Incest and the Medieval Imagination

Incest and the Medieval Imagination

Incest and the Medieval Imagination

Incest and the Medieval Imagination


'What gives this book added interest is its historical range... will endure as a source of reference for many years to come... thought-provoking study.' -The Review of English Studies'The scholarship demonstrated in this work is exemplary. There are extensive sources and documentation; pertinent citations are always translated. Terms are meticulously defined... The Appendix contains succinct but thorough summaries of incest stories; the bibliography is exhaustive, making this book a substantial research tool and reference for a powerful literary theme. Anyone working on the theme of incest in medieval literature should read this book. Anyone who appreciates excellent scholarship in general will want to read this book for the pure pleasure of it.' -Linda M. Rouillard, University of Toledo'Elizabeth Archibald's book makes an admirable introduction to the whole topic.' -Times Literary SupplementIncest was a social problem in the Middle Ages, and also a popular literary theme. This wide-ranging study is the first survey of medieval incest stories in their cultural context. Did they reflect real life situations? How was incest defined in the Middle Ages? How were classical incest stories treated by medieval writers? Why was incest such a popular motif in the legendary lives of popes and saints, and why was it inserted into the stories of great heroes such as Charlemagne and Arthur?


Home, home—a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by
a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys
and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an understerilized
prison; darkness, disease, and smells … And home was as
squalid psychically as physically. Psychically, it was a rabbit
hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life,
reeking with emotion. What suffocating intimacies, what dan
gerous, insane obscene relationships between the members of
the family group!

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Every society has taboos about incest, but they differ considerably, and so do literary representations of incest. In this book I shall explore medieval uses of the incest motif in a variety of literary genres, including romance, hagiography, and exempla. In order to establish the social and literary context, in the first chapter I consider the historical development of medieval incest laws by the Church and the extent to which they were accepted and observed by the laity; in the second chapter I discuss classical myths and legends about incest, and their reception and adaptation in the Middle Ages. I have arranged the homegrown medieval narratives discussed in Chapters 3 to 5 according to the main type of incestuous relationship they include: mother–son, father–daughter, sibling, and other (more distant blood-relatives, relatives by marriage, 'spiritual' relatives). In each of these three chapters I focus on one major text in considerable detail, but I also discuss a range of other texts which offer variations on the theme and indicate patterns of influence. Just as incest creates convoluted and ambiguous family relationships, incest stories do not necessarily fall into clear-cut literary

This epigram is taken from the discussion of old-fashioned family life in ch. 3 of
Brave New World. The title of this chapter, 'Dangerous Propinquity', is borrowed from
Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station, 25; though she uses it in a different context,
it seems a most appropriate metaphor for incest, not least because propinquitas in Latin
means closeness in kinship, as well as in space or time.

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