Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature

By Moss, Rachel E. | Arthuriana, December 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature


Moss, Rachel E., Arthuriana


Carolyne Larrington, Brothers and Sisters in Medieval European Literature. Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Rochester, New York: York Medieval Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 275. ISBN: 978-1-903153-62-8. $99.

In Malory's Morte Darthur, Gawain's emotional reaction to the accidental killing by Lancelot of his brothers Gareth and Gaheris is one of the most vividly depicted of any in that great work: he swoons and lies as if dead, and upon awaking runs weeping to King Arthur. It is a powerful demonstration of brotherly love; but as Carolyne Larrington points out, it is an emotional reaction complicated by Gawain's knowledge that Gareth loved Lancelot better than his own brothers. Part of Gawain's anguish is caused by the inevitable friction between competing ties of blood and other social bonds. Gawain's duty is to avenge his brothers; but he goes too far in refusing any kind of settlement with Lancelot. Gawain cannot forgive the 'preferred friend, the better-than-brother' (p. 66) who superseded family in Gareth's affections.

The complexities of the sibling bond as articulated in medieval literature are the focus of this stimulating book, wide-ranging in both chronology (500-1500) and geographical scope. Icelandic sagas sit alongside French romance and Irish legend, allowing for cross-cultural comparisons that draw out something of the essential nature of sibling stories. According to Larrington, modern sibling theory provides a 'qualified' understanding of medieval sibling dynamics, arguing that while the 'historical realities for siblings between 500 and 1500 were extremely various,' the 'essential parameters of brothers' and sisters' feelings . . . remain unchanged' (p. 235). Across eight chapters, Larrington builds a dynamic case for understanding sibling relationships in medieval narratives as compelling both in their own right and in examining larger themes such as the social cost of feuding, the problems of inheritance, and the exercise of political authority. By using a wide range of source material, she is able to show that themes replicated across texts demonstrate fundamental preoccupations about sibling bonds. Siblings share not only 'biological and legal genealogy' (p. 8) but often also childhood experiences and social networks. Brothers and sisters play an essential role in identity formation, in both positive and negative ways. The 'work of the sibling', Larrington argues, is to differentiate him- or herself from the rest of the sibling group. This can provide positive results, where siblings develop different but complementary identities. It can also result in extreme rivalry as siblings jostle to occupy one preferred space, often that of heir. …

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