Book Review–Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature

David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and LiteratureMontreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv, 392. $27.95.

The construction, identity and discursive elements which frame the monster as sign or symbol in the medieval world has received one of its strongest treatments in David Williams’ Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature. The work captures the monster in a tripartite focus of philosophical, theological and symbolic underpinnings. While paying some homage to Claude Kappler’s Monstres, démons, et merveilles à la fin du moyen age, Williams extends his focus beyond Kappler’s in terms of structure and concept. The present text is a tour de force and highly recommended reading for any medievalist interested in the monstrous, the Middle Ages and the intersection of human to non-human understanding.

Deformed Discourse is neatly divided into three parts. Part I, Theory, examines the teratology of monsters via negative theology. Part II, Taxonomy, examines a taxonomy of monstrous forms. Part III, Texts, examines both monstrous and deformed identities in three texts: Oedipus, The Romance of Alexander and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as three saints’ lives—Saint Denis, Saint Christopher, and Saint Wilgeforte. By way of introductory matter, Williams takes us through the importance of each chapter selection and although they can each stand on their own, each seems to pick up steam as one continues to read the monstrous into narrative history. The book seeks to address, amidst other things, “The question of the relation between monstrosity and being and its representation” (3). Moreover, he links this monstrous identification with that of deformed beings and allows such ontology to inform rather than limit past and present human understanding of monsters. To bring this understanding to the forefront he relies on the work and thought of Pseudo-Dionysius and the pre-Christian ideation of negation. Williams then shifts from the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the monstrous to the “operation of the deformed as a symbolic language within the cultural and intellectual context of the Middle Ages” (10). Toward the end of the Williams’ introduction, a series of provocative questions act as a catalyst for the reader to push onward into the folds and turns of the topic pertaining to the framing of the monster, a scheme not unlike the work captured by Jonathan Culler in Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

Part I of Deformed Discourse contains both chapters one and two, which respectively examine the context and language of the monstrous. In chapter one, The Context of the Monstrous, Williams begins to clarify the monstrous figure’s ontology in terms of the via negativa. He asserts: “Because Being itself is beyond cognition, beyond human representations and concepts, it cannot be approached through intellectual demonstration” (24). The question then is: How then might we approach it exactly? To this, Williams does not disappoint and offers simply: “through a gradual perception beginning with the affirmations about what is revealed, […] proceeding through the via negativa to the negation of all affirmations and arriving at a transcendent understanding” (24). In other words, we can know what it is, by what it is not. In chapter two, The Language of the Monstrous, we are invited to read the monster against the backdrop of the mulitplicitous forms and platonic principles of plenitude. The chapter is summed up in the affirmative: “Distinction leads to separation and association,” (67) and therefore the monstrous in language is defined as it is also indefinable; it remains dynamic.

In chapters three through to five, The Body Monstrous, Nature Monstrous, and Monstrous Concepts, Williams relies on the work of Isidore of Seville as the “most useful model for a taxonomy of the monster” (108) to compare with the standard corpus of the human model. Collectively, these chapters examine the various identities of the monster in terms of excess and displacement: pygmies, giants, antipodes, shape-shifters, hermaphrodite, the sphinx, elemental and vegetal combinations, and even the phoenix to name a few. These chapters serve as a template for Part III: Texts. It is in this section that Williams closes his monumental treatment of the monster in terms of sign, symbol, and function within the narrative scope. In this final examination he is concerned with turning the monstrous onto its human identification. Thus, Alexander is at once the monster and the antimonster; for Oedipus, his club-footedness already places him into the folds of the sphinx where monster responds to monster, and finally, in Gawain—an extension of Arthurian human ingenuity—we note a knight’s departure into a monstrous wood in search of a forest knight, as well as his return to a displaced and misunderstanding communitas.

In the final section of the book, Williams examines the lives of the three saints, noting the advantageous medium such tales provide for the existence and fruition of the monster and the real. “The saint’s life is a particularly useful kind of text for the exploration of the concept of the monstrous, since its literary structure is fully polymorphic” (285). This returns us to Williams’ earlier claim that the monster and neo-platonic idealism can be understood through the via negativa. Nearing the terminus of a brilliant essay on the function of the monster in the Middle Ages, we end here with the well-worded and concise articulations of our author: “The monstrous, inhabiting a space beyond the governance of human logic, assured a metadiscourse centred in negation and paradox that provided a corrective to […] the world” (329). And it is that world which, investigated by Williams, and carried on by others in the present field of Medieval Studies and the monstrous which keeps our present treatment of this text a relevant exercise.

Francis Tobienne, Jr.


Francis Tobienne, Jr. received his BA in English Language and Literature from Michigan State University and his MA in English: Literary Studies from Purdue University in December, 2007. He is a Doctoral Fellow completing his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies Literature at Purdue and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Foreign Languages, Literature and Writing Department at University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. His book, The Position of Magic In Selected Medieval Spanish Texts, is available through Cambridge Scholars Press.

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Book Review–Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature by Francis Tobienne, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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