By now, it should be understood that reading literature in the medieval period was nothing like how we read today; it involved a great deal more than merely passive acceptance and, indeed, was about community building and socializing. But because of this, it should be unsurprising that literature was part of a complex: since the production of texts was the mainstay of religious institutions, and since texts were either religious in nature and promoted the church’s ideology, or legal in nature and worked to legitimate the function of the royal court, the performance of texts obviously would be connected to wholesome living.
Said again, textual performance would be part of living ‘the good life’ in subservience to the Lord and king. But in order to perform, the texts needed to be pure if they were to advocate for a pure social body. Part of the church’s campaign to “maintain order and deter disruptive, immoral, or anti-social behavior” (Treharne 69, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction), medieval literature often featured images of ‘the monstrous’ as antagonists, villains to challenge the reader and act as a obstacle to be surmounted in order to obtain heavenly reward.
Needless to say, the monstrous took the form of the seven deadly sins– Wrath, Lechery, Gluttony, Envy, Avarice, Sloth, and Pride. Both antagonists, as well as the general cast, could inhabit one or more of these traits and when confronted by the protagonist, a moral battle would ensue. However, because this is a time in which the Crusades have been mounted and which demand that the church strengthen their influence and control over society, these seven deadly sins would often be grafted onto entire peoples.
Indeed, it was not uncommon to see the deadly sins become synonymous with both secular life and foreign foes. Such a superimposition would assist in the ruling class’s colonization project and to retain a tight grip on the reins of power (72); usually depicted in medieval Romance as a ‘Saracen,’ a monstrous other who had become a universalized opposition force during the time of the crusades so as to act as a common enemy for the righteous White crusaders, Saracens could be as simple as dehumanized foreigners (such as Muslims), or outright mythological demons and creatures.
It is handy here to think of Beowulf‘s antagonist, Grendel, who is one of the quintessential monstrous forces of early medieval literature. Though perhaps the most recognizable, monstrous oppositions could also be seen in the exoticization of non-White populaces where bodily deformation and alien customs become grotesquely distorted in the eyes of the Christianized to the point of racist parody. “In this way,” Treharne comments “literary texts contributed to a systematic derogation of the exoticized enemy, bolstering the social and cultural ideals and efforts promoted by European kings, aristocracy, prelates, and popes for centuries” (75). Thus, the popular conception of what is morally righteous and good, has been distorted– the critical lens which exists today, and surely had to exist back during yesteryear, may deconstruct this fact by positing how the monstrous became to be monstrous and what role institutionalized racism (along with a host of other ills) had in turning these antagonists into foes.
Because of its natural alien nature, references to the magical and supernatural were often considered, especially by those from the Christian tradition, to be monstrous in nature. A medieval genre which typically contained many monstrous elements was called “Breton lay, a short form of romance, which typically contains elements of the magical and supernatural” (80). However, monstrosity need not be demonic; indeed, it is only in a more ideologically defined Christian tradition that monstrosity is synonymous with demons and pagan culture.
Hence, literature, even during this period, with its emphasis on instructing people to remain cloistered with their own kind and to respect the power of the church and lordly class, possessed a powerful class dynamic, one which could arguably be a precursor to an ideological state apparatus. But, that post is for another time.