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Tyler (2007 Congress)

Tom Tyler
(Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, United Kingdom)
“Monstrous Mixture:  The Archaeology of Teratology”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2007)
Session on “Getting Medieval:  Medieval Monstrosities and Their Ill Repute”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jennifer A. T. Smith

2007 Congress

The brutal cynocephali, a fearsome Eastern race of dog-headed hybrids, are variously described in extant manuscripts as fire-breathing, lantern-eyed, be-tusked cannibals.  It is little known that St. Christopher, the popular patron saint of travellers, was himself a ferocious cynocephalus.  After converting and receiving baptism he was captured whilst preaching to the heathens by King Dagnus of Samos, who subsequently tortured and ultimately martyred the now-gentle giant.

In my paper, I explore the correlation unearthed by Michel Foucault between monstrous beings and monstrous practices during the medieval period.  Foucault’s “archaeological” methodology, treating documents as discursive monuments, reveals an underlying relation between the monster’s mixed nature and the exercise of disciplinary power.  The monster’s very existence violates both natural and social law, requiring the exercise of spectacularly excessive sovereign retribution.  It comes as no surprise that King Dagnus practiced the most extreme, ritual torture on the hybrid body of St. Christopher.

Two queries arise, however, when we examine the detail of Foucault’s archaeological analysis.  First, corporeal mixture is by no means the only form of monstrosity mentioned in the many lists and accounts of medieval monsters.  Isidore of Seville’s infamous taxonomy recounts a meticulous and varied schema of portentous aberrations, irregularities, and transformations.  Second, drawing on the work of Aristotle and Varro, Isidore explicitly argues that monstrous births and races are not contra naturam, but rather manifestations of divine will.  As such, these prodigies are contrary only to known nature.

My paper thus explores the lacuna and the contradiction that seem to arise when Foucault’s archaeology meets Isidore’s taxonomy, providing a monstrous but enlightening mixture of archaeology and teratology.