cultural fears just because it has advanced in science and medicine, no, rather humanity seems to have more fears than ever now. When thinking about all the monsters that appear in modern literature I see that there is a standing fear of terrorism, violence, and war. These things are all real threats, which appear in modern text as Voldemort, White Walkers, or the evil attackers in Marvel. The common theme, both in medieval text and modern, is victory over the enemy. Ironically there are monsters ‘sightings’ that have continued throughout time and cultures, here I reference the Giants, also known as ‘wild men’, Sasquatch and various other names. Why does humanity need this invisible, tall, hairy creature? Is it societies way of holding on to the unknown in a time of open source information? I think, from my research, that it is just mankind holding on to the idea of the ‘other’ in a society full of acceptance and tolerance for anyone or anything that is outside of the ‘normal’ standard. I feel like it is a reflex revolt to reform. I think this is also driven by mankind’s fascination with the grotesque, the evil and the wrong, not because they want to participate in it, but because it is outside of the accepted standard for normal. Modern monsters appear in two forms, which I did not expect,

To conclude I feel that overall monsters are a common theme across culture, for religious, cultural and reflexive reasons. Overall, not just from my research, but also from the studies of the semester I was surprised by the prolific appearance of monsters in medieval literature. Some text I had heard of, like Beowulf and Liber Monstorum, but others like Judith, and the Exeter Book, I had not realized was so prolific with monsters. This, of course, is because I had not previously read them, just seen them referenced, without a context for myself. I learned a lot about monsters and the motivations that make them appear in literature, and now in modern times other forms of entertainment. The appearance of monsters in fiction, in mythology, and in tradition to give power and faith in success to the people that wrote it, and to the readers. In modern writing, monsters put a face on fears and desires that we have a context for, just as they did for Anglo-Saxon – and Norman – writers. Overall the Monsters of Anglo-Saxon literature appear to me know as metaphors of religion, good leadership, and successful warfare. Monster’s influence on modern-day literature and psychology fascinates me and was a pleasantly unexpected discovery.


Mittman, Asa Simon, and Susan M. Kim. “Monsters and the Exotic in Early Medieval England.” Literature Compass, vol. 6, no. 2, 2009, pp. 332–348.

“Monsters and the Exotic in Early Medieval England” by Asa Simon Mittman and Susan M. Kim discusses the appearance and influences of monsters in Mediaeval English writing. The article discusses the influence of pagan tradition stories and how Christianity in England had to address and adapt those traditions into literature. Classical and Biblical ‘monsters’ were sources for the writings, and the article examines how exotic and monstrous elements were used to define normalcy. The article also looks at the Anglo-Saxon belief that monsters were simply part of nature, under God’s creation, and uses the dog-headed giant St. Christopher as an excellent example of this.

Noetzel, Justin T. “Monster, Demon, Warrior: St. Guthlac and the Cultural Landscape of the Anglo-Saxon Fens.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 45, 2014, pp. 105–131.

Without delving into the origins of the monster stories of medieval England, Noetzel focuses on the mythology and monster stories that were collected in the Fens. He references the history of the time to build his case, developing his argument with information about dates and history alongside the texts he references. The idea of the Fens as a place associated with monsters is exemplified with references to Beowulf , to name one, as well as explaining the value of good land and reclaiming of fen land from water with the hope of success. Conclusively Noetzel states his argument that the history of Anglo-Saxon stories, combined with the true history of the fens, developed the modern day culture of the area.

Neidorf, Leonard. “VII AEthelred and the Genesis of the Beowulf Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2 3, 2010, pp. 119–139.

Neidorf examines the origins behind the Beowulf Manuscript. The relevance of the events in Beowulf to the events of the time, with analysis of the social situation of the era. Neidorf goes on, in depth, to explain the relevance and importance of verses in the Beowulf manuscript. In-depth analysis of the codex that Beowulf appears in, including a comparison between that text and the accompanying pieces, like Judith and Alexander’s Letters to Aristotle. When referencing events relevant to the Beowulf narrative, Neidorf points out the events of King Aelfred the Unready and the nostalgia for King Edgar as relevant in the writing of Beowulf, alluding to the ‘better days’. Overall, Neidorf seems conclusive of an 8th-century writing date for Beowulf. This nostalgia seems relevant to the monsters because of the common theme of monsters versus the people.

Niles, John D. “The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 114, no. 2, 2015, pp. 163–200.

Niles examines the belief in feudalism in pre-Norman England and suggests that the blood-feud is based on the German tradition. The idea is based in that the audience for such works as Beowulf had an interest in the violent style of living, suggesting an affinity for feudalism. The argument references Old English language roots, as well as historical documentation to back the argument for the use of feudalism to settle disputes. The analysis of language origins and Germanic law as influences is also used in this study of medieval feud theory.

Harris, Stephen J. “An Overview of Race and Ethnicity in Pre‐Norman England.” Literature Compass, vol. 5, no. 4, 2008, pp. 740–754.

Harris looks at the views of race and ethnicity in pre-Norman England, clearly defining that the views of the time were influenced by culture and religion. It is pointed out that there was no view of European peoples as a unified race in Medieval times. Harris also looks at the German and Roman influences on the views of the culture toward race and ethnicity of the time. This split view of other peoples is also apparent in the warfare of the time, and Harris references Beowulf and the layers of Germanic and pagan influences that can be seen in the text.

Weegmann, Martin. “Monsters: The Social-Unconscious Life of `Others’ and a Note on the Origins of Group Therapy.” Group Analysis, vol. 41, no. 3, 2008, pp. 291–300.

Weegmann analyzes the reasoning behind monsters, stating that they are the creation of the fears and desires of a culture. Monsters are warnings for humanity and can shape, or explain the shape of a societies hierarchy. Modern monsters are explained as those that can be observed from a distance, like in entertainment, and real threats in the world. The idea of in groups and out groups is used to demonstrate the ‘like us’ and ‘unlike us’ ideas that are seen in middle-age Europe, the difference being that the out-groups were considered monstrous. Weegmann concludes that this otherness, humanities fascination with monstrosity, was a pivotal factor in 19th-century group therapy development.

Forth, Gregory. “Images of the Wildman Inside and Outside Europe.” Folklore, vol. 118, no. 3, 2007, pp. 261–281.

Gregory Forth looks at the origins of the ‘wildman’ from middle-ages to present day interpretations. The original European Wildman has origins stated in Christianity, as well as Roman religion. The medieval Wildman is considered the symbol of a lost soul, while from the Roman origins suggest a tie to the Parthenon and the supernatural. Forth also looks at similarities between the European Wildman and wildmen from other parts of the world, including the American Sasquatch, the makatoba of Indonesia and the Sumatra ‘short people’. He discusses the metamorphosis of the Wildman, as well as looking at similarities and differences.

Sargent, Michael G. “Mystical Writings and Dramatic Texts in Late Medieval England.” Religion &Amp; Literature, vol. 37, no. 2, 2005, pp. 77–98.

Sargent focuses on the mystical in medieval English literature, taking specific interest in the influence of the mystical and Christian influence. Sargent goes on to look at the influeces throughout literature from both the traditional and the religious writings and origins. This piece had a strong focus on the influences of the writer’s origins and beliefs as well as historical importance, as well as looking at translations and the changes, errors and modifications of the translated pieces.