Monsters and Christian Enemies

By Strickland, Debra Higgs | History Today, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Monsters and Christian Enemies


Strickland, Debra Higgs, History Today


Debra Higgs Strickland examines the extraordinary demonology of medieval Christendom and the way it endowed strangers and enemies with monstrous qualities.

WESTERN MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANS SAW many monsters, both living and imaginary. Although very real to believers, demons and the elusive `Monstrous Races' did not really exist; but Jews, Muslims, Mongols, and Black Africans -- all deemed `monstrous' by the Christian majority -- actually did. But not every monster was necessarily bad; holy persons and even God himself were sometimes represented as `monsters'. Highlighting what these disparate groups had in common from the Christian viewpoint helps explain what being a `monster' meant in the later Middle Ages.

The imaginary Monstrous Races, may be defined as malformed, malcontented and misbehaving creatures believed to inhabit the periphery of the known world, primarily India, Ethiopia, and the far North. The race of Panotii, for example, whose name means `all ears', were believed to possess ears so large they could sleep in them. The Cynocephali, or Dogheads, communicated only by barking. The Blemmyai were headless and had their faces on their chests. The Sciopods, although one-legged, were very swift and used their single large feet as parasols.

Much of the lore concerning the Monstrous Races was inherited and expanded during the Middle Ages from classical Greek sources, especially Pliny's Natural History. We know from medieval sources such as the Book of Monsters and the Marvels of the East that the Monstrous Races were elusive, either very aggressive or very shy, and often cannibalistic. Their truly unifying feature, however, was their physical abnormality, which may be explained through recourse to various ancient scientific theories, attributable to Hippocrates and Galen, among others. For example, application of climatic theory suggests that the Monstrous Races were physically abnormal owing to the hostile climates they lived in, as harsh environmental conditions were believed to affect physical form in adverse ways. Or, if one follows the implications of classical physiognomical theory, which states that external appearance is a visual manifestation of inner character, the Monstrous Races were malformed owing to their various moral shortcomings.

In fact, it was the `Christianisation' of physiognomical theory that inspired many interpretations of the Monstrous Races by medieval moralists, who recognised their potential as effective symbolic vehicles. In collections of moralised tales, such as the Gesta Romanorum and other exempla used in medieval sermons, the particular physical deformity of a given race is interpreted under the assumption that it signified a particular sin or moral shortcoming. For example, the Panotii were said to use their huge ears to hear evil, while barking Dogheads were compared to bad preachers. The Blemmyae, with their heads on their chests, were compared to gluttons; and Pygmies who fought cranes were said to be `short' with respect to a good life.

Not all of the Monstrous Races were interpreted as signs of vice; in certain contexts, some were viewed as signs of virtue. Hence, the sheltering foot of the Sciopod was the virtue of love, which allows swift gains in the heavenly kingdom. The sharp-shooting Maritimi had one each of his four eyes on God, the world, the devil, and the flesh; in order to live rightly, flee the world, resist the devil, and mortify the flesh.

No roster of medieval monsters would be complete without demons, arguably the most well-developed concept of evil and moral bankruptcy ever devised. Images and descriptions of demons reinforced the medieval Christian belief that once Lucifer was kicked out of heaven for his excessive pride, he transmogrified permanently into the dark and hideous Satan and relentlessly sought revenge for his lost status by seducing and destroying human souls with the aid of his numberless minions. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Monsters and Christian Enemies
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.