Monsters of the Global Middle Ages

Mongol Empire

Marco Polo

Project Overview: 

 Monsters are endemic to cultures throughout the world, present in mythological, religious, scientific, geographical, ethnographical, sociological, historical, and epistemological art and literature. Over the past twenty years, there has been an exponential increase in the production of serious scholarship on monsters and the monstrous, sometimes categorized as Monster Studies (wherein monsters are an area of investigation) or Monster Theory (wherein monsters become an analytical tool for the investigation of other cultural phenomena). Most studies are conducted within regional disciplines, though monsters, in their very nature, their embodiments, their behaviors, and their motions cross boundaries willfully, gloriously, violently, and wondrously. This project, Monsters of the Global Middle Ages, seeks contributions considering monsters and monstrous figures from throughout the medieval globe, especially those that set monsters of one region or culture in conversation with monsters of another. 


The theoretical and methodological underpinnings of Monster Theory lie in other well-established disciplines, most notably Postcolonial Studies (e.g. Edward Said and Homi K. Bhabha), Posthumanism (e.g. Donna Haraway and Patricia MacCormack), Feminism and Gender Studies (e.g. Julia Kristeva and Judith Bulter), Queer Studies (e.g. J. Halberstam), Trans* Studies (e.g. Stryker and Whittle), Critical Race Studies (e.g. Geraldine Heng), Disability Studies (e.g. Rosemary Garland Thompson), and Psychoanalytic Theory. Seminal contributions to the study of monsters include essays and books by J.R.R. Tolkien, John Block Friedman, Noël Carroll, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. There are now dedicated academic organizations, research companions and source readers in the fields, which support numerous college courses on monsters and the monstrous.


The image standing in for this project presents two giant-eared people facing each other, a Panotii from the medieval English Wonders of the East and a Nier guo from the Ming Dynasty Sancai tuhui. These are surprisingly mobile people, whom the Old English text tells us “take their ears in their hands and flee so quickly that one might imagine they were flying” [“nymað hy hyra earan him on hand ⁊ fleoð swyðe”]. In 1942, Rudolf Wittkower traced tales of these long-eared people to the ancient India Mahabarata, where they are named Karnapravarana [people who cover themselves with their ears]. Wherever they go (and they eventually migrated far west enough to appear in Navajo stories), they transform to take on local features, and to address local concerns, all while nonetheless always being presented as people from far-away lands. Such is the nature of the monster: always local in importance and implication, always global in potential.

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